Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: An interview with Seth Holmes | Julie Guthman

from Gastronomica 14:1

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States describes the physical pain and emotional suffering that Triqui migrant workers routinely face during their work in the West Coast berry fields – suffering that is made endemic by racialized work hierarchies and often dismissed by medical professionals. Holmes’s deep ethnographic account is vivid and lucid in its telling, and leaves the reader with a strong emotional impression.


First, let me congratulate you for writing a very engaging and informative book. How did you first come to this project, and what compelled you to write this book in the way you did?

Fresh FruitSeveral of my long-standing interests came together in this project. First, I have been interested in the relationship between the United States and Latin America in terms of economics, culture, poverty, development, and immigration. Second, I have been interested in understanding the place of indigenous or native people in our world. Third, I have been interested in our food system and our relationship to the land, what goes into the production and harvesting of our food, especially the fresh fruit and vegetables celebrated by the contemporary food movement and our health system. Fourth, I wanted to better explore the ways in which physicians and nurses understand health, illness, and social difference.

I wrote the book in such a way as to invite the reader into the narrative and the experiences. I wanted the reader to be able to imagine being alongside me during the border crossing so that they might be more interested in thinking through the inputs into that dangerous experience and the implications of it for so many people. I wanted to counteract the way in which most media coverage and policy debates around immigration focus on blanket statements about “immigrants do this” or “immigrants deserve or don’t deserve that.” I hoped I could convey enough about individual human beings who are migrating that the reader might become invested in understanding their realities and no longer take for granted the general stereotypes we often hear.

People have referred to you as the “new” Paul Farmer. Has he been an inspiration for you and why? Who else has inspired your work?

During my sophomore and junior years of college in the mid-1990s, I did a handful of “informational interviews” of people with interesting careers as I decided what to pursue next. Paul spoke with me over the phone one night after he took care of patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. That night and over the years of interacting at conferences and even team teaching a course together, I have been impressed with the ways he seeks to bring together a strong appetite for reading, an interest in thinking critically about health and economics, a commitment to a structural vision of social justice, and a desire and ability to work toward improved medical care on individual and systems levels. In the end, I decided to pursue an MD and a PhD in anthropology and, later, a relatively public engagement with social and health inequalities.

Responding to this question and the last about my writing, I have been influenced in my writing and engagement with the world by many mentors and colleagues, including Philippe Bourgois’ compelling treatment of social inequalities, Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ vibrant writing and broad engagement with theory, Lawrence Cohen’s eclectic engagement with philosophy and literature, Adrienne Pine’s advocacy and critical thinking, Loïc Wacquant’s systematic analysis of bodily and social realities, Stanley Brandes’ clear treatment of broad topics in the U.S. and Latin America, Laura Nader’s push to write about people on all levels of various power hierarchies, and Aihwa Ong’s scholarly dialogue with diverse fields of study, to name only a very few.

Your approach is truly translational and marks you as a public intellectual. Is that something you aspire to, and why?

There are definitely ways in which I hope to be a public intellectual. I enjoy doing the theoretical intellectual work of seeking to understand different phenomena in the world in new ways. There are times when I want to write in the specific ways used and understood primarily by academics in order to work through and theorize a problem as precisely as possible. However, most of the time, I want to write my theorizations and analyses of the world in ways that will be understandable to publics broader than those working on or having completed doctoral programs in the social sciences and humanities. Honestly, when I am writing, I often find the image of my parents or grandparents automatically in the back of my mind.

In that light, what is it that you don’t think the public understands or knows that you wanted to get across in this book?

On one level, I wanted to counteract the blanket statements about immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, with stories of real people who are immigrants. On another level, I wanted people to be more aware of the system and the work that goes into providing them with food. As the title of the book implies, I see a sort of transaction in which one group of people work so hard to provide healthy fresh fruit and vegetables to another group of people, that they give up their own health. I hope that readers will understand this exchange on some level and respond with votes and support for the well-being of our farming system, the workers on all levels of our food system, and especially our migrant farmworkers.

There are other rather common misconceptions related to undocumented immigrants that I seek to confront in the book. My field research indicates many significant ways in which immigrants contribute to our food and economic systems that are not often acknowledged. The book counteracts the common understanding of immigration and the border crossing as a rational choice by showing the ways in which these are experienced by Mexican migrant farmworkers as forced upon them by larger political economic structures.

