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Latinas urged to speak out about workplace abuse, violence

SEPA Mujer executive director Martha Maffei on Sunday

SEPA Mujer executive director Martha Maffei on Sunday in Patchogue discusses the #MeToo movement's impact on Latinas. Credit: David L. Pokress

More than 80 Latinas, many of them immigrants or women with low incomes, gathered Sunday in Patchogue to say #MeToo also resonates with them.

Some of the best-known faces of the women’s movement are famous white actresses imbued with Hollywood glamour. Some of the Latinas who attended “A Mi También” — Spanish for “me too” — shared their own experiences with sexual harassment, abuse and violence in the workplace, urging others to speak out.

Martha Maffei, executive director of SEPA Mujer, the Patchogue-based Latina immigrant advocacy group that sponsored the Spanish-language conference at Temple Beth El, said Latinas relating their experiences in Spanish can have more of an impact on Latina immigrants than a celebrity speaking on television.

“When people feel an identification with someone, then they begin to talk, because they hear it’s happening to someone like them,” Maffei said. “Our [Latin American] culture connects each other. Our language connects each other. Our struggles to come to this country as immigrants also create a special connection.”

Women who lack legal immigration status are especially vulnerable, because they often fear that reporting sexual abuse will lead to deportation, and they need to know there are resources available to them, she said.

Victoria Hernandez, an outreach coordinator for SEPA Mujer, said working-class women believe they have much to lose if they speak out.

She recalled how when she worked as a server at a restaurant years ago, male customers sexually harassed and touched female servers. Women often said nothing, because they relied on tips to supplement their meager wages and feared losing their jobs if they complained. When servers reported harassment to managers, “they’d say, ‘You’re fine’ ” and refuse to approach the abusive customers, she said.

Maria Guamantari, 47, of Patchogue, a domestic-violence survivor, said she “learned it’s not good to keep quiet. So many bad things happen to you if you keep quiet.”

Guamantari has a daughter and two sons, and she said she has taught her sons the importance of respecting women.

“Education starts in the home,” she said.

Lynda Perdomo-Ayala, vice chair of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission, said there are few public forums for Latinas to discuss issues of sexual harassment and abuse.

“This offers an opportunity to be more open with each other and create a sisterhood to support each other,” she said.

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