Fear in the fields

 

Farmworker Olivia Tamayo’s fingers are crooked from over 30 years of picking and weeding vegetables in California’s hot sun. Sitting in her home in this cramped farming town of Huron, she talks in low tones about the reality of farmwork for many female migrants.

In 1975, Tamayo arrived in California’s Central Valley from Mexico, newly married, newly pregnant, with a third-grade education and the hope that life in America would provide her with more opportunity than what she’d left behind. She was 16.

By the time she was 36, Tamayo had five children, a stable marriage and year-round work at the prosperous Harris Ranch, a job with benefits and on-site housing. As a crew boss, she earned the choice salary of $5 an hour. But even so, her dream of a better life had become a nightmare.

From 1993 until 1999, Tamayo’s direct supervisor, a Mexican immigrant named Rene Rodriguez, sexually harassed her. One day, while she was walking to work down an isolated dirt road, Rodriguez blocked her way with his truck. He showed her a gun and raped her. Another time, he came to her home while her children were sleeping, when he knew her husband would be at work all night, and raped her again. Once, he battered her.

"He had a gun and a knife that he would show me. He said, ‘If I wanted to, I could kill you at any moment.’ I was afraid for not only my life, but for my children and my husband, what would happen if I told," says Tamayo, tears welling in her eyes.

"I endured it all without knowing I could ask for help. I didn’t even know there were laws or anything that would protect me."

Finally, her anger and frustration goaded her to action: She reported the harassment to her employer. But her bosses said she had no proof, and they refused to believe her.

Tamayo’s story isn’t an anomaly. Every year in America, an estimated 600,000 women toil in the fields, picking crops or packing fruit and vegetables. Every year, many women will be sexually harassed or assaulted. While no reports show the extent of this exploitation, which ranges from rude comments and fondling to rape, those who work with farmworkers say it is common.

Hundreds, if not thousands of women throughout the West, must endure a barrage of groping or have sex with their supervisors in order to get or keep their jobs, according to surveys conducted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the government agency charged to protect employees from sexual harassment. Workers in Salinas, Calif., refer to one company’s fields as the "field de calzon," or "field of panties," because so many supervisors attack women there.

Sexual assault and harassment aren’t unique to agriculture, but farmworkers are more vulnerable because so many are undocumented, most are foreign born and few speak English. They tend to be unaware about their legal rights; a dynamic perpetuated by the fact that employers aren’t required to adopt policies prohibiting sexual harrassment. The majority of policies that do exist aren’t made available in Spanish, according to a recent survey conducted by the EEOC in California.

Even when female farmworkers are informed of their rights, few speak up. They are held back by cultural and religious values that encourage women’s submissiveness to men, and they are afraid of losing their jobs or being sent back to Mexico.

Yet signs of hope glimmer. Under the leadership of California-based attorney William Tamayo, since 1996, the EEOC has made a concerted effort to help women sue employers who tolerate sexual harassment. So far, nine cases have been settled out of court.

But this past year, the EEOC took Olivia Tamayo’s case to court — a first for the agency — and it won a settlement of nearly $1 million for Tamayo.

The substantial sum, the stature of Tamayo’s employer, Harris Farms, and the speed with which the jury reached its verdict — just five hours — will, it is hoped, embolden more women in the fields to report harassment.

"Inside of my chest, it’s like there’s a wound, but when I am talking about it and getting my feeling out, it feels better," says Tamayo, offering a slight smile as her eyes again flood with tears. "What I earned, the money, didn’t interest me. I only wanted justice."

Rebecca Clarren is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She covers agricultural issues from Portland, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.