Lideres Campesinas: Fighting for Farmworker Women

Photo: Courtesy of Lideres Campesinas
Photo: Courtesy of Lideres Campesinas

AMBER AMAYA / Coachella Unincorporated 

Editor’s Note: For the past 27 years, Lideres Campesinas, a nonprofit organization based in Oxnard, Calif., has played a key role in advocating for the rights of farmworker women. The grassroots organization, formed in 1988 by a group of female farmworkers in the eastern Coachella Valley, works to educate women about their rights and raise awareness about issues like sexual assault, domestic violence and human trafficking.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, Amber Amaya spoke with four members of the statewide organization, including executive director, Suguet Lopez, to discuss Lideres Campesinas’ history and current work in the eastern Coachella Valley.

How did the Lideres Campesinas organization start in the eastern Coachella Valley?

It started, primarily, because Mily Trevino, a liaison for California Rural Legal Assistance, started interviewing farmworker women in 1988 about the problems they faced in the fields; many of the women spoke about problems with domestic violence, salary pay and of course, labor conditions. So because of this, Mily said, ‘Let’s form a group,’ and it was a local group here in Coachella. The City of Coachella is where Lideres Campesinas was born, but it was first called “Mujeres Mexicanas.”

This group started work politically, for example, by supporting the city council of Coachella and by putting people on the city council who were able to support the changes that needed to happen in the east valley. Also, we worked on registering people to vote. Starting out, we all decided to give a little bit of money to support our younger volunteers. We all had daughters, or nieces, and they formed a group called “Mujercitas Mexicanas.” Obviously, they were still in school, but when they started to want to head towards college, they faced the economic situation, so we all decided to give the first young lady to head to college a scholarship. And that’s how Lideres Campesinas started.

— Silvia Barrones-Trevino, assistant coordinator of women’s health

When Lideres Campesinas started in the late ’80s, did you face any difficulties?

We did have many problems because it was the first all-women group formed in the eastern Coachella Valley. Then, there were a lot of groups, but the majority of the groups were made up of males. We were accused of being women of the devil; they said a ton of negative things. We got attacked a lot as well, and from the media as well. Once, we formed a picket line in front of one of the Spanish newspapers here in the valley. We were outside burning newspapers in front of their offices. But even with all the adversaries that we had, we continued. Nothing stopped us. Nothing broke us.

 — Silvia Barrones-Trevino, assistant coordinator of women’s health

How has Lideres Campesinas worked to end injustices in the eastern Coachella Valley during the past 27 years?

 We have worked a lot to fight human trafficking. In today’s world, people are barely connecting human trafficking with the male and female farmworkers. In the past, employers would hold the immigrants back when the immigrants wanted to take a step forward. The employer would take away their visa and say, ‘You can’t go out anymore, La Migra is going to get you and take you away.’ Some employers say they will send money back to the young women’s families, but they never send the money, and instead they isolate the young women from their families. We are working in the communities to bring attention to this issue and to inform people about what human trafficking is.

— Ramona Felix, assistant coordinator of sexual assault and human trafficking prevention

In reference to domestic violence, looking at the results, there has been a huge impact. There are now many more women reporting domestic violence. Women who do not have documentation can report cases involving domestic abuse. We have had cases where women have actually legalized their status in the country because of it. I think this has been a big change in how the women farmworkers have taken hold of their own life and their role in the country as a worker, as a woman, as a mom, or as a daughter. They have made a big changes, but this doesn’t mean that we’re 100 percent better, no, there is still much more work to do.

— Silvia Barrones-Trevino, assistant coordinator of women’s health program

We are present in all of the state, working with all the committees to educate women, and to show them the many resources for reporting abuse. There are no more reasons to stay quiet; it’s time to raise our voices. We cannot continue to give permission to these types of abuse, like the domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual harassment. There is help. No matter your legalization status, it’s important to report abuse. Many women still don’t report abuse for many reasons. One of the reasons is that they don’t know what to do or where to go. By working with the committees throughout the state, we are showing women the many resources and how to access them. There is a lot of work to still be done, but there are many more women now who are not quiet anymore.

— Paula Placencia, assistant coordinator of labor conditions

How did Lideres Campesinas grow into the statewide organization it is today? 

After some time, Mily started seeing that many of the women continued on the ‘Corrilla,’ which is the route many farmworkers travel to continue working from Bakersfield to Delano and to other places. So seeing the same people were leaving here and continuing to the other cities, the same people who had the same problems, we thought, ‘How do we reach those women? How do we reach them so that they too can have access to all the necessary services they need?’ That’s how Lideres Campesinas was created and changed the name from Mujeres Mexicanas to Lideres Campesinas. And because it became a statewide project, different committees were established in different areas of California.

— Silvia Barrones-Trevino, assistant coordinator of women’s health.

In the future, how can women continue advocating for their communities? 

We need women to understand that they can be professionals in all fields. We need women from our culture and our communities as medics, judges, attorneys, doctors, psychologist and counselors. Yes, in the court system, and yes, in law enforcement. And if these young women decide to leave, they need to make sure they come back to their communities and continue to invest here, because it is much needed. And just like the young women who leave to college and come back transformed, we as a community, should also be transformed.

— Suguet Lopez, executive director

I believe that there are many ways they can help. With the young women, they can spread the word. They have an advantage of knowing the English language, and at the same time knowing their mother language, Spanish. Also going to school and educating yourself is fundamental. The young people are the future of today’s society, and I think that with their understanding, they can help continue the organization so there can be more leaders in every area.

— Silvia Barrones-Trevino, assistant coordinator of women’s health.

 

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