Chasing the Harvest: ‘It Used to Be Only Men That Did This Job’

In this oral history, a produce truck driver and former lettuce worker recounts the sexual harassment she faced while working in the fields of Salinas Valley, California.

Gabriel Thompson | Chasing the Harvest: Migrant Workers in California Agriculture | Voice of Witness / Verso Press | May 2017 | 22 minutes (6,254 words)

The stories of the more than 800,000 men, women, and children working in California’s fields—one third of the nation’s agricultural work force—are rarely heard. The new book Chasing the Harvest compiles the oral histories of some of these farmworkers. Longreads is proud to publish this excerpt about Maricruz Ladino, who shared her story with journalist Gabriel Thompson.

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Maricruz Ladino

Age: 44

Occupation: Produce Truck Driver

Born in: Sonora, Mexico

Interviewed in: Salinas, Monterey County

Agricultural region: Salinas Valley

 

Sexual harassment and violence in agriculture is both widespread and underreported. For years, the everyday threats and assaults faced by female farmworkers was a story that mostly stayed in the fields. In the past decade, however, a number of investigations—made possible by the bravery of women who have come forward—have uncovered a human rights crisis. In 2010, UC Santa Cruz published a study based on interviews with 150 female farmworkers in California. Nearly 40 percent reported that they had experienced sexual harassment, often from their supervisors; this harassment ranged from unwanted verbal advances to rape. Two years later, Human Rights Watch published a report, “Cultivating Fear,” based on interviews with more than fifty farmworkers across the country, which concluded that the persistent harassment and violence faced by women in the fields was “fostered by a severe imbalance of power” between undocumented farmworkers and their supervisors.

Maricruz Ladino knows all about that imbalance of power. “A supervisor can get you fired with the snap of his fingers,” she tells me. And so she stayed quiet, putting up with her supervisor’s daily harassment—and later, violent sexual assault—in order to hang on to her job at a lettuce packing plant in Salinas. Then came the day she gathered the courage to walk into the company’s office and file a complaint. She feared the worst: she could lose her job, or be deported. Both came to pass. But she has never regretted her decision.

We meet at a vegetable cooling plant in early October, where Maricruz welcomes me aboard her truck, which is carrying pallets of iceberg lettuce eventually destined for Honolulu. While she waits for more produce to be loaded, she talks about growing up on the border, her intense drive to always keep moving forward, and why she eventually broke the silence about the abuse she suffered.

 

Also in this series, a former sheepherder describes the loneliness and medical hardship he experienced while tending sheep in California’s Central Valley.

Read the story

I’m the Girl They Found in the Garbage Can

I was born in 1972 in San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora. I’ve been told that when my mom was pregnant, some friends of hers were going to bring her to the United States so that I’d be born here. On the day they were going to pick her up, I was impatient.

My aunt lived next door and my mom yelled out for her. There was a small pile of trash and my mom lay herself down on it so that I wouldn’t hurt myself when I arrived. It was very romantic. My aunt arrived and helped her cut the umbilical cord. That’s why they say I’m the girl they found in the garbage can.

My father was born in Tonalá, Jalisco, near Guadalajara. My mom is from Ixtlán del Río in Nayarit. They met in Ixtlán, got married, and then went to San Luis Río Colorado so my dad could work in the Bracero Program.* He had to be near the border so that he could work. He worked picking cotton on the U.S. side near Yuma and San Luis, Arizona.

* The Bracero Program was an agreement between the United States and Mexico beginning in 1942 to grant guest-worker visas to Mexican agricultural workers.

My parents had six children—five girls and one boy. Each of us is separated by three years in age. I’m number four.

When I was a few months old, my parents made the decision to come to the United States to live in Yuma. It used to be much easier to get a passport or a tourist visa that allowed you to cross the border. We lived in a small adobe house; I close my eyes and I can still remember that poor house. There was only one room, and at the entrance there were a few steps where I would wait for my dad to come back from work. He was picking cotton and carried a sack the color of dirt. I’d run to him and he’d put the sack down and hug me. It was a beautiful thing. Now, I’m aware of the consequences of all the pesticides he was exposed to, but back then I didn’t know any of that.

