Sandra Hinojosa was raised along with her 10 siblings by her single mother. A native of Santiago, a small town in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, her mother “washed other people’s clothes, made tortillas to sell, and sold dinner at night,” says Sandra. ““It was she that helped us move forward. But none of us went to high school.”
Like most immigrants, Sandra arrived to the United States looking for work and new opportunities. A little over ten years ago she moved to Gonzalez, a rural town 20 minutes outside of Salinas, California, and found work as an agricultural worker with the help of her older sister.
“My first job was cutting lettuce,” she says, “I worked 8 years for the same company.”
It is also around this time, that Sandra began transitioning from male to female, with the support of her family and friends.
At work Sandra proved herself to be an exemplary worker and was promoted to the position of manager, overseeing a little over 100 employees. While it seemed as though Sandra had finally earned the opportunity she had been looking for, her success couldn’t protect her from transphobia in the work place.
Although the vast majority of the workers she oversaw liked her, she quickly realized not everyone shared similar sentiment. Her supervisors would often direct homophobic or transphobic slurs at her. The abuse, however, eventually escalated into violence.
“There was a man who was my assistant manager. This man began beating my partner, who also worked in the packing company. Once, he hit my partner from behind and bathed him in blood.”
The day following the attack, Sandra was removed from her post as manager and returned to the main floor. “I felt that they were trying to pressure me into leaving the job because they would make me complete tasks that normally take two or three people.”
Since it was a temporary job, Sandra stayed on and endured the abuse until the very end. After her stint at the packing company finished, she went to The Citizenship Project who referred her to the Center for Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). She shared her story with the CRLA attorney and ultimately brought and won the civil case against the company.
Sandra’s story, although remarkable, is not unique. Workplace discrimination and transgender unemployment continue to be major obstacles, and hate crimes in the state and throughout the nation are on the rise. In 2008, there were 1,397 reported hate crimes in California alone with over 20% of those directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LBGT) people. Yet transgender people are more susceptible to discrimination in the work place.
Last year, the Transgender Law Center issued statewide survey findings where two-thirds (67%) of the transgender (male to female and female to male) people surveyed reported some form of workplace harassment or discrimination directly related to their gender identity.
But an accurate number of hate crimes and discrimination in rural California doesn’t exist because often they go unreported and because the total number of LGBT people living in rural communities is unknown.
“In California, there are more than 800,000 agriculture workers,” says Lisa Cisneros, CRLA attorney.
“But we don’t know how many of them identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. The truth is that LGBT people live everywhere, but rural areas are more conservative.
Cisneros, who also leads Proyecto Poderoso, a joint project of CRLA and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), has helped many LGBT identified individuals in need of for legal advice and assistance. Proyecto Poderoso focuses on educating and empowering LGBT people in rural communities.
Last January, Proyecto Poderoso hosted a conference, “Orgullo y Poder Latino,” in Fresno, California that had an attendance of over 100 participants from through the state.
“The ideal would be to choose where we live, with whom we live, and where we work. The reality is that poor people depend on the work provided by agricultural and packaging companies.
These folk live in devastating poverty. For them, it is very difficult to avoid homophobia and trans-phobia because of the lack of economic independence.”