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Growing Hope

coverwebCampos Seguros combats sexual assault in the Watsonville farmworker community

Farm work was a way of life for Rocio Camargo, who grew up in Watsonville as the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her parents met while working the fields 30 years ago, and her father went on to run Fuentes Berry Farms.

“I started working as soon as I could get a work permit,” Camargo says. “And when I went away to college, I would come home over the summer and work.”

She spent several summers working in the fields, where a black eye was not an uncommon feature for a female coworker. Women whose husbands and boyfriends worked in the same crew were often not allowed to speak to other men, and all women—especially in the berry fields, where a lot of bending over is necessary—donned layer upon layer of baggy clothing, regardless of the weather.

“Women felt they needed to cover their face and head and wear big sweaters, loose pants and a separate garment around their waist to cover their backside,” she explains. “It was a perpetuation of the idea that a woman is asking for [harassment]—that if she didn’t cover herself, she was looking for it or OK with it.”

In the fields, rude comments, dirty jokes and being checked out aren’t seen as workplace harassment. They are treated as simply part of the job, recalls Camargo. And the symptoms of domestic violence she witnessed—those black eyes and isolated, silenced women—didn’t raise any particular red flags, either.

“It was a side note,” Camargo explains. “It’s very normalized in our culture. We look at those things and say, ‘Oh, that’s a bummer. Poor her, but she’s not doing anything to leave that person.’ Even in American culture, broadly, if a woman doesn’t leave, then it’s [seen as] her fault that it’s happening to her. People think it’s easier than it is. But by the time there is physical abuse, there has often been a ton of emotional abuse. It gets really complicated. I can see that now. But back then, it was just, ‘she’s not leaving him.’”

These unquestioned norms began to unravel for Camargo when she attended UC Santa Barbara, where she volunteered with an organization called Domestic Violence Solutions. Then, despite the education and training she had gleaned from volunteering, she found herself in a violent relationship.

“Even though we knew [about the issue] and did all of this volunteer work, I still felt like the people around me didn’t know how to support me,” she says. “I fell into a deep depression.”

The reality of the issue—and that it can happen to anyone, let alone exceptionally susceptible populations, like female agriculture workers—became inescapable for Camargo. She moved home to Watsonville and looked for a way to get involved in helping combat the problem.

“I wanted to reconnect with my community and, at the same time, teach them that these things are not OK,” she says. “I wanted to reach the most vulnerable community, which is the farmworker community.”

cov 1She soon landed a job at Women’s Crisis Support ~ Defensa de Mujeres (now Monarch Services), in 2011. The Watsonville-based nonprofit has been helping survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault since 1977, with services including a crisis line, counseling, and emergency shelter for victims. Its mission to end domestic and sexual violence involves “providing intervention and prevention services in a culturally sensitive way,” according to its website, wcs-ddm.org.

“I noticed that the people coming in were the same people that I used to work with [in the fields],” says Camargo. “The same community, but there were also instances where I would run into my dad’s workers. Coming from a migrant family, I felt slapped in the face by the obviousness that domestic violence, sexual violence, and sexual harassment happens in the fields.”

Before her arrival, the local nonprofit had attempted to bring its prevention and education work to this population, but without much success. They would show up at local fields in hopes of connecting with workers—“which is how a lot of farmworker outreach is conducted, generally,” Camargo says. “There is this feeling that a grower or manager won’t let you talk to the workers because they are deprived of something. There is this hesitation to go to the heads of companies. So people head out there and hope for the best.”

Camargo and her colleagues decided to see if they would have better luck partnering with the growers, rather than trying to go around them. Camargo utilized her existing connections with Reiter Affiliated Companies, the management company for around 100 local farms, including her father’s. The result was Campos Seguros, or “Secure Fields,” a first-of-its-kind farmworker outreach program the organization launched in 2013. Throughout last year’s growing season, Camargo and fellow community education coordinator Perla Calvario presented information about domestic and sexual violence to 64 Reiter-affiliated field crews, reaching a total of 2,184 workers.