When I was three or four, my father made the decision for us to return to San Luis Río Colorado. From then on, he’d cross the border back and forth each day for work. You could walk from the house to the border crossing in only ten or fifteen minutes. Every weekend when he received his check, without fail, we’d cross to San Luis, Arizona to buy food.

When I got older, around fourteen or fifteen, we had a neighbor that grew green onions. She needed people to help her clean and package them. My sisters and I asked my dad for permission to help this lady and make some money for the house. He got mad and told us no. He said he worked to provide for us, and if we needed anything we should ask him. But I was at the age where I wanted to help out, and I was curious about the work. I wanted to understand more about the world around me.

Our aunt lived across from that lady with the green onions. We’d get back from school and ask my mom if we could go visit my aunt, but we’d go to the neighbor’s house instead. We’d make up competitions to see who could clean more onions.

Then came the day when my dad got home from work early. As soon as we saw him, we got up, and with our heads hanging low, walked home. Our father yelled at us for making him feel like we were lacking something, that he wasn’t providing enough for us. But for us, working wasn’t about anything we lacked. We wanted to help him so that we could all have more, but he never saw it that way. Now, I see how we made him feel.

 

We Had to Study to Be Somebody

My parents would always take us to school and pick us up. They didn’t want us to be on our own. My dad wanted us to study and do better than he’d done. We had to study to be somebody. I liked school a lot, but I saw that keeping me in school was becoming more expensive for my parents. As I got older and high school came around, they had to buy me a uniform and books. My parents never said no—they would buy us everything—but I saw the difficulties they were having.

I graduated from high school when I was seventeen and entered the university, where I began to study to become a lab chemist. But I didn’t finish because I started dating a man from San Luis Río Colorado. We came to California when I was seventeen, in 1989, and got married the same year.

We moved to Five Points, a small ranch in the middle of the fields near Huron. An aunt of mine rented us a small room. Within a short time I became pregnant. My first daughter, Stephany, was born prematurely in November 1990 when I was a week short of seven months. She weighed one and a half pounds and was in the hospital for a month and a half.

Around the time my daughter was born, my husband and I began to have problems as a couple and we decided to separate. I think he went back to Mexico.

 

It Used to Be Only Men That Did This Job

After we separated, I cleaned houses to support my daughter and myself. When I was twenty-one, I began to work in the lettuce fields of Huron. I was beginning a new phase in my life. When I first started, I wasn’t cutting or packing lettuce. I was up on the lettuce machine that goes slowly through the field, making sure it went straight along the rows, because Cal/OSHA required that.* I sat and watched the steering wheel, and sometimes made small turns, while behind me the rest of the people worked. I found my job boring. I wanted to learn what the others were doing. I was told to stay where I was, because working in the field was much harder. The supervisor said, “You won’t know what to do and then you’ll want to run away.” But I was curious. And with the help of others, I began to learn how to pack.

* Cal/OSHA is the agency that enforces workplace safety regulations in California.

With lettuce, there’s a person that moves along cutting the heads. It used to be only men that did this job, but there are now women as well. The person moves down the row, cuts the lettuce, bags it, and puts it on a table that is located to one side. Then the packers twist that bagged lettuce until a ribbon forms at the top, then tape the ribbon so that the lettuce is wrapped nicely and box it so the package looks presentable.

Those first days were difficult. It was such a painful experience—my hands went through a lot of lettuce! A lady told me, “Don’t worry, it’ll last a week. When the swelling goes down and your bones stop aching, it’ll almost be over.” I was in such pain I couldn’t even hold onto the lettuce. Yet she was right, I only needed one week. They wrapped my hands up with bandanas to give them some support. Some co-workers offered pills to help deal with the pain but I didn’t take any. How else was I going to learn how to deal with the work than by just getting through it?

