To survive the crossing into the U.S., Yazmin, 27, scooped water off the ground.
Yazmin, then only 16, walked four days and four nights through the mountainous terrain near Tijuana, a journey that cost her $1,600 in fees paid to the coyotes who guided her. “We were drinking water from ditches. Who knows if it was clean?”
Surviving in the U.S. also calls for desperate measures. “You can’t live in peace here,” she says. “If my country weren’t poor, I wouldn’t be here.” During the crossing, she battled heat during the day and plunging temperatures at night, but her father and brother protected her from the other dangers of the road.
When they reached California, Yazmin found work picking tomatoes, melons, cucumbers and chili peppers. “I’ve always worked,” she says. She didn’t stay on the West Coast long. Instead, she accompanied her father and brother to Florida, where they hoped to find a measure of prosperity.
Soon, however, Yazmin was initiated into the dark side of the immigrant experience. At an age when many teenagers are looking forward to a prom or college, Yazmin baked for long hours beneath the Florida sun while a supervisor stood over her stooped back, spewing out obscenities and insults.
“He mistreated us and said bad things. He would say horrible things, that we weren’t worth a [thing], very strong vulgar words. He would insult us, and he said that ‘broads’ were only good for cranking out kids. Really ugly. Then he fired me.”
Her next manager sought to squeeze as much labor out of his fieldworkers as possible. He would not permit any breaks, even for a drink of water. “I asked him for some water to drink. He said no, that there wasn’t any … and for me to keep working.” When she complained, he silenced her by threatening to call immigration authorities.
“That’s where being illegal affects us a lot,” she says. “There are bosses who insult you, or they want to sleep with you because they’re bosses.”
A timid young woman, Yazmin did not speak out when the harassment grew worse with each job. One supervisor would physically restrain his workers, grabbing them by the head when he grew angry. Another manager would find ways to brush up against Yazmin when she was nearby.
“Unfortunately, many people are afraid to report [such incidents] because we’re illegal.”
Still not in the U.S. a full year, Yazmin had to fight off a sexual assault after accepting a car ride to work one day. “That man tried to rape me in his truck. He was touching me, and I asked him why he was doing that.”
The man threatened Yazmin. If she told anyone, he would see to it that she lost her job picking watermelons. Frightened, she did not seek out authorities. But Yazmin’s teenage innocence was shattered.
She was still just 16 years old. “I had never been intimate with anyone. And he touched me, and I had to put up with it. That was a bad experience because I couldn’t find a way out. I didn’t feel safe enough to tell someone.”
After four months, she left that job. Yazmin eventually got married and had three children. But she remained in the fields — ignoring the filthy bathroom facilities, the haze of pesticides that engulfed her from time to time and, worst of all, the constant menace of sexual harassment.
She’s conscious of the contribution she’s making to the U.S. economy and to our tables. But this contribution — her backbreaking labor in return for poverty wages — does little to improve her situation. She lives in constant fear. She is afraid of being arrested, of being separated from her children, of working for someone who will hurt her.
For an undocumented immigrant, “I think there’s more risk and not much safety.”