Inside The Underground Network For Latina Abuse Victims

Photo: Courtesy of Cinthya Santos Briones.
Today, there are roughly 55 million Latinxs living in the U.S. — each one of us with unique cultural experiences. In our new series #SomosLatinx, R29's Latinx staffers explore the parallels and contrasts that make our community so rich. Stay tuned as we celebrate our diversity during Latinx Heritage Month from September 15-October 15.
Last week, The California Sunday Magazine published a powerful story written by Lizzie Presser about the underground network of Latinas who are transforming their homes into safe houses for — mostly undocumented — women who have been abused at home and at work.
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For many undocumented immigrants, being discriminated against, abused, or otherwise harmed is commonplace, but does not necessarily warrant a call to the police as doing so is far too risky. And so, many women suffer in silence.
Presser got an inside look at the network that has assisted hundreds of Latinas who have been harassed, assaulted, and beaten since the 1990s. These women have opened up their homes to one another, supported one another financially, and cared for each other in a time when the government and other resources would likely have turned a blind eye.
During this era of increased hostility towards immigrants, it is crucial that we take time to reflect on the myriad ways that discrimination towards marginalized women is worsening, and reflect on what we can do better. Presser chatted with Refinery29 about her reporting and how we can better support Latinas and victims of violence, both in these secret underground networks and in our own communities.
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How did you first find out about this underground network?
"I kept hearing how sexual assault and domestic violence police reports by Latinx victims were falling in California, and in other cities around the country. I was interested in understanding what happened next — both what survivors were doing to protect themselves if they weren’t going to the police, and also if and how Latinx communities were stepping in to provide alternative services when law enforcement and other state-linked agencies didn’t feel like safe places to go.
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"I started calling around to grassroots organizations across California until I eventually began speaking with women at Líderes Campesinas about their work organizing women in farmworker families against domestic abuse and sexual harassment. After many weeks of phone calls, they started to talk about the underground work they knew of in their communities."
Tell us about your reporting process for this story — how did the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute play a role?
"For this story, I spent a few weeks with Valentina, who invites survivors of domestic abuse into her home and helps to connect them with shelters, police, and public services. The Investigative Fund helped me shape my reporting and gave me the resources to spend three weeks on the ground in California, which was critical to building trust.
"I shadowed Valentina, I interviewed her extensively, her friends and family and colleagues, and also several women whom she had helped. I reached out to dozens of major rape crisis centers to understand drops in engagement and filed public records requests, as well. Through Valentina, I met a number of other women who opened their homes, and I interviewed seven of them, too."
How were you able to build relationships with these women and get them to open up when these stories are usually kept under wraps?
"Because I was lucky enough to have a reporting budget, I could let my sources set a pace that worked for them. I spent a lot of time driving around with these women, eating meals with them, sitting around saying almost nothing.
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"I also quickly got the impression that while these women were not used to telling their stories, they wanted to. Once Valentina started to trust me, and other women in her life saw that, they were far more comfortable talking."
You spoke in depth with Valentina*, who has been helping hundreds of Latina women who were beaten at home and harassed at work since the mid-’90s. What did Valentina share with you about her main findings on the lack of support for undocumented women being abused?
"Before Trump was elected, Valentina was seeing that many undocumented women didn’t know their rights. They weren't aware of the public services available to them or how the police would respond or how to access the judicial system. Sometimes, there weren’t enough bilingual staff at crisis agencies or police departments. They also had a very difficult time getting beds in shelters.
"Since January of 2017, Valentina started noticing that even when she explained the rights of undocumented survivors, they didn’t want to go to authorities at all. The administration’s expanded enforcement priorities had made any interaction with law enforcement feel like a risk. Even immigrants with papers, who lived in mixed status families, were avoiding the police at higher rates."
The women Valentina helps are waitresses, saleswomen, fruit and vegetable pickers, house cleaners and are “reluctant to point a finger” when they are harmed. Can you talk about what Valentina shared were the primary reasons behind this?
"Most of the women Valentina helps have very little money. They know their jobs are tenuous, and they rely on those paychecks. If they point a finger at someone who is harassing them or assaulting them at work, they know they need solid evidence, if not indisputable proof, and that’s often very difficult to get. Many prefer to stay silent, or simply look for a new job elsewhere, than to risk retaliation from their employer.
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"In terms of calling out an abuser at home, the women are afraid of losing their children, nervous that their partners will be deported and they’ll lose child support or their kids will lose their dad forever, or afraid that they themselves will get placed in removal proceedings. Some of the women also face cultural barriers—it can be stigmatizing to talk about violence in the home and sexual assault in particular, and many of the women Valentina meets feel ashamed."
Many of the women in your story were farmworkers who weren’t able to stand up for themselves in the fields. How do you see domestic violence intersecting with workplace abuses?
"This was particularly interesting to me and also to Valentina. Many Latina organizers I spoke with had found that they couldn’t isolate sexual harassment at work from domestic violence. They kept seeing overlap, noticing how women who were beaten at home were more vulnerable in the workplace. They realized if they wanted to fight against workplace abuses they needed to start with violence in the home. Women weren’t going to speak up about problems at work if they weren’t comfortable in their own houses.
"This was a point these women made again and again — that we can’t just look at legal solutions for workplace harassment or assault, but instead, we need to think more broadly about preventing violence against women in general."
You go into detail about the logistics of what these women are doing in your piece, but can you summarize some of the ways these networks work for our readers?
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"Most of the Latina women opening their homes are survivors themselves, either of domestic violence or sexual assault, and they talk with other women in their towns and cities about that violence. The first step in this work is showing victims that they can feel comfortable speaking about it, which often takes months, or longer.
"Once a survivor does acknowledge violence, the women who open their homes explain her rights — that she can go to the police, look for a bed in a shelter, file for a restraining order, and even apply for a U Visa for permanent residency. The women guide the survivor to take the steps that feel the safest for her. If she doesn’t want to go to authorities, these women then open their homes.
"One of the devastating findings in this reporting was that a lot of the immigrant women who experience this violence and avoid the police don’t feel safe staying in the same town or city as their abuser. Without a restraining order, they prefer to disappear. When they want to move towns, Valentina and other women in her network help them, sometimes handing out the numbers of women across the state, or in other parts of the country, who open their homes as well."
Líderes Campesinas is an organization of women farmworkers that is aiding dialogue on violence in private and public spheres of these women’s lives, including discrimination at work. How do you see organizations like this empowering women who have not historically been able to stand up to abuse?
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"In conversations about sexual violence over the past year, one of the biggest solutions people have offered has been legal action and supporting legal services, particularly for low-income women. Legal services are no doubt a piece of the solution, but what Líderes has found, and what I saw in my reporting, is that the women who go to lawyers are just the tip of the iceberg.
"The bigger effort, which is far more difficult, but arguably more important, is grassroots education and outreach, and organizing at the ground level. It’s through these efforts that immigrant women, and ordinary women more generally, are going to feel comfortable speaking up first and then, down the line, considering seeking a lawyer."
The election of Trump has had a negative impact on the immigrant community, and you mentioned that the number of farmworkers writing their full names or addresses on sign-up sheets and attending meetings was shrinking. In your reporting, how are you seeing the Trump administration impacting the lives of these women?
"They’re far more afraid to speak up, to go to the police, even to go to the hospital. Many of the women Valentina works with were hesitant before Trump was elected, and because this administration has implemented stricter immigration policies and spread fear about separated families, many of the survivors feel like going to authorities is not an option right now. That means they may be staying longer in abusive relationships or dangerous working conditions.
"Abusers often threaten to call ICE if survivors report to the police, and that common tactic has new force under Trump. For these women, it can sometimes feel as if they’re living under an administration that protects the abuser, rather than the victim."
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What are some of the resources and strategies you found undocumented women can consider if they are having issues with abuses in their workplace or at home?
"They can connect with community-based organizations like Líderes Campesinas to guide them and also reach out to police departments or police community liaisons, where they exist. Rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters are fantastic resources where women can speak to staff about their options and their rights. For women who want to apply for a U Visa but would prefer to avoid the police, they can also speak with victim advocates at their local district attorney’s office."
How can our readers support these women, these initiatives and organizations?
"Readers can support Líderes Campesinas, and they can find other grassroots female farmworker groups in their states through Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. If they are considering donating to the Time’s Up legal defense fund, they can also look to grassroots organizations in their communities that lay groundwork, helping immigrant women feel safe and protected speaking out and seeking help."
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