We make the road by Walking: Part IV – DV Prevention in Organizing

by Tara Villalba

If you have come here to help me, you are
wasting your time. But if you have come
because your liberation is bound up with
mine, then let us work together

— Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s

Burlington, WA – Why don’t vulnerable people report their experiences of violence? It is partly because in some real ways reporting violence increases harm rather than ends it.

In my own experience, the violence meted out by the state dwarfed the violence at home. This made me acculturated to violence as if it were just a part of life that I made worse when I challenged oppression.

Whether the violence is institutional, gendered, or domestic violence, those of us who have experienced violence as a reality in our daily lives have become experts at weighing the degrees of violence in every encounter and taking risks with our lives, and/or the lives of our children that most people can’t understand or explain, much less support.

It is a myth that we can keep violence out of our homes, when almost every institution that we encounter – the schools, the church, law enforcement, the corporations, the government itself, engage in multiple kinds and levels of violence that both pound our bodies and relationships, and seep into homes poisoning our food, our love, and our dreams.

Migration and the forced separation that families endure have been aptly described as the experiences of economic refugees. Many migrants and immigrants take refuge in the United States and other developed economies, after the devastation of our home countries’ economies through war, resource extraction, foreign debt and its accompanying structural adjustment programs.

Migrating to escape the resulting poverty is not only an act of autonomy and will to survive, it is also a desperate attempt at resource re-distribution by people who don’t have the institutional power to redistribute wealth that was siphoned out of our home communities.

For immigrant and migrant workers from the underdeveloped world, the additional abuse of low wages, little or no access to safe and secure housing, education, health care, transportation resources, nutritious food, due process and guaranteed rights in the legal and justice systems, all compound the isolation, fear, stress, and poverty that many of us continue to live with.

With this as the toxic background, most people still have the audacity to expect that men will not be violent against women, that straight people will not be violent against LGBTQ people, that people with documents will not abuse people without documents, and that adults will not be violent against children and youth.

When most people hear of instances of domestic violence in impoverished migrant and immigrant communities, they are surprised and quickly conclude that educating women about “their rights” will somehow end violence eventually.

It is a myth that we can keep violence out of our homes, when almost every institution that we encounter – the schools, the church, law enforcement, the corporations, the government itself, engage in multiple kinds and levels of violence that both pound our bodies and relationships, and seep into homes poisoning our food, our love, and our dreams.

Domestic violence prevention in migrant and immigrant farmworker communities, like at Campo 2 at Sakuma Brothers Farm, MUST also address root and structural causes of all violence, if we want a real chance to mitigate the terrible upheavals that come with the long history of displacing indigenous communities from their homes.

Domestic violence in this farmworker communities have clear connections to NAFTA’s effect on the corn dependent economies of Mexico, to the H2-A program that pits groups of workers against each other, and to the depressed wages and abusive work conditions that dehumanize each berry picker at Sakuma Brothers Farm.

VIOLENCE AND MISOGYNY

Violence is so rampant in our present society that we, literally, aren’t thinking about violence clearly, much less acting effectively to end it.

This U.S. society has been at war for most of its existence as a nation state. We are currently involved in several wars, and communities of people living in poverty, people of color, and immigrants, experience violence as if we lived in different kind of war zones as we do daily battle to survive against racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia.

Violence is used as a tool not only to police people of color in impoverished communities but also to police a rigid gender binary that places increased value and protection for masculine privilege at the price of women and feminine identities.

Violence in corporate agriculture spans poisoning the earth with toxic chemicals, to believing that farmworkers are a sub-human disposable work force whose humanity doesn’t equal the humanity of either the consumers or the farmers who hire them.

Farmworker women routinely get paid less than their male colleagues, and often bear the brunt of reproductive work after working in the fields. Any labor organizing women do are done on top of field and reproductive work, and their organizing challenges not only the systemic sexism at work, but also patriarchal arrangements at home in the labor camps.

In order to achieve justice for the victims, liberal feminist advocacy requires, after domestic violence occurs, protecting the “victims” and prosecuting the “perpetrators” (to the fullest extent of the law).

The knee-jerk and customary reaction from liberal feminists is to agree that because institutional power runs along patriarchal lines, it makes sense that we protect women and children. But it seems counter intuitive to believe that to truly end violence, we would all have to be invested in protecting everyone, not only women and children.

GENDER JUSTICE AND FARMWORKER JUSTICE

farmworkers are expected never to express their frustration and righteous anger at the rightful causes of that indignation: the farm owners and their team of supervisors and guards who benefit from this set up that drains the life and youth of the migrant workers, and disciplines their children to accept these working and living conditions.

Domestic violence in farmworker communities cannot be adequately addressed as “personal issues”. At Sakuma Brothers Farms, farmworkers live in:

  • “Larger” family cabins with a total 15×10 feet living area, or smaller 6×9 feet ones where the workers and their families cook, eat, play, and sleep
  • sub-standard cooking and washing facilities,
  • Cabins that aren’t insulated – so it’s really hot and really cold depending on the weather. Roofs leak when it’s raining. There are no toilets or showers in these cabins.
  • The closest toilets are at least 50 meters from cabins, walking in the dark at night
  • The closest showers are twice as far.
  • Mattresses are bug-infested
  • Plumbing is leaky and often backed up

Bathrooms, and trash are often overflowing and not fixed or disposed of by the company adequately.