 

On August 27, 1997, He Tried to Kill Me

My two oldest sisters lived in Downey, California. I moved in with them in 1992, and that’s where I met my new husband. He was a truck driver and traveled through the Los Angeles area. That same year, in 1992, I moved to Coalinga to live with him. But we weren’t able to make a life together. We began to have serious problems. Serious in the sense that I have scars.

I had another two daughters with my second husband. Karla was born in 1992 and Sandra in 1994. In 1996 we moved to a remote ranch in Kerman, and the situation got worse. Then we moved back to Coalinga, where supposedly everything was going to be different, but it never was.

On August 27, 1997, he tried to kill me.

I went to help my husband drop off cargo in Hanford, California. When we arrived, I began to unload big barrels of oil. An older man helped me unload—he said to me that he’d help my husband so that I wouldn’t get hurt. My husband took offense to this. He told me, “Go back to the truck! Can’t you hear me?” I knew he was upset and that it would go badly for me.

After they finished, he got back into the truck and began to hit me. He asked where I knew that man from before. He said that he’d been so friendly to me because I was dating him. But I didn’t know him; he was simply a kind man that didn’t want me to get hurt.

To get to Coalinga, you pass through a range of little mountains. On our way back he continued to hit me. I screamed that I couldn’t stand it any longer and told him to let me out. He stopped and told me to get out of the car. As he stopped, I opened the door, but he pulled me in and hit the gas hard. He started slowing down again and said, “All right, get out. I don’t want you here if you want to get out.” But he wouldn’t stop.

I can’t remember anything else. I saw black. Everything was dark.

I awoke in a hospital in Fresno, California. I heard the noises of machines and the voices of my sisters and parents. My parents lived in Mexico at the time, so I don’t know how or when they arrived. I realized that days had gone by. My older sister massaged my head and said, “You’re fine. We’re with you.”

I still didn’t understand what had happened to me. There was a social worker in Coalinga who knew me, my daughters, and my husband. When she found out what had happened she came to see me. She told me, “You have to call somebody, or else nobody will be able to help you. If you don’t take action we can’t do anything.” I was afraid of retribution. I was afraid of what my husband might do to my daughters or me. I kept silent.

I was in a coma for three weeks and in intensive care for weeks after. It was a total of two and a half months that I was in the hospital. The one who never left my side was my dad. My husband was at the hospital for some time, too. I later learned that he’d told the hospital that I’d jumped out of the car. That was a complete lie. I asked the nurses to not let my husband in, but then they’d ask me why, so I had to keep quiet because I didn’t want to say anything else. I never charged him with anything. A few months after I got out of the hospital, I went back to him. I had nowhere else to go.

He tried to beat me again, but this time I didn’t allow it. I defended myself to the point that I ended up in jail for three days for domestic violence. He started trying to hit me and I scratched his face, I ripped his clothes, I did what I could. When the police showed up, I didn’t have any marks on me, because I’d been like a cat.

When I had to go to court to face my charges, my neighbors and manager were there to support me. They explained that I was a good person who had defended herself. The judge told me he’d let me go. I only had to go to anger management classes for six months.

I told myself, This isn’t a life. I left my husband and rented an apartment in Coalinga with the help of friends who lent me money. One of those friends was a forewoman at a lettuce company in Huron. That’s when I began to truly work in the fields.

Farmworkers tending rows of lettuce in California. Photo by Malcolm Carlaw. (CC BY 2.0)

 

I Didn’t Want People to See That I’d Been Crying

Huron has a very short lettuce season. After that, though, there are peppers, peaches, many different fruits and vegetables to harvest. I worked all of them.

In 2000, the lettuce company I was working for asked me to go to Yuma. My parents had moved to Coalinga, and that day my dad noticed that I was sad and asked me what was going on. I told my dad about the job offer. “Tomorrow is the last day of work in Huron,” I said. “My job is ending.”

“So?” he asked.

I replied, “What do you mean, ‘So?’ You’re trying to tell me to go to Yuma, but how am I going to do that? What about the girls?” I didn’t even have a car back then.

