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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.