COACHELLA, CA — On any given day, Hermila Treviño-Sauceda, 58, can be spotted around town wearing her usual organizer regalia: a colorfully embroidered blouse with one shoulder covered in pins displaying slogans like, “Que Viva La Mujer!” (Long Live Women!) and “Líderes Campesinas de Pie!” (Farmworker Women, Stand Up!). In the Coachella Valley, where California’s farmworker and Chicano movements have deep roots, Treviño-Sauceda, better known here as “Mily,” could pass as almost anyone’s grandmother. And although many locals know her story, it would come as a total surprise to most other Americans that this unassuming, humble woman is one of the most accomplished Latina activists in the United States.
Treviño-Sauceda spent a decade working in the fields of the eastern Coachella Valley, one of the largest agricultural regions in the country where roughly 70,000 acres of farmland produce $575 million in crops and agriculture products each year. Unlike the affluent, more famous west side that includes Palm Springs and other resort towns, communities in the rural east valley—the area is 99% Latino and home to about 15,000 farmworkers—are among the most economically challenged in the state. The poorest residents, including many farmworkers, live in trailer parks and small home settlements built on unincorporated land, where water contamination, sparse amenities and public services, and geographic isolation create daily challenges.
This is where, more than 40 years ago, Treviño-Sauceda began her life’s work of organizing on behalf of women farmworkers—a calling that earned her global recognition this year when she was awarded the Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life by the Women’s World Summit Foundation (WWSF), an international nongovernmental human rights organization based in Geneva. On its website, the organization lauds Treviño-Sauceda for her “creative approaches to help women farmworkers comprehend and confront their challenges,” and describes her as “the leader of the women’s farmworker movement in the U.S.”
Although she remains largely unknown to the American public, it wasn’t the first time Treviño-Sauceda has been recognized publicly. In recent years, she’s been written about by People Magazine and People en Español; made the Ford Foundation’s list of “100 Heroines of the World”; was awarded NYU’s “Leadership for a Changing World” prize; was given an Equal Rights Service Award by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and just last year was given a Cesar Chavez Legacy Award.
Despite it all, Treviño-Sauceda keeps a remarkably low-profile, living in a quiet corner of the Coachella Valley with her mother. Their home pays small tributes to her decades of work as an activist—awards and organizing posters sprout indiscriminately from every corner. Two laptops humming on her kitchen table amid stacks of brochures, pamphlets, and spreadsheets are are the only telltale sign that her work is unremitting.
Treviño-Sauceda spent most of her very early life in Mexico, but she was born in Bellingham, Washington, in 1956. Her parents were migrant farmworkers who made regular treks across the country, following the crops. She was still just a child when she started working in the fields with her parents, at the age of seven, after the family settled at a labor camp in Idaho, where old train boxcars served as housing.
“We would wake up everyday before school, to work,” she recalled during an interview at her home, “and come right back home after school to change, and get ready to work again. We got used to that. [My siblings and I] thought all [the other] children were doing that, too.”
In U.S. classrooms, Treviño-Sauceda struggled early on. She was forced to repeat second grade, not because she couldn’t handle the coursework, she said, but because the teachers had no idea what to do with Spanish-speaking students. “When I was a kid, I actually thought I was not smart,” said Treviño-Sauceda, who now has multiple degrees in Chicano and Women’s Studies. “I was always behind in my classes, but I understand now that the systems in place were not equipped for bilingual learners. I didn’t learn anything at first, because they would just put me in the corner to draw.”
School eventually got easier for Treviño-Sauceda, in no small part due to her mother’s incredible efforts. “In addition to taking care of all 13 of her children, and working in el campo alongside my dad, my mom would also go to night school to take English classes, so she could teach us and help us with our homework,” she said.
She was the third born in her family but the eldest girl, a position that came with certain expectations. “I grew up in a very traditional household,” she said. “I took care of my younger siblings, I cooked, I cleaned, I worked in the fields. A lot was expected of me on those fronts, but not so in my education. My mom always told my brothers to get a good education, to work hard because they would need to take care of their wives someday.”
