Fieldwork

New book 'Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies' looks at the sorry state of migrant farmworker health care -- and its larger implications in the global economy

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Marcelina works in the fields at Tanaka Brothers Farm
PHOTO BY SETH M. HOLMES, USED BY PERMISSION OF MARCELINA

marke@sfbg.com

After two more hours of hiking, we stop in a dry creek. One of the younger men enlists help pulling large cactus spines from one of his legs. We sit in a circle sharing food. The tastes link us to loved ones and Oaxaca...

After we have hiked again through blisters for many miles and I have shared all my ibuprofren with the others, we stop to rest. We fall asleep, using torn-open plastic trash bags as blankets. Our coyote leaves to talk to his contact on a nearby Native American reservation about giving us a ride past the second boarder checkpoint to Phoenix....

Suddenly, our guide runs back, speaking quickly in Triqui. Two Border Patrol agents — one black and one white — appear running through the trees, jump down in our creek bed, and point guns at us.

— Seth M. Holmes, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies

According to the US Public Health Service, there are, on average, an estimated 3.5 million migrant farmworkers in the United States, the majority of whom are undocumented immigrants. At harvest season, most of them perform the backbreaking work of picking our fruits and vegetables for an average $12,500 annually; at other times, they share slum-like apartments or live out of cars looking for odd jobs — 68 percent of them wondering if they should return home to Mexico and risk another border crossing to the US when picking time rolls around again. Only 5 percent of migrant workers have health insurance, and what happens to the rest if they get injured or fall ill doing the work the rest of us won't is an eye-opening American tragedy.

To many Americans, this cheap, legally and socially vulnerable population is a faceless brown mass in the fields somewhere, maybe receiving a noble thought at Cesar Chavez Day or inducing the occasional twinge of guilt in the produce aisle, if thought of at all. But a provocative, important new book by UC Berkeley Assistant Professor of Public Health and Medical Anthropology Seth M. Holmes, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (University of California Press), which is picking up awards and has been featured on mainstream news outlets, is helping to re-personalize migrant farmworkers and move their health care situation into the media spotlight.

As the US finally addresses the facts that it spends the most money on health care for the worst outcomes, that a huge chunk of its population has no health care at all (and is severely underpaid for its work), and that we're dependent on undocumented immigrants to harvest our produce and keep food costs down, we're only just starting to realize the irony in giving the people who devastate their bodies to provide our healthiest foods perhaps the lousiest health care deal of all.

 

COMPLEX VOICES

Part heart-pounding adventure tale, part deep ethnograhic study, part urgent plea for reform, Fresh Fruit starts off with Holmes embedded in an ill-fated group of border-crossers from the mountains of Oaxaca: he gets arrested, they get deported after a harrowing stay in a detention center. Holmes then writes about his 18 months spent picking fruit alongside hundreds of others at a large family-owned farm in Skagit Valley, Wash., living in a closet with a dozen farmworkers in a rundown apartment while they look for work on the off-season, returning to Mexico to spend time with workers and their families, and shadowing the medical professionals in the publicly and privately funded clinics that serve migrant populations. Throughout, Holmes saw people "give premature birth, develop injured knees and backs, suffer from extreme stress, experience symptoms of pesticide poisoning, and even have farm trucks run over and crush their legs," as he told Farmworker Justice magazine.

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