The Daily Beast International Women’s Day series, Heroines, celebrates women across a variety of fields who are breaking barriers and creating change. This is the last profile in a five-part series.
Mónica Ramírez is no stranger to cameras and public attention. Still, as the co-founder and board president of the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (or National Farmworker Women’s Alliance) looked out across a room of roughly 1900 people on Thursday it was hard to dismiss the butterflies. It wasn’t just any day and it wasn’t just any room.
Ramírez was at the United Nations marking International Women’s Day. Alongside António Guterres, the organization’s secretary-general, and actresses and activists Reese Witherspoon and Danai Gurira among others, Ramírez addressed the crowd on behalf of farmworker women—a group for whom she has been a fierce advocate for more than two decades.
“I don’t think farmworker women have been on such a huge platform in the way that were today,” Ramírez told The Daily Beast on Thursday after the event. “My overarching charge to everyone in the room was that we must dedicate ourselves until we reach the most marginalized, invisible girl among us.”
For Ramírez, the platforms from which she has been able to advocate for those marginalized girls recently have been “surreal.” She has been one of the activists invited on to awards show red carpets by actresses keen to show their allegiance to the principles of #MeToo and #TimesUp far beyond the bounds of Hollywood.
In January, she attended the Golden Globes with Laura Dern. She also appeared on the Today show with America Ferrera, talking about the #TimesUp movement, and why the National Farmworker Women’s Alliance had written a letter of support to women in Hollywood.
Ramírez told Today: “I think that by us joining forces and coming together in the way that we have it demonstrates how much power we have but also our commitment to making workplaces better across the nation and really our world better... we wanted to ensure women in Hollywood and others who are coming forward didn’t feel alone, and they knew we stood with them in power.”
She added: “While people think that farm worker women are not powerful, farm worker women are very powerful and have been organizing for a long time around this issue. We have the experience, not just of having suffered from this problem, but we also have the experience of years of organizing that we wanted to bring forward to support the women in Hollywood who are coming forward.”
“I feel like everything that has happened over the last few months are not things I ever dreamed of,” Ramírez told The Daily Beast, citing her Globes appearance as one example. “It also really drives home the message that any of us, no matter where we come from, no matter our background, have the ability to make a significant impact. So for little girls who are watching this moment play out, I hope they see they can too.”
Third generation American, both Ramírez’s maternal and paternal families have deep roots within agriculture and migrant labor. Growing up, her mother worked in the fields occasionally with family during the summer, while her father worked with his family year-round.
At 13, the farmer for whom her father’s family worked, taught him how to read and paid for private school attendance. He subsequently pursued a career in manufacturing, and by the time Ramírez was born neither of her parents worked in agriculture. Still, they instilled the ethos of the farmworker community into Ramírez and her siblings.
“I think because they lived something very different than we were going to they wanted us to understand this was part of our past too,” Ramírez said.
As a child an understanding, appreciation, and connection to her past began at home and in the rural community of Fremont, Ohio.
While her father sometimes shared nostalgic moments of his childhood, he also told his children about the common practice of workers having to take loans from farmers to meet their basic needs because they earned such little money.
“My parents from an early age made sure we understood civil rights issues and social justice issues. I was a little more active than most people at my age,” she said.
In the summer, Ramírez would frequently see migrants stop by her great-grandparents house to talk and share their produce. Season after season she watched them arrive, contribute to the cultural fabric of the community, then leave.
One Saturday morning when she was 14 years old, Ramírez noticed the local paper, The Fremont News-Messenger, had a page welcoming fishermen who had arrived for the season but not farmworkers.
Bothered by the absence and at the encouragement of her father she arranged a meeting with the publication’s editor. By the conclusion of the conversation, Ramírez was offered a contributing writer role covering the Latino community and exploring issues that impacted farmworkers.
Through her church she participated in their migrant outreach programming visiting families in the fields. At 17, she began volunteering at a traveling school for migrant children.
Ramírez, hoping to find a larger Latino community in which she could feel at home, enrolled at Loyola College in Chicago. Upon arriving she found that different lived experiences—families who had the financial means to return to their native countries versus those who did not—required her to rethink ideas around belonging and identity.
