2014 Knight Award for Public Service finalist

Rape in the Fields


About the Project

“Rape in the Fields” started out in rural North Carolina.

Linsay Rousseau Burnett – then a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism – was reporting on child labor for her summer internship when she came across a woman with eight children. The woman confided that her husband was not their father: She had been sleeping with her supervisor as a way to keep her job, and the kids were his. Further research suggested that this was only the tip of the iceberg.

It would take four years before the team of reporters and producers from IRP, CIR Univision and FRONTLINE would come together to develop the story even further. What we quickly discovered is that sexual exploitation and violence against women in the agricultural sector is not only rooted in the nation’s history, but it persists today. It is an open secret among immigrants here in U.S. both legally and illegally.

We found tales of rape and abuse in literally every agricultural community we visited, from the dusty towns of California’s Central Valley to the leafy orchards of Washington state to the frozen plains of Iowa and the steamy tomato fields of Florida.

But few women were willing to tell their stories on camera. They were afraid of losing their jobs or being deported. Many feared retaliation from their abusers or being blamed by their spouses. The cultural shame of admitting to having been raped was equally paralyzing. The very same factors that made these women vulnerable to abuse in the first place were keeping them from participating in our film.

That was not our only problem. Virtually no other media outlets had ever reported on this subject before, and no government agency seemed to be paying attention. When we tried to quantify the size of the problem, we were stuck – there are no comprehensive numbers or data on the prevalence of rape in the fields.

Undaunted, we continued to report, visiting isolated communities and building relationships with sources. We also began to construct our own database from federal and private lawsuits in the public record. And slowly, we began to meet women who dared to speak out.

After countless meetings in cafes, restaurants, churches, law offices, homes and in the fields themselves, we built trusting relationships. At first, many agreed to speak in shadow and no more. Others agreed to talk but then reneged out of fear or shame or because they could not bear to relive the pain.

It required time, perseverance and immense sensitivity to actually find women who had processed their trauma in a way that allowed them to speak publically. In the end, we can take little credit for having persuaded them to go on camera and conduct audio interviews – we simply provided the opportunity and the space for them to share their experiences. The project unfolded on multiple platforms including hourlong documentaries in English and Spanish, long-form text stories, an animated graphic novel, a radio series for KQED as well as multiple sidebar stories on all partners’ websites. Follow-up stories appeared on NPR and “Reveal,” a new public radio program (from CIR and PRX) showcasing investigative reporting.

Rape in the Fields has broken the wall of silence around this issue both in Congress and in isolated Latino rural immigrant communities. It has publicly identified the perpetrators. And for the first time, it has raised the issue nationally as to why no one, in any of the federal cases we discovered, has been criminally prosecuted.

The reaction to the reporting has been overwhelming. From every corner of the country, we have received news that our piece was the first to give voice to the suffering of so many. The story has reverberated throughout the national press, spurred discussion in local, state and national legislative bodies, and has begun to create change in the immigrant communities most affected by this issue.

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour called it an “amazing documentary,” and The New York Times wrote about it – twice. Dozens of other news outlets across the country carried the story, from Bloomberg to USA Today. An op-ed in The Seattle Times described it as “an extraordinary piece of journalism.”

In Santa Cruz County, California, the rape crisis center has changed its hours and begun outreach to farm workers – changes staff members directly attribute to our reporting. At a screening hosted by the district attorney in neighboring Monterey County, a member of the sheriff’s office revealed that, for the first time, it is pursuing criminal charges on behalf of an abused farm worker.

Agencies including the California Department of Public Health and the Mexican Consulate have hosted screenings and requests continue to come in from the Environmental Protection Agency, the American Bar Association and others. Colleges, churches and film festivals have all shown the film.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency in charge of prosecuting sexual harassment, ordered 50 copies of the film to train its employees. Advocacy groups such as the California Institute for Rural Studies and Lideres Campesinas have expressed interest in using the film to educate the community.

More importantly, the women in the film have expressed their gratitude. One farmworker said, “If I stay quiet, then it is going to continue happening. That is why I now prefer to talk about it, so that many people can see themselves in me. So they won’t stay quiet anymore.”