New book 'Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies' looks at the sorry state of migrant farmworker health care -- and its larger implications in the global economy
Holmes, a medical doctor as well as a doctor of anthropology — the book resulted from his thesis work — brings an enlightening complexity to the issue of migrant workers. (Including the label "migrant worker" itself, which, he notes piercingly at the end of the book, has been ossified with classist and racial overtones. If this group of people were flying over every summer from Europe or Hong Kong to secure investments on Wall Street, they would be called "international businesspeople.")
He's especially concerned not just with the grueling minutae of trying to receive treatment for the aches and pains that come with stooping to pick strawberries 12 hours a day, struggling to meet ambitious quotas in order to get paid very little, but also the larger, physically devastating effects of the structural violence visited upon a whole population by neoliberal economic policies that continue to widen the global income gap and entrench the wealthy in power. His "participant observation" method of studying migrant farmworkers means he writes about his own experiences in the field, and he brings his sophisticated anthropological knowledge to bear on the way contemporary society ensures that migrant farmworkers stay on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, building on the work of Pierre Bordieu, Philippe Bourgois, and others who've studied power relationships and structural violence in terms of workers' health.
But, although there are scholarly footnotes and personal interjections, Holmes avoids an icky "anthropological tourism" vibe by providing the workers themselves with room to tell their histories, talk about their bodies, and react to the way they're treated. People like Abelino, who falls victim to a series of misunderstandings over his severely injured knee, or Crescencio, who suffers acute headaches whenever he's called racist names or ordered around degradingly, but is labeled a potential domestic abuser by one caregiver and resorts to drinking up to 24 beers per night to soothe his pain. We also hear from Marcelina, who talks to a Skagit Valley community gathering about low wages and high quotas.
And Holmes lets the owners and operators on all levels of Skagit's Tanaka Brothers Farm -- a pseudonym to protect his sources -- speak as well, about the need for cheap labor in an increasingly competitive global agribusiness environment, among other concerns. (One especially interesting tidbit: organic distributors pressured Tanaka Brothers Farms to sign a machine-pick contract, which relegates farmworkers to the pesticide-ridden fields, despite the growing market for organic produce.) The Japanese-descended Tanaka family is deeply embedded in the Skagit Valley community, with roots stretching back before the Japanese internment period. The farm has seen different waves of migrant workers from poor white to Asian to Mexican. The Valley community itself has a fascinating relationship with the migrant community, emerging from it while reacting to it, developing its own social hierarchy as each generation "graduates" from farmworker to resident.
A lot has changed from Chavez's day. For one thing, the previous generation of field workers, mostly from Guadalajara and northern Mexico or from Central America, has gained a toehold on American society — like the Asian workers that preceded them, many Hispanic workers' children, placed in American schools, have grown up, providing their parents with a path to citizenship or work visas that allow them access to better jobs.
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