They gathered at a place where they were never invited in 150 years.
They were women like Maria Aguirre, an 83-year-old former farm worker from California’s Coachella Valley.
“If it wasn’t for my weak knee, I’d still be working in the fields,” Aguirre told NBC Bay Area on Tuesday.
Aguirre is one of several dozen female farm workers who were finally invited to the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.
“There was a time when Cesar Chavez was not invited into this building,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the first conference of the National Farm Worker Women’s Alliance.
“Today I say welcome,” said Vilsack. “We are with you in this struggle.”
The group is in town to learn about federal resources are available to them, and learn how to maneuver through a bureaucratic process.
“Farm workers are ones who speak up less, and are in most fear,” said Emma Gutierrez, who runs the Alliance’s efforts in Sonoma.
“There are many abuses and sexual assaults that farm worker women suffer through in the fields,” Gutierrez said in Spanish.“Today, we’re here to say we will speak out.”
The conference precedes a national rally for immigration reform at the National Mall on Wednesday.
Many Bay Area students are scheduled to attend.
Another person at the farm worker conference was Christine Chavez.
She is the granddaughter of former labor leader Cesar Chavez.
Christine Chavez now works inside the building where her grandfather was never invited, and helped organize the farm worker women’s conference.
“We need to make sure the USDA is open to farm worker families,” Chavez said. “We want to make sure farm workers have a voice in the Department of Agriculture.”