Rape in the Fields and a LatCrit Approach

By: Rocio Portela-Berrios

On June 25, 2013, Frontline released the documentary Rape in the Fields. The documentary, directed by Andrés Cediel, features the stories of migrant Latina female farmworkers who have been sexually assaulted in the fields in which they work. It specifically features interviews with law enforcement authorities as well as victims (both identifiable ones and anonymous ones). The documentary also involves interviews with accused perpetrators and employers.

The crux of the documentary lies in the stories of these migrant women who come to the United States in pursuit of a better life for themselves and their families, only to find themselves in barely-legal working environments where they suffer injustices as if it were a job requirement. The documentary sets the scene of an industry where hundreds of women are being sexually assaulted and harassed by their supervisors who exploit their immigrant status.

Rape in the Fields is an invaluable investigative work. It is not only presenting an issue that is happening in this country right now, but it presents the issue in a way that is clear for the public to understand. The documentary not only gives a voice to the victim migrant farm-working woman, but also raises the legal issues involved. These women face sexual abuse and sexual assault as part of their job, but they very rarely have been successful in obtaining justice through the American judicial system. While most of the women who come forward in the documentary are those who have filed charges with the EEOC, the vast majority of them describe incidents that are rape but never prosecuted as such. Most of these cases are filed with the EEOC and pursued as civil sexual harassment law suits. Thus, even when the women win a case, the perpetrator pays civil damages but walks away a free man. Olivia Tamayo, a migrant farmworker who came to the United States from Mexico, and the first farmworker woman to have her case heard before a federal jury since the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, told the jury she was repeatedly raped by a supervisor who threatened her with a knife and gun and said he would kill her husband if she told him. So, why aren’t these men being prosecuted criminally?

The documentary concisely presents interviews with EEOC attorney William Tamayo, where he explains the difficulty of prosecuting migrant farmworker women’s sexual assault cases. Some of the barriers to prosecution of these cases as rape are erected at the first stage. For example, if an ordinary woman would rarely feel empowered to pursue a criminal charge against a perpetrator, much less against her boss, imagine a woman whose life and the lives of her children depend on that job. Migrant female farmworkers are often hesitant to even come forward because they are afraid that coming forward will mean the loss of a job which means the loss of economic stability for her family (something she had crossed borders to obtain). Additionally, migrant farmworkers who are unauthorized to work in the U.S. fear law enforcement authorities, because they are the authorities charged with deporting unauthorized workers.

Further, even when a Latina migrant farmworker presents her accusations to law enforcement, the actual prosecution of such a charge is extremely difficult in her case. An example of one of those difficulties in the rape context is that the she-said-he-said nature of many rape claims are always going to be an issue in any case where there are no other witnesses. Unfortunately, the same fears that prevent an assaulted migrant female farmworker from coming forward are the same fears that prevent her coworkers, the best witnesses, to attest to her credibility or the credibility of the supervisor.

Rape in the Fields does not address specific legal or theoretical solutions to the problem of mass rape of Latina migrant female farmworkers in the United States. It is clearly an issue that would require solutions from multiple approaches and areas of the law and government: from rape law to immigration law; from imposing requirements where employers provide education to their employees in their native language to more potent sanctions for businesses who are investigated for these types of assaults.

I would propose a LatCrit approach to this issue. The issue of sexual assault or sexual subordination of the Latina woman is unique and is affected by many Latin cultural norms, such as the machismo culture. LatCrit theory seeks to reconstruct the race discourse beyond the normalized binary black/white paradigm to look through the lens of Latin culture in its approach to issues. A LatCrit approach to this issue would reflect the multidimensionality and multicultural roots of Latinas. Such an approach would consider the language barrier these migrant female farmworkers face when presenting their cases, would consider cultural factors that trigger whether or not they come forward with the assault charge, etc. By engaging in such an analysis, a LatCrit approach would be able to come up with proposed solutions that would be tailored to be effective in protecting Latina migrant farmworkers against sexual assault.

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