[25 June 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“We were in his truck. He told me I was pretty. He started touching me.”
—Female farm worker
“From the moment we started to work in the fields, they harassed us horribly,” remembers Maricruz Ladino. An undocumented farm worker in Monterey County, California, Ladino is the first individual to speak on camera in Frontline: Rape in the Fields. The camera follows her from her home to her car to the field where she labors daily. “They look at you like they own you,” she goes on, “And whenever they want you, they can have you.”
“They” are the supervisors, men—inevitably men—who oversee pickers and planters at American farms, men who took advantage of their unchecked authority. Ladino, narrates Frontline correspondent Lowell Bergman, is one of very few women workers who agreed to speak for this report, a collaboration between PBS and Univision, which will be broadcasting a Spanish language version titled Violación de un Sueño (Violation of a Dream). The program, developed over a year and featuring interviews with law enforcement authorities as well as victims (sometimes in protective shadows) and accused perpetrators, reveals longstanding, systemic, and overlooked abuse of women.
The problem, reports Bergman, has to do with their painfully, unsustainably but also perpetually undefined status. They are victims of crimes, but they are also undocumented, and often don’t have English or an understanding of US law or their rights. As a result, they rarely report their bosses or seek help from US law enforcement. Indeed, their lack of papers is precisely how their abusers ensure their silence, threatening their victims that they will be fired, deported or worse.
The lack of options for victims has created a longstanding system wherein abusers and rapists face no consequences. Rape in the Fields reports that even as some US authorities—for instance, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Bill Tamayo—have undertaken to sue American employers for the abuses conducted by their employees, these cases result in monetary settlements or acquittals, and no legal ramifications at all for the rapists themselves. In 2002, for example, the EEOC sued Harris Farms, Ladino’s employer, for the abuses endured by her and other workers. The women’s supervisor, Rene Rodriguez, has in the meantime moved on, and when Bergman and his crew catch up with him at his home in Texas, he insists that the women have lied, that his relationships with them were consensual. “I was going out with her,” he says of one accuser, noting that if he had been guilty of “using violence,” well then, “They would have thrown me in jail or something, right?”
Right? Rodriguez’s logic speaks directly to the dilemma shaping his victims’ experience. As they and their supporters, say, the EEOC, are unable to bring charges against him, he never needs to appear in a courtroom or contend with accusations legally. The corporations who may or many not be responsible for creating the conditions of abuse might get off entirely or pay a settlement. Iowa’s DeCoster Farms (now Wright County Egg Farms), for instance, paid $1.5 million to the women who came forward, though their rapist has never been charged. According to Robert Reich, the DeCoster case exemplifies a broader set of corruptions; as Reich observes while you see undercover footage of killing floor offenses, that in his experience, companies that disregard animal cruelty regulations also show a “crass disregard for the lives of employees.”
That would be a disregard for living wages, safe working conditions, and also rape and harassment on the job. Here the program features interviews with Berta Alberts, a schoolteacher who helped women at DeCoster Farms to escape when she found them living in cardboard boxes, as well as Sonia Parras, a lawyer known for her work on deportation cases, and a sheriff in Wright County, Paul Schultz. Where Parras describes the multiple vulnerabilities of female rape victims threatened by their abusers with deportation if they speak up (she recalls her own horror and heartbreak at hearing one woman’s typical lament, that “I want to keep my job, but I don’t want to have sex at work anymore”), the sheriff offers another perspective, as his officers are regularly supposed to pick up undocumented workers and also to protect victims of abuse: “Our job is to do both.” He adds that this “puts the victim in an almost impossible situation,” unable to turn to officers they see conducting raids, unable to escape their abusers, also known as their employers and supervisors.
Here Bergman and Schultz take a moment to nod at one another. They share as well a sober acknowledgment that no one has been charged with rape in the DeCoster case, the one pertaining to the sheriff’s jurisdiction. When Schultz notes as well that neither his office nor a federal agency interviewed the man accused of rape in this case, Bergman takes up the pursuit, finding him on Facebook, where he lists two members of the DeCoster family as “friends.”
Bergman concludes with a re-declaration of the impossibilities facing female farm workers who have been or are being abused or raped, asking, “Should federal agents treat abused, undocumented workers as victims or as criminals?” If the moral parameters of such phrasing—the premise of “should”—seem clear, the legal and political parameters remain uncertain.