MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block in Washington.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish in California.
Agriculture is one of America's most hazardous industries, with hundreds of farm workers dying each year from accidents. But there's another danger: that of rape and sexual assault. For those picking America's fruits and vegetables, the fields can be a very dangerous place to work. And while it's difficult for any rape victim to press criminal charges, female farm workers have to overcome additional hurdles.
Sasha Khokha, of member station KQED in San Francisco, has more. But a note to listeners: This story contains graphic language.
SACHA KHOKHA, BYLINE: It started with a missing paycheck. In 2006, Guadalupe Chavez, a farm worker in California's Central Valley, was supposed to earn $245 for a week of picking pomegranates; money the widowed mother of two needed urgently to pay her bills. When she went to track down the check, a supervisor she'd never met before told her someone had it out in the fields. He said to follow him there in her car.
GUADALUPE CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)
KHOKHA: He stopped in an isolated pistachio orchard. Then, she says, he got out of his truck, and demanded her underpants in exchange for her paycheck.
CHAVEZ: (Through translator) He said I'm the supervisor. I'm in charge here. And I remembered that he had told me that he had a gun in his truck. And so when he said that, and he banged hard on the car with his hand, I thought he's serious. If I don't do what he says he can kill me.
KHOKHA: Then, Chavez says the supervisor reached through her car window, and forced his hand between her legs.
CHAVEZ: (Through translator) He was hurting me. Imagine, his fingers were all dirty with pesticides. I wanted him to stop and hoped that was all he wanted. I thought if he kills me, who will take care of my children?
KHOKHA: After those long, frightening moments, he finally gave her the check. But then she says, he demanded oral sex before letting her go.
What Chavez describes meets the federal definition of rape and is considered a felony under California law. Two days later, she went to a rural legal aid office about another missing check. Lawyers there noticed she seemed distraught. They gently asked what was wrong, and she gave the OK to call the police.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...Kings County, I'm going to send you Incident 169 to speak with officer.
KHOKHA: Kris Zuniga, then of the Kings County Sheriffs Department, investigated the case.
KRIS ZUNIGA: Oh absolutely, I believed her. Her story was consistent.
KHOKHA: When he interrogated the suspect, Zuniga says, the man denied knowing Chavez. But then he admitted sexual contact, saying it was consensual. We'll hear more about what happened with Guadalupe Chavez's case in a moment. Most farm worker women, though, never report sexual assault to the police.
ZUNIGA: For one, they're afraid that they're going to get deported. Number two, word gets around to the other bosses in the valley, and they other people that are also doing farm labor work, they'll never work out there again.
KHOKHA: Zuniga is now a sergeant with the police department in the rural town of Avenal. He says many farm worker victims don't get a rape exam.
ZUNIGA: And a week goes by, two weeks goes by, three weeks goes by, you've lost that physical evidence. So now you're down to a he-said-she-said. And those are tough, tough to prosecute.
KHOKHA: The first stop for a farm worker victim isn't usually the police station. It's more likely a place like Westside Family Preservation Services, a tiny nonprofit tucked into a rundown strip mall in the rural California town of Huron. A steady stream of women walk in after work in the fields, pulling down the brightly colored bandannas that protect their faces.
Case worker Amparo Yebra says sometimes they'll confide to her about sexual violence.
AMPARO YEBRA: They have to feel comfortable. They have to feel like they can trust that they're going to be helped.
KHOKHA: Yebra says she literally holds a woman's hand and walks with her into the police station. But sometimes, she says, victims change their minds once they find out what's involved in a criminal case, including the humiliation of retelling their stories in front of a jury. Sometimes they may choose to file a complaint against the farm company instead.
SANDRA MENDOZA: (Through translator) A lot of times the victim wants to just wrap things up as fast as possible, get some peace.
KHOKHA: Sandra Mendoza works with the Mexican Consulate to help crime victims navigate the U.S. justice system.
MENDOZA: (Through translator) Coming to an agreement with the company is confidential, no one else finds out about it from either the victim's or the company's point of view. And victims don't face the uncertainty of a jury trial, where nothing guarantees that the alleged perpetrator ends up in jail anyway.
KHOKHA: But the farm worker we met earlier, Guadalupe Chavez, wanted her alleged assailant to go to jail. The local district attorney determined there was strong enough evidence to prosecute and took the case, making Chavez one of the few farm worker women to press criminal charges in a sexual assault case.
But with no witnesses in the pistachio orchard that day, the jury believed the defense, that the encounter was consensual. The farm supervisor was acquitted.
CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)
KHOKHA: But even so, Chavez says she got some justice, because the man she accused of raping her had to face her in court. And, she says, now supervisors like him may think twice about how they treat women in the fields.
CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)
KHOKHA: For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha in Fresno.
CORNISH: This story was produced in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting and UC, Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program.