“They’ll stay with me,” he said. “And you’ll get on a Greyhound and go.” He didn’t have to tell me twice. I wanted so badly to move forward, to help my daughters.

But it was very hard. In Yuma I covered my face with a bandana and wore sunglasses—I didn’t want people to see that I was crying. I was far away from my daughters, far from everything. I had to keep my strength up to keep working and sending them money.

I spent four months in Yuma, returned for one month in Huron, and then seven months in Salinas. While I was gone, my dad took care of my daughters in Coalinga. My mom frowned upon the idea of me traveling far for work. I think my dad understood my situation better because he was reminded of his having to leave to feed us. I’m guessing that my parents fought between themselves. One wanted me to leave and the other didn’t, but my dad has always supported me in everything.

 

Desire Is Exactly What I Have

I worked only six or eight months as a lettuce packer. I always wanted to get ahead, to better myself, to earn more money. So one day I asked a supervisor, “What do I need to become a mayordoma?”* He smiled at me and said, “Desire.”

* In the fields, a mayordomo/a is akin to a crew leader.

I thought to myself, Desire? Desire is exactly what I have. They told me that I needed a class B license to drive a bus, so I could transport a crew to the fields. A driving instructor said it sometimes took three or six months to get the license. I did it in fifteen days. That’s how much ambition I had, how much hunger I had. When I got the license, I asked my supervisor if there were any openings to be a mayordoma. In June of 2001, the company called me and said there was going to be a training session for mayordomos in Huron, to work in melons. I’d never worked with melons. I didn’t know anything about a melon except how to eat it. But I thought, Well, I’ve got to go. When I was getting ready to leave for the meeting, the boss’s son called and said it had been canceled, and that he didn’t know when the next training would be.

I said, “No problem, just let me know when there’s going to be another training.” And he said, “No. I’m not interested in giving you work. You’re the person interested in working.” At first I was offended. But eventually I realized he was right. So I kept asking when the next training would be: asking, asking, asking. The day of a new training came, and I showed up, really nervous but trying not to show it. I asked myself, How am I going to do this? How can I direct people if I don’t know the work? But I was making $300 or $350 a week as a regular worker, and a mayordoma makes $600 a week. So I didn’t want to miss that opportunity.

Little by little, I learned—from the workers themselves. I was sincere. I told them, “You know what, this is my first time. I’m going to need to learn from you.” And they taught me a lot: how to cut the melon, how to move the equipment, how to use the tractors. They taught me what they knew, despite the fact that I was the mayordoma and that I was supposed to know more than they did.

Lettuce fields in California. Photo by benketaro. (CC BY 2.0)

 

A Supervisor Can Get You Fired with the Snap of His Fingers

Melon has a short season. When it ended, I became a mayordoma with a lettuce crew. I did that for two years, 2001 until 2003, going from Salinas to Yuma to Huron.

At first I felt very comfortable as a mayordoma. Then one day, a man walked over to me while I was watching my crew. He got next to me, pointed to his crotch, and asked, “Who’s giving it to you? Are you getting it from your boyfriend, your husband? Who’s screwing you?”

I just looked at him and didn’t say anything. He said, “Hey, I’m talking to you. Are you getting any?” And he repeated all the same lewd remarks. I looked at him and asked who he was. He said, “I’m your new supervisor.”

This new supervisor bothered me for a long time. I cried. I felt very uncomfortable, but I couldn’t complain to anybody, because I worried I would lose my job. A supervisor can get you fired with the snap of his fingers.

I felt impotent. It wasn’t just him. Many other men made fun of me. They’d say, “Surely you are a mayordoma because you slept with someone, not because you did anything else to earn your position.” I worked very hard to learn how to do my job, to learn how to take care of everything. And it was because of my hard work that I became a mayordoma, not because I’d slept with somebody.


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The Strong One, Devastated

I worked as a mayordoma until May 9, 2003. On that day I was in Salinas, and wanted to surprise my mother for Mother’s Day. My parents had moved from Coalinga to San Luis, Arizona. While I was driving down to visit them, I was the one who got the surprise: my father had died. That was a very long drive.

