As a teenager working on the farms of California in the 1970s, Mily Treviño-Sauceda often felt alone and afraid. A boss fondled her; she was assaulted by a supervisor in a vineyard. When she confided in her father, she recalls, he seemed to blame her. After that, “I didn’t want to speak about it anymore,” Treviño-Sauceda says.
She later took a job at the United Farm Workers and then in a legal aid office, and she listened to women farmworkers talk about getting sick from pesticides and being cheated by employers. Sometimes these women were battered and bruised—but they did not want to talk about the how and why of their injuries. “I lived like this all my life,” one woman told Treviño-Sauceda. “I’ve been hiding it.”
Two decades later and 2,000 miles away, in Fremont, Ohio, 14-year-old Mónica Ramírez, the daughter and granddaughter of farmworkers, noticed that two groups of people descended on the town every spring: migrant workers, who came to pick cucumbers, sugar beets and other crops, and recreational fishermen, who came for the walleye bass in the Sandusky River. Every year the Fremont News-Messenger ran a “Welcome Back” story for the fishermen, but not for those working in the fields. Ramírez went to the newspaper’s office and complained. To her surprise, the editor asked her to write stories about the Latino community; she did, and the newspaper published them.
For both women, these teenage experiences led to lifelong activism on behalf of farmworkers. Treviño-Sauceda spent decades as an organizer, co-founding the Líderes Campesinas in the 1990s to give a voice to the women working in California’s fields. Ramírez earned her law degree and advocated for farmworkers and other low-paid immigrant workers with civil rights and employment claims. As the farmworker women’s movement gained momentum, Treviño-Sauceda, who had become one of its most powerful voices, saw an opportunity to tie together the work that she, Ramírez and so many others were doing to bring more attention to the cause.
Treviño-Sauceda and Ramírez joined forces in 2012 as co-founders of the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, known in English as the National Farmworkers Women’s Alliance. It was the first national organization to represent the country’s 700,000 women farmworkers, uniting one of the most vulnerable groups in the American workforce. The Alianza addresses numerous issues the farmworkers face, from domestic violence to workplace environmental concerns. A major focus has been exposing the rampant sexual harassment and exploitation on farms; in one study, about 80 percent of women said they had experienced some form of sexual violence on the job.
So last year when they watched as one celebrity after another came forward on social media with tales of sexual abuse in the entertainment industry following the accusations against the mogul Harvey Weinstein and others, the stories were all too familiar. A group of Hollywood women helped to organize a “Take Back the Workplace” march in Los Angeles for November 12, 2017, and Treviño-Sauceda planned to attend with a few dozen women from Líderes Campesinas. But they wanted to do something more. “Do you think if we write something, we could read it at the march?” Ramírez asked Treviño-Sauceda.
Ramírez began to draft a letter on behalf of the country’s women farmworkers. One ally suggested that Ramírez should criticize the Hollywood women for having ignored the plight of farmworkers, but Ramírez did not heed that advice. The organization had spoken up for hotel workers, domestic workers and janitors. The stars of Hollywood “were women workers, too,” Ramírez says.
“Dear sisters,” the letter began. “Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security,” Ramírez wrote. “We understand the hurt, confusion, isolation and betrayal that you might feel.” The power of the letter was in its sincerity. The farmworkers had been organizing against workplace harassment for decades, and they could offer solidarity across the economic and social divides. “Please know that you’re not alone. We believe and stand with you.”
“It was written with no expectation of a response,” Ramírez says. “We just wanted them to know we had their backs.”
Time magazine, which had been preparing a story on the #MeToo movement, agreed to publish the letter. Two days before the November march, it was posted online. Soon after, Reese Witherspoon, one of the most influential women in Hollywood, shared it with her nearly four million Facebook followers. “Thank you,” she wrote to the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. The letter went viral just as the march was coming together, but its impact was bigger than a hashtag. Suddenly, the public face of #MeToo was not just Hollywood women, but all women.
“To receive a letter on behalf of 700,000 women working in the fields, women who put food in our supermarkets, on our tables, standing with us—it was such a moment of modeling what we need to be doing in our larger society,” the actress America Ferrera said on the “Today” show on January 4 as she sat alongside Ramírez. The unexpected support from the farmworkers had galvanized women in Hollywood who understood that their celebrity could help spur change. “It was such a signal to us that we couldn’t do anything but respond,” Ferrera said. “And not just with words, but with real action.”
Ferrera and Ramírez were there to announce one of the most powerful women’s initiatives in decades: Time’s Up, an organization launched by some of the biggest names in entertainment to support anyone in any profession who speaks up about sexual harassment in the workplace. The core of Time’s Up is a legal defense fund. In its first nine months, the initiative inspired by a simple 400-word letter has received requests for help from more than 3,500 women and men, two-thirds of whom work in low-wage industries. It has spent about $4 million on public education and legal actions backing alleged victims of sexual abuse, including a suit on behalf of McDonald’s workers. Time’s Up builds on “the work that organizers and activists have done over decades,” Ramírez said in an interview. They “laid the foundation for the moment we are living in.”
Alianza Nacional de Campesinas helped pave the way, but they are just getting started. Says Treviño-Sauceda: “There’s still a lot of work out there we need to do.”