Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Holmes publishes book on Mexican migrant workers

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“Oaxacan [Mexicans] like to work bent over.”

 

“They’re lower to the ground, so they’re perfect
for berry picking.”

 

During his years of fieldwork among indigenous Mexican migrant farmworkers, physician and anthropologist Seth Holmes encountered comments like these again and again from farm managers and other farm workers. Some, including medical professionals he interviewed, would even claim that the indigenous workers’ genes made them better suited to their backbreaking work.

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“These narratives about migrant workers are what make their health problems almost invisible,” he says. “It becomes seen as normal and natural that Mexicans in the United States will have bad jobs that are harmful to their health,” says Holmes, now an assistant professor of public health and medical anthropology at UC Berkeley.

An examination of this invisibility, and the social and societal forces that help create it, is the crux of Holmes’ new book, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States, which will be released June 10.

“Right now we’re in a moment of strong interest in immigration reform and health reform, so trying to understand what real immigrants lives are like, how they contribute to society, and how their work affects their health, is extremely important,” Holmes says.

The book is the culmination of Holmes’s five years in the field, one and a half of which he spent living and migrating full-time with indigenous Mexican migrants—picking berries in Washington state, pruning vineyards in California, and harvesting corn in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Drawing on his training—an MD from UCSF and a PhD in medical anthropology from UC Berkeley and UCSF—Holmes uses anthropological field methods to answer critical public health questions.

“I am most interested in understanding how certain groups of people come to be seen as deserving of their lot in life—the illnesses, diseases, and other health problems they face,” he says.

In studying the impact of immigration on health, Holmes chose to study Mexican migrant workers because they “are some of the most vulnerable people in our society,” he says. “Migrant farmworkers have worse health in many ways than the rest of the workforce, and indigenous migrants have even worse health and worse health care access.”

Migrating with the Triqui

Holmes spent the majority of his time in the field with Triqui workers, an indigenous people of Oaxaca, Mexico. He lived on the camps with the workers and picked part-time, interviewing other farm staff and health professionals on non-picking days.

Seth with village kids

Seth in Oaxaca, Mexico, during his fieldwork

Accompanying the workers up and down the west coast, Holmes even accompanied his companions in trying to illegally cross the border into Arizona and was apprehended and jailed by Border control (his companions were deported back to Mexico).

“Early in my fieldwork, I realized that an ethnography of suffering and migration would be incomplete without witnessing firsthand such an important site of suffering for Latin American migrants [as a border crossing],” Holmes writes in Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies.

From interviews with the workers, farm staff, and local health care providers, it became clear that Triqui workers faced additional “layers of racism and discrimination,” as Holmes puts it.

“There’s a subtle, but strong hierarchy of ethnicities and citizenships, from Anglo-Americans to Latinos to mestizos (mixed raced) to indigenous Mexicans,” he says. Holmes found that these hierarchies not only affect how much racism or discrimination the workers experience, but what kind of jobs they could have, and how harmful those jobs are to their bodies.

Reconsidering ‘Unskilled’ Labor

On the farm in Washington, Holmes picked alongside the Triqui workers each week. The migrant workers had to pick a minimum weight of 50 pounds of berries every hour or they would be fired and evicted from the camp. Over the months of farming, Holmes could never keep up with this quota and would suffer from stress indigestion and knee and back pain for days afterwards.

seth with 3 kids and cactus

Seth with children from the village, Oaxaca, Mexico

Though the Triqui labored in the most stressful, humiliating, and physically strenuous jobs on the farm, Holmes found that their injuries were often normalized by being understood to be part of their culture. For instance, the stomachache he experienced from the stress of picking would, in a Triqui patient, be attributed to the supposedly spicier food the Triqui ate. This happened despite a lack of evidence that the Triqui used more spices in their cooking in comparison to other Mexican migrants who worked in less grueling farm jobs.

“We need to question the stories in the media and those we build in our minds about Mexican migrants, especially as health scholars and professionals,” Holmes says. “These stories influence how we feel about these people, how much we care, and down the line, how we vote,” he adds.

While Holmes’s work provides a window into the daily struggles of one group of migrant workers, the experiences of the Triqui have much broader implications for issues of immigration, healthcare, and agriculture, notes humanitarian, physician, and medical anthropologist Paul Farmer.

“This book is a gripping read,” he writes in his early review of the book, “not only for cultural and medical anthropologists, immigration and ethnic studies students, students of labor and agriculture, physicians and public health professionals, but also anyone interested in the lives and well being of the people providing them cheap, fresh fruit.”

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States will be released June 10 by the University of California Press.

Seth HolmesSeth M. Holmes is an anthropologist and physician. He received his PhD in Medical Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco, and his MD from the University of California, San Francisco. He is Martin Sisters Endowed Chair Assistant Professor of Public Health and Medical Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

11 Comments

  1. Marcia Siegle on

    Joe H.’s Idea (Display book in the middle of fresh fruit and vegetable sections.): EXCELLENT IDEA Joe! I think consumers SHOULD BE mindful of what is behind the production of the products that we buy. Much suffering is hidden. The consumers should be engaged to bring about change.

  2. Reading this review makes me want to go out and buy the book immediately and start reading it. Sounds like it should be for sale at every grocery store right in the middle of the produce/fresh fruit section. People need to be more aware of what it takes for us to have such good fresh fruit and vegetables. While we get them inexpensively others are paying a price.

  3. Carlos Sanabria on

    Thank you Dr. Holmes for the insight and exposure of what price is paid by those who toil in obscurity to bring us a healthy diet. My childhood had the experience of thinning of the young lettuce with the, now banned, ‘cortito’ short hoe; which required you to work stooped over for thousands of feet. The sad truth is the acceptance that some human life is worth less effort to accommodate when they do not speak our language, act or look like us. The unfortunate reality for us is that our economy relies on the farm workers of all types, they do the necessary hard work that most of us would never consider doing to extract a meager existence. We all must do what we can to ensure that all workers can work safely and make fair wages, while helping to address the stresses in their existence and unequivocally, eliminate child labor from this equation. I look forward to reading your book and learning from your experiences. They sound fascinating! Regards,
    Carlos

  4. Thank you for shining a light on a problem that’s been around for far too long. It breaks my heart, as well, to see workers in the Bay Area doing hard manual labor in construction and landscaping well into their sixties to keep their families afloat. The idea of my own dad having to do such a thing is tough to even think about.

  5. Rosaura S. Ramirez on

    This is a very painful comment of what short people, like me, often hear in relation to certain jobs like berry picking. As a student at Berkeley, I read Thomas Rivera “The Harvest” in my Chicano Studies class; it is a magnificent book that gave me the opportunity to learn about Chicanos and their families who travel in search of jobs in the U.S.A. I am from Mexico City and sadly, I agree with Professor Holmes about the cruel comments that some people said about little Oaxaqueños. It is embarrassing to learn about their cruel treatment even in their own country. I am looking forward to read your book and learn from your experiences. Many thanks for writing this book.
    With sincere appreciation,
    Rosaura

  6. Mariana Corzo on

    Thank you, Seth for doing such important work. As a well-educated woman who was born in the U.S. of Mexican parents, but grew up in Mexico, I have lived a privileged adult life here in the U.S.. But, I often see the racism and injustices that other Mexicans suffer in this country, just for being who they are. This country needs more than immigration reform, they need to be educated into having a more holistic, less U.S.-centric view of the world. Thank you for contributing to that slow, but much needed process.

  7. Thank you, Dr. Holmes, for not being afraid to shine a light into the shadows cast by the agro-industrial complex and by our lack of attention to immigration and health care. I think all of these, at root, are shadows of white privilege, and I’m grateful for your willingness to examine and interpret these hard truths. Thank you for making yourself vulnerable to illness and injury while stepping into a life mostly hidden from those of us who sit at computers and buy $4.99 clamshells of berries from Berkeley Bowl. Your courage to live a life on the underside and for writing about it in a way that brings dignity to those you walked alongside is exemplary.

  8. Ginny Harrington on

    As one who has spent many hours in my own garden, I can not emagine picking 40 lbs of grapes or berries in that time. Fingers alone would be cramped and cut. Inhaling the pesticides day in and day out. Over the years it has to take a toll, but then again just having a job out side is a great thing. Office workers get those same pains, cramps and stress. It is a hard world. I look forward to reading your book..

    • Hi, Ginny:

      As an RN in obstetrics for many years, I have cared for many of these workers. I remember distinctly as an anesthesiologist marveled (during pre-placement of an epidural) at the back musculature of this compact women. I also remember helping a young girl give birth vaginally knowing that she had a 12 month old at the hotel room and having a repeat C/S would be so much harder for her, given her particular circumstances. I also highly agree with your statement re: office workers. I didn’t know the hardships that these people were enduring, but I do remember envying the fact that they were outside in the strawberry fields while I was inside for 12-14 hours a day. Age is a big factor, too. I cannot bend over my garden either for very long as years of back-wrenching RN work has taken its toll. It is a hard world. I look forward to reading this book also.

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