Rape In The Fields: A Silent Epidemic

Cases Of Rape, Sexual Harassment Of Fieldworkers On The Rise
Christine Dinh – 23ABC East Bakersfield Reporter

May 24, 2011
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Fieldworker rights advocates say rape in the fields happens a lot but rarely is reported. It happens so much that there is a field in Salinas dubbed the field of panties because so much rape has occurred there. But it’s not just there. It’s everywhere, including Kern County.

For Veronica Reyes, coming to a field on Copus Road where she used to work is difficult.

“I feel a bit sad to remember what happened and be in this location where such bad things happened to me,” said Reyes.

Reyes says it happened last summer. First, a fellow fieldworker offered her money for sex. “He said to me, ‘Would you prefer to work in the sun or get a week’s worth of pay for 15 minutes?'” said Reyes.

A couple of weeks later, another co-worker decided to rape her. “He was a fieldworker who just started the job a few days before. I never noticed anything suspicious,” said Reyes.

She said one day after work at the field, he invited her to sit in his truck while they waited for their paychecks. “I was sitting there looking out the window when he grabbed my mouth with his hands and kissed me. I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t talk. And then he shoved his hand down my pants. I tried to pull his hand out but he was too strong. So I just froze, paralyzed with shock,” said Reyes.

She said he raped her for 20 minutes. Fortunately, they were interrupted by another car.

“When he saw the car drive up, he gave me a towel and told me to clean myself up,” said Reyes.

She said he has since disappeared. But the attack is always on her mind. “I feel dirty, sad, with no desire to do anything,” said Reyes.

Oscar Teran of the California Rural Legal Assistance said unfortunately, cases like this are common.

“It would almost be impossible to get an accurate estimate of the number because there are so many silent victims. What we do know is that those cases are on the rise. Not only is the CRLA seeing more cases, but so is the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They’ve reported an influx of these cases,” said Teran.

The United Farm Workers organization said it knows of at least eight to ten cases per year, usually occurring during the harvest.

“Because that’s when there’s a higher percentage of women working in the fields,” said Armando Elenes of the UFW.

Elenes said the assaults or harassment usually happen in the field or labor camps.

“It happens in the middle of the orchard. It happens after work. And it happens all the time,” said Elenes.

Marivel Acuna from the California Rural Legal Assistance said supervisors and coworkers are usually the perpetrators. She offered some insight as to why the rapes happen.

“Because they feel empowered. They feel power in the them, the authority they have,” said Acuna.

“A supervisor will say, ‘If you want to keep working here, you’re going to have to help me, do something for me,” said Elenes.

Another issue that empowers them is the legal status of their victims. For instance, Veronica is undocumented.

“He probably thought, ‘Oh, she doesn’t have papers. She’s undocumented so I’ll rape her and nothing will happen because she doesn’t have papers,'” said Reyes.

To this day, Reyes has not reported the rape to law enforcement.

“It happens all the time,” said Acuna.

Acuna said cases like Veronica’s go unreported all the time.

“The majority of the problem is that they are not documented. That’s the first thing,” said Acuna.

Acuna said undocumented fieldworkers fear deportation if they go to law enforcement.

“Personally, and I know my department, we do not care and we do not ask if somebody is legal or illegal when they are reporting a crime,” said Detective Dona Wood of the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.

Victims and their families can even be protected from deportation by getting a U-visa. It gives them temporary legal status and work eligibility in the United States for up to four years as long as they assist in the investigation of the crime.

“If you’re able to provide and prove that you’ve suffered extensive mental and physical abuse from it, then that qualifies you to be a recipient of the U-visa,” said Raye Bugnosen of the Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault.

Teran said another reason victims do not report the crime is for fear of losing their job. “There is a lot of retaliation. We’ve seen a lot of cases where someone reports the problem, not only are they fired, but their family members who work on the same crew are fired,” said Teran.

They would not only be fired, but are often blacklisted from getting other jobs.

“And a lot of it is they are uneducated, they don’t know where to go or who to talk to,” said Acuna.

Reyes said she has not reported her rape because she thinks she doesn’t have enough proof. She does not know her attacker’s name or anything about him.

“Even though she may not know the name or identity of the person who harassed or assaulted her, the employer themselves still has the degree of responsibility. So it would be important for her to engage in the legal process of making sure her rights are vindicated,” said Teran.

“And the saddest part about it is that men and women don’t know their rights,” said Acuna.

Undocumented workers have the same rights as anyone else, but they often do not know that. “They have right to be free from harassment. They have the right to be free from discrimination based upon their gender. They have the right to be free from sexual violence or intimidation in the workplace. They have the right to a safe and secure workplace,” said Teran.

“We need you to come forward. Because nine times out of 10 a suspect or perpetrator is going to do this again. Especially when it comes to a sexual assault or domestic violence,” said Wood.

“Right now what I want is to have justice. I hope he’ll pay for what he did,” said Reyes.

If you or anyone you know has become victim to sexual harassment or assault, you should:
1. Report the crime to call law enforcement.
2. If raped, go to Kern Medical Center or Memorial Hospital to have a rape exam performed. They are the only hospitals that do it.
3. Make sure to bring a victim’s rights advocate such as someone from the Alliance Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault or the Victim Witness Assistance program.
4. Contact an attorney. The California Rural Legal Assistance and greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance are available to help people who cannot afford attorneys.

Once the case goes to court, a judge can order the perpetrator to pay restitution or the employer to change company policies to ensure the crime will not happen again.


Related: Rape in the Fields – Part 2