When Hermila Treviño-Sauceda was a teenager working in the fields in the Coachella Valley, the longtime farmworker was sexually assaulted. The violence, which many impoverished Latina farmers experience, propelled her into activism, advocating for the rights and justice of women toiling on the ground.
While Treviño-Sauceda, 58, may be unfamiliar to you, the Chicana is considered “the leader of the women’s farmworker movement in the U.S.” by the Women’s World Summit Foundation (WWSF). In 2016, the same foundation awarded the Washington-born organizer, who most know as “Mily,” the 2016 Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life.
“Mily is an inspiration to women through her advocacy campaigns and her creative approaches to help women farmworkers comprehend and confront their challenges,” the WWSF wrote of her. “Mily is also instrumental in helping farmworkers learn their rights, obtain fair wages, and work in safe environments. She has received local and national awards for her leadership work.”
That coveted, internationally recognized award isn't the first prize Treviño-Sauceda picked up for her more than 40 years of activism. The Ford Foundation named her one of “100 Heroines of the World;” New York University awarded her its “Leadership for a Changing World” prize; the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gave her the Equal Rights Service Award; and last year she took home the Cesar Chavez Legacy Award.
Treviño-Sauceda’s work spans decades. Her organizing started alongside her father, who was active in the farm labor movement. As a teenage woman negotiating farmworker contracts, what was considered a man's job, the young Treviño-Sauceda caught the eye of the advocacy group California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). They recruited her to help with community outreach, giving her deeper skills and understanding of organizing.
In 1988, she teamed up with colleague Maria Elena Lopez-Treviño to create a needs-assessment survey for farmworker women.
“The responses we received from the women we surveyed overwhelmingly suggested that we needed to do something beyond research, and recording responses,” Treviño-Sauceda told Fusion. “They wanted to see change. What’s more, they wanted to be a part of that change.”
The results inspired Treviño-Sauceda to start a conference, which she called “Mujeres Mexicanas."
“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.”
Treviño-Sauceda, hoping to continue empowering women farmworkers, established the Farmworker Women’s Leadership Project, now known as Líderes Campesinas, in 1992. Today, the group has 500 members with dozens of chapters in rural farming areas, like the San Joaquin Valley, Ventura County, and Madera County, that meet in homes to discuss the various issues they encounter on the fields.
As for Treviño-Sauceda, the longtime activist is now the president and co-founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. With president-elect Donald Trump, who has threatened to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, headed to the White House, she says her work is as important as ever.
“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.”
She continued: “We are getting ready. Groups are coming together and uniting more than ever before … We refuse to be considered second rate citizens. We have come too far, and we are not going back.”