“How does the positioning of race, class and citizenship produce lifelong illness and suffering in certain categories of people, specifically among indigenous Mexican migrants?” asked guest speaker Seth Holmes to an auditorium full of students and professors last Wednesday.
Holmes, an assistant professor of Medical Anthropology and Public Health at University of California, Berkeley, discussed the challenges and inequalities migrant Mexican farm workers face in the U.S. as featured in his new book, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies.
The book covers five years of research spent with migrant workers from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, during which Holmes made the treacherous journey across the border into Arizona, picked strawberries in the Skagit Valley in northwest Washington, and accompanied sick workers to clinics and hospitals.
Holmes describes the extreme, arduous working and living conditions migrant workers work under, which often create and exacerbate medical problems. The workers Holmes observed slept in crowded, uninsulated shacks and spent their days bent over picking strawberries. The workers were denied lunch and bathroom breaks by farm owners so that they could meet daily quotas and compete with other farms in the area. The strawberry fields were often sprayed with harmful insecticides while the pickers were still working in them. Holmes reported that agricultural work has an occupational fatality rate five times higher than the average job, but only 5% of migrant farm workers, who make somewhere between $5000 and $7000 a year, have health insurance.
“After my first week on the farm, one young female told me she could no longer feel anything in her body at all. Another said that her knees, back and hips are always hurting,” Holmes said. “One of the young men I saw playing basketball before the harvest started told me that he and his friends could no longer play because their bodies hurt too much.”
Holmes said that medical professionals are unable to treat the workers’ problems because they are unable to solve the social context that produces them. For example, one worker who suffered from acute knee pain was told by a clinician to take several days off from picking, which the worker could not do without being fired. As one clinician told Holmes, “I see an awful lot of people just wearing out. In their early forties, they have the arthritis of a seventy-year old, and they’re not getting better. They’re told ‘sorry, go back to what you’re doing,’ and they’re stuck. They’re screwed, in a word, and it’s tragic.”
While one could blame the farm owners for the workers’ plight, Holmes argues that it would be more appropriate “to understand them as human beings trying to reach ethical yet comfortable lives in the midst of an unequal and harsh system.” Holmes explained that the small farmers in the Skagit valley must resort to ever-more desperate measures to compete with the encroaching growth of large corporate agribusinesses such as Wal-Mart and Costco.
Another part of the problem, Holmes says, is workers’ pride in their ability to withstand the brutal conditions of the farm. He argues that this perception of bodily difference along ethnic lines helps render invisible the violence done to those bodies
“Oaxacans like to work bent over, whereas mestizo Mexicans get too many pains if they work in the field. Oaxacans are perfect for picking berries because they are lower to the ground,” said one worker. Another worker told Holmes that “Pesticides affect only white Americans because your bodies are delicate and weak…We [Oaxacans] are strong and we hold out.”.
The working conditions that Holmes observed in Washington occur across the country. According to the National Agriculture Worker Survey, 81% of farm employees in the U.S. are immigrants, of whom 95% were born in Mexico and of those 52% of whom are undocumented.
“If we as students are to work towards positive social change, we must on some level denaturalize social inequalities, uncovering linkages between structural changes, social hierarchies, and slow death. The lenses of social perception must be transformed,” Holmes said.
He says a few pragmatic activities students can do to help include buying products from farms that treat workers fairly, lobbying politicians to change unrealistic and racialized farm labor policies.
After his presentation, Holmes answered questions about his experience from students and professors from across Haverford’s anthropology, biology and environmental studies departments.
When asked what inspired him to study migrant workers, Holmes said empathy for the human beings around him was largely what led him to become an anthropologist in the first place.
“When I was a kid growing up in Washington state, my parents took my brothers and I to this orphanage in Mexico each summer for a couple weeks starting in fourth grade. I think that started making me into an anthropologist, like ‘these people live a different life than I do.’ When I hear in the newspaper that Mexicans are dirty and illegal and criminal, I’m like ‘I’m friends with some of them and they’re pretty cool.’”
This being his first ethnography, Holmes admitted to being feeling overwhelmed by the task of field research. He called his fellow anthropologist and mentor, Philippe Bourgois, the spouse of Haverford anthropology professor Laurie Hart, for help.
“[Bourgois] told me to ‘do what your grandmother would do, ask them about the weather, help them with their cars, ask questions about the car, hang out. It wasn’t until I helped them drive to California—because they didn’t feel comfortable driving on the freeways—that people started to invite me over for dinner and watch Jackie Chan movies with them.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the surname of Philippe Bourgois.