Berkeley reporters release documentary on sexual assault of undocumented workers

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After a year of work and hundreds of hours of research, Berkeley journalists’ investigative documentary on sexual violence faced by female farm workers aired Tuesday evening on PBS.

In a joint collaborative effort with Frontline and Univision, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Investigative Reporting Program have produced the Frontline documentary “Rape in the Fields,” a report on how undocumented female workers are exploited sexually. The ambitious project required the team to take 20 years of unreported sexual violence history and condense it into a 51-minute documentary.

Led by Lowell Bergman, the lead correspondent of “Rape in the Fields” and the director of the IRP, the team also recruited UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism students and UC Berkeley undergraduates to work on the project.

Although the formal investigation lasted a year, the idea had been floating around for several years after a student at the journalism school discovered a woman who was having children with her foreman as a form of job security, said Andres Cediel, producer of the documentary. The IRP had been in talks with Univision and Frontline about developing a project together, and the issue seemed like the perfect opportunity to collaborate.

Univision News will also air the Spanish translation of the documentary, “Violacion de un Sueno,” on Saturday. Univision has 85 percent of the Spanish language market, making it an important broadcaster in terms of reaching those most affected by the issue, Cediel said.

Watch the full documentary from PBS here.

Watch Rape in the Fields on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Jose Zamora, director of strategic communications and news at Univision, also said that this issue was important in light of national debates over immigration reform.

“The legal and economic impact of immigration reforms are constantly discussed,” Zamora said. “But very few media organizations focus on the human side of the issue. It is important to report on the stories that nobody is covering.”

Despite the team’s findings, the investigation process proved challenging because victims often find themselves in the position of being sexually assaulted by those who have the power to fire them but not being able to report the crime to legal authorities for fear of deportation.

“The main challenge was to get women to speak out, because they were afraid,” Cediel said. “They were afraid to report the crime because of shame, fear of deportation, not speaking the language or not having access to lawyers — or fear of losing their job.”

Because many of the female workers are undocumented, gathering statistics on how many women are actually affected was difficult, said Claire Perlman, a UC Berkeley alumna and former staff member of The Daily Californian who was involved with fact-checking and research for the documentary since February.

This lack of information on undocumented workers is another reason the film is important, Perlman said.

“The film is urgent because it’s a big problem that is underrepresented in the media and in the courts,” Perlman said. “We’re working with a number you can’t quantify, with a problem you can’t quantify.”

According to Cediel, producers decided to leave more explicit details out of the documentary to prevent detracting from the issue. Despite this, UC Berkeley senior Mariana Sosa Cordero, who translated and transcribed prerecorded interviews for the documentary, said she found it difficult to listen to what some of the women had gone through.

“It was very emotionally draining to sit there and transcribe, then translate, what these women were talking about,” Cordero said. “As much as I tried to treat it simply as work, the reality of the stories hit me pretty hard.”

Contact Jose Hernandez at [email protected]

A previous version of this article misspelled Andres Cediel’s name.