This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on March 21, 2013.
INTERVIEWER: To somebody who knows nothing about the problems of sexual assault among female farmworkers, how did you become aware of it?
HUERTA: I became aware of it as a young woman, and my mother would never let me work in the fields. She would tell me, “You can work in the packing sheds,” and at first I didn’t know why.
And then when I actually did go out and work in the fields, then, like all of the other women, I saw the foreman coming and hovering around you. And of course that was something that made you very nervous, because you didn’t know if they were just looking at your work or if they were looking at you.
Then eventually talking to other farmworker women that were working out there, [I found out] that this was part of the job, so to speak, that you had to kind of be careful, because somebody in that field would come and try to invite you, or they would start looking at you, making these advances. And of course it was bothersome to a woman to know.
Many of the women, of course, that work out in the fields, they wear these bandanas, as you know, to keep the sun off their faces, but also it’s kind of a protection in many ways from trying to keep the foreman from looking at them.
INTERVIEWER: You mean hide yourself?
It’s kind of a way of hiding yourself, right. So this has been one of those hazards of the job of being a farmworker, because the way that farmworker women are treated, they are looked at as sex objects, actually, when they are out there in the field.
INTERVIEWER: Is this in your experience something that is tolerated by management? Is it part of the landscape?
HUERTA: One of the issues that you have with farmworkers generally is that the employers do not take direct responsibility for their workers. Over the years it’s become more of a common practice that employers will hire labor contractors. They outsource the work, so to speak.
And these labor contractors that they hire, many of them are former farmworkers themselves, and they’ve never been trained in human resources or human relations management, so the type of tactics that they use to manage their workers are pretty [far] back in the 19th century. What they use to manage their workers is fear: fear of losing your job.
Of course this then comes to [the surface] when a women is a victim of sexual advances. Then what she’s worried about is not only losing her job; she’s worried that her husband will lose his job, or her brother or her boyfriend or somebody in the family. It might even be a cousin, because many of these families work together. So the whole family can get fired if a woman complains that she’s being sexually harassed.
INTERVIEWER: When you were starting the [United] Farm Workers union early on, was this a priority to deal with this issue?
HUERTA: It really wasn’t, I have to say, … except let me just say this: toilets. There were no toilets in the fields, so women literally, when they had to do their business, they would have to go together. They would have to get sheets or towels to cover themselves. There were no toilets.
… It did not become a national law until 1985 that farmworkers had to have toilets in the fields. Before that time, especially for women workers, it was extremely embarrassing for them, because you have some places where you had row crops — asparagus, tomatoes, daikon, lettuce, all of these types. There was no place that a woman could go to the bathroom. So this was part of it. This was demeaning [for] a farmworker generally but demeaning [for] the women in particular.
INTERVIEWER: So the issue of sexual assault or violence at the workplace, that wasn’t something you could address if you didn’t even have a toilet yet.
HUERTA: That’s true. And I think at this point, when we started organizing farmworkers, Cesar Chavez and myself, farmworkers were getting paid like 70 cents an hour, 70 cents to 90 cents an hour. I remember that Lyndon Johnson, as the head of the Senate, refused to pass a bill that gave farmworkers a minimum wage of 50 cents an hour.
So the big pressing issues were feeding the family. This is what people talked about: How do we earn enough money to feed our families? …
INTERVIEWER: We’ve interviewed people who say that in some circumstances, for a woman to work, she has to agree to perform sexual favors. Was that true, and is that true?
HUERTA: That is very true and shocking, and I believe that one of the reasons that sexual harassment was not talked about openly is because the women themselves feel very ashamed, because they have to do this to be able to keep a job.
“The whole family can get fired if a woman complains that she’s being sexually harassed.”
But it’s very common, and not just the young women. I have testimonies from women that were in their 50s and even going into their 60s who were worried that because of their age, they wouldn’t be hired anymore, so they literally had to have an appointment with the foreman or the supervisor at a hotel before the season started to be able to keep that job.
So the job seniority that many farmworker women have is to have sex with a foreman or maybe one of the foreman’s relatives, and to have children from somebody in that crew, somebody in management, to be able to keep their jobs. …
INTERVIEWER: That was true when you started out organizing in the ’60s. Is it true today?
HUERTA: I believe it’s true today. … And it’s always an issue of violence that comes into play here, because they feel that if the husband knows or the brother knows that they might blame the woman, that she is the one that precipitated the advances, that she was responsible in some way. And so that is why sometimes women keep it to themselves.