Earlier this year, Camargo moved on from Monarch Services to work as a translator for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. However, the seeds she helped plant have taken root and are ready to sprout. As Sexual Assault Awareness Month unfolds this month, Executive Director Laura Segura and her team are working to improve, expand and solidify the Campos Seguros model for ultimate impact.

Fear in the Fields

The prevalence of sexual abuse against agricultural workers—both on and off the field—has long been an open secret.

“My father didn’t allow me to go to the fields, and now I understand why,” says Segura, a Watsonville native whose parents and brothers worked on farms. 

The secret has only recently begun to be revealed. It finally received serious national attention in the last two years.

In 2012, Human Rights Watch released “Cultivating Fear,” a comprehensive report about the dangers faced by the 24 percent of farmworkers in the United States who are female.

“Nearly every worker interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that they had either personally experienced some form of workplace sexual violence or harassment or personally knew someone who had experienced it,” the report says. “Our research confirms what farmworker advocates across the country believe: sexual violence and sexual harassment experienced by farmworkers is common enough that some farmworker women see these abuses as an unavoidable condition of agricultural work.”

cov 2Meanwhile, many foremen and supervisors see sexual relations as simply a perk of the job, according to the report. A 2010 UCSC study found that 40 percent of women farmworkers had experienced rape or sexual harassment, while 24 percent had been the target of sexual coercion by a superior.

Santa Cruz County residents may remember the case of 60-year-old Manuel “Juan” Covarrubias Alvarez, of the small Watsonville berry farm Alvarez Farms, who was arrested in October on charges of sexually assaulting a woman he was recruiting for farm work.

A year after “Cultivating Fear” made waves came the PBS documentary Rape in the Fields. The two investigations gave the issue its first large-scale exposure, fueling Monarch Services’ drive to start Campos Seguros and Reiter’s decision to get on board with it.  

Watsonville Mayor Karina Cervantez acknowledges that sexual violence is not confined to the agriculture industry. Indeed, nearly one in five American women have been the victim of rape or attempted rape, according to a government survey released in 2011.

“However,” says Cervantez, “women farmworkers face additional barriers in reporting the problem and in being able to access the necessary services if they have been victimized.”

These barriers are extensive. “The norms in this community are not to speak up—that you’ll lose your job if you speak up, that you don’t shame your family or partner, [and that] you just have to endure it,” says Segura.

Women fieldworkers are already at an economic disadvantage: The Human Rights Watch report cites national data from 2004 to 2006 that shows the average annual income for a female crop worker in the United States was $11,250, compared to $16,250 for males.

The report found that single, indigenous and undocumented women, as well as girls under the age of 18, are uniquely vulnerable to workplace assault. And California—which comprises 36 percent of all farmworkers in the country—has a higher percentage of agricultural workers who are indigenous and undocumented. Sexual assault is already one of the most under-reported crimes (an estimated 60 percent go unreported, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey), and it becomes even less so when these cultural, linguistic, economic, and other factors arise. 

“Many of them are undocumented or first-generation immigrants, so [some] don’t believe they have rights, and they don’t understand or know of the resources available to them,” Segura says, adding that fear of deportation factors in. “Additionally, they may come from countries with corrupt law enforcement or government. They may not trust social services or government or law enforcement.

“Sexual assault is underreported by at least 50 percent in the general American population,” she continues, “but when you add all of these additional barriers for female farmworkers, it’s extremely high. Alarmingly high.”

Because of this, it is hard to estimate the size and scope of the issue locally. The Watsonville Police Department and Criminal Justice Council of Santa Cruz County did not return a request for comment by press time. But Gretchen Regenhardt, in the Watsonville office of California Rural Legal Assistance, says the CRLA believes the issue “may be fairly widespread.”

Local leaders like Cervantez feel that, through its face-to-face outreach efforts, Campos Seguros is not only educating farmworkers on the issue and available resources, but also shining a much-needed spotlight on matter for the public.

“Campos Seguros is an important effort to educate the larger community of the particular risks and vulnerabilities that women farmworkers in our community are confronting,” Cervantez says.

