California farmworker Maricruz Ladino said that when supervisors in the agricultural industry abuse their workers, “it’s very difficult to fight against that because we are working out of necessity, because we need to provide for our families.”Andres Cediel/Investigative Reporting Program

Maricruz Ladino has deep-brown eyes, finely arched brows and an oval face that blossoms when she smiles.

Ladino didn’t realize it when she first agreed to tell her story one spring morning last year, but she has become – quite literally – the face of farmworker sexual abuse survivors. She’s a lead character in Rape in the Fields, and her face, framed by a white-and-black bandanna, graces the project’s logo.

Life has changed dramatically for the Mexican immigrant since she told the nation that her supervisor raped her while she was on the clock at a California lettuce farm.

After the project’s documentary aired, Ladino said she received so many harassing calls – some calling her an “unfit woman” – that she had to change her cellphone number. Her fiancé wasn’t prepared for the attention and broke up with her.

But for Ladino, talking about her experience has become cathartic.

“Now it’s part of the medicine I take. It’s like I have a cancer, and I remove a little bit …  (with) this medicine,” she said recently on “Reveal,” a new investigative reporting radio program produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Good things have happened, too. One of Ladino’s daughters told her that she was proud of her. Strangers approach her at the grocery story to thank her for telling her story. At one documentary screening in Monterey County, Calif., high school students rushed up to Ladino after the film to have their picture taken with her.

After they left, Ladino marveled at what had happened. “This makes me feel like I did something important,” she said.

Once considered an open secret, sexual violence in the fields is now national news. It’s been nearly a year since the debut of the Rape in the Fields project, produced in collaboration with the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, FRONTLINE and Univision. In that time, a lot has changed: sources’ lives, efforts to fix the problem and advances in court cases. With the film airing again tonight on FRONTLINE, here’s a rundown of what’s happened since the film’s premiere:

Problem No. 1: Data

In every farming community we visited, women told us that sexual harassment and assault were commonplace in the agricultural industry.

But it’s a difficult problem to quantify. No one is keeping good statistics. A few small studies have shown that farmworkers face sexual harassment at higher rates than the U.S. workforce at large.

Without hard numbers, it’s an issue that remains in the shadows, off the radar of policymakers, advocates and growers who could make a difference.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis; UC Berkeley; and the University of Washington have expressed interest in conducting pilot studies and collecting data on this issue. The University of Washington, for example, already has convened female farmworker focus groups. In addition to analyzing the focus group discussions, researchers are in the early stages of designing a public health campaign about workplace violence in the fields.

Problem No. 2: Training

Farmworkers often don’t report sexual abuse for the same reasons many other victims don’t – shame and fear of not being believed. On top of that, many of the farmworkers are immigrants who are worried about losing their jobs or being deported.

Victims often don’t know their rights. Some harassers don’t know the behavior is improper.

Employee and supervisor training is one solution. Workplace safety organization AgSafe continues to expand its training programs, recently partnering with California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board in its educational efforts on sexual harassment.

Government agencies like the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are using the documentary to train its investigators and employers on how sexual harassment could play out in agricultural settings.

Scores of organizations, from governments to community groups, continue to hold public screenings of the documentary to raise awareness of the issue.

Problem No. 3: Cooperation and prevention

Sexual assault and rape are difficult to prove in criminal court. Even those with strong evidence might not have their chance at seeking justice.

Laura Segura, executive director of Women’s Crisis Support – Defensa de Mujeres in Watsonville, Calif., says the farmworker community’s distrust of police stems in part from programs like Secure Communities, a federal program that requires local law enforcement to cooperate with immigration officials.

“We can no longer say in complete confidence, ‘Yes, call law enforcement, and you will get protection,’ ” she said.

None of the dozens of federal lawsuits CIR examined resulted in criminal prosecutions – few victims made it to the police.

But there have been recent efforts by law enforcement to take on these challenging cases. In state court, the alleged rape of a farmworker by a grower in California’s Central Valley is awaiting criminal and civil trials in Madera. And the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office is investigating its first farmworker sexual assault case.

There also have been some local efforts to improve relationships between law enforcement and immigrants. The Monterey County district attorney’s office, for example, wanted to get more connected with the sizable farmworker community in the area. So it invited a women’s farmworker organization called Lideres Campesinas to join its task force on sexual assault and domestic violence. It also is working with the sheriff’s office to create a flier about a special visa that allows victims of crime lacking authorization to be in the U.S. to remain in the country if they assist with a criminal investigation or prosecution.

Segura’s organization is trying to make sure that sexual violence on farms and in packing houses doesn’t happen in the first place. She has started sending staff members into the fields to talk to women about workplace sexual violence and the resources that are available to them. The effort is called Secure Fields.

She’s also announced that the group plans to organize a local conference, based on the Solutions Summit hosted by CIR, to figure out how Santa Cruz County can serve as a state model for preventing and addressing farmworker sexual assault. She has changed the center’s hours to make it easier for farmworkers to visit.

What’s new with court cases

The “Rape in the Fields” documentary prominently featured the Evans Fruit Co. trial, a case in which more than a dozen women testified that they were assaulted or harassed in a Yakima Valley, Wash., orchard by a handful of crew leaders or their foreman, Juan Marin.

The government sued the large apple grower, arguing that the company had failed to act when its workers claimed they had been harassed and assaulted. As chronicled in the documentary, the government lost the case.

The government also lost its appeal for a new trial and now is taking the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, a lawsuit that was filed against Marin, which accused him of harassing three of the women in the federal case, also was dismissed. This also will be appealed.

Ladino’s life

Perhaps no one has felt the ripple effects of the documentary as keenly as Maricruz Ladino.

Nowadays, she is more or less back to her normal routine. Often awake by 4:30 a.m., she works multiple agricultural jobs in some seasons on just a few hours of sleep. In the little spare time she has, Ladino volunteers with public health research projects or financial literacy programs aimed at helping immigrants like herself. She raised three daughters, now grown, and does what she can to spoil her three grandchildren.

And despite the problems the project initially created in Ladino’s relationship with her fiancé, things recently have improved. At the beginning of this year, after he’d had some time to reflect, he proposed to Ladino once again.

She said yes.

Bernice Yeung is a reporter for Reveal, covering race and gender. Her work examines issues related to violence against women, labor and employment, immigration, and environmental health. Yeung was part of the national Emmy-nominated Rape in the Fields reporting team, which investigated the sexual assault of immigrant farmworkers. The project won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Yeung also was the lead reporter for the national Emmy-nominated Rape on the Night Shift team, which examined sexual violence against female janitors. That work won an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative journalism, and the Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition. Those projects led to ​​her first book in 2018, “In a Day's Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America's Most Vulnerable Workers.”  

A former staff writer for SF Weekly and editor at California Lawyer magazine, Yeung has had her work appear in a variety of media outlets, including The New York Times, The Seattle Times, The Guardian and PBS FRONTLINE. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's degree from Fordham University, where she studied sociology with a focus on crime and justice. She was a 2015-16 Knight-Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan, where she explored ways journalists can use social science survey methods in their reporting. Yeung is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.