Central American Workers Join the #MeToo Movement

Sexual harassment at the workplace. Photo Credit: Chris
Paula De Leon, left; Myrna Pacaja, Center; Margarita Fuentes, right three Central-American immigrant. Photo by: Nioves Mejia.

By Nioves Mejia

It was a cold afternoon in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Women gets ready to share their work-related stories in front of an audience mainly compounded by men.  Dozens of immigrant workers listed to the ladies with extreme attention. Before addressing their speeches, the ladies met at a private room where was possible the interview.

At first was some looked intimidated. It was like bringing back days of oppression and disrespect. Eventually, the ladies were felling comfortable and kindly opened up their hearts recalling what they describe as “one of the most traumatic stages of their lives.”

Myrna Pacaja is a Guatemalan immigrant, she worked  at a seafood packing company in Fall River, Massachusetts.“I came to this country looking for a better life”, said Pacaja. She left behind the poverty and crime in her native country. “ it was hard for me to find a job”, she said. This is in part because of language barrier as well as immigration status. Not every employer is willing to hire immigrants who does not have a legal status in the US.

Pacaja and two other coworkers were constantly harassed by a supervisor. “He came from behind and started touching me, saying obnoxious words. It was very uncomfortable to work.” she said. Pacaja reported the behavior to the upper management but it was disregarded.

Going to work every day in a very unhealthy environment, was a must. Otherwise, her job was compromised. Besides taking care of herself, she also has a family in Guatemala that depends on her. ” it was tough, I couldn’t just quit and leave. Many people rely on my income,” she said.

That is the reality of many women in the US. Leaving their homeland for a better life; and sometimes it happens to find another nightmare in their promised land.

Pacaja recalls the days when she arrives to her job and has to see the perpetrator. ‘ it was very scary. I feel disrespected, he made me feel worthless”, she said. The supervisor was aware of the legal status of the ladies and often refers about it in a derogatory manner.

Margarita Fuentes Herrera is another victim of sexual harassment. By the same person at the same place.

“He started his actions against me the very first week I started working there”, said Fuentes-Herrera with sadness. She is the elder of the three, but her age did not stop her perpetrator.

“ I could be your mother, I told him. But he didn’t care”, said Fuentes-Herrera. According to the Honduras-native immigrant her age was one of the topics the perpetrator used to harass her.

Margarita Fuentes started working at the seafood packing in 2013. Fuentes worked for a period of three years. She said was victim of several forms of mistreatment that includes sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and exploitation. “He treated me bad. He is a women abuser, that’s what he is,” said Fuentes referring to the supervisor who perpetrated the abuse against her and other coworkers.  A long history of abuses that according to her started from day one.

“What are you doing here, stupid old lady?” was a question Fuentes heard on a regular basis.

“you are worthless. Look at me. Look at my white gown, I earned it. And here you will do what I say.” If Fuentes refused to obey his commands, she was threatened to be put on laid off.

“Send me to another department because I’m hungry, I need the job. Don’t fire me,” was some of the responses she told her supervisor.

The day of the interview, Margarita wearing a red cardigan with a flower-printed scarf detailed the scenes lived at her former workplace. Several times during the interview she had to stop, take a breath and continue with the story. The remanences of the constant abuses she experienced continues under her skin.

The hardest part was the fear she had to lose her job. “ I was afraid of one day he tells me to go home and my family in need.” Her story is like many others immigrant women that came to the United States. Those women often enough are the streamline of provisions for their families. The main and sometimes only source of income of the entire family.

Fuentes said that in several times she was not able to go to work. Waking up at 4 am to prepare her meals and feeling tired because of the long hours of work. sometimes she just wanted to stay home but she needed the money.

The Honduras native woman feels grateful about finding organizations and support in this difficult time of her live. “I believe in justice from above. I’m thankful because I learned about my rights. I met Mr. Adrian Ventura and the CCT group. As well as other organizations, they all helped me to be strong,” she said.

Adrian Ventura runs CCT a New Bedford- based organization that advocates for the workers’ right. The Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores (CCT) according to its website; provides assistance to the immigrant community by “taking actions to resolve any right violation” at the workplace.

“Our organization educate, organize and take actions. The direct actions such as negotiating with the company was done by us”, said Ventura. The day CCT went to speak with the company regarding the alleged exploitation and sexual misconduct an attorney was present. Therefore, CCT relied on the allies such as Justice At Work another non-profit organization that provides legal advice and representation to low-income workers whom cannot afford a private lawyer.  “The legal part of the issue is handled by the people from Justice At Work”, he said.

Regarding the obtained results regarding this particular case he feels accomplished. “finally there is a light at the end, this is part of the Mee Too Movement,” He said.  Ventura is confident that his work jointed with other men and women is providing positive results to a vulnerable sector of the population. “Celebrities and other famous people found justice. But the public may think this is a selective justice. That they are heard because they are famous. The people that make the food that  celebrities eat, are ignored. We are happy because justice was served to low class people, “said Ventura.

Ventura said the organization will continue serving vulnerable population, however he prefers not to refer to workers as “vulnerable”. “This is a country of justice and democracy, how come in the 21st. century we are still experiencing this type of things?” he asked himself. A structure he described as “a modern slavery.” Ventura criticizes the form women were targeted and their rights violated by people that seems to enjoy with their suffering.