Jose Gaspar

Sunday, Jan 12 2014 08:00 PM

JOSE GASPAR: Abused farmworkers often afraid to speak out

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    By Henry A. Barrios/ The Californian

    Californian contributing columnist Jose Gaspar.

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By Jose Gaspar

At what point does a victim of sexual abuse say enough is enough and denounce the perpetrator? What if your job and the means to support your children lie in the hands of that perpetrator?

If you are threatened with being fired and reported to immigration authorities, you stay silent and endure shame and humiliation out of fear of being deported. That is the plight of an untold number of women farmworkers in Kern County, in California and the rest of the nation.

"He would come up behind me, fondle me and tell me that he wanted me for himself," said a 44-year-old Bakersfield woman we're calling "Aurora." The Californian does not name the victims of sexual assault or alleged sexual assault unless they choose to go public with their story.

The single mother of four did not know what to say or do when the crew foreman came up to her that October day in 2012 as she was working alone in a vineyard near Lamont. Up to then, no one had ever harassed her in this manner while she worked in the fields.

Aurora arrived in Bakersfield from Mexico in 1998. A friend from her home state of Guerrero was already working here and told Aurora there was work en el norte -- in the north. Not making ends meet in Guerrero, Aurora and her husband decided it was worth entering the country as undocumented immigrants to work and give their four children a better opportunity. The day after arriving in Bakersfield, Aurora started working in the fields.

She liked working and was known as a woman who could pull her own weight along the men who worked beside her. Aurora rebuffed the crew foreman the first time he asked her if she would not like to have someone who would take care of her?

"From there it escalated to him touching my breasts and at times he would rub against me," she said.

Things only got worse from there, and said she was told that if she ever said anything, he would report her to immigration officials and have her deported.

Having separated from her husband and with mouths to feed, she stayed silent but the dehumanizing treatment and forced silence took a toll on her physical and mental health.

Aurora dreaded going to work. She would get depressed about a situation she did not know how to handle. The touching and sexual propositions were demeaning, embarrassing and made her question her own conduct. The foreman would isolate her from the rest of the crew so she would work alone.

The final indignity came, she said, when he put his hands inside her panties and groped her buttocks. She left crying in shame and remembers the foreman asking what was she afraid about?

This time he went too far. She reported the latest and all past incidents to the farm labor contractor that had hired her. She told him she wanted the foreman to stay away from her. The labor contractor eventually spoke to a company supervisor and the conclusion was there was nothing they could do because it was her word against his, and the foreman vehemently denied the accusations.

Aurora left the job and has not worked anywhere since, essentially locking herself in her house afraid other foreman might do the same.

I'd like to say that this was probably an isolated incident. Hardly. No government agency keeps tabs on this, but according to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch, hundreds of thousands of immigrant farmworker women and young girls in the United States face a high risk of sexual violence and sexual harassment in their workplace because authorities and employers fail to protect them adequately.

The report was based on interviews with more than 160 farmworkers, attorneys, members of the ag industry, police and others across the country. Numerous women reported being raped in the fields, in vehicles or in their homes by those who wielded power over them. Add to the mix that most victims are afraid or embarrassed to speak out and the issue only compounds itself.

"Eso era taboo -- that was taboo. You did not speak about that if it happened to you," said Mily Trevino Sauceda. A farmworker herself, Trevino Sauceda founded Lideres Campesinas in 1992. The group's goal is to empower farmworker women through education and has a chapter in Bakersfield.

She was 17 and working in the fields alongside her father and three brothers. "When I told my father the foreman was touching me, his reaction disappointed me," said the 55 year-old. "He told me, 'What are you doing to provoke this man?' I started to cry and never mentioned it again to him. But the harassment continued."

To date, no criminal charges have ever been filed against a foreman or company for sexual harassment/abuse in Kern County, said Andrea Kohler, supervising deputy with the Kern County District Attorney's office.

According to California Rural Legal Assistance, just one recent case resulted in a criminal conviction. A supervisor at a berry farm in San Benito County pleaded no contest to sexual abuse and was sentenced to a three-year prison sentence in 2013. Another case is currently being prosecuted by the Madera County District Attorney's office and is expected to go to trial in a few weeks.

Parmjit Singh Bassi of Lucky Farms of Chowchilla is charged with two counts of rape of a woman farmworker during her first day on the job.

But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has stepped in on behalf of victims resulting in significant civil cases where juries have awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to victims of sexual abuse in the fields.

Right here in Kern County, giant Giumarra Vineyards agreed to settle a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit in July of 2012. EEOC alleged that a 17-year-old female farmworker was sexually harassed and others were subject to retaliation. The company agreed to make comprehensive changes to company procedures in dealing with discrimination and retaliation expending a total of $350,000 to resolve the case.

With help from the Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault and Lideres Campesinas, Aurora has begun her road to recovery. She is still not working, however, and it is her 19-year-old son who is supporting the family right now. She decided to finally go public in telling her story.

"I'm speaking out now so that others who have suffered in silence will hopefully do the same," said Aurora.

Help is available for victims of sexual abuse/harassment in the agriculture industry. California Rural Legal Assistance in Delano can be reached at 725-4350. Lideres Campesinas can be reached at 951- 545-1917.

Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com.

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