And it is very painful for them that they have to live with all of this guilt, not only to protect themselves but to protect their families, to make sure their whole family has a job.
I can hear someone thinking, listening to you, “But isn’t this just a problem of the culture, the Hispanic culture, the Mexican culture, the macho culture? Is it really the responsibility of the employers?”
Sexual harassment, as we know, is not limited to any culture. It happens in offices. I can say personally myself, working as a secretary in an office when I was young, I had to figure out every day how I was going to make an escape before the boss was going to try to sexually harass me. And it was just on my mind every single day. So it’s not limited to the Latino culture, or it’s not limited to farmworkers. It happens every day in many, many places in the United States.
I think what makes farmworker women more vulnerable is number one, they work in isolated places [and] that the jobs they have are sort of entry-level jobs, so to speak. It’s very hard for them to get a job anywhere else unless maybe they can promote themselves to be housekeeper or work in a restaurant or in a hotel or something of that nature.
So their job is scarce for them and they have to try to keep those jobs. That makes them very vulnerable. The fact that many of them don’t speak English — a lot of them don’t even know the laws. They don’t even know that they can report sexual harassment and that the employer can be responsible for that.
INTERVIEWER: … [Regional counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] Bill Tamayo says that he finally understood this, what was going on, when he visited Thomas Jefferson’s home in Monticello, [in Charlottesville, Va]. And he said this is a form of modern slavery.
HUERTA: … Once they know that they can have some kind of support system, that there’s an organization, say like the [United] Farm Workers union, that will support them, or there is women’s organization, like a group called Líderes Campesinas, that supports the rights of farmworker women, and when they know maybe they can have some type of security, some kind of protection, then they’ll come forth. But it takes a lot. …
Women of course who work as domestic servants in many households, they are also exposed to this, and they are also very often immigrant women that don’t really have family here to protect them or have very little types of protection.
So it is a type of common slavery when you can have the employer that can impose himself upon his workers and demand sexual favors from them.
INTERVIEWER: … So this is a culture where the foreman or the supervisor is more likely to be the one harassing the women or assaulting the women. But is management involved?
HUERTA: Management is very responsible, because number one, they don’t take responsibility for their workers in the first place, and they will often take the word of the foreman or the manager against a woman if she does come forward. And women know this. They know that they are not going to be heard. They know that nobody is going to be there to support them and protect them, and this adds to the reluctance of them to come forward.
INTERVIEWER: There was this kind of machismo in the union, right?
HUERTA: Yes, there was. I believe it was part of the culture, again, of the male-dominated culture. But Cesar was very hard on any people in the union that engaged.
INTERVIEWER: Cesar Chavez himself?
INTERVIEWER: But you experienced it in the union?
HUERTA: The fellas used to tell all these jokes, these sexist jokes, and what I did once is during a board meeting, I took a little pencil and jotted down every time they made a sexist remark. And at the end of the meeting, when Cesar would say, “Does anybody have anything they want to say at the meeting?,” I said: “Yes. During the course of this meeting, you guys have made 58 sexist remarks.”
And they were all shocked, and then the next meeting, I got them down to 30, then 20, then eventually two and pretty soon zero. And so they would check themselves when they went into a meeting before they started making any sexist jokes or anything of that nature.
So I believe that’s why it’s so important to have women involved. And in the farmworkers’ union, we had a lot of women on the front lines, we had a lot of women in our departments. The best way to curb this type of macho sexist culture is to make sure that women are involved.
I think that goes now when we think about what’s happening in the military with all these stories coming out about women getting raped and men being raped. But if the women weren’t there, not even these stories would come out. It’s important that we have women at every level of policymaking and decision making, because women, we do tell.
INTERVIEWER: There have been a couple of reports that have come out over the last year or so. Human Rights Watch says this is an epidemic in the fields, and so does the Southern Poverty Law Center. Is it an epidemic?
HUERTA: It is an epidemic in the fields, and it again goes back to the vulnerability that the farmworker women have, and especially if they’re undocumented, and the machismo culture of power. When you think of this type of sexual harassment or rape, it’s always about power of men over women. This is exactly what it is, and it’s very hard to combat just simply because of the fact that women are afraid and their families are afraid if they do find out. …
When we talk about the epidemic, in one interview that I took from a woman about this particular crew — and this is a big, giant lettuce company… — and I asked this woman if anyone in her crew had been sexually harassed, and she said to me, in Spanish, “A todos.” In other words, he hit on every single woman in the crew. The foreman hit on every single woman.