I stayed with my daughters and mother in Yuma, trying to help out. It was very sad to come home to my parent’s house in San Luis and not see my father. I couldn’t let others know how I was feeling, because I was the strong one, the one that could withstand everything. The one that wasn’t devastated, so that my mother wouldn’t be devastated.

One day, I saw that my mom was sleeping. I didn’t want to wake her, so I went to the backyard patio to sit outside. I turned the radio on. I don’t really drink, but it was so hot that day, and there was a beer in the fridge. I sat down and opened my beer. A song came on that my father used to like and I started to cry. No one could see me, the strong one, devastated.

Thank god, when the lettuce season began in Yuma, I got a new job, this time as a supervisor. This was in the fall of 2003. By this time I knew how to do the work, how to direct crews, how to help more mayordomos. And so I began—not as a mayordoma, but as a supervisor. I was helping out the mayordomos, telling them how many boxes of lettuce we needed, checking the quality of the lettuce.

When I left, my daughters stayed with my mother in Yuma. During the summer vacation, I brought them with me to Salinas. And then when it was time to go back to Yuma, I brought them back. I did that for two years, until a co-worker told me about a position at another company.

 

In 2005, Maricruz began a new job at a lettuce packing plant in Salinas. Though the job helped her support her three daughters, she experienced constant sexual harassment from her boss, who pressured her to sleep with him. Then after a few months on the job, Maricruz’s boss asked her to help him transport some boxes, and when they were alone he raped her. Maricruz feared retaliation, and so didn’t report the rape immediately. However, after seven months and additional harassment, she filed a complaint against her boss with management.

 

An incident happened. It was . . . very unpleasant. I will try to explain what happened a little bit. It’s something very delicate, very painful. It’s not easy to talk about. All this time, the supervisor was telling me, “It’s because of me that you have your position. If I want, I can fire you. Remember that you have three daughters, that you’re the head of the family. If you don’t do what I want, you’re going to lose everything.”

We could say that it was sexual harassment, but in reality, it was more than that. It was rape.

When I had that problem with the supervisor when I was a mayordoma, although I felt alone, there were people around. When this incident occurred, I was alone with this one person. At the moment, I didn’t know what to do, how to act. I was in shock. I couldn’t even talk. I simply didn’t know how to react. It’s like I was paralyzed.

I fell into a depression. I didn’t know what to do. I kept working at the company for seven more months. I had two families that were depending on me: my three daughters in Salinas and my mother in Yuma. I was seeing someone at the time, but I never told my partner about what had happened to me, because I was afraid of his reaction, and because I was ashamed. As time passed, I kept thinking about what had been done to me. If I didn’t speak up, the same sort of thing could happen to my daughters.

At the end of September, I asked to speak to the owner’s right hand man. I didn’t know English, so the company had someone translate. In the meeting, they told me, “Don’t worry, everything will be kept confidential.” I made the complaint at 10 or 11 in the morning. By noon, all of the other employees were asking me, “Is it true that you complained? You really filed a complaint against this person?”

Imagine how I felt. It was supposed to be confidential. Everyone was watching me, whispering about me. At work the next day, they called me into a conference room, with lawyers and a translator. They asked me many questions, in different ways, waiting for me to say something that wasn’t true, waiting for me to contradict myself. I couldn’t tell them all of the details—exactly what happened at what time, how he did this or that—because I was ashamed. But it was easy to understand what had happened to me.

In October, some of the employees move to Huron for a month. I was going to stay in Salinas, but then the company told me to go to Huron. I worked there for one day, and then the bosses in Huron told me, “You know what, you need to return, because we forgot your check.” They told me I needed to work Friday in Salinas, and I could collect my check when I was there.

I showed up for work at 8 a.m., as always. By then, they’d changed the position of the person who I’d complained about. The new supervisor said, “You need to turn your work equipment in. You’re fired. We don’t have work for you anymore.” Can you imagine? I supposedly had come back to work, but instead they wanted to fire me. I waited a week for my check. They never gave it to me.

