Sofia’s hands are worn like soft, tanned leather from years of picking grapes from the vines that carpet the rolling hills of Sonoma County, California.
“I grew up pizcando, harvesting maize,” Sofia recalls. “My father taught me because he always said, ‘One day you'll need to be an independent woman, and this is a skill that will help you.’ He was right. This work is my life.”
Originally from the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, 58-year-old Sofia has been living in Sonoma as an undocumented fieldworker since 1989. She has labored on countless farms over the years: planting, picking, pruning and fumigating.
(The names of several sources have been changed to protect their identities.)
In Sonoma County, the main agricultural product emerges in blue, purple and green bunches on the long trellises that cover the countryside and lure wine aficionados from around the world. Viticulture, or la uva, “the grape,” as Sofia and other Latino farmworkers refer to the sector, also draws undocumented workers, mostly from Mexico and Central America. Journeying to the US to work is the dream held and died for by hundreds of thousands, but the reality is hard work, long hours and meager pay.
The fields are what brought Sofia to Sonoma and what continues to draw men, women and children across the US-Mexico border in search of opportunity and political security. According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are 3 million undocumented workers living in the state of California. Of that number, nearly 50 percent are women, while 82 percent are originally from Mexico and Central America.
Thousands of women from Mexico and Central America have played a crucial role in developing the US food economy while sacrificing their safety, cultural traditions and families. Undocumented women in the field account for approximately 20 percent of California’s agricultural workforce. They are also among the most impoverished and vulnerable people in the US.
In addition to enduring harsh working environments — grueling hours doing back-breaking work and handling grapes that have been sprayed with pesticides — female fieldworkers also grapple with the added risks of verbal and physical harassment from male colleagues and supervisors. A culture of machismo and patriarchy reigns where the grapes grow in Sonoma. The violence and stigma women encounter in the fields and where they live is as invisible as their existence in the country.
Yet the women of Sonoma County are not sitting meekly by. Instead they are coming together to support one another and advocate for their safety, while community organizations are stepping forward to serve the needs of undocumented women and help them make their way through the maze of the US immigration system.
As the August heat reaches its zenith in Sonoma, grape-picking season begins. Sonoma’s vineyard contractors hire workers to hand-pick the grapes. The workers begin their day at night, when the cooler temperatures will not damage the delicate skin of the grape. Dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, shirts tied across their brows, Sofia and her colleagues shimmy down the long rows of trellised vines, filling their baskets under the bright lights used for the night harvest. There is laughter among the women and chatter that is ubiquitous among laborers. There is sweat and the spirit of camaraderie as they work to finish quickly.
“We race against the sun and season,” said Sofia. “When there’s work, we work hard, though the companies pay very little — only $9, $10-an-hour for 10-hour days.” Sofia has been doing this work for more than a quarter of a century, ever since she made her trek across the border, incurring a $2,000 debt to a smuggler. Sofia likened her first job on a family-run vineyard to slavery.
Sofia prefers to work in the company of women. Being the only woman on a crew has higher risks, as it provides more opportunities for assault.
“There is racism and prejudice in the fields,” explained Sofia. “Most of the supervisors are Mexican. People call you names based on your skin color, or where you’re from, and tell you to hurry up. At times, there can be prejudice against women. We have an expression in Mexico that says: ‘A man will only go so far as a woman allows him,’ but that just isn’t true.”
Gender-based violence against women in the vineyards is a daily reality, according to Chris Castillo, executive director of Verity, an organization based in Sonoma that offers crisis intervention and support to women experiencing domestic and sexual abuse.
“In the vineyards, there can be lots of inappropriate sexual touching from bosses, or other farmworkers,” said Castillo. “Women are fearful to report it because of the risk of losing their jobs. So they tolerate it, but their stomachs are tied up in knots when they go to work.”
Verity recently assisted a worker who was sexually asaulted by her supervisor.
“He said, ‘Come over here, work in this area and I'll give you special privileges,’” explained Castillo. “They use and abuse them. It’s not an easy life for women. Particularly if they have children, it’s a struggle to make enough money to pay rent, buy food and send their kids to school. They can’t afford to lose their jobs, so many don’t report the abuse that goes on.”
Despite the severity of the situation, some positive changes in the fields and broader community appear to be underway.
For Verity, which has a long history in Sonoma County — it started with acknowledging the fact that the organization was unequipped to serve Spanish-speaking women. Castillo helped Verity increase its “cultural competency” by hiring Spanish speakers and building a relationship with the local immigrant community. Today the majority of the organization’s staff speaks Spanish.
