Violence in the fields

When the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld an award of almost $1 million to a farmworker whose supervisor had raped her, farmworker advocates celebrated from the lettuce fields of California to the orange groves of Florida. According to the sexual harassment and retaliation suit filed against Harris Farms, a Fresno County agricultural giant, Olivia Tamayo's supervisor raped her three times. The first attack occurred in his car when she accepted a ride to work. The second, under a stand of almond trees. The third, at her home while her husband was at work and her children asleep. The company's solution, according to the suit: Reassign her to an isolated spot in a field nearer to her attacker's house.

Tamayo's ordeal, unfortunately, is not an isolated incident. The sexual harassment of female farmworkers has long been a dirty secret of migrant labor. Studies are sparse, but one by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 90% of female farmworkers in California surveyed in 1993 said sexual harassment was a serious problem. Vulnerable because of their poverty, their limited English skills and often their immigration status, these women are easy prey. Harassers sometimes threaten to report illegal immigrants or their relatives if victims do not remain silent, advocates say.

Women who labor in the fields quickly learn that even when the temperature soars above 100 degrees, it is best to dress like a man -- baggy pants and oversized shirts -- and to always carry a bandanna. The clothes are not just practical for fieldwork, they are all-purpose concealers, women say. Bandannas fend off the sun, filter pesticides and hide feminine features from would-be predators. Too often, however, they are flimsy protection.

To call attention to the problem of sexual harassment, the Southern Poverty Law Center has launched a national awareness project, displaying decorated white bandannas in government buildings, at universities and on clothesline exhibits in 40 cities. In California, bandannas hang in exhibits from Salinas -- where female farmworkers refer to one work site as the "field of panties" because of frequent sexual assaults there -- to Santa Ana. The project has received attention because of Tamayo's victory, but in one respect, the court decision is bittersweet. Hers is the only suit brought by a female farmworker to reach a federal jury. That lonely statistic raises the question: How many more Olivia Tamayos are out there?

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