Published May 13, 2009, in the Catholic Courier By Annette Jimenez
BROCKPORT — Isabela traveled from Florida last month to plant onions in the fields of a farm in Elba, Genesee County. She did not expect to find herself living in a trailer with 15 migrant workers, all of who are men.
During this temporary arrangement, Isabela made sure the door to her room was locked at all times until the expected arrival of other migrant women workers. She said that she had little choice but to stay in the uncomfortable living situation because she must work.
“Where am I going to go?” said Isabela, who did not give her last name. “I have to bear with it (the situation.)
Isabela was one of 10 women who participated in Farmworker Legal Services of New York’s April 11 workshop to shed light on the crime of sexual assault against migrant farmworker women. About 20 women participated in a second session in Sodus April 18. The workshops were held in April because it is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Through FLSNY’s partnership with the Bandana Project, a national effort led by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Esperanza: The Immigrant Women’s Legal Initiative, the workshops provided migrant farmworker women with information on their legal rights and how sexual assault affects victims. FLSNY outreach workers visit area camps and farms to reach out to the migrant community with information about domestic abuse and offers referrals to social and legal services as needed.
During the April 11 workshop, Isabela also recounted how she had staved off an attack by a fellow farmworker, who cornered her and tried to sexually abuse her at the farm where she previously worked. She said that she stopped the would-be abuser by hitting him with a rock.
“You find a way to defend yourself,” she said.
Alina Díaz, an FLSNY domestic-violence educator and outreach worker who spoke during both workshops, did not mince words in describing the nightmare of being sexually abused by her stepfather when she was 7. The Colombia native recounted her story to warn women that not telling anyone about such a crime can damage a person. Díaz said that it took her decades to seek the psychological treatment she needed to deal with the trauma of being abused.
“I know that you feel uncomfortable (talking about such crimes),” Díaz said. “But I am OK talking about this … because this could happen to you or your daughters. I refuse to feel ashamed. I was a child, only 7 years old. It was not my fault.”
During the Brockport workshop, Sandy Vandervort from Rape Crisis Service of Orleans County explained that one in four girls and one in six boys are victims of some form of sexual abuse by the time they are 18. A women is sexually assaulted every six minutes, Díaz added, and pointed at the clock during the Brockport workshop so everyone could consider the impact of that statistic.
Guilt, fear and lack of knowledge keep many migrant farmworker women — many of who are Mexican, and the subject of sexual abuse is taboo in their culture — from reporting crimes of abuse of any kind, noted the workshop speakers. These women fear they will lose their jobs and their families if they report the abuse, local advocates concurred.
“They are definitely afraid, across the board,” observed Cindy Liberio, a caseworker and bilingual advocate with the Victims Resource Center of the Finger Lakes. “If they are undocumented and they have children who were born here, if they get deported, (they fear) their children will be left in the hands of the abuser. But the undocumented woman has rights, and immigration takes a back seat when a crime has been committed in this state.”
To raise awareness of the sexual violence committed in the workplace against migrant farmworker women, the Southern Poverty Law Center launched its Esperanza initiative in 2007. The project used bandanas, painted by migrant women, as its symbol, because these women wear bandanas in the fields not only to protect themselves from pesticides but also in hopes of warding off unwanted sexual advances by preventing men from looking at them, according to information from Cheryl Gee, an FLSNY domestic-violence educator and outreach worker.
“We want to think it doesn’t happen, but it does,” Díaz said. “And 90 percent of the victims know their abusers. … It’s a person who intimidates us, who manipulates us. He gains our trust.”
Other local agencies such as PathStone Corp., formerly Rural Opportunities, also work to aid women who are victims of abuse. The organization’s Albion-based domestic-abuse program provides women who are victims of any form of abuse with emergency and transitional housing, individual and group counseling, and bilingual staff to act as court advocates, said Noemi Alvarado-Ziegler, the program coordinator.
“There’s also the fear that because they’re undocumented, they don’t feel they can trust the system,” Alvarado-Ziegler said of migrant farmworker women who are abused.
Additionally, these women believe reporting a crime will bring immigration officers into the situation. Liberio said that she personally has helped farmworker women speak with law-enforcement officials, who emphasize they don’t want these crimes against migrant women to go unreported.
“They care about the undocumented community,” she said.
Vandervort said that Rape Crisis Service of Orleans County distributes fliers about its services to area health clinics and agencies that work with the migrant population. Her office and the Victims Resource Center of the Finger Lakes also offer support services through counseling and informing victims about their medical and legal rights, as well as accompanying victims through the police-reporting and court processes.
No matter their legal status in this country, migrant farmworker women “can still access the judicial system to keep them safe,” Alvarado-Ziegler remarked. “There are so many myths (about this) because they (migrant women) don’t have the information.”
Carina, a Mexico native who has lived in the Brockport area for the last five years, said that more farmworker women need the kind of information the FLSNY workshops provided, because so many of them assume they have no rights, as is often the case in their native countries. In Mexico, Carina, who did not give her last name, went to the police several times to report she was being physically abused by her husband. They did nothing, she said.
“He always abused me,” she said. “He left bruises. … The police in Mexico never helped me.”
Here, she found the help she needed and was able to leave her husband — who has since been deported — and live safely with her three children, as well as find the resources to file for a visa so she can remain in this country with her kids. Special visas are available to women who report crimes of sexual assault and continue with the prosecution process, Liberio note.
“I am scared to return to my country,” Carina said. “He lives there.”
Nearly all of the women who attended the workshops brought along their children. The women also decorated bandanas, including one that read, “Nadie debe de ser forzado a renunciar a su dignidad para poder alimentar a su familia.” The bandanas decorated in Brockport were featured in a May 1 exhibit in Albion.
During the Brockport workshop Vandervort also provided statistics and outlined the women’s rights in terms of pressing charges and collecting evidence in an alleged crime. Díaz translated the information Vandervort offered.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with women who have survived the most terrifying experiences possible,” Vandervort said, saying that the women go on to help other women and inspire others to come forward to report abuse.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To reach Farmworker Legal Services of New York, call 585-325-3050. PathStone also has a 24-hour hotline at 1-866-314-7233, as does Victims Resource Center of the Finger Lakes at 1-866-343-8808 and Rape Crisis Service of Orleans County at 1-800-527-1757.