Meanwhile in the fields, working conditions were terrible: Wage discrimination was rampant, and occupational hazards were myriad. Heat exhaustion—triple-digit temperatures are normal for the Coachella Valley in the summer—was common, and workers were regularly doused in pesticides while working the crops. Treviño-Sauceda bore witness as her fellow workers suffered the consequences, including the death of one woman worker who was pregnant.
Like many farmworker women before and after her, Treviño-Sauceda was also sexually assaulted on the job. The first person she told was her father. “He questioned me, he asked me what I had been doing to attract the attention of my assailant,” she remembered. “Then he went right on talking to my assailant as though nothing had happened.”
The experience was a catalyst for the teenage Treviño-Sauceda. She began organizing—alongside her father, who was active in the farm labor movement—and in so doing, carving away at the notion that negotiating farmworker contracts was a man’s job.
Years later, California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), a farmworker advocacy group, heard about the trailblazer that Treviño-Sauceda was quickly becoming in the Coachella Valley. They recruited her to help with community outreach, and it was with CRLA that she really honed her skills as an organizer. In 1988, when a colleague, Maria Elena Lopez-Treviño, began a needs-assessment survey for farmworker women, she enlisted Treviño-Sauceda’s help. The survey was the first of its kind, giving farmworker women in the Coachella Valley a platform to express their concerns like never before.
“The responses we received from the women we surveyed overwhelmingly suggested that we needed to do something beyond research, and recording responses,” recounts Treviño-Sauceda. “They wanted to see change. What’s more, they wanted to be a part of that change.”
Thus, Treviño-Sauceda helped to organize a conference for the first cohort of surveyed women. They called themselves “Mujeres Mexicanas,” and made the empowerment of farmworker women the theme of their conference. “So many women came forward with stories similar to mine,” she said. “So many of us had experienced sexual assault, harassment, reproductive health problems thanks to the pesticides we were doused in, unequal pay… We were all sick and tired of it.”
In 1992, expanding on the work with Mujeres Mexicanas, Treviño-Sauceda established the Farmworker Women’s Leadership Project under the auspices of the CRLA Foundation. This eventually became La Organización en California de Líderes Campesinas, better known as Líderes Campesinas.
Today, Líderes Campesinas has over 500 active members and volunteers across California, with a dozen chapters established in rural farming regions like the San Joaquin Valley, Ventura County, and Madera County. Members organize meetings out of their homes and invite small groups of farmworker women to talk about the issues they face in and out of the fields. House meetings usually begin with a skit, in which women act out scenarios usually revolving around a health concern, a civil rights issue, or working conditions. Domestic violence is a common theme. Open discussions follow, and women often report leaving the meetings feeling empowered, and expressing a desire to become members and organizers themselves.
Today, Treviño-Sauceda helps organize farmworker women across the country, as president and co-founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. The work, she said, is as relevant as ever, given President-elect Donald Trump’s views of Latinos and his threats to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. More than 50% of seasonal farmworkers nationwide are undocumented, according to Farmworker Justice.
“Farmworkers are scared,” said Treviño-Sauceda. “Whereas we usually have a turnout of around 20 people at any one of our information sessions, just the other day we had over 100 people show up in Salinas.”
At this, she brightens, the same gleam of passion and energy in her eye that is as much a part of her ensemble as her pins. She, more than most, is keenly aware of the struggles that farmworkers have undergone to obtain decent wages and working conditions in the past, and what it will take to hold on to those gains.
“We are getting ready. Groups are coming together and uniting more than ever before,” she said. “We refuse to be considered second rate citizens. We have come too far, and we are not going back.”
All images courtesy Hermila Treviño-Sauceda
This content was made possible by a grant from The California Endowment and produced independently by Fusion’s Rise Up: Be Heard journalism fellowship.
Esperanza Mendez is a blogger and community advocate in Coachella, CA.