In agricultural circles, everyone knows each other. I tried to look for work at other companies. And people would say, “Ah, I heard all these things about you. Are they true?” Sometimes they shut the door on my face. One company hired me, but at the moment that I went to show them proof of my license, someone mentioned the name of the person with whom I’d had a problem. I felt like they were saying, “We know who you are. We know what happened.” I felt humiliated and left.

The company I’d worked for still wouldn’t hand over my last check. Someone gave me the phone number of a lawyer, and he gave me the number of an office that I didn’t know existed. It was for California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). I called and made an appointment to see if they could help me collect the money that was owed to me.

I was ashamed to talk about what had happened. I hadn’t gone there to talk about sexual harassment or anything like that. But one of the questions the man asked me was, “Why and how did they fire you?” And I told him, because I had filed a complaint. He said, “Complaint about what?” Little by little, it all came out—that there was a problem more serious than my unjust firing. But I had to talk a little bit more about the case, and it wasn’t easy to do so.

* The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces federal employment discrimination laws.

That was when CRLA filed a lawsuit. They also filed another one, with the EEOC, against the company.* It was all part of a strategy to make the case stronger. They asked me if I was ready to take this case all the way, and I said yes.

I had so much fear. Not fear about losing work—I had already lost it. I was afraid of what people were going to say about me. What action was the company going to take?

 

By 2 p.m. I Knew They Were Going to Deport Me

Agents from ICE arrived at my apartment at six in the morning.* It was April 27, 2007—a date I’ll never forget. They asked to speak to the owner of my partner’s vehicle. I told them that he wasn’t home. It was true: he was at work.

* ICE stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

They searched through the house and asked for my identification. I still didn’t really understand what was happening, but I showed it to them. They said, “OK, you’re not the person we’re looking for, but you have to come along with us.” They wanted to verify with my fingerprints. I told them that I needed to call someone to stay with my daughters. They hoped that the person I called would be my partner. But the person I called was a co-worker at the same company where I had made a complaint. This co-worker had always supported me in everything. He arrived at the house immediately. That’s when ICE told me that they had a complaint that my partner was undocumented.

My partner had worked at the same company as me and they had reported him to immigration. I don’t want to say how I found this out, but I did. They weren’t sure of my immigration status, but if I didn’t have papers and I got sent back to Mexico, it would take care of their problems with the lawsuit.

I went with ICE in their car. The only thing that they were going to do was bring me to San Jose to verify that I was who I said I was, and that I didn’t have a deportation order. From the back seat, I called my partner, and told him that for absolutely no reason should he go to the house. He asked why, and I told him. I told him who was watching the girls. I called Jesus Lopez at CRLA and told him what had happened. Since I was in the back seat, I don’t think they could hear me, and in case they had hidden microphones in the car, I tried to talk in a low voice.

While I was making these quick calls, ICE was doing raids. I’ll never forget one of them. There was a man with his kids; I think he was bringing them to school. They parked one car in front of his car and two on the side. They parked the car that I was in behind his car, to surround him. The kids started to cry. It was awful to see.

From Salinas they took us all to San Jose. By 2 p.m. I knew that they were going to deport me. They found out that I had had problems with domestic violence against my ex-husband. I’d broken the laws of the United States, so I wasn’t a good person: I wasn’t a person that would help the country. They supposedly wanted to get rid of bad people, people who could do harm. And I didn’t have my papers, so there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop them.

They didn’t put handcuffs on me until we got in the van that left San Jose for the airport in Oakland. They put restraints around my legs, too. On the plane, they read us the legal rights that we supposedly had. From Oakland we flew to Bakersfield, and from Bakersfield to Los Angeles, and from Los Angeles to San Diego. At each stop more people were brought on board for deportation. By the end, more than 100 people were on the plane.

They let me go in Tijuana at four in the morning. The first thing I did was call my partner and tell him not to worry. He still thought I was in San Jose. It was a sad time, but at the same time I felt calm, because they hadn’t gotten him. I felt like I could deal with it, because I knew the border a little bit since I’d grown up here. I caught a bus from Tijuana to San Luis Río Colorado. Looking out the window, I was thinking, How am I going to get back?