Perhaps most interesting to me, the book takes on the questions of why so many of us in society at large and in the healthcare field take for granted the social inequalities and health inequalities we see between different groups of people, in this case specifically related to Mexican migrants in the United States.

Your book tells a vivid story of the physical (and mental) suffering that farmworkers in the U.S. systematically face. Can you elaborate on some of the causes/explanations for this?

In the U.S., our food system is structured with a more or less visible hierarchy of ethnicity and citizenship. Within this system, indigenous or native Mexicans who are undocumented in the U.S. are often working and living within very difficult conditions. These housing and working conditions have significantly harmful effects on their bodies and well-being.

Why do you call this “structural violence”? What is the significance of thinking about health inequalities in this way?

This ethnicity and citizenship hierarchy, then, is produced by larger structural forces, such as transnational immigration and economic policies, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). As I explain in the book, policies such as NAFTA have played into the widespread phenomenon of dispossession of indigenous Mexicans from their own family farms and ancestral lands in exchange for a dangerous border crossing and physically and mentally harmful wage labor on U.S. farms.

In general, those of us in healthcare are trained to understand biological and behavioral inputs into health and sickness. However, we are not trained to consider the health impacts of structural factors such as social hierarchies, global markets, or domestic or transnational policies. At the same time, these structural factors significantly affect the health and well-being of our patients. It is imperative for our medical and nursing education system to take seriously what we might call “structural competence,” training clinicians to acknowledge and respond to structural determinants of health.

The people you tracked worked primarily in berry production – strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries. Are there characteristics of these particular crops that led to more suffering?

Picking strawberries is considered notoriously difficult by many farmworkers. Harvesting strawberries requires working bent over on one’s knees for hours on end each day. Many pickers expect that they will have painful, bad backs, knees, and hips after working in the industry for several years and expect that they will have to then return to their relatives in Mexico or look for other types of work if available. Harvesting blueberries is generally considered easier because one stands up a fair amount of the time and moves body positions through the day. Raspberries are considered better to pick because this often involves working on a raspberry harvesting machine.

Your first chapter is highly compelling. In it, you describe your experience crossing the border with a group of Triqui migrants. It was risky for all of you but more so for them. Can you tell us about how they think about these risks?

Before crossing the border with my Triqui companions, I had done background research and knew the risks and dangers of the borderlands. I knew that many people die attempting to cross the border each year. I knew that many others are assaulted and robbed. However, experiencing the border crossing for myself was a much more bodily difficult and psychologically terrifying experience than I had imagined. Because of the risk and fear I experienced, I wanted to more thoroughly understand why so many people undergo this danger each year.

In interviews with my Triqui migrant companions, they explained that “there is no other option left for us.” They explained that they were no longer able to survive in their hometowns in the Mexican State of Oaxaca. Largely due to transnational policies, such as NAFTA, U.S. corn was undercutting their own family-grown corn in nearby town markets such that they could no longer make enough money from their family farms to pay for public school uniforms and other necessities. Thus, each family sent at least one person north across the border to the U.S. This extreme danger had become a taken-for-granted reality for many Triqui people from southern Mexico.

Can you reflect on any ethical dilemmas you had crossing with them and writing about it?

I thought a fair amount about different ethical dilemmas. I did not want to cause any problems for my Triqui companions and discussed this with those I knew well. I wanted to avoid implying by writing about the crossing that future students should take on such risks in order to do anthropology. At the same time, I considered it important (including in an ethical sense) to attempt to understand in some way and write about this site of suffering of many immigrants. I also found it critical to confront the assumption that crossing the border is a free choice and the corollary understanding voiced by some journalists and politicians that those who die in the borderlands are to blame for their deaths by “choosing” to take on such risk.

Tell us more about your research process. Why did you choose the sites you did? How did you deal with field notes and such? Did you have a Triqui translator?