So it is an epidemic, unfortunately. And while I believe that with knowledge, that when women know there is a number they can call, like to the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], and they know it’s confidential, that nobody needs to know until the perpetuators confront it — and as we know, many of these cases are settled, because the companies don’t want the world [to know] that their workers were sexually harassed in the workplace.
So there is a little light at the end of the tunnel on this, but it’s going to take mass education. And of course a lot of the immigrant women that come here, they don’t even know what laws they’re protected by. They don’t know that they’re protected by laws that will cover them and protect them if they’re sexually harassed. And they don’t know that they’re covered by minimum wage oftentimes or that they have these safety precautions from the Department of Labor.
They just don’t have that knowledge, and they’re not told. In fact, it’s so bad that when we have all of these labor contractors in the system, they don’t even know who their employer is. If a worker may ask a labor contractor who owns this land, they can get fired.
INTERVIEWER: What do you mean?
HUERTA: It’s against the law to fire them, but they don’t know that they have that law that protects them. If a worker sees something wrong, and he might come to the foreman or the labor contractor [and ask,] “Who owns this property?,” or, “Who are we working for?,” they can get fired.
INTERVIEWER: They can get fired just for that?
HUERTA: Just for that.
INTERVIEWER: When we talk to growers, they say things like the Human [Rights] Watch report is not scientific; it’s anecdotal; these aren’t real numbers; it’s no different here than it is in the University of California. You have the same problem there, too; it’s no worse here in the fields.
HUERTA: It is much worse in the fields just because of the places where farmworkers work. They are not in the city. They work outside of the city, many 20 or 30 miles outside of the city, … and so they’re always very, very isolated. And it’s interesting that people in the cities themselves don’t know that those farmworkers are out there working, or they don’t know what kind of conditions the farmworkers are working under. It’s just like two completely different worlds.
And I know that the employers are in total denial. As I said before, they don’t take responsibility for their workers. They outsource the work to the labor contractors. Whatever happens out there, it’s none of their business.
Under the Agriculture Labor Relations [Act] in California, all of the workers that work for labor contractors, the owner is responsible, but that’s only for things like wages and working conditions. The employer is responsible.
One of the organizations in California, the California Rural Legal Assistance [CRLA], which is a law firm, has for years tried to get a law through the state legislature that whatever happens out there in the fields, the employers are responsible for the workers, even if they have a labor contractor in the middle. They haven’t been able to get that law passed because of the opposition of the employer community.
INTERVIEWER: The employers we’ve talked to, some of whom have been to court, to trial, and paid damages, say they just don’t believe a lot of these allegations. And in a particular case, they said it was consensual sex even though the court found otherwise.
HUERTA: It’s interesting, because if the employers finally understand that they have the responsibility ultimately, they have to do something about it. So as long as they are in denial, then they excuse themselves; that they don’t have to address the problem, to train the foreman, and they’re willing to take another hit, be subject to another lawsuit, have to pay out a lot of money rather than correct the problem.
INTERVIEWER: In testimony that we’ve seen, an employer, for example, in Oregon testified that “How are we supposed to have human resources departments or do training? We’re just farmers.”
HUERTA: The farmers, they give this image to the world that they’re this small family farmer. But actually its agribusiness, and these employers hire thousands of workers. You have Dole, the pineapple people. They hire maybe 20,000 workers in California if not more. You have again these lettuce companies [where] the workers are 1,000 to 2,000 people. You have Grimmway Farms, a carrot company, that probably has about 5,000 or 6,000 workers. The grape companies, Giumarra corporation, maybe has 4,000.
So these are not small family farmers. And this I think adds to the issue of this being of epidemic proportions, because you have these employers that are so huge, but their offices might be in San Francisco or Los Angeles, and they don’t really know what’s happening out there in the fields. And maybe they don’t want to know. They leave it up to the labor contractors for them to take care of the workforce.
INTERVIEWER: You’re aware of all the EEOC cases that have happened. But even though in the EEOC cases they’ve established that there was sexual harassment going on or rape going on in many cases, when we asked, “Have there been any criminal prosecutions as a result of this?,” the answer is not that they know of. Why?
HUERTA: I believe this is another area where you have a big gap in sensitivity, understanding and enforcement, because crimes against women, whether it’s rape or beating or murder, they are not handled the same way as a crime against a man.
INTERVIEWER: … How much of this sexual harassment, this assault, is possible because the women are undocumented and the immigration laws don’t provide a way for them to become, if you will, legitimate here in the United States?
HUERTA: Of course all farmworker women are vulnerable. They [could] be citizens or they may be residents, but we have to say definitely that the women that are undocumented are the most vulnerable, because they feel that they always have this fear of being deported if they report any type of sexual harassment. So it makes it extremely hard for that particular group of women, and even harder for them than the others.
INTERVIEWER: And the power of those agribusiness companies in terms of being invulnerable to prosecution, for instance, by local authorities, how big a factor is that?
HUERTA: That’s a very big factor, because often in these rural communities, the governance pretty much comes from the agricultural community to begin with. So you’ll have the employers, you’ll have the judges, you’ll have the boards of supervisors, the city councils that all come out of that same community and pretty much have control, and your police departments also.
They are pretty much always going to do the bidding of the powers in the community, which are the growers, and they are not that sensitive to the workers. And in fact, in cases I have to say, organizing the farmworkers’ union, that the local law enforcement people were very hostile to the workers, and unfortunately that continues until this day.
A farmworker’s word, even if you have a court hearing, arbitration, whatever it may be, that worker’s word is not valued as much as say, the word of the English-speaking employer. They are always going to be a little suspect.
A lot of it has even gotten worse recently when you have this huge wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that’s being poured out there by so many of the conservative elements in television and radio that have demonized immigrants. That adds to the fear and the vulnerability of all of that population, and that’s unfortunate.
The one thing I do want to say, the one way that workers can be protected in the fields is when they have a union rep, because when you have a union representative out there, that foreman or that person in management is probably not going to be very open about what they do, or they may not do it at all, because then the women know that they have someone to report to, and because the union representative is right there working with that crew. That union rep is going to be there to make sure that that toilet is clean, that the workers are getting their rest periods and that they have cold drinking water, and that the working conditions that are negotiated in the contract are met, and making sure that the women are protected. Then many of the women themselves become reps in the crews. So that really is a big protection.
But unfortunately, those same elements in the grower community fight very, very hard against union representation. And that is foolish on their part, because if they would allow the union to represent their workers, then they would cut out that middleman, because what they pay that foreman out there or the labor contractor, that 25 or 35 percent is enough for them to increase the wages of their workers, to give the workers a health plan and to even give the workers a pension plan. There’s enough money there in the 35 percent that pay to this foreman or manager that’s out there not taking care of the workers.
INTERVIEWER: But realistically today, the influence or the number of members of the farmworkers’ union is going down.
HUERTA: No, the number of workers in the union has dropped very much, but they are coming back. And the reason they are coming back is because of a law that Gov. Jerry Brown signed here in California that any of these employers, when the unions win an election, that if the employer does not negotiate, the employer is taken to court.
INTERVIEWER: That’s coming in the future. But I guess what I’m wondering is, you’re saying the workers are safer if they have a union representative with them.
INTERVIEWER: But in fact, over the last couple of decades, that presence has diminished over the years.
HUERTA: Yeah, the presence of the union has diminished, but just because of this new law that Jerry Brown signed, the union has actually picked up about 4,000 or 5,000 workers just since the law was signed, because now the employers know if they do not bargain that they are going to go to court, and they are going to have penalties, and it’s going to take them a lot more money.
INTERVIEWER: The way you describe this agricultural business, it’s not the same as many of the businesses that most people watching here have experienced. Is that right? How is it different?
HUERTA: … The agriculture work is very different because it’s disconnected from the rest of society. It’s very isolated. You have mostly an immigrant workforce primarily that lives in constant fear of losing their job and, if they’re undocumented, of being deported. The employers who really are the bosses of the workers, they don’t know who they are. It’s a complete disconnect.
It’s almost as if we have farmworkers in a different dimension; that most people, even though we eat the food every day that they pick, we don’t have a connection with the workers. Most people in the United States do not know what it’s like to work out in the field, how hard it is to work out there in the hot sun or in the bitter cold. Frankly, they have very little respect for farmworkers, which is very sad, and when you think that, that shouldn’t be, because farmworkers put the food on our table every single day. And it would be nice, I think, if more people in cities would go out there to the fields sometime and see how difficult the work is, and then I think the farmworkers would be given a lot more respect. We would have more support for the farmworkers to get better wages, to get better working conditions.
I mean, there is nothing wrong with working in the fields. Farmworkers pride themselves on their work. Professional farmworkers who know how to do a number of different jobs, whether it be pruning or picking or crafting, they see themselves as professionals, and they take a lot of pride in that work. They don’t see themselves as doing work that is demeaning.
I think the reason that farmworkers have been denigrated so much is because this is the employer’s way of justifying the fact that they don’t give their workers the same type of benefits that industrial workers get. It was interesting, even when we tried to pass unemployment insurance for farmworkers back in the ’70s, [then-Governor of California] Ronald Reagan vetoed. He vetoed unemployment insurance for farmworkers three sessions in a row and got away with it, because why should farmworkers be able to get unemployment insurance?
“Most people in the United States do not know what it’s like to work out in the field, how hard it is to work out there in the hot sun or in the bitter cold. Frankly, they have very little respect for farmworkers … that shouldn’t be, because farmworkers put the food on our table every single day.”
When we tried to get disability insurance for farmworkers, the Associated Farmers and all of the growers went against that. And this is a one-penny contribution that the workers make for themselves; it comes out of their own paycheck. Farmworkers have always been treated as some kind of a subhuman element in our population, and this has been perpetuated by the employers, and a lot of that mentality is still there.
Again, going back to slavery, right, these farmworkers are people of color. In fact, I remember when I first started lobbying in Sacramento way back in the ’50s that one of the representatives of the growers in a committee on the assembly floor, he said: “We do these people a favor by giving them a job. These people are winos, they are degenerates, so we do the public a favor by giving them a job.”
And I remember sitting, and I was just furious knowing that these farmworker families, decent families that are out there working so hard and getting a pittance for their wages. And I remember going up to that representative of their growers, and I said to him, “If you ever say that again about any farmworker, I’m going to get up here and I’m going to testify about how you treat the workers, the conditions that you have them in.” And he never did that again, at least not in my presence.
But that’s kind of the picture that people have out there of farmworkers, of immigrants, that somehow they don’t deserve to be treated [humanely]. And you hear that. Even now in the immigration debate, you hear many of our congressional representatives, they’ll say, “They don’t deserve to be citizens of the United States; they haven’t earned it,” when you know people work so hard, so brutally hard just to make enough money to feed their families.
INTERVIEWER: The Violence Against Women Act, there is a provision in it for special visas, for U Visas for people who are either helping law enforcement or victims of crime or violence. There was a debate where people wanted to end those visas — some people were pushing to expand the number — but they were saying that these visas are a fraudulent way for people to get status, get documentation here in the U.S. True?
HUERTA: No, of course not. First of all, these cases are very hard to prove. Secondly, the visas that they have extended since the law has been in effect are a very small number of the large number of epidemic cases that we have in the community. So these arguments that it was a fraudulent way for people to get visas to the United States are absolutely wrong.
INTERVIEWER: Sen. [Chuck] Grassley (R-Iowa) said it.
HUERTA: I remember hearing him making these statements, and I think it’s typical of this attitude that people have toward our immigrants out there that are working so hard. And we have to constantly remind people, immigrants built this country. The United States of America would not be what it is without the immigrants that have come here wave after wave, whether they came from Africa as slaves or from Mexico as workers or from Europe or Italy or wherever they came from, or from Ireland.
All of these immigrants that have come here have always been the worker bees of the United States. They make the wheels of our country go round because they do the hard work. They start at the bottom every time.
INTERVIEWER: But they would say in the case of the undocumented, they’re illegal. They are here illegally. Why do we care? We should send them back.
HUERTA: We have to remind people that everyone here in the United States, unless they’re Native American, were immigrants to this country, and every single wave of immigrants that has come here had their citizenship granted to them in one time or another. Go back to the 1920s, the population of the United States, we had more foreign-born than we had native-born in this country.
And the path to citizenship for all of our immigrants groups has been very simple. This is the first time that they have made it so hard for people to become residents or to become citizens. Even in the 1986 law that we passed, IRCA [Immigration Reform and Control Act] — which, by the way, I worked in Washington to get that law passed — it was very simple for people that came in here from 1981. They only had to show five years of documentation that they had been in the country without a break.
Then for farmworkers it was even easier. All they had to do was to prove that they had worked in the fields 90 days for three consecutive years and they got their immigration status. What they’re doing now, it’s all political, because the Republicans fear — and maybe rightly so — that when all these immigrants become citizens, they are going to vote for the Democratic Party. And it’s the heart of this. …
INTERVIEWER: … In the event that there is immigration reform, what will the impact be on conditions in the fields, and particularly physically for the women in terms of sexual harassment or violence?
HUERTA: I think sexual harassment in the fields is going to continue even after we get immigration reform, because the same type of epidemic of sexual harassment [exists] with women who were citizens or women who had their residents cards of the United States.
I think the only thing that is really going to change is when women become knowledgeable and that we have good law enforcement like we do have in California. But I think once women understand and know that they can step up, and also educating the men also — because it’s not just the women we have to educate about what their rights are and how they are going to be protected and how they can defend themselves, but we also have to educate the men, and not only the managers and the foremen, but I think also husbands and people in the community.
The whole thing about sexual harassment, just like domestic violence, it was a taboo subject. You don’t talk about this. I think one of the cultural things, too, in the Latino community which you can say affects the way people think is the whole taboo about even speaking about sex.
In my organization, the Dolores Huerta Foundation for community organizing, this is one of the things we do. We try to teach our kids about sex education. I mean, it is so bad that you don’t have this dialogue between parents and their sons and daughters. They don’t even want to mention the word “sex.”
We had a training conference for a group of about 70 parents, and we made them all say the word. They didn’t want to say the word “sex” in Spanish. … “Let’s all say it together: sexo.” Of course, when they did that, their faces were red; they were giggling; they were hiding their faces, etc.
There’s got to be a whole openness I think in the Latino community so parents can talk about sex and so young males and women can also understand what it is, so that we don’t have this high teenage pregnancy problem that we do have. We have it in the farmworker community.
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, so it’s got to be tied in with sex education, with women understanding that they do have the power to defend themselves, [with] men understanding that they have to also support women and defend them. And of course, you’ve got to get to the employers.
I think that the immigration reform bill will make this easier. It will take some of the fear out, at least that level of the fear of deportation. But you still have the other levels of fear: the fear that you’re going to lose your job; the fear that your family is going to look at you differently; that there might be violence in your family because you might be put to blame as a woman for the sexual harassment or the rape, whatever happened there.
So I think that is the ultimate answer. And we have to get support for everyone to do this. Right now, we’re talking about law enforcement. Law enforcement, they get government tax dollars to do something about gangs, so to speak, or about crime. Well, this is a crime. When women are sexually harassed, it’s a crime.
So we need to see some of those tax dollars that they are getting to also go to the whole area of educating the community and men, women and employers. No, you cannot sexually harass women. You cannot rape women on the job. This is a crime. But I think this is something that can be done [through] awareness, number one, bringing it out into the open.
This is what we need to do, and I believe that the more publicity we can get, the more stories we can hear, then people come out and say, “This happened to me,” and they can do it and not feel ashamed that something terrible happened to them, I think that’s how we solve it.
INTERVIEWER: We interviewed the former top foreman that worked for the largest apple grower in Washington state, who has been accused by over a dozen people in a civil case of either committing sexual harassment or even more and permitting it as part of it. And his response is they are all liars; they are making this up; that they think they are going to get money. It’s all untrue, and he’s going to make them pay, he says.
HUERTA: I believe that there is a vengeful spirit there from the employers because they think of themselves as so superior, and how dare any worker accuse them of anything.
But eventually we know that when laws are passed, if we look at say, civil rights laws to end the discrimination, that once they start paying those penalties, and it starts hurting them in their pocketbook — because that’s where they really feel the pain — that’s when things can change.
But it has to start with the women out there and the men, because not only are women subjected to this, but men are also. But it’s not going to stop until they are the ones to organize. The one thing I have learned in my 60 years of organizing: Nothing changes until the people stand up, and they have to make it happen. And the more the people feel that power that they have in themselves, that they are the ones responsible to make these changes, then the changes happen.
I’ve learned that in the farmworkers movement to the civil rights movement and the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] movement. I’m on the board of Equality California. It wasn’t until people came out and said, “I’m gay,” or “I’m a lesbian,” and then their families started supporting them. And that’s what’s made the big change, because as long as people were hiding in the closet, we didn’t have any changes.
It’s the same thing here. As long as women are being sexually harassed on the job and hiding it in the closet, then this is not going to change.
INTERVIEWER: But you’ve described it. The nature of the agriculture business is different. … So is it really going to change? …
HUERTA: … What I see is very hopeful. As you see, a lot of children of farmworkers are going to college and are going back to their communities, and they are going back with a burning desire to make changes.
One of the positive outcomes of all these attacks on immigrants is that you’ve got all of these young people that are on fire, you know, because of the things that happened to their families. And they are going to law school. I’m amazed at how many of them want to become attorneys because they want to start fighting against these laws.
And this new wave — I mean, we have the dreamers, for instance, that organized with the United States of America to get an administrative action from the president that they could go to school and get work permits. This is pretty powerful when you think about this, and all these young, undocumented people managed to organize themselves all around the United States to get the president to say, “OK, I’m going to sign an administrative action so you can go to school and get a work permit, even though you don’t have residency in the United States.”
These kids are on fire, and they are the ones who are going to make these changes, because they know what’s happening out there in the fields. They know what’s going on, and they are going to make it happen.
… We have first-generation, second-generation children of immigrants, and they’re not going to stand for this. I just met this wonderful woman who was telling me about her childhood. She had a stepfather who was constantly beating up her mother, and of course nobody in the household ever mentioned that to anybody.
Now she’s a liberated woman. She’s a dean of a college, and she talks about it openly. This is what this man did. And I think this is something we talked about before. Women, I think, are getting that courage, and I think the women’s movement is making that change to make this happen, and it’s good.
And now the Latino community has a lot of Latina organizations, and they are now addressing some of these issues. It’s going to happen.
INTERVIEWER: … We called one of the growers’ associations and said we want to talk about sexual violence in the fields, and the answer we got was, “We are not going to touch that with a 10-foot pole.”
HUERTA: This taboo I think is not limited to the Latino community. We see a lot of that also in the Anglo community. People don’t feel comfortable talking about it. They don’t want to be associated with it. I think they feel that if I talk about it, people might think that I’m part of the problem, and I don’t want to be part of the problem.
So we have to say to people, “No, we want you to talk about it, because you have to be part of the solution.” And the only way to solve this is to bring it out into the open and make it a common topic of conversation.
INTERVIEWER: … The FBI says it’s not their department. ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], which sometimes rounds people up, says, “We don’t know; we didn’t ask; we didn’t know what was going on at this place of work.” So it doesn’t surprise you, then, that it’s fallen through the cracks?
HUERTA: I used to be a deputy sheriff in my early years. And as a woman, I was of course deputized, and I would be called in to witness when women had been raped. The policy then — of course this was 60 years ago — was if the woman doesn’t have bruises, she hasn’t been raped. That was the policy. …
And I think to that extent, and when we hear our senatorial candidates talking about “legitimate rape,” it’s something that I think as a whole in our society, not just the Latino community, that we still haven’t come to terms with it; that they haven’t come to terms with the fact that when a woman says she’s been raped, she’s been raped. Whether it’s by somebody she doesn’t know or by a family member like even her husband, rape is rape when it’s against the woman’s will, and sexual harassment.
So I think it’s a lot more common in the outer world. It’s not limited to the farmworker community. We can say “epidemic”; we can say “epidemic proportions” for the whole country. But again, the only way it’s going to change is when women know that they can come forward, they can be protected.
If you drive without a license, you’re going to get a ticket, right? If you sexually harass a woman, [you know] that there’s consequences. And when that becomes common knowledge and people accept that as common knowledge, then I think it will change.
INTERVIEWER: … When consumers get these agricultural products, are you saying there is a price women have paid to deliver this that we don’t know about?
HUERTA: When consumers get their agricultural products, there’s a huge price that the farmworkers have paid. Of course of the price that they pay, women pay the biggest price because of the conditions they have to work under, and part of the negative conditions are being subjected to sexual harassment and being often raped.
So there is a price, and there is an organization headed by Oxfam that now has started a campaign about asking consumers to only buy products that have been picked under only fair conditions, and that would include freedom from pesticides, safe working conditions, reasonable working conditions and of course freedom from sexual harassment. That would be a fair working condition.
I don’t know whether that campaign is going to go very far, but yes, consumers need to be aware that that food that they are getting comes with a heavy price for women, especially immigrant women that are out there in our fields.