By Maria Esquinca
Inside Café Mayapan, Veronica Carmona, a community organizer and singer, holds a drum close to her chest. She slowly beats it, and fills the room with the sound of her voice.
“Mujer, eres tú la que guarda el sol en su vientre,” Carmona sings. “Woman, you are the one that keeps the sun in your womb.”
Sitting on the stage, next to Carmona, are five women. They are community leaders, activists and organizers. They represent various organizations: La Mujer Obrera, Border Network for Human Rights, Paso Del Norte Civil Rights Project, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid and A.Y.U.D.A. The organizations form part of a social justice coalition called the El Paso Equal Voice Network.
They came together to speak to the public and the press about human rights, equality and justice. The event, known as Women of the Border, was organized by leaders from The El Paso Equal Voice Network and took place on Wednesday March 8, International Women’s Day.
Women’s historical resistance
Lorena Andrade, director of La Mujer Obrera, began the event by recalling the history of women organizing and protesting.
“En los Estados Unidos ya van mas de 200 años que las mujeres se organizan,” Andrade said at the conference. “It’s been more than 200 years that women organize in the United States.”
International Women’s Day originates from two strikes organized by women. On March 8, 1857, garment workers marched through the streets of New York. They protested for better working conditions, a shorter workday and equal pay. In 1907, 15,000 garment workers marched again to fight for the same things as their predecessors, and to commemorate their activism.
In 1977 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution that proclaimed United Nations Day for Women’s Rights to be celebrated in all Member States. International Women’s Day is now celebrated in more than 100 countries.
In El Paso, migrant women initiated some of the earliest strikes.
“Las mujeres immigrantes en este país nunca han aceptado las condiciones de explotación. Siempre nos hemos organizado para esos cambios,” Andrade said at the conference. “Immigrant women in this country have never accepted exploitative conditions. We have always organized for those changes.”
In the 1900s, American authorities at the Santa Fe Bridge would force Mexicans to take baths. These baths would consist of Mexicans taking their clothes so they could be sprayed pesticides. Later, in the early 1920s, American authorities began to use Zyklon B, a German pesticide also adopted by Nazis.
The book, “Ringside Seat to a Revolution,” written by El Paso author, David Dorado Romo, gives a historical account of how 17-year-old, Carmelita Torres, initiated the bath riots.
Torres crossed the border every day to clean El Paso homes. She refused to be sprayed with pesticides, and she encouraged others to do the same, sparking the bath riots. The El Paso Herald Post reported that several thousand people were involved in the riot.
Hilda Villegas, organizer for La Mujer Obrera, said it is important for women to be able to organize. Both Villegas and Andrade also criticized free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans Pacific Partnership.
According to a 2004 report by the YWCA El Paso Del Norte Region, the University of Texas at El Paso and Junior League of El Paso titled “El Paso Portraits: Women’s Lives, Potential and Opportunities,” since NAFTA took effect, 24,000 workers in El Paso have been certified as dislocated by NAFTA.
“Once NAFTA came into place, those jobs were gone,” Villegas said at the conference.
“Only 13 percent of victims report a sexual assault,” said Stephanie James, Texas Rio Grande legal aid. “It’s impossible to ignore statistics like that.”
TRLA is a non-profit that provides free legal services to low-income residents in 68 counties of Southwest Texas.
James said most of their clients are women, and that women of low socio-economic status are more susceptible to domestic violence. They also suffer from it more frequently and severely, partly because they have less access to legal resources.
“Our mission is essentially to close that gap,” James said. “And to provide access to our legal system that the client may not otherwise have.”
According to a report by the Department of Justice, an estimated 1.9 million women are physically assaulted annually. Hispanic women are less likely to report rape compared to non-Hispanic women.
In 2014 there were 19,834 victims of sexual assault in Texas, 13 percent were male and 87 percent were female. In the same year, there were 19,821 sexual offenders, 96 percent were male and four percent were female, according to state data.