Each family is on its own to look for childcare, so almost all the children are outside their cramped living spaces playing with whatever they can find to amuse themselves, often without adequate adult supervision, or at the fields with their parents, while their parents are working at breakneck speed, struggling to reach Washington state’s $9.19 minimum hourly wage.

In the meantime, they are all exposed to pesticides and supervisors who scream at them throughout their long workdays, yelling for them to work faster, and calling them lazy and worthless.

When farmworkers organize for better wages and for a more respectful working environment, they are fired. Those who weren’t fired are under surveillance by hired security guards who watch the migrant housing camps, intimidate workers and follow women around, including the restrooms, even at night.

Cramped in their makeshift homes, working their bodies as fast and as hard as they can and still failing to reach the state’s minimum wage, let alone a living wage, worried for the safety of their families, farmworkers are expected never to express their frustration and righteous anger at the rightful causes of that indignation: the farm owners and their team of supervisors and guards who benefit from this set up that drains the life and youth of the migrant workers, and disciplines their children to accept these working and living conditions.

Instead everyone is completely surprised that domestic violence happens under these conditions. Worse, most people rely on the widespread stereotype that domestic violence primarily happens in families of color: that men of color are somehow more violent than other men and that women need to be protected from men of color.

In a press release last week, Sakuma Bros. Farms claimed that they take domestic violence seriously and were responsible to “provide a safe environment” for the adults and children in the farmworker community at Campo 2 and therefore fired Ramon Torres because he is a “potential threat”.

The company was eager to activate stereotypes of the dangerous Latino man who uses drugs and beats his wife, without ever addressing the living and working conditions at the Farms.

Some community supporters have also shown hesitation in continuing support for Ramon’s leadership, not wanting to support someone who has been accused of committing an act of domestic violence. And even though the charges against Ramon have been dismissed, some community members who opposed the organizing and decisions by Familias Unidas are using this as proof that farmworkers indeed cannot be trusted to lead their own liberation.

ECO-FEMINISM AND AUTONOMIA

The incident surrounding Ramon Torres at Sakuma Brothers Farms is an illustrative example of this complicated relationship that many women of color and impoverished families have with violence.

The struggle to end domestic violence in the farmworker communities cannot be separated from either the struggle to end male supremacy, or from the struggle to improve the living and working conditions of low wage farmworkers.

The members of Familias Unidas have decided to risk their low-wage jobs and their families and speak out against the structural violence in corporate agriculture in Skagit County as they have experienced it in the corporate Sakuma Bros. Farms.

Ramon and Deanna Torres are on the front line of this struggle. And in the process Familias Unidas is leading the way towards a more just local food system. This IS farmworker action to end structural violence that create the conditions to make domestic violence possible.

If Sakuma Bros. Farms were truly invested in the wellbeing of the whole agricultural community in Skagit County, the company would sign a legally binding contract with Familias Unidas. The biggest contribution Sakuma Bros. Farms could make to ensure the safety and security of the farmworkers living in Campo 2, would be to end the dehumanizing living and working conditions that attack the wellbeing of each worker and child at the labor camps.

The struggle to end domestic violence in the farmworker communities cannot be separated from either the struggle to end male supremacy, or from the struggle to improve the living and working conditions of low wage farmworkers

The work to end all forms of violence requires individual work on our own internalized messages about the worth of women and children and the expectations of what “real” women and men do. And it requires collective social movement that challenges the structural oppressions of poverty and rigid gender binaries.

Ending domestic violence in rural farmworker communities must follow the lead of the women themselves, whom advocates have to trust are making the right decisions for themselves at all times. Women may take risks that some people couldn’t imagine, because our lives are structured by impossible choices.

As an eco-feminist organization, Community to Community is bound by the commitment that we, women, are the best agents of our own liberation.

Women are not up for saving. We know when, where, and how to act to midwife our own liberated lives. We must believe that this is true even in cases of domestic violence, that there is sound reasoning behind our decisions to stay quiet and not involve our allies, or to surrender to law enforcement and the legal justice system, but to always re-make our lives to stop violence or at least limit its impacts on our lives.

In this case, Familias Unidas por la Justicia has decided that even after this incident, Ramon Torres will continue as their president.

When Deanna called the police, she expected that they would talk to Ramon but not arrest him. Deanna Torres has decided to rescind the no-contact order, so that she and her daughter could reunite with her husband.

No one outside of Familias Unidas has the ability, or the right to demand and expect the resignation of Ramon Torres. Deanna and Ramon both decided on their family’s best course of action. And as supporters of farmworkers and their liberation, we must liberate our own selves from our internalized messages about the decision-making abilities and values of ALL farmworkers of every gender.

They get to decide where in the matrix of everyday violence at Sakuma Bros. Farms this particular experience fits. And we get the honor of supporting their decisions towards their own liberation, if we are to work together to build a truly just and sustainable local food system.

About the Author:

I am an interdisciplinary scholar and an eco-feminist community health worker in Bellingham WA, working towards a just food system locally and building a solidarity economy that respects the dignity of all. I am writing my dissertation entitled “Locating Memory: Recovering Indigenous Healing Practices in the Filipin@ Diaspora”.

I see my work as supporting the work to heal from the legacies of colonization, and to nourish community power to create and sustain autonomous and sustainable communities. Along with family members, I am also raising two daughters and two sons, teaching each other that our love is so much bigger than the distances that separate us.

One thought on “We make the road by Walking: Part IV – DV Prevention in Organizing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s