Harvesting Hope

Through its partnership with Reiter last year, Campos Seguros coordinators presented to work crews for 15 to 20 minutes during a pre-arranged Reiter HR meeting. With supervisors and those in higher positions asked to leave, the presenters covered the definitions of domestic and sexual violence, discussed the services available through their organization, and distributed literature with pertinent information. To appease concerns about immigration, they made a point of stressing that their services are confidential and that it is up to the victim whether or not to make a police report. The response was mostly positive, says Camargo, although certain crews—particularly one made up of 30 men and no women—were tougher to break through to.

cov 3“We let them know that if they don’t go through [victimization], they may have sisters, mothers, or daughters who they can share information with,” says Camargo. “Even if you don’t feel like you need this, just keep the information because chances are you will know somebody who will.”

Because their services are confidential—and not everyone who seeks their help discloses how they heard about the organization—they cannot say exactly what the impact of their first Campos Seguros season was. But a number of anecdotes suggest that their presentations did make a difference in some lives. Evidence that the issue is not specific to women, a man from one of the crews called the crisis line after learning about it during a Campos Seguros presentation. He was fleeing domestic violence himself and Monarch Services was able to provide him assistance during the transition.

Another worker, a woman, approached Calvario after a presentation about being harassed by coworkers.

“She didn’t really know what harassment was until we gave her that information,” Calvario says. “The crew leader moved her to another crew.”

The nonprofit also received referrals from supervisors worried about certain employees.

After realizing how difficult it is for hard-working farmworkers, who can work six or seven days a week during the growing season, to seek help during Monarch Services’ regular business hours, the organization extended its hours on Tuesday and Wednesdays.

Looking ahead at the coming growing season, Monarch Services has big plans to improve Campos Seguros. They are in talks with other growers in hopes of expanding their reach beyond just Reiter affiliates. As for the farms they do visit, they plan to do six to eight intensive, workshop-style sessions with the men and women of each crew, separately, rather than quick one-time presentations to the entire group.

“In order to change beliefs, norms and attitudes, we need to deliver information in different ways and dosages,” explains Calvario. They will continue to leverage an existing partnership with Migrant Head Start to also deliver the curriculum to children in the farmworker community.

Other components of their plan include a regional Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) training for all organizations doing work in the farmworker community, a local film screening of Rape in the Fields (date and venue to be determined), and a summit with local growers.

The method of partnering with growers has given Campos Seguros unprecedented access to farm employees. But could it also potentially lead to missing the opportunity to reach workers whose bosses perpetrate sexual abuse and thus decline to partner up?

“It has crossed our minds,” says Segura, “which is why I want to have a growers summit. I have the same questions as you. I want to know more. I don’t know enough to understand what they are thinking and if there is hesitation [to partner], and why. That’s what a growers’ summit would shed light on.”

Segura adds that the issue is generating buzz, in general, which could lead to a wider, multi-agency approach to tackling the problem.

“There are a lot of people who have been calling our agency who have learned about this issue from Rape in the Fields and want to partner with us and bring solutions to the table,” she says. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a broad community conversation about this … but it’s severe and happening, and as a community we have to be able to address it collectively.”

California leads the nation in protections for farmworkers. However, the bar for sexual assault laws for this population isn’t set very high: our state requires any farm with more than 50 employees to provide sexual harassment training to managers and supervisors every two years. Since Rape in the Fields, organizations like AgSafe are expanding sexual harassment training efforts, and government agencies are using the documentary to coach employers and investigators, according to pbs.org. The film has also set further research into motion and spurred some law enforcement to pay closer attention.

But while facts continue to be unearthed and the potential for new legislation or law enforcement efforts remain unknown, Monarch Services marches forward to do its part: visiting the very fields that have stirred up such controversy, to meet these farmworkers and start a conversation.

As they grow the program, they hope other communities take note and follow in their footsteps.  

“We would like to build a model that can be replicated across California,” says Segura.


Visit wcs-ddm.org for more information about Campos Seguros. To learn more about Rape in the Fields, visit cironline.org/rapeinthefields.

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