“No one should be forced to give up their dignity in order to feed their family,” – Meet Mónica Ramírez Who’s Defending the Rights of Migrant Women.
She was only a child, but Mónica Ramírez remembers the impression of seeing the “one bedroom shack” her father and his family shared, while working in a Mississippi farm field, left on her.
“Seeing the housing conditions they had to live in were just really striking because that wasn’t my experience,” she said. “I had the privilege of being able to live in a house in a community year-round and seeing this one room shack where they grew up was something I could not have imagined when I had not seen it.”
Ramírez is a third generation American but the first to not have been a migrant worker. Her father started working in agriculture at the age of eight and shared stories with his daughter about the struggles he and his siblings faced working in such a physically demanding job.
“There we some nights, some days, that he and his siblings would pick cotton and rather than going back home they would sleep on the bales of cotton that they had picked,” she said. “The grower they worked for had a store, and they would often get the items they needed as credit because they didn’t have enough money to be able to afford the basics.”
She also heard tales of discrimination perpetrated against her mother’s side of the family for being Latino.
“Those are the stories they shared with us growing up, and they definitely had an impact on me, but I think when I went to college and started working directly with the farmworker community, and around my town, I saw the housing conditions were similar,” Ramírez said. “There are still people who live in one-room shacks, and there are still situations where people are told Mexicans aren’t allowed, and the racism is still very much prevalent.”
Fueled with a desire to seek justice for migrant workers and equipped with the knowledge her education afforded her, Ramírez decided to take action. Today, she is most known for her authorship of the “Dear Sisters” letter published in TIME that helped spark the Time’s Up Movement. She has, however, had a multi-decade history of work fighting for the civil and human rights of children, women, workers, Latinxs, and immigrants.
In 2003, she created the first legal project in the United States dedicated to addressing gender discrimination against farmworker women that culminated in the creation of Esperanza: The Immigrant Women’s Legal Initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
She founded Justice for Migrant Women and co-founded Alianza Nacional de Campesinos and served as the organization’s board president until 2018. She wrote the now-viral “Dear Sisters” letter in that capacity from the perspective of migrant women directed at women in the entertainment industry.
Justice for Migrant Women provides a new model for addressing and advancing migrant women’s rights and justice. At the heart of that model is a commitment to ensuring all migrant women are guaranteed their civil rights, including the freedom to work free of sexual harassment, to live and work with dignity and be free of threats both against themselves and their families. The organization achieves this mission through numerous educational initiatives, raising public awareness, and advocating for the rights of migrant women.
In April, which marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the organization heavily promotes The Bandana Project, a year-round initiative campaign that addresses sexual harassment of farmworker women in the workplace. Too often farmworker women are not part of the conversation, but they are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse in jobs such as agriculture, domestic work, and hospitality.
According to Justice for Migrant Women, females comprise 32 percent of farmworkers or up to 960,000 employees total. Despite the hard work they put in to cultivate the fruits and vegetables Americans eat, 80 percent of farmworker women surveyed in a 2010 California Central Valley study reported experiencing sexual harassment at work.
Ramírez created The Bandana Project while directing Esperanza: The Immigrant Women’s Legal Initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center as an art-activism project that provides healing to women across the US, the Americas, and the globe. As part of the project, community leaders, entertainment artists, advocates, lawyers, government representatives, and others decorate white bandanas with words and art of solidarity toward farmworker women who have faced sexual harassment in the workplace. The bandanas are placed in public locations for easy visibility and to help build awareness of the campaign’s mission to put an end to this injustice.
“I felt like it was a very clear and visible message to perpetrators that when they tell victims of sexual harassment that they’re alone, that they’re absolutely wrong,” she said. “The significance of using the bandana is that there was a study that found sexual assault is so prevalent against (farmworkers) that they use their clothes to protect themselves from unwanted harmful things like pesticides and unwanted sexual attention. In many ways, the bandana is the symbol or flag of our movement to end sexual violence against farmworker women.”
The Bandana Project remains strong throughout the year because farmworker women use it as a form of art therapy.
“It’s an opportunity for them to express themselves through art about this issue so the project will carry on (beyond April),” Ramírez said.
The organization endorses policy proposals that work to improve the working and living conditions of farmworker women, including putting in protections for better pay and extending the time a person has to legally file a sexual harassment claim.
On April 25th, Ramírez spoke at a policy briefing on Capitol Hill on ensuring safety and opportunity for immigrant women. Earlier this month, the organization released an official statement of support of the proposed Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination (BE HEARD) in the Workplace ACT.
The act aims to address critical issues faced by some of the most vulnerable communities in the United States across all industries and give protection to all workers. Three women shared their story to highlight the importance of this new legislation.
They included Maria del Carmen Ruelas, a farmworker who shared her personal sexual harassment experiences; Adriana Cazorla, a domestic worker, and leader who talked about her resilience in the face of harassment, and Lilia Martinez, who survived sexual violence in the workplace.
Her lawsuit was resolved nearly a decade ago, but she chose to share her story to show support and solidarity of other workers who experienced similar ordeals. Justice for Migrant Women believes this act could help workers complete their jobs without fear of harm, including sexual harassment. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA-5) and other leaders introduced the bill.
“No one should be forced to give up their dignity in order to feed their family,” Ramírez said. “What most people do not realize is that migrant women workers are particularly vulnerable to this violence because of the isolated nature of their jobs and the grave power imbalance between them and their employers. Currently, the federal civil and employment laws in our country leave many farmworkers and other migrant women vulnerable to these abuses with no remedy.”
To help change that, supporters are encouraged to call their representatives and urge them to co-sponsor BE HEARD in the Workplace Act. They can reach the Capitol switchboard at 220-224-3121.
WRITTEN BY CHRISTINE BOLAÑOS
About the Writer:
Christine Bolaños is a Salvadoran-American journalist based in Texas who writes about social justice, women's empowerment and Latino issues for numerous national media outlets.
You can follow her work at https://twitter.com/bolanosnews08