What Goes Unseen: Sexual Violence Against Campesinas in the U.S.
In one of California’s lush vineyards, 59-year-old Virginia Meijia tends grapes under conditions most American workers would find intolerable. A campesina (female farmworker), Virginia tries to ignore the supervisors’ cat-calls and their groping of the women working alongside her. She watches the eyes of leering men fall on the struggling bodies of her fellow Latina migrant workers, but keeps silent—there is little she can do and no one who will help. “No one sees the people in the field,” she tells researchers at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We’re ignored. You have to let them humiliate you and harass the young girls just entering the field. Imagine—they have no protection. You allow it or they fire you.”
For Virginia and so many other Latina immigrant women in the United States, sexual exploitation is a part of everyday life. Latina women, especially undocumented immigrants, are vulnerable to sexual violence at the hands of those in power, including their supervisors in the workplace. As Grace Meng, author of the Human Rights Watch report Cultivating Fear, comments, “It’s easier for abusers to get away with sexual harassment where there’s an imbalance of power, and the imbalance of power is particularly stark on farms.” Undocumented campesinas have little to no power in the United States. They remain trapped at the bottom of a society that is becoming increasingly discriminatory and violent towards immigrants, both legal and illegal.
The exploitation of Latina, particularly Mexican, women begins even before they arrive in the United States. Of the estimated 50,000 people trafficked to the U.S. annually, approximately one third are poor Latin Americans sold to factories, fields, or brothels (Prostitution Research). Economic desperation at home and unintelligible U.S. immigration laws drive many women to illegally cross the border with human smugglers known as coyotes. Upon arrival in the U.S., the coyote may tell the woman she owes him an extraordinary debt for the passage and must work to pay off the debt. Several coyotes are traffickers who work with pimps in the U.S., luring women with promises of jobs only to sell them into prostitution. Some Latina women are sold to field brothels, sexual slavery camps on the edges of agricultural fields. In one fairly typical case, caves made of reeds housed several young girls for prostitution. Their even younger children were held hostage so that the young mothers would not try to escape. Every day, hundreds of farm workers were transported to these camps for sex, considered a reward for a job well done (SPLC).
Even if Latina women avoid the schemes of traffickers, few manage to cross the border without experiencing some form of sexual violence. Women planning to cross the border often start taking birth control, expecting to be raped at least once during the crossing (SPLC). Some coyotes consider the sexual assault and prostitution of women crossing over as a part of their payment for safe passage. Trees along the U.S.-Mexico border, called rape trees by some, testify to the validity of the women’s fear. The branches are dotted with the panties of women raped during the crossing, the tattered underwear displayed by abusers looking to show off their conquest to passersby (Latina News).
Once undocumented Latinas enter the U.S. agricultural fields that employ so many of these women, they enter into labor conditions that can be nearly indistinguishable from slavery. During the New Deal era, farm workers were excluded from nearly all of the major labor laws and continue to be the least protected workers in America today (SPLC). This leaves farm workers, especially undocumented campesinas, vulnerable to exploitation. Although campensinas are paid for their work, they are regularly paid well below minimum wage and cheated from their wages. Sickness and birth defects are common amongst campesinas, as they are frequently exposed to toxic pesticides and denied adequate safety equipment (SPLC). Latina farmworkers may be grabbed, hit, or beaten for not meeting a supervisor’s unrealistic expectations.
Yet perhaps the most degrading part of the work is the sexual abuse these women suffer. Through interviews with Latina farmworkers, Human Rights Watch discovered that rape, stalking, unwanted touches, exhibitionism, and vulgar or obscene language by supervisors, employers, and others in positions of power are a regular part of the job. One infamous field has been called the field de calzon (field of panties) because of the constant rape of campesinas by supervisors. Other fields are referred to as “green motels” for the same reason (SPLC). A campesina in California reported that “a supervisor at a lettuce company raped her and later told her that she ‘should remember it’s because of him that she has this job’” (HRW).
For those in positions of power, undocumented Latina workers are the “perfect victims” of sexual abuse. Campesinas are 10 times more vulnerable than other employees to experience sexual assault and harassment at work (OVC).Many are poor women who send their money home to children and family members. They cannot afford to lose their jobs, a near certainty when women report sexual abuse in the workplace. They face language barriers and may not know their rights. Since many campesinas are undocumented, supervisors can exploit their fear of deportation to keep them from speaking up about their abuse.
In the United States today, the sexual abuse of campesinas, especially undocumented immigrations, continues to be hidden behind a veil of silence. Fear and shame make Latina women unlikely to report rape or other sexual crimes to agricultural management or the police. Also, a combination of economic uncertainty and xenophobia—the intense dislike of foreigners—has created a culture of apathy surrounding the treatment of undocumented workers. As Dr. Falcon, a Texan physician on the U.S.-Mexico border, noted,
“Our society takes rape seriously, but it doesn’t take this type of rape seriously. In all of our national discourse around securing our borders, rarely, if ever, do you hear about any kind of protection for people who might be crossing. Largely that’s because the discussion has been framed around protecting us—protecting the U.S.—and once you get into that framework, what happens to the other person is not even on the radar” (Latina News).
The U.S. government estimates that 60 percent of all farm workers currently working in the field are undocumented immigrants, an estimate that is likely quite low (SPLC). The apathy surrounding the women-at-risk who grow our food must be shattered, especially as many Americans quite literally eat the fruits of campesina labor at every meal. Sexual violence denies human worth and devastates the lives of all women, whether they have their papers or not.