As the House and Senate continue to struggle to find common ground on the issue of immigration reform, one University of California, Berkeley professor is working to bring new insights into a significant group of undocumented immigrants here in California and throughout the west – those who pick the food we eat every day.
To do so, Medical Anthropologist Dr. Seth Holmes did something that few others in his profession or the media have done. He became a farmworker himself. For two years he spent summers working with Triqui farmworkers in Washington state and here in Madera County. He later moved to Oaxaca in Mexico and lived with the workers there, all the while documenting the physical toll that the farm labor took on the health of the laborers.
He recounts his story and those of the people he worked with in his book called “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, Migrant Farm Workers in the United States."
Here are some highlights from our interview with Holmes:
How did you come up with the idea of taking up residence with the farmworkers?
"As an anthropologist the kind of research message that I use is often called participant observation, so unlike most research where people would just do interviews or surveys that would fall under the observation category. But as an anthropologist I want to participate in the life of the people I am trying to understand. In order to that, to understand U.S.-Mexico migration I really needed to migrate from the U.S. to Mexico and back."
"In the process I lived in labor camps, picked berries in Washington state, lived in a bad enough condition to rent to people that don't have a credit history, pruned vineyards and did other work when it was available. And went down to their home village to the state of Oaxaca in Southern Mexico. Then crossed the border back into the U.S."
Were you ready for the grueling nature of the work?
"Not at all I picked one or two days a week. In Washington the Triqui people picked seven days a week. In California by law farmworkers work six days a week, which is usually followed. Although, not always. The days that I picked I had knee pain and pack pain, hip pain, and my hands would get stained whatever the color of what we were picking . . . I would recover over the next days while doing interview with doctors and nurses and farm owners and farmworkers . . . it definitely put the question in my mind partially about the distinction between skilled labor and unskilled labor, because I was never able to keep up with the farmworkers."
As a physician tell me about what you saw in your time in the fields?
"Part of the reason I named the book "Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies" was an idea that came out of an idea from another medical anthropologist . . . but the name drives home that there's an exchange of the health of farmworkers who's bodies become injured and sick through the hard work that they are doing, the pesticides - just bent over with their bodies - in exchange for our health."
"Those of us who can buy fresh fruit and vegetables that physicians and public health officials and nurses tell us we need to be eating to be healthy. These farmworkers in a sense are by necessity sacrificing their own health and their own bodies so the rest of us can be healthy."
"The most common health problems that I saw in my research involved injuries, occupational health problems. Chronic back pain, chronic knee pain, chronic knee injuries. Statistically farmworkers have an occupational fatality rate - death rate - due to their work five times higher than the rest of workers in the United States, which is very telling. And these people to this time have very poor access to health care."
For more from the interview listen to the recording at the top of the story.