Under a scorching heat, a group of farmworkers harvests melons from a vast field near Huron, Calif. There is only one woman among the dozen or so workers; she leans into the task, her arms outstretched, her body itself a tool. The bandana around her face and her baggy long-sleeved T-shirt offer a thin protection against the sun. But these clothes, which mask her figure and her beauty, are also her best defense against a darker threat: sexual assault and harassment by her co-workers or boss.
"Women get touched on the bottom all the time or taken advantage of," says Maria Reyes, a former farmworker in California's Central Valley. "It happens so much, it's kind of normal." When Reyes reported to ranch owners that her boss had sexually assaulted her, they did nothing. "I told the owners of the ranch everything, but unfortunately, they don't pay attention to a farmworker woman. No one cares what happens to you; you just come and go like a piece of trash."
The abuse -- and dismissal -- of immigrant women who work in agriculture is epidemic. In a 1997 study, 90 percent of female farmworkers in California reported sexual harassment as a major problem. Eleven years later, those who work with farmworkers say that abuse, which ranges from obscene jokes and sexual innuendo to rape -- affects thousands of women.
Sexual assault and harassment is by no means unique to agriculture, but female farmworkers are 10 times more vulnerable than other workers, says William Tamayo, regional attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, San Francisco District. The vast majority of these women are
non-English-speaking immigrants, lured to the United States by jobs that pay three times the wages available in Mexico or Central America. Still, that's not a lot of money: The average woman in agriculture makes $11,250 a year, saddling her to an exhausting life in which every dollar is precious.
"Most of us when we sit down and eat our good food don't ever consider what these women go through to ensure that all of us can feed our families," says Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union. "It's almost like sexual harassment is part of the job."
The failure of Congress to pass a pragmatic immigration policy or to create legal pathways to naturalization for the people -- many with children -- who have lived and worked in this country for decades, only intensifies the challenges these women face. In the absence of federal policy, some Western
counties and cities have passed punitive anti-immigration ordinances. An increasing number of communities require English-only signage, prohibit renting apartments to the undocumented, and fine or revoke the licenses of employers caught hiring those without papers.
Since 2003, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has doubled deportations and tripled raids and detentions of undocumented immigrants. Some 3.1 million children in America have undocumented parents, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, and the threat of deportation and separation from their families makes women even more reluctant to report sexual assault, says Jeanne Batalova of the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, an independent think tank.
Recently, as a way to mark Sexual Assault Awareness Month, at least 14 cities throughout the West hosted the Bandana Project. Participants decorated white bandanas to show solidarity with those who have spoken up and taken action against sexual abuse. The bandanas were displayed this spring on clotheslines in public places, including libraries, government buildings and universities, with the goal of raising public awareness. Launched last June at the nation's first conference to combat the sexual assault of farmworker women, the initiative was sponsored by a coalition of farmworker groups, emergency responders, lawyers and government officials.
Last year at the conference, an anonymous attendee ripped holes in her white bandana and then sewed it back together with clumsy dark stitches. Across the white broadcloth in a red pen she scrawled, "Yo tengo esperanza y fuerte," Spanish for "I have hope and strength."
"That bandana was really symbolic of a person in the mending process. Even though women mend after they've been assaulted, it's always going to be a mark in their lives," says Monica Ramirez, director of the Immigrant Women's Legal Initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "Wounds heal; scars never go away. No one should be forced to give up their dignity in order to feed their family."
Rebecca Clarren is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Portland, Ore., and writes about environmental and labor issues for several magazines.