In “Violence and Activism at Border,” Kathleen Staudt, political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, wrote that in 2004 there were 28,000 domestic violence calls made to the El Paso Police Department, but only ten percent of those led to arrests.
“In El Paso, most cases are “worked out” ahead of time; it is estimated that 95 percent do not go to trial,” Staudt wrote.
Often, victims of sexual and physical assault experience abuse at a young age. Statistics from the DOJ report reveal that 54 percent of the female rape victims were younger than age 18 when they first experienced rape. In Texas, the age group with the highest number of victims of sexual assault was the 10-to-14 year-old bracket.
“Our role is to provide women with options,” James said.
James said TRLA will be expanding their services and will be able to serve 180 counties in south Texas.
“Hoy, despues de años de lucha de que se aprobara una ordenanza local del robo de sueldo, hace media hora, finalmente se aprobó,” said Lidia Cruz, organizer for the Labor Justice Committee, at the press conference. “Today, after years of fighting for the approval of a wage theft ordinance, it was finally approved a half hour ago.”
El Paso is the second city in Texas to pass a wage theft ordinance.
Cemelli De Aztlan, network weaver for the Equal Voice Network, said the first phase of the ordinance was passed in June. It banned the city from awarding city contracts to businesses found guilty of wage theft.
The recently approved, second phase, extends beyond city contracts. Any business found guilty of wage theft will have their license removed, permits revoked, and contracts cancelled. They cannot conduct business in El Paso if they do not pay their workers.
“La importancia de esto es que finalmente los empleadores van a tener consecuencias,” Cruz said. “The importance of this is that finally business owners will have consequences.”
The Labor Justice Committee, a local organization that helps the victims of wage theft, along with the Civil Rights Project released a report titled, “El Paso’s Newest Crime Wave: A Wage Theft Epidemic in the Borderlands.” The authors of the survey interviewed 253 workers from south El Paso, El Paso County, and Sunland Park, who were employed in low wage industries.
Researchers found that one in every five low-wage workers receives less than minimum wage, 65% of respondents who worked over 40 hours per week were not given overtime compensation.
Compared to men, women experienced wage theft at a higher rate. Greater than 27% of women were paid below minimum wage compared to 14% of men. Over 43% of women working as domestic workers were paid below minimum wage.
“Todas las personas que están sufriendo robo de sueldo vengan, no se callen, exijan. Todos tenemos los mismos derechos. No importa si estás legal o no en el país,” Cruz said. “All the people who suffer from wage theft, don’t be silent, demand your rights. We all have the same rights. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the country legally or not.”
Human trafficking of Domestic Workers
Cruz, is also part of Beyond Survival, a campaign that focuses on the human trafficking and labor exploitation of domestic workers.
Human trafficking, as defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, encompasses sex trafficking, but also involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.
According to a Beyond Survival report, although trafficking sometimes does not involve commercial sex acts, many labor trafficked workers do face sexual harassment and assault in the workplace.
“Cuando ellas vienen con nosotras vienen creyendo que solamente son víctimas de robo de sueldo, la mayoría de ellas vienen también sufriendo de abuso sexual y de trata de personas,” Cruz said at the conference. “When the come to us (LJC) they believe they are only victims of wage theft, they majority of them also suffer from sexual abuse and human trafficking.
The International Labor Organization estimates that there are nearly 21 million victims of forced labor globally. An estimated $150.2 billion illegal profits are generated per year from forced labor worldwide. Domestic workers generate $8 billion in illegal profits, for employers who use threats and coercion to pay them little to no wages.
“En nuestra ciudad hay muchísimas, muchísimas víctimas, pero lo peor es que ellas ignoran que son víctimas,” Cruz said. “In our city there are many, many victims, but the worst part is that many of them ignore they are victims.”
Cruz urged the audience to be conscious and aware of the issues that affect the El Paso community, so that they can help stop the abuse.
“Hoy, en el día internacional de la mujer vamos a tomar conciencia…de que esto está sucediendo y de que esto tiene que parar,” Cruz said at the rally. “Today, in International Women’s day let’s be conscious… that this is happening and it has to stop.”