“All along I had been trying to figure out what it meant to be Latino and what I really need to figure out and who I am is rooted in this history of coming through a farmworker family. Once that lightbulb went off, then I started organizing events related to farmworkers.”
A communications major, Ramírez tailored her social justice coursework toward farmworkers. Every summer she worked at camps and with legal services agencies to further understand the needs of the community and the special challenges for women.
However, it was a brief stint working in the fields the summer of her sophomore year that made a lasting impression. She picked cucumbers, row by row, with a family she befriended. Snapping the vegetables from the vine, she tossed them over her shoulder into a green bucket. Once full she grabbed a new one and began the meticulous and painstaking cycle all over again.
“I didn’t feel that I could properly advocate for farm workers if I didn’t know what it felt like to work in the fields,” she said.
Acutely aware that for her working in the field was a choice rather than a requirement, Ramírez doubled down on her mission to help women inspired by farmworker activists like Mily Trevino-Sauceda and Dolores Huerta.
After graduation in 1999 Ramírez studied human rights law in Prague, attended law school at The Ohio State University, and earned an MPA from Harvard University.
At the Southern Poverty Law Center, Ramírez worked as an attorney for roughly seven years largely representing immigrant women. Near the end of tenure there, a difficult case in which she felt justice could not be secured for her client caused her to recalibrate.
“Just as much as this work is about the mind it is also about the heart,” she said. “I never felt like I was going to stop doing the work. I just said, ‘OK, I need to take a break and do this work a bit differently.’ It can take an emotional toll, so I took a break from litigating.”
She continued, “A lot of people don’t realize the kind of sacrifices activists are making, literally putting their bodies on the the line. The work of an activist is not a 9-5 job. There are moments of great celebration and there are moments when you lose ground.”
Ramírez stopped handling cases directly and moved into policy and advocacy.
Bridging her interest in social justice and wanting to help women farmworkers, Ramírez co-founded Alianza Nacional de Campesinas in 2011 with other activists who were advocating on behalf of farmworker women.
The organization focuses on education and advocacy to influence policy around immigration, education, and employment among other issues. Over the years, the organization has utilized theater as a means to discuss difficult issues, hosted events around pesticide exposure, and partnered with other organizations on a variety of initiatives. Its latest focus is Hollywood.
Last fall, reports of mega producer Harvey Weinstein’s widespread sexual misconduct first broke in The New York Times. The reporting began a cascade of public revelations and focus on sexual misconduct and violence in the workplace.
The conversation coalesced on social media and within the larger public discourse through the phrase and hashtag #MeToo, first used by Tarana Burke.
Ramírez felt strongly that Alianza Nacional de Campesinas needed to publicly acknowledge and support the women of Hollywood as a collective unit. The move seemed strange to some but Ramírez saw it as an opportunity to rally women from all walks of life behind a common cause.
“People wonder why we are talking about sexual harassment against women in other industries as well but we strongly believe we have to bring everybody up,” Ramírez told The Daily Beast of the decision. “It’s been very important that the women in the entertainment industry see themselves as workers too and understand that this is a worker’s rights issue.”
In November, the organization, on behalf of its 700,000 person workforce wrote an open letter in Time magazine, saying in part: “Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security.
“Like you, there are few positions available to us and reporting any kind of harm or injustice committed against us doesn’t seem like a viable option. Complaining about anything—even sexual harassment—seems unthinkable because too much is at risk, including the ability to feed our families and preserve our reputations.”
The message hit home and calls started pouring in. Ramírez began talking with women involved in Time’s Up, an initiative to combat sexual harassment in Hollywood and beyond.
Hollywood and its stars can be notoriously fickle, seizing on a trend or a moment for exposure, a criticism which she rebuffed of the collaborative work thus far.
When asked what she thought of the possibility that she and other activists were being used by Hollywood, Ramirez replied, “No, I believe we are thought partners with the women in the industry. If anything, we are inviting them into our movement.
“This is a really critical moment in a movement. We know that we are not going to eradicate sexual violence in the workplace overnight. Our job at this point is to keep doing the work. I definitely feel like we’re just scratching the surface.”