According to Castillo, the U-visa, a non-immigrant visa reserved for victims of crimes, has been a major game-changer for Sonoma’s undocumented women. Women abused by supervisors or partners, despite the fact that they do not have legal status, can report the case to the police and apply for a U-visa. In Sonoma, Verity supports women through the U-visa legal process.
“It’s been effective in Sonoma County,” said Castillo. “We work closely with the local law enforcement, and they sign off on U-visas for victims of assault pretty regularly without a problem.”
Hiroshi Motomura, a professor of immigration law at UCLA and author of "Immigration Outside the Law," agreed with Castillo that the U-visa has helped support many victims. However, Motomura also pointed out the program’s weaknesses. The program has been in effect since 2009, with an annual cap of 10,000 per year. However, since its second year the number of petitions has risen sharply, from nearly 11,000 to more than 30,000 in 2015. This has resulted in an increasing backlog with wait-list times that could reach eight to 10 years by the end of 2016.
Deborah M. Weissman, a University of North Carolina law professor and faculty advisor to the study"Visa Denied — The Political Geography of the U-Visa: Eligibility as a Matter of Locale," believes the U-visa has not been implemented evenhandedly.
The studies demonstrate that accessibility to the visas depends greatly on the applicants’ location. In New York and California, for example, it can work very well, Weissman said, but if the local political climate is not favorable to immigrants, as is the case in North Carolina, it can be an almost impossible task.
“[In some] instances we have seen a complete, callous disregard for the well-being of immigrants, based on animus toward immigrants,” Weissman said.
While the U-visa has allowed thousands of women to come forward and get a fresh start, not everyone supports a system based on what they see as victimization, explained Motomura. Some advocacy organizations, he added, see the U-Visa as another example of forcing immigrants to fit the “victim” stereotype, and is, in a broad sense, disempowering.
Women in Sonoma County are far from being disempowered, said Sabina Rafael, 46, of Guerrero, Mexico. In the mid-1990s, Rafael came to Sonoma. Five years ago she began volunteering with Lideres Campesinas, a California-based organization that assists female migrant farmworkers in accessing education and information about their rights, and helps them integrate into the larger Latino community. Rafael helps to disseminate information to the women and invites them to meetings where they organize and discuss issues in the workplace and community. Female migrant workers, she said, are becoming increasingly aware of their rights and the services available to them.
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“Women have less fear than they did 15 years ago,” said Rafael. “Before they didn’t think much about machismo because it’s so ingrained in our culture. But women are speaking out more today than they ever have. They are able to identify (it): ‘This is abuse. This is my right.’”
“What’s important is to choose a good contractor — some are better than others,” said Luz, 44. “My current employer is training me how to prune the vines, work that is typically done mostly by men.”
Sofia agrees that it is key for female workers to look for contractors with good reputations.
“The problem is that you find both extremes,” comments Sofia. “Some ask, ‘Do you need shade, or water?’ But others can’t be bothered.”
At the governance level, Motomura believes that more resources are needed to monitor and ensure that employers are providing safe working environments. He also said the US government needs more avenues for people to enter and work legally in the country. While women may be the most vulnerable members of the undocumented population, the issue is much larger and pertains to all undocumented workers.
“The whole immigration system calls for some form of legalization,” said Motomura. “What’s happening right now is that the absence of legal ways for people to work in this country — for jobs that clearly need to be done — forces people to work without papers, putting them in vulnerable positions.”
Castillo is advocating for a complete cultural shift within the vineyard industry. Since 2004, vineyards with more than 50 employees have been required by state law to ensure their supervisors undergo sexual assault training. The sessions need to happen more regularly in order to be effective in changing the culture of violence in the vineyards, said Castillo. “You have to honor the people working in the fields.”
With the light of day slipping away over the western sky and a nearly full moon glowing bright behind her, Luz reaches down to grasp the leaves of the gnarled, 80-year-old vine, one of hundreds on the hillsides surrounding the town of Sonoma.
Standing shorter than the vines themselves, she touches the leaves with familiar ease and a quick flick of her wrist and smiles. Bundled in a bright pink hoodie against the evening chill, Luz speaks fondly of the work she did in the field just a few weeks prior. Over the last few years she has seen more women in the vineyards. Luz is proud to be among them, in a field dominated by men.
Despite the arduous labor and the potential for violence and sexual harassment, she says, in soft, lilting Spanish, “I am happy to work in la uva.”
Towering above her, a gargantuan American flag flutters gently from the stem of a lone tree — a sentinel to the rolling vineyards and the thousands of migrant workers whose hands pick the harvest.
This story was originally published by Yes! Magazine.