Female Farm Workers Speak Up About Sexual Harassment

Originally published on January 4, 2014 2:38 pm



Agriculture is one of America's most hazardous industries, but there's another danger for female farm workers - rape and sexual assault. It's difficult for any victim of sexual assault to press charges, and female farm workers have to overcome additional hurdles, yet some are starting to speak up about the hidden price they may have to pay to keep a job in the fields.

In this encore investigation, Sasha Khokha of member station KQED in San Francisco reports. And a note to listeners, this story contains graphic language.

SASHA KHOKHA, BYLINE: It started with a missing paycheck. In 2006, Guadalupe Chavez, a farm worker in California's Central Valley, was supposed to earn $245 for a week of picking pomegranates, money the widowed mother of two needed urgently to pay her bills. When she went to track down the check, a supervisor she never met before told her someone had it out in the fields. He said to follow him there in her car.

GUADALUPE CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KHOKHA: He stopped in an isolated pistachio orchard. Then, she says, he got out of his truck and demanded her underpants in exchange for her paycheck.

CHAVEZ: (Through Translator) He said I'm the supervisor, I'm in charge here. And I remember that he had told me that he had a gun in the truck and so when he had said that, he banged hard on the car with his hand. I thought he's serious. If I don't do what he says, he can kill me.

KHOKHA: Then, Chavez says, the supervisor reached through her car window and forced his hand between her legs.

CHAVEZ: (Through Translator) He was hurting me. Imagine his fingers were all dirty with pesticides. I wanted for him to stop and hope that it was all he wanted. I thought if he kills me, who will take care of my children?

KHOKHA: After those long, frightening moments, he finally gave her the check, but then she says he demanded oral sex before letting her go. What Chavez describes meets the federal definition of rape and is considered a felony under California law. Two days later, she went to a rural legal aid office about another missing check.

Lawyers there noticed she seemed distraught. They gently asked what was wrong and she gave the OK to call the police.


KHOKHA: Kris Zuniga, then of the Kings County Sheriff's Department, investigated the case.

SERGEANT KRIS ZUNIGA: Oh, absolutely I believe her. Her story was consistent.

KHOKHA: When he interrogated the suspect, Zuniga says, the man denied knowing Chavez, but then he admitted sexual contact, saying it was consensual. We'll hear more about what happened with Guadalupe Chavez's case in a moment. Most farm worker women, though, never report sexual assault to the police.

ZUNIGA: For one, they are afraid that they're going to get deported; number two, word gets around to the other bosses in the valley and the other people that are also doing farm labor work. They'll never work out there again.

KHOKHA: Zuniga's now a sergeant with the police department in the rural town of Avenal. He says many farm worker victims don't get a rape exam.

ZUNIGA: And a week goes by, two weeks go by, three weeks goes by, you've lost that physical evidence, so now you're down to a he said, she said. And those are tough, tough to prosecute.


KHOKHA: The first stop for farm worker victim isn't usually the police station. It's more likely a place like Westside Family Preservation Services, a tiny nonprofit tucked into a rundown strip mall in the rural California town of Huron. A steady stream of women walk in after work in the fields, pulling down the brightly colored bandanas that protect their faces.

Caseworker, Amparo Yebra, says sometimes they'll confide to her about sexual violence.

AMPARO YEBRA: They have to feel comfortable, they have to feel like they can trust that they're going to be helped.

KHOKHA: Yebra says she literally holds a woman's hand and walks with her into the police station. But sometimes, she says, victims change their minds once they find out what's involved in a criminal case, including the humiliation of retelling their stories in front of a jury. Sometimes, they may choose to file a confidential complaint against the farm company instead.

SANDRA MENDOZA: (Through Translator) A lot of times the victim wants to just wrap things up as fast as possible, get some peace.

KHOKHA: Sandra Mendoza works with the Mexican consulate to help crime victims navigate the U.S. justice system.

MENDOZA: (Through Translator) Coming to an agreement with the company is confidential, no one else finds out about it from either the victim's or the company's point of view. And victims don't face the uncertainty of a jury trial, where nothing guarantees that the alleged perpetrator ends up in jail anyway.

KHOKHA: But the farm worker we met earlier, Guadalupe Chavez, wanted her alleged assailant to go to jail. The local district attorney determined there was strong enough evidence to prosecute and took the case, making Chavez one of the few farm worker women to press criminal charges in a sexual assault case. But with no witnesses in the pistachio orchard that day, the jury believed the defense that the encounter was consensual. The farm's supervisor was acquitted.

CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KHOKHA: But even so, Chavez says she got some justice because the man she accused of raping her had to face her in court. And she says now supervisors like him may think twice about how they treat women in the fields.

CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

KHOKHA: For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha in Fresno.

WERTHEIMER: This story was produced in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting and UC Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program.

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