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Mily Treviño-Sauceda Panel Statement: Women Farmworkers in the United States of America

My name is Mily Treviño-Sauceda.  I am a former farmworker and am currently a fellow and a board member of the Rural Development Leadership Network. I co-founded and for almost twenty-five years directed a women’s organization called Organización en California de Líderes Campesinas, Inc.  My life experience working in the agricultural fields and as an advocate of farmworkers’ issues for thirty+ years, provides me the familiarity and knowledge to share the following:

Farmworkers, and especially farmworker women, have very limited access to education, training and employment in the U.S.  Most have come here from other countries, do not speak English, and lack skills to equip them for immediate employment.  They are among the poorest of the poor.

Farmworkers are one of the largest labor forces in the United States. They work longer hours, earn lower wages, face more hazardous work conditions and receive fewer benefits than any other labor group in the United States. These workers are predominantly from Mexico (96%) and limited-English proficient, speaking either Spanish or an indigenous Mexican language. Refugees from an oppressive political and economic situation in their homelands, farmworkers turn to agricultural work as one of their few opportunities for employment, becoming targets for exploitation by labor contractors in agricultural and meat processing industries. Because of limited access to the information, innovation, trade, services and financial resources that drive today’s economy, they do not have opportunities to share in our nation’s prosperity.

Farmworkers are often unable to access the preventive and safety net services they need to live healthy and productive lives. In rural areas, municipal infrastructure, including transportation systems, utilities, public institutions and other services is inadequate. Educational organizations, health and human service agencies, and other institutions often do not provide quality services in remote areas due to unavailability of trained staff, as well as to transportation difficulties, undercounting, isolation and transience of rural farmworker populations.

Farmworker women are especially disenfranchised and suffer from high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence. They are likely to confront particular barriers rooted in the intersection of gender with race, immigration status, lack of knowledge about the criminal justice system, and traditional beliefs including myths and taboos that contribute to their victimization and trap them in abusive relationships. They face verbal and physical harassment and domestic violence up to and including rape in the workplace and at home.

Some recommendations but not limited to the above issues are:

 1) Alternative remedies must be developed and tested that address the unique needs of the farmworker women’s community, and that do not depend upon the formal legal and social service systems.  Farmworker women’s advocates must then work together at state community levels to educate others and to change the way farmworker women are treated when they seek help.  These women must help reform laws, policies and practices in their communities that cut victims off from systems of relief. They must be seen as resources and as agents of change.

 Victims’ health and safety can be greatly increased with information about the Violence Against Women Act, which expands the legal rights of battered immigrant women and their children, helps more women file for legal immigration status without their abusers’ cooperation and helps them access public benefits for themselves and/or their children.

 Funders need to provide technology equipment to community based organizations and public service agencies, such as computers, laptops, cellular phones, and access to internet, fax machines, and scanners.  This equipment provides important means of communication for farmworker and immigrant women and their children. One innovative model is Lifeline federal, which provides a consumer discount on telephone service under Federal Universal Service Programs. This program provides qualified consumers a discount on monthly charges.

 Funders also need to support community-based organizations for innovative economic development programs including on-the-job trainings. Several models have been tested successfully, and community people have been hired and trained on-the-job as outreach/advocates and promotoras/es.

 Líderes Campesinas represents a culmination of decades of work by farmworker women (Campesinas), to develop leadership among Campesinas so that they serve as agents of political, social and economic change in the farm worker community.

Mily Treviño-Sauceda grew up in a migrant farmworker family and became an organizer at the age of sixteen with the United Farmworkers Union. Later she formed a group of farmworker women in the Coachella Valley, a forerunner of Organización en California de Líderes Campesinas, a statewide farmworker organization, which she co-founded and directed for almost 25 years.  She is now the President Emeritus of Líderes Campesinas.  She sits on many boards and, nominated by RDLN, has received an Alston/Bannerman sabbatical, 100 Heroines of the World, and Leadership for a Changing World awards. She holds a B.A. from California State University of Fullerton.