Silent no more

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Headline: Silent no more

Layercake: Bandana Project gives voice to sexual harassment victims

By JACKSON YAN

Aggie Staff Writer

For fear of sexual harassment, farm workers drape bandanas across their faces to avoid unwanted sexual advances. To Juanita Ontiveros of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, it represents a self-imposed gag order to victims of these crimes.

“Symbolically, by keeping the bandana on their face, they cannot talk,” said Ontiveros, who is a community education outreach and special project coordinator for the foundation.

During April, which is also National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Monica Ramirez Guerrero of the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center hopes to take the muzzle off these women with her exhibit, the Bandana Project. The exhibit features a collection of bandanas designed by female farm workers etched with messages decrying sexual harassment.

“The bandana is a strong image of women in the United States,” Guerrero said. “Bandanas are used at work as a symbol to protect themselves. It is the right symbol.”

Guerrero had originally planned on the Bandana Project being exhibited in less than 10 cities. However, over 50 cities, including Sacramento, have taken part in exhibiting the bandanas.

Inspired by the bandana-wearing Rosie the Riveter, she had women write messages on their bandanas. Guerrero remembers several bandanas that said what many women felt, but are too afraid to say.

“Two were decorated by women in Salinas and the women wrote, ‘I shouldn’t have to cover my face for you to respect me’ and ‘I don’t go to work other than to feed my family,'” Guerrero said.

Women in the fields face pressure to work under these conditions, and are handcuffed with few options to protest sexual assault. Many of those harvesting in the fields are immigrants and do not know their rights.

“Immigrants just want to stay to themselves,” Guerrero said. “They don’t want to cause any trouble. They don’t want any attention.”

Many women tolerate the sexual innuendos out of necessity to support their family. According to Ontiveros, women are degraded by supervisors, crew leaders and others in positions of power.

“They say, ‘I’ll hire anybody you want if you go out with me,'” Ontiveros says. “They pay them more, give them better positions and offer to give their family jobs.”

Sometimes the insults are more direct, preying on the defenseless.

“‘Move your ass like you did last night,'” Ontiveros said women have told her. “That is very degrading. They say, ‘You go tell your husband and I’ll fire all of them.’ They’re trying to keep women in their place.”

The problem persists as more women migrate into the fields, and the situation grows dire as few are willing to speak out against sexual harassment.

“Sexual assault is big problem,” said Julie Montgomery of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. “The federal government is paying attention to this widespread problem. Farm workers are more vulnerable because they are the lowest paid.”

Victims of sexual harassment and abuse often lack the resources to get help, and Guerrero hopes the bandanas will give a voice to these victims.

“It is difficult to talk about sexual harassment,” Guerrero said. “This is a real great outlet without talking to a room. They can participate, be anonymous and make a big statement through art in their own terms. It’s positive and it opens the dialogue.”

In May, thebandanas will return to the offices of the Southern Poverty Law Center where they will be cataloged. Eventually, the center hopes to loan out the bandanas to other participating organizations.

“It is already hard enough,” said Guerrero. “It is [a] really oppressive environment. Unfortunately, they have to face threats of sexual harassment. We are trying to let people know, and we are not going to tolerate it anymore. There is a real movement. Whole groups of advocates are saying, ‘This is enough.'”

To see the Bandana Project, visit the Familia Counseling Center in Sacramento. It is open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The displays will be available to the general public until the end of April.

JACKSON YAN can be reached at features@californiaaggie.com.