It’s no secret that farmworkers do some of the hardest jobs in California: sweltering under the summer sun, picking grapes or harvesting lettuce. But one secret about life in the fields is the problem of sexual harassment -- verbal abuse, even assault and rape. Yet many immigrant farmworker women are afraid to report abuse.
Maricruz Ladino, a farmworker in Salinas, is an exception.
Getting ready for work on a recent morning, Ladino looks like she’s going ice fishing even though it’s going to be a warm day.
She digs through her drawers and pulls on her thermal underwear, two pairs of socks, big boots and snow pants. Next comes a wool cap over her long dark hair, framing her glamorously arched eyebrows, The 40-year-old grandmother is transformed, ready to work her 10-hour shift in a freezing lettuce cooler.
“My fiance, Felix, says I look like a tamale. So many layers!” she jokes in Spanish. “And even though I’m all bundled up like this, some men at work tell me, ‘What a beautiful body you have.’ For me, someone who’s lived through what I’ve lived through, it bothers me.
Ladino is still visibly shaken by what happened to her back in 2006, when she says she was constantly sexually harassed by a supervisor.
“First he said he wanted me to give him a massage,” Ladino says, “that he wanted to be with me, other lewd suggestions.”
Ladino tried to rebuff him … until one day, on the way back from the fields, he took her to pick up some boxes. And, she says, he raped her.
“I couldn’t say anything,” she recalls. “I couldn’t even scream because it’s very traumatic. You don’t know how to react.”
Ladino didn’t file a police report. And like many other undocumented women, she was afraid to report her supervisor to management.
“I looked around and I saw my choices,” says Ladino. “I lose my job, I can’t feed my family. Because he said to me, ‘OK, the day you leave this job, I’m going to make sure all other doors are closed for you.’”
But after seven months of seeing the supervisor at work every day, Ladino says she finally worked up the courage to lodge a complaint against him.
“I thought -- I have daughters, I have sisters. And I have to stop this from happening to them, too. That’s what gave me strength to speak out.”
Soon after she complained to the company, Ladino was fired.
In the mornings, Ladino looks after her grandson, Cristian, before starting her 10-hour shift as a quality assurance technician in the lettuce packing plant.
She eventually filed a civil suit against the grower. The accused supervisor denied the allegations. But the company agreed to a confidential settlement in 2010. Ladino agreed not to tell anyone the company’s name and how much money they paid her in damages.
But not many farmworker women ever report being assaulted.
“This is something that’s difficult for any woman to report, whatever ethnicity she is, whatever immigration status she has,” says Grace Meng, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Meng wrote a 2012 report finding that farmworker women face a real and significant risk of sexual violence and harassment.
“Farmworker women face unique vulnerabilities,” says Meng. “They often don’t speak English. They don’t have legal status. They’re afraid of the police. They have no idea where to go.”
That makes it hard to measure the scope of the problem. One UC Santa Cruz study found that nearly four out of 10 had experienced sexual harassment or rape.
Bill Tamayo is regional attorney for the San Francisco office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with protecting workers from gender-based discrimination. He says that in the fields a woman is vulnerable to sexual assault because her supervisor has the power to retaliate if she refuses sexual favors or complains.
“He determines who gets hired, who gets promoted, who gets fired,” says Tamayo. “And if you are a sexual predator, that is the ideal position to be in, because you have a lot of power to wield. Meaning you determine whether Maria and her family eats or not.”
Over the last 15 years, the EEOC has handled more than 186 charges of sexual harassment in agriculture-related industries in California – far more than any other state.
Bill Tamayo estimates that his agency has won tens of millions of dollars nationally in back wages and damages for farmworker victims.
However, many of California’s 800,000-plus farmworkers don’t even know about the EEOC, so the agency has put out radio announcements in English and Spanish to reach out to rural communities.
Tamayo acknowledges that the agency is understaffed, without enough bilingual attorneys or investigators to tackle sexual harassment. “The problem,” he says, “runs deep and wide, and we’re really just scratching the surface right now. “
Even when his agency does help farmworkers file a complaint, it can take years to get back wages or damages. And under federal law, the EEOC has to settle many charges confidentially, which means the names of the companies involved are not made public unless a lawsuit is filed. But the agency doesn’t have the power to bring a criminal case. That’s the job of local prosecutors.
In fact, none of the perpetrators accused in EEOC lawsuits have been tried in criminal court. That's according to a yearlong national analysis by the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley.
Back in Salinas, Maricruz Ladino says she’s found peace with her life, even though the supervisor she accused of raping her walks free. She has realized he doesn’t have all the power. She does, in telling her story.
“The power belongs to the person who is right,” says Ladino. “The power is the truth, and sooner or later, the truth will come to light.”
This series was reported in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting and the UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program. It's part of a larger project with Frontline and Univision.