* The U visa, which allows undocumented immigrants to legalize their status, is available to victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity.

The first thing my mom said was, “Forget about returning.” My brother said the same thing. But in my mind I was always thinking, I’m going back. I have to figure out how to do it. I stayed a month. For me, it felt like a long time. My family had bouncy houses in Salinas that we rented out for birthday parties to make money, and we sold them so that I had enough to pay a coyote to get back. It took four or five days. I went through the desert in California. It was a bit difficult, but as you can see, it wasn’t impossible. I got back to Los Angeles on a Friday night, and my partner and one of my daughters came to get me. When I returned to Salinas, I got in touch with Jesus Lopez at CRLA, and that’s when they started a new case, along with my complaint. And thanks to them, I got a U visa.*

 

You Could Say That the Experience Has Made Me Braver

In 2010, Maricruz settled her lawsuit against the company under confidential terms, agreeing not to disclose the amount of the settlement or the name of the company. Since then, she has been interviewed by newspaper and radio journalists, and in 2013 was featured in the Frontline documentary “Rape in the Fields,” which aired on PBS.

The dark side, the horrible side, of working in the fields is the abuse. To be afraid of the person who has power, the person who insults us, who threatens us, who can fire us whenever they want.

I want to share what happened to me to help find a solution, to prevent this from happening again. The pain can’t be erased, but it can be used to help more people.

You could say that the experience has made me braver.

I can’t say that I’m happy. I try to be happy. I try to have a normal life as a woman, as a human being. But all of this has caused problems, with my partner and with my daughters. But it doesn’t matter. These things happened—they’re in the past. I have to live now.

Today, I work as a truck driver. It’s something I like, something that I dreamed of doing as a little kid, because my dad was a taxi driver. I wanted to be like him. It’s still agriculture work, but it’s a different stage. We bring the products from the field to cool them, and then we bring them to the stores, or to other trucks that will take them to planes, where they will be flown even further away. Some of the lettuce goes to Tokyo, Canada, New York, San Diego.

I work Monday to Saturday. I start at 7 a.m. On a short day, I work thirteen hours. On the longest days, I work twenty hours, sometimes up to twenty-three hours, when I take lettuce deliveries to San Francisco. On Sunday, I can’t say I rest, because my daughters are waiting to hang out with me. They complain because of how little I see them.

Today, my oldest daughter, Stephany, lives in Yuma, where she owns a second-hand children’s clothing store. She’s married with three kids. Her youngest son just turned three. Karla and Sandra live here in Salinas. Karla is pregnant and will have her second child in a week or two. She graduated in May from Hartnell College with a major in sociology and will transfer to a four-year school next fall. Sandra works as an administrator at a lettuce cooler and is at Hartnell, too, studying business and technology. I feel very proud of my daughters, and what they’ve achieved. And I think they are proud of me.

My partner is now my husband. He didn’t know about the rape until the moment it appeared in the news. That was when I had to find the bravery to explain everything to him. It was very difficult, because at the beginning he was very angry and disappointed, but I think that in the end he understood. He has helped and supported me in every way.

I got my green card three weeks ago. The U visa gives you permission to live and work in the United States, but you have to stay here—you can’t leave. With a green card I can leave. The first thing I did with my green card was to buy a plane ticket. Being Mexican to the core, I promised that when I got a green card I would immediately go see the Basilica of Our Lady of Zapopan in Guadalajara. I gave my work a week’s notice before I left. The truth is that I didn’t care if they gave me permission or not: I was going to go. Thank god I didn’t lose my job! I flew with my mom from Mexicali to Guadalajara. From there we went to the Basilica to see the Virgin. I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore, giving thanks that I was finally free.

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This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.

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Chasing the Harvest editor Gabriel Thompson is a journalist based in Oakland and mostly writes about immigration, labor, and organizing.

Longreads editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands