Mónica Ramírez ‘03 has dedicated her life to helping farmworker women fight gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. A native of Fremont, Ohio, a small agricultural community in the northwestern part of the state, Ramírez has deep family roots in the fields; both her parents and grandparents were migrant farmworkers. As a member of her church, she participated in migrant outreach programming, visiting families in the fields. At 17, her work with migrant ministry led her to volunteer at a traveling school for migrant children.
As an undergraduate at Loyola University, Ramírez began working as a summer secretary with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc. (ABLE), a non-profit regional law firm in northwestern Ohio working on behalf of low-income people. She continued working with ABLE every summer until graduation, moving from secretary to outreach worker for ABLE’s Agricultural Worker and Immigrant Rights Practice Group.
“It was natural for me to be in the farm worker activist circle, the immigrant rights movement, and the worker rights movement,” said Ramírez. “I also felt a natural pull to be part of the anti-sexual violence movement.”
At Moritz, Ramírez served as president of the Student Bar Association in 2003 and earned the Moritz Leadership Award that same year. She was also selected for an Equal Justice Works Fellowship—one of only 32 law students in the country—for her proposal to eradicate workplace discrimination and sexual violence against farmworker and low-wage immigrant women in Florida.
Ramírez ultimately established the first state-wide project in the U.S. dedicated to addressing gender discrimination against farmworker women in Florida. She expanded the project onto the national stage after she joined the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), where she established Esperanza: The Immigrant Women’s Legal Initiative. She served as the project’s director and as senior supervising attorney with SPLC from 2006-2012.
The National Farmworker Women’s Alliance
In 2011, Ramírez co-founded the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (National Farmworker Women’s Alliance) where she served on the executive committee, including as the board president from 2016 through June 2018. Alianza is the first national farmworker women’s organization created by current and former farmworker women and women from farmworker families. The organization is particularly concerned with ending workplace exploitation against farmworker women and all farmworkers, including sexual harassment.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, Cultivating Fear: The Vulnerability of Immigrant Farmworkers in the U.S. to Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment, a 2010 survey of 150 farmworker women in California’s Central Valley found that 80 percent had experienced some form of sexual harassment. Sexual violence against farmworker women is so prevalent, she said, that the women sometimes refer to agricultural fields as “green motels” and the “fields of panties.”
“We know that perpetrators view these women as the perfect victims because many of them do not speak English or speak limited English,” said Ramírez. “Most of these women don’t know their rights and all of them feel alone. They are the most marginalized population.”
Farmworker women ignite TIME’S UP
Last November, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and in the lead up to the “Take Back the Workplace” march in Los Angeles, Ramírez wrote an open letter of solidarity to the women in Hollywood who had come forward with their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. She wrote the letter on behalf of 700,000 women farmworkers across the U.S., who “work in the shadows of society in isolated fields and packinghouses that are out of sight and out of mind for most people in this country.”
“It’s the strength of the women on the ground who brought this (movement) forward”
“Female farmworkers have been organizing for a very long time around these issues. We have the experience, not only having suffered from this problem but from years of organizing”, said Ramírez.
What happened next propelled Ramírez and farmworker women across the nation into the limelight. Time magazine published her letter that same month, sparking the creation of what is now known as the TIME’S UP movement.
On January 1, 2018, galvanized by the courage of the farmworker women, more than 300 Hollywood celebrities published their own letter, declaring TIME’S UP on sexual harassment in the work place. A week later, Ramírez found herself on NBC’s Today Show with actor and activist America Ferrera, as well as on the red carpet at the 2018 Golden Globes as guest of actress and activist Laura Dern.
“Walking the red carpet on behalf of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas and on behalf of our community provided farmworker women with incredible visibility that we had never seen before,” said Ramírez. “Every step that we took together with the activists and actresses who participated in this action for justice was a step forward in our fight to end violence in all its forms against every person, in the home, in the workplace and in the community.”
Taking her fight to the United Nations
In March, Ramírez delivered the keynote address at the United Nation’s 2018 International Women’s Day celebration on rural women’s activism. Alongside António Guterres, the organization’s secretary-general, and actresses and activists Reese Witherspoon and Danai Gurira among others, Ramírez called on urban and rural women to work together to support one another in the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace.
“My overarching charge to everyone in the room was that we must dedicate ourselves to reaching the most marginalized, least visible girl among us,” she said. “I think that by joining forces we have the power to make workplaces better and communities safer across the nation and, really, the world.”
Coming full circle
Ramírez has moved from Washington, D.C. back to Fremont, Ohio, fueled by a sense of urgency to fight against
the increasing harassment and deportation of farmworker families in her home state and a belief that, now more than ever, it’s time to “go home,” to support work on the ground.
A series of immigration raids rocked small towns in northern Ohio in the summer of 2018. On June 5, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents made more than 100 arrests at two Erie County gardening and landscaping locations. Two weeks later, more than 100 agents conducted a mass arrest at a meatpacking plant in Salem, Ohio. The raid—one of the biggest conducted on a workplace by customs enforcement in the past decade—resulted in 146 arrests.
“Saving this country requires folks going back to these small communities, and for me this means coming back home,” Ramírez said. “I want to contribute and to apply all the things I have learned over the last 20-plus years to help move my community forward.”
“We are not waiting to be saved. We are saving ourselves.”
Ramírez is cautiously optimistic about the movement to eradicate sexual violence and harassment in the workplace. For the first time ever, she says, there is public recognition that farmworker women have power and that they are making a difference in their communities.