My Path to Law

A natural migration: Descendant of immigrants works to protect civil rights

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My path to the law started on dirt roads and in farm fields—those that I traversed and those that my family members traveled years before me. Several generations before I was born, my maternal and paternal family members migrated to the United States from Mexico. Like many migrant families, they came in search of opportunity and with hopes of realizing the dream that so many hold tight when they courageously leave their homes, families, community and country behind to make a life in the U.S.

Today, many migrant men, women and children are also fleeing their homelands to seek safety from violence.

My great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and other relatives sacrificed and contributed to this country by toiling in the agricultural fields, harvesting fruits and vegetables, picking cotton and detasseling corn, among other jobs. They settled out of the migrant stream in rural Ohio, where I was born, grew up and live today.

As a child, my parents often talked about how difficult things were for farmworkers. My parents’ teachings about justice and engaging in public service, as well as the plight of farmworkers, led me to want to learn more about the larger farmworker movement in the United States. When I was a teenager, I started writing about farmworkers around the area where I grew up and quickly learned that the conditions my parents had taught me about had not changed. These lessons guided me to become a summer outreach worker for a local legal services organization and eventually to my career as a public interest attorney committed to fighting to address these terrible conditions. Along the way, I also learned about the importance of collective power and that everyday people could effect great change.

My career has not been a traditional legal career by most people’s standards. Some might say that it is a prototype of what it means to be a “people’s lawyer.” To me, my career is reflective of someone who fiercely believes in justice and that we all are entitled to live in a just society, no matter where we are from, where we work or how much we earn. My work has been focused on making this a reality, especially for low-paid workers, women of color, immigrants and children—those who are among the most vulnerable and susceptible to rights violations.

In 2003, I created the first legal project in the U.S. focused on addressing and ending sexual harassment and other forms of gender discrimination against farmworker women as a fellow at Florida Legal Services. In 2006, I returned to my family’s southern roots: this time as a lawyer in Montgomery, Alabama, instead of a cotton picker in Mississippi, as my father had been as a child. There, I turned my state-based initiative into a national initiative on behalf of farmworker and other low-paid immigrant women workers at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Later, in 2014, I further expanded my work and created a new, national organization—Justice for Migrant Women.

Over the years, I have met brave survivors of human trafficking who escaped captivity. I have served courageous women who were victims of sexual violence by their bosses and supervisors. I have helped educate thousands of workers about their rights and our legal system. I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to choose and pursue my profession, to learn from incredible human beings and to work alongside fierce advocates.

And as I was building my legal projects and pursuing justice through the law, I was also organizing with incredible women leaders, many who had previously worked in agriculture and some of whom continued to work in the fields even then. Together, we founded and launched Alianza Nacional de Campesinas [National Farmworkers Women’s Alliance], the first national farmworker women’s coalition in the country. In addition, most recently, I have been advocating alongside domestic workers through the National Domestic Workers Alliance and trying to build a cross-sector initiative to secure gender equity for all workers.

In 2017, I wrote the “Dear Sisters” letter on behalf of 700,000 farmworker women, whose interests Alianza represents, to individuals in the entertainment industry who had disclosed sexual violence against them by powerful men, including Harvey Weinstein. Their disclosures helped create the #MeToo breakthrough, which was originally created by Tarana Burke’s visionary work and Alyssa Milano’s public call to action. My letter was published in Time magazine and went viral.

This letter has been credited with helping to spark the Time’s Up movement, which was founded by women in the entertainment industry. None of us will ever know why that letter caught fire, but I imagine it’s because it was a powerful demonstration of solidarity and empathy among the least likely of partners.

Our profession is one of the most interesting, complex and challenging because it allows us to use our training in a variety of ways. We can use it to advocate for a cause, defend a position, create an area of practice or do all these things over the course of our careers. For many of us, our careers have not necessarily been a straight path. 

In my case, I certainly never would have thought that farmworker women, women in entertainment and women across other industries would link arms to fight for gender equity, parity and power as we are today, or that I would be in any way directly connected to it. But sometimes the best things come from those that are least anticipated.

Now, for me, the most pressing question is whether we will be able to use the current momentum to ensure that the most visible to the least visible workers among us—from actors to fieldworkers—will one day be afforded equal rights and opportunities in our society. We are working toward that end. Until then, I will continue to find my way down this less-traveled path until we see the day that justice, fairness and equality belong to all of us—without exception.


Mónica Ramírez is the founder of Justice for Migrant Women, a co-founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, and gender justice campaigns director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She was named a recipient of the Smithsonian’s 2018 Ingenuity Award for Social Progress. Ramírez is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago, the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and Harvard Kennedy School.

#MyPathToLaw is a guest column that celebrates the diversity of the legal profession through attorneys’ first-person stories detailing their unique and inspiring trajectories. Read more #mypathtolaw stories on Twitter. This article was published in the July-August 2019 ABA Journal magazine with the title “A Natural Migration.”


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