Thursday, March 31, 2005
A half dozen women, all farmworkers, sit in an East Salinas living room. A couple husbands came to the meeting, but because of the delicate subject matter, they’re temporarily kicked out, banished to the backyard barbecue to cook dinner.
Maria Reyes, a woman in her 40s with a kind face and short, black, curly hair is leading a discussion. She asks: “What is sexual assault?”
“When they rape you, or touch you where you do not want to be touched,” answers one woman.
“Can a husband sexually assault his wife?” Reyes asks.
“How would we identify sexual assault between a husband and a wife?”
A pretty woman with reddish hair and dark eyeliner quietly answers: “If my husband forced me to have sex with him.”
“Yes, exactly,” Reyes says, “But what if I ask you, ‘Why? He’s your husband.’”
The response: “He can’t force me to do anything I don’t want to do.”
“Imagine I am your daughter,” Reyes continues. “Fourteen. Really thin and pretty. My hair is long, and brushed out. I’m wearing a mini-skirt, and a short shirt. If someone does something to me—is it my fault? Because of the way I’m dressed?”
The women collectively answer no. “That’s the man’s problem, not the woman’s problem,” one says.
It’s easy to say the right things, Reyes says, but what if that girl is your daughter? She offers advice: “Help her, don’t blame her.”
“I go back to our culture, our way of thinking. ‘You were looking for it. Why were you dressed like that?’ Sadly, we still hear this.
“We women need to recognize the faults in our culture. It’s time to say, ‘Hey, your daughter needs your support. She needs love and care; she doesn’t need to hear you say it’s her fault.’”
As the meeting continues, the women share stories. Some sound commonplace: a tale about walking down the street and being met with unwelcome leers and whistles from neighborhood men. Others are heartbreaking: two young sisters abused by their father.
The message is the same: It’s not OK. And it’s time women stood up for themselves, their sisters, and their children.
During the course of the evening, the women also talk about work-related injuries, and Reyes covers California labor law and workers compensation. She talks about agencies and organizations that can help—California Rural Legal Assistance, Mujeres En Crisis (support for abused women), local government and the police.
The women read the group’s mission statement, “The mission of Farmworker Women’s Organization in California—referred to as Líderes Campesinas—is to promote the development of leadership among farmworker women so that they serve as agents of social, economic and political change…” The women reflect on the mission statement, and what it means to them.
At the meeting’s end, they share a meal, prepared by the men—grilled chicken and steak, tortillas, beans and macaroni salad.
Like men who work in the fields, farmworker women and girls work long hours for little pay. They breathe toxic pesticides and receive marginal health care. They have little legal protection.
The women who work in the fields, and their daughters, suffer additional hazards: sexual abuse and harassment, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancies and lack of childcare.
“Many women talked about having to take their children to work and keep them in their car,” says Mily Treviño-Sauceda, founder of Líderes Campesinas.
Women in the fields are typically paid less money for the same work. They face both gender discrimination and racism, in the fields and in society at large, as well as stereotypes about Latinas and farmworker women.
Líderes Campesinas aims to break down these barriers by educating farmworker women about social and health issues: economic development, pesticide poisoning, HIV education, nutrition and domestic violence. It then trains these women to educate others, using peer-to-peer organizing and support.
Educating women about domestic violence became one of the group’s first projects, Treviño-Sauceda says.
It also presented a big challenge. Machismo is common among Mexican migrants, and sexual harassment and abuse are a regular occurrence in the fields. Líderes Campesinas had to find a way to talk about an issue that was generally considered unmentionable or at most a family matter.
Fifteen years ago, when she was organizing a group called Mujeres Mexicanas (Mexican Women), Treviño-Sauceda says, other Latino groups called them “evil women,” and accused them of wrecking families.
“They said that we should be at home, taking care of the children,” she says. “Instead, we were damaging our reputation by being out in the community.
“Domestic violence was something that we had internalized as women, thinking it was something we should tolerate. We needed to decide that we all had options. It was a human rights issue; we needed to share that information with other women and bring awareness.”
The Líderes Campesinas meetings started small—a handful of women, gathered at someone’s home. They dealt with the issue of domestic violence by presenting a skit. Some of the situations were real—showing abuses some of the Líderes Campesinas had suffered at the hands of spouses or other family members. Some were fictional anecdotes. They all portrayed the cycle and the dynamics of domestic violence.
“We billed it as kind of like a Tupperware party,” Treviño-Sauceda says. “You tell them that there’s going to be dinner. Instead of selling a product, you’re going to give a presentation.
“We would hear all kinds of comments, but the majority of the women there could relate to the skits. We were not telling them, ‘This is what you need to do.’ We were just putting a mirror in front of them, showing what women go through. They connected. Many of them would even be crying at the end of the skit.
“We would talk at the same time about confidentiality. Women would build this trustful environment. Women would say, ‘I know a cousin,’ or ‘I know a sister who is having this problem.’ You don’t want people to know that you are being abused, or injured.”
Then the facilitator would pass out cards with names and phone numbers of local rape crisis centers and counselors.