As all researchers inevitably find out, each project comes from a mixture of planning and serendipity. This project was no exception. On one level, I chose this project because the Triqui have been migrating only somewhat recently, are the recipients of discrimination on multiple levels, have a reputation for violence, and had not been studied or written about very much in the U.S. In addition, many scholars have written about U.S.-Mexico im/migration in California, Arizona, and Texas, but only a few have considered this phenomenon in the Pacific Northwest. On another level, this project became possible when I found out that my childhood next-door neighbor had become the pastor at a small rural Washington church and another former backpacking guide from a nonprofit for whom I guided during medical school had become a social worker in the same valley. The former backpacking guide introduced me to Triqui farmworkers in Washington State and my former next-door neighbor introduced me to the owners of the farms where they worked.

I kept thousands of pages of fieldnotes in my laptop as well as thousands of pages of transcribed tape-recorded interviews. I performed my interviews of farm owners and health professionals in English and my interviews of farmworkers primarily in Spanish with Triqui words thrown in, partially as a sign of respect. I learned as much Triqui as possible, though becoming fluent during the years of my research proved impossible in this complicated tonal language that was not written. Of note, though many people call indigenous Mexican languages “dialects,” as though they were derivatives of Spanish, Triqui (and other indigenous languages in Mexico) is its own entirely full language without any significant syntactical relationship to Spanish.

I understand that you are both a physician and cultural and medical anthropologist. Can you tell us a little bit about how training for these two distinct professions influenced your research and writing?

As an anthropologist, I am very interested in theorizing the relationship among social categories and the bodily and subjective experiences of people in those categories. In this way, I want to think deeply, theoretically and critically, avoiding rewriting received knowledge about the phenomenon I am studying. As a physician, I am interested in thinking through the relationship between these theories and health as well as what we might be able to do to improve the overall situation. Perhaps partially because of this combination of trainings and subjectivities, I attempt to write in a theoretically engaged and broadly accessible way.

Gastronomica is a journal of critical food studies. It’s not strictly about agriculture. What do you want readers of this journal to understand about migrant farm labor?

I hope the readers of Gastronomica will think further about the labor that goes into their food, including the bodies of those working on the many levels of the food chain. I hope they will remember that their health and their enjoyment of food is intimately tied to the health and well-being of farmworkers.

Finally, can you tell us about your next project?

I am actively deciding among several topics for my next project. I am interested in exploring the ways in which the lives of the children of the Triqui farmworkers will be different than their parents. The children who were five years old at the beginning of my full-time research are now twelve. They speak fluent English and Spanish and many of them do not speak Triqui. They have visited San Miguel in the mountains of Oaxaca, but have lived much of their lives in Washington, Oregon, and California. What are their experiences of migration? What are their aspirations and anxieties? How will they be positioned in society? What will their subjectivities be and how will they relate to their parents and to farmwork?

In addition, I am interested in comparing U.S.-Mexico migration to Latin America–Spain migration. Since 2007, more Latin Americans have emigrated to Europe – most to Spain – than to the U.S. I would be interested to see how dynamics of racialization as well as forms of violence and labor differ in the context of immigration to a former colonial power as opposed to the situation of reverberations of neocolonialism between the U.S. and Latin America.

Finally, I am very interested in understanding better the training of physicians and nurses. Specifically, how are physicians and nurses trained to see and understand social difference, ethnicity, and social class? How is the habitus and the subjectivity of the health professional produced and what role do they play not only in clinical interactions but also in health and social structures and policies more broadly? During medical school, I took thousands of pages of fieldnotes as well as tape-recorded interviews between myself and another anthropologist-medical student. I look forward to taking time to look over these notes and interviews and to conduct further field research in this area.

Thank you so much. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies is a brilliant, empathetic, and highly readable book. I look forward to reading about your next project.

One thought on “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: An interview with Seth Holmes | Julie Guthman

  • Thank you so much for this review. I intend to read the book as soon as possible. I live in Whatcom County, home of many berry farms and many Oaxacan laborers. I am also very close to Sakuma Berry Farms, where there has been an ongoing labor dispute for the past two seasons between the owners, who want to bring in H2A guestworkers, and the longtime Triqui and Mixteco farmworkers. With the help of Rosalinda Guillen, farmnworker advocate extraordinaire and founder of Community to Community, they have formed their own negotiating group called Familias Unidas por la Justicia, and have conducted marches, protests, and media campaