Lideres Campesinas uses theater to get at some of farm work's ugliest issues.
By Janet Upadhye
October 28, 2010
Though the Salinas sun beats down mercilessly, many female
fieldworkers wear sweatshirts. which doesn't make sense to most
people. But there's a very good albeit haunting reason that they
do, and Lideres Campesinas, a theater group created by and for
farmworker women, wants locals to understand.
"It is a huge issue," says Lideres Assistant Coordinator Paula
Placencia. "Many women farmworkers really cover up while working.
They tell people that this is to stay out of the sun and in case it
gets cold. But it is well known out in the fields that bandanas and
sweatshirts also protect women from harassment."
Lideres member Maricela Medina knows the feeling. "You do not want to
look pretty in the fields," she says. "You do not want to show your
face or body. Women cover up as best they can. If they don't, they
will be harassed or worse."
Lideres Campesinas takes a different approach to stopping the
harassment.than most advocacy groups. They act the problem out onstage.
In one such skit, a male farmworker suddenly grips a woman's forearm.
She cringes with helplessness. Later, as she wrestles with fears she
will lose her job, angry tears stain her face.
"We show women their rights through the use of theater," Placencia
says. "So many times women don't know they are being mistreated until
they see it acted out for them."
Borrowing a page from Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesino, Lideres members
believe acting grabs people emotionally. They also provide direct
advocacy for women farmworkers encountering barriers when dealing
with police, social services, shelters, courts, immigration services
and the health care system.
Placencia feels theater works because the humanity of the drama
crosses language barriers and conveys the emotions farmworker women
deal with in a way that PowerPoint lectures can't.
"We are re-living our own experiences through theater," she says.
Because it's so real, she adds, the actors need little fine-tuning.
"All of our practice goes out the door when we begin," she says. "Our
real-life stories and experiences come out. We do not have to
rehearse our lines. These stories come from the soul."
The skits open a therapeutic door for audience members who may have
survived harassment in the fields and healing opportunities for the
"By acting out traumatic moments, we find that the experience that we
are re-enacting loses the control it once had over us," Placencia says.
Gloria Ramirez of the United Farm Workers' Workers Voices Campaign
believers that, in a subpopulation that already has it tough, female
farmworkers suffer even more than their male counterparts. It's
surprisingly easy for corrupt supervisors to make their situations
uncomfortable if, say, sexual advances aren't welcomed.
"He can fire her or make her life a living hell," Ramirez says.
"He'll punish [the entire group] for days with no food, water or
Limited bathroom access is a cruelty Ramirez has experienced herself.
"The bathrooms [might be] located too far for us to use," she says.
"There have been times I have really had to use the restroom, but
they are so far, I could not make it in time and accidentally had to
urinate on myself."
Lideres' theater plays remind workers of their rights and how to
claim them: "Women are definitely less likely to stay in unhealthy
situations today than they were 12 years ago," Placencia says. "Now,
we know our rights."
Lideres, which was founded in the Coachella Valley in 1988, now does
work in 12 chapters, including one in Monterey County.
Given that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Lideres
Campesinas is taking its show on the road. The troupe has been
performing in venues throughout South County, including local
churches, parks and private homes.
They will close the month with a culminating event Friday, Oct. 29,
with a gathering of performances and speeches. Candles will represent
those who have lost their lives to violence in the county.Balloons,
meanwhile, will represent four different aspects of this ongoing
struggle: Red for the blood that's been spilled, purple for the
bruises left behind, white for the purity that's been lost and green for hope.
"As we watch the balloons float away," Placencia says, "we have a
moment without fear, and we trust that one day things will be different."
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AWARENESS MONTH culminates with a Lideres
Campesinas vigil 6pm Friday, Oct. 29, at the corner of Alisal and
John streets in Salinas. Free. 424-1171.