Crimes Against Illegal Immigrants
For immigrant victims of sexual abuse, justice is nearly impossible to come by.
ON A GRAY JANUARY day in 2007, Luisa Gonzaga watched the traffic rushing by on Route 1, wondering how things had gotten to this point. She was riding in a car driven by a man named Juan Tercero, her boss at the Gold Bell produce company, where she worked sorting food each day. As the two drove along the highway, Gonzaga looked out at the neon signs and rundown motels with increasing dread.
Tercero, her uncle by marriage, had gotten her the job after she’d followed her husband from Guatemala to Boston in 2003. Every morning before dawn, she walked past diesel-spewing freight trucks and the dark windows of the King Arthur’s strip club and entered the gates of the New England Produce Center in Chelsea. There, inside a warehouse as big as an airplane hangar, she joined dozens of other women — many of them, she says, immigrants like her — sorting onions and sweet potatoes for $6.75 an hour. The clouds of dirt from the vegetables caught in her throat and gave her nosebleeds, but she was done early enough each day to enjoy some time with her children.
The only problem was Tercero. The very first week, Gonzaga says, he began making comments about her appearance. Gradually he became more explicit, telling her, “I need to make you mine.” He started cornering her behind the packing crates and grabbing at her. When she rejected his advances, she says, he yelled and threw things — vegetables, rolls of shipping labels. It became unbearable. “My life didn’t make any sense to be here,” Gonzaga says. “I’d call my mom and sisters, and they told me to come home… [that] it would be better to have tortillas at home with salt than to go through this.” But going home wasn’t really an option. She barely knew how to get to New York, much less back to Central America. An undocumented immigrant, she feared that if she left she might never see her children again.
As she relates this story (which Tercero disputes), Gonzaga is sitting at her kitchen table inside one of the triple-deckers along the Chelsea waterfront. She is small and soft-spoken, with a diamond-shaped face and a ruffled shirt that nearly matches the tropical-orange color of the room. Wreaths of hot peppers are suspended over the stove, and flowering plants hang from the walls. Every so often, one of her younger children pads into the kitchen before running back to the other room.
The color drains from her face when she begins talking about the events leading up to that day in 2007 when she got into the car with Tercero. Throughout the holiday season, workers at Gold Bell had faced increasing pressure to fill a rush of orders. At the same time, Gonzaga says she faced a different kind of pressure from her boss. “He wanted to be alone somewhere with me, and if I didn’t go I would be without work,” she says. “He said if I gave in he would never bother me again.” Even worse than firing her, she says, Tercero threatened to turn her in and have her deported.