Líderes Campesinas has since won two national awards: In 1995, the Family Violence Prevention Fund awarded its Marshalls Domestic Peace Prize, and three years later, the US Department of Justice honored Líderes Campesinas with its Crime Victim Service Award.
LEARNING TO LEAD
At her home in Salinas, talking with other women about sexual abuse and harassment, Maria Reyes is clearly in charge. She’s asking questions and giving answers, telling women about their rights, and where they can go for help if those rights have been violated.
“Now,” she says, “I am a leader.”
She says that starting 20 years ago, when she was a working in the fields for a Gonzales winery (she won’t say which one), she was sexually harassed. She says it went on for seven years.
Reyes was born in Zacatecas City, the capital of the state of Zacatecas in Mexico. She migrated to the US in 1977, when was 16. “They told me, in the US, dollars were everywhere,” Reyes says.
She says she paid a coyote $350 to cross her. She says it took her two attempts to get into the US. The first time, Reyes and the other 20 would-be migrants cleared a barbed-wire fence in the desert before being picked up by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The second time, they followed the Rio Grande and spent three days hiding in a big pipe, without food and water, before a van arrived to drive them across the border.
Reyes ended up in Greenfield, picking broccoli, cauliflower, chiles and grapes. At the Gonzales winery, Reyes says her supervisor offered her money in exchange for sex. When she turned him down, she says, he made her work more difficult jobs. She told the manager.
“He thought I was dumb,” Reyes says. “He ignored me.”
She says she reported the harassment to the owner, and that the manager’s family started harassing her. She says they also wrote her checks to keep quiet. She says she didn’t cash them.
Finally Reyes says she went to an agency (again, Reyes refuses to name names) and asked for help.
“They said it was my fault,” she says. “They asked, ‘Are you sure you didn’t instigate this?’”
In 2000, Reyes was fired. By then, she had heard about Líderes Campesinas and decided to attend a meeting. Its topic was sexual harassment.
“I started feeling smaller and smaller,” she says, visibly shrinking in her chair at the memory. “I started reflecting on all of the times it had happened to me—since the first day I worked there.”
Reyes describes the woman she was back then: “I had worked 25 years in the fields, and taking care of my children. I thought my only job was to take care of my kids. I didn’t even go to parent-teacher meetings. I was going to take care of my kids, nothing more.”
During the next couple of years, Reyes became a regular at local Líderes Campesinas meetings. Then, in 2002, she was invited to attend the organization’s statewide conference in Visalia. Reyes said she felt like she couldn’t leave her house for the three days of the conference. But the other women convinced her it would be OK.
“I will never forget,” she says, her eyes lighting up. “All of the farmworker women in Salinas, leaving, leaving on buses. They took us to a hotel—the very first time in my life I had ever been to a hotel, an elegant hotel. I thought, ‘Maybe they made a mistake?’ It felt like a dream. I felt like Cinderella getting out of her carriage, arriving at the castle.
“I went up to my room; I got my own bed. The tables were covered with white linens and elegant décor. All of this for us? I will always remember. Imagine, a farmworker woman, being able to live this dream.”
Upon arriving home, she worked as a volunteer for Líderes Campesinas for a year. When a paid position opened up, the other women encouraged Reyes to apply. “Me? No. I only have a fourth-grade education,” she said. “You all know technical words. I don’t have a vocabulary like that.”
They offered her 30 hours of work a week. Reyes did need to pay the rent and put food on the table for her children, so she accepted the job.
“For this farmworker woman, who only knew how to write her name, I was writing faxes, expense reports, cash advances, meeting agendas and minutes. Then the computer arrived, and I didn’t even know how to use the fax machine.”
Her co-workers assured Reyes that they all went through the same learning curve.
“We all have strengths and you have yours, too,” they told her.
“And by the grace of God,” Reyes says, “I evolved.”
“Líderes Campesinas asks you if you want to be a great leader. It gives you the opportunity.”
Reyes says it has also turned her into a strong role model for her children and grandchildren. “This farmworker who would come home from work with her shoes full of mud has become a different mother.”
TRUTH TO POWER
During peak season in Monterey County, an estimated 128,584 farmworker men and women work in agriculture, the county’s leading industry. In California—the state with the largest agricultural economy in the US—about 600,000 men and women make up that work force. Líderes Campesinas is the only statewide farmworker women’s organization in the nation.
Founder Mily Treviño-Sauceda began working in the fields when she was eight. Born in Bellingham, Wash., to a migrant farmworker family, she, her parents and her two older brothers would get up at 4:30am in the morning, be at work by 5:30am, and work for two or three hours before going to school. After school, they’d work another four or five hours. She would listen to her brothers and father when they would return from United Farm Workers meetings—that’s how she learned about her rights as a farmworker. Later, Treviño-Sauceda began participating at UFW marches and rallies.
In 1981, after earning her GED, she was hired as a community worker with California Rural Legal Assistance. In 1988, students from California State University Long Beach asked Treviño-Sauceda to help conduct a needs assessment of farmworker women in the Coachella Valley.
She and the researchers learned that farmworker women experienced domestic violence, poor education, bad working conditions and sexual harassment.
“I wanted to find a way in which women could get together and help themselves,” she says. So she started Mujeres Mexicanas for Coachella Valley. Four years later, Treviño-Sauceda and other organizers wanted to expand to other rural areas of California. In 1992, Treviño-Sauceda founded Líderes Campesinas. Now the organization includes 12 chapters and 12 youth chapters in mostly rural areas of the state.
Líderes has helped create a women farmworkers’ movement in California and beyond, built on a simple premise, says Treviño-Sauceda: “For farmworker women, by farmworker women.”
Each chapter holds meetings every month, and the statewide group also sponsors training workshops, conferences and community education projects, like annual marches and vigils in observance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Líderes also work closely with government agencies, law enforcement and other organizations, including Planned Parenthood, Barrios Unidos and the Citizenship Project in Salinas, and local health departments, shelters and counseling services.
Líderes also teaches the providers about how to meet farmworker women’s needs.
“They shouldn’t have barriers for farmworker women,” Treviño-Sauceda says. “They should be prepared with bilingual services and bicultural services. And little by little, the agencies have been more open to change.”
Hermelinda Guzmán, an 18-year-old high school senior, is president of Líderes Campesinas’ statewide board—the first youth member to be elected to the governing body, let alone serve as its president.
“My story’s funny,” she says, “different from the other ladies.” It began as a punishment.
Guzmán speaks quietly, but confidently. She wears khakis, a matching button down shirt with a black T-shirt underneath, with her dark hair pulled back into a tight ponytail.
She will graduate in June, and plans to attend Cabrillo College in the fall. Guzmán wants to be a doctor. “An ER doctor,” she says, “and then a cardiologist.”
Guzmán’s mother, a farmworker, invited her daughter to attend the 2002 conference in Visalia.
“Great,” Guzmán remembers thinking. “Talk about pesticides and domestic violence. Woohoo. Party. Sounds like fun.”
She told her mother she didn’t want to go.
Her mother agreed that Guzmán could stay home—on the condition that she stayed out of trouble in the week leading up to the conference.
“I didn’t behave that week,” Guzmán says. “I ditched school, and I was forced to go to the gathering.”
At the conference, Guzmán says, she actually enjoyed herself. She hoped no one noticed. One of the topics—gangs—caught her attention. Farmworker women and girls discussed how gangs affected their culture, and particularly, their youth.
“The parents were saying, ‘We need to stop gangs.’ But we adolescents were saying, ‘We need to prevent gangs,’” she says. “It’s much easier to prevent something than to stop it.
“That’s why I became passionate about Líderes, and about the work Líderes does. It doesn’t stop domestic violence or pesticide poisoning. It works to prevent domestic violence and pesticide poisoning.”
Upon returning home, she joined the Watsonville adolescent chapter (with teens from Watsonville, Castroville and Prunedale).
Like the adult womens’ chapters, the youth groups tackle heavy topics, including teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol and drugs, sexual abuse and gangs.
The middle school and high school girls feel more comfortable discussing these subjects with their peers, Guzmán says. “When you’re talking about what’s a condom, and how do you put it on, it’s hard to open up in front of your mom.”
Guzmán attends the same training as the adults, and knows how to facilitate a discussion, for example, about domestic violence and its warning signs.
Sometimes professionals will attend the youth meetings—Planned Parenthood nurses, or Barrios Unidos gang prevention specialists. “But they are only there to answer our questions,” Guzmán adds—these meetings are for youth, by youth.
Shortly after getting involved with her local chapter, Guzmán was elected to sit on the statewide adolescent advisory committee. She then ran for an open seat and was elected to sit on the Líderes Campesinas Board. In September 2004, she ran for president. Again, she won.
It’s been a challenge, Guzmán says. Most of the adult women were born in Mexico and have worked in the fields—both foreign places to their daughters. Guzmán dresses differently than the adult women (she says they think she looks like a gang banger), she talks differently, and she’s more vocal about her opinions.
“The ladies compare their lives to our lives,” Guzmán says. “They say, ‘Oh, you just go to school. Back in my day we didn’t go to school; we worked in the fields.’ The barriers between the generations are so big.”
Guzmán says she and her sister picked strawberries one summer, “for fun,” because the farm’s owner was a friend of the family and it was either pick strawberries and earn a little extra cash or sit on the couch and watch TV.
“But it did convince me to study hard, and become a doctor so that I never have to work in the fields.”
It also gave her a newfound respect for women like her mother, who had no other choice but to pick fruit and vegetables in the hope that their daughters would have more options.
Guzmán says that working with Líderes Campesinas gave her confidence, the opportunity to gain knowledge on a whole range of social and economic issues, and turned her into a leader. And added bonus, she says, “my Spanish got a whole lot better.”
“I’m able to identify when there’s been an injustice,” she says.
She also knows she doesn’t have to accept it, and she knows that she—and all the Latinas she’s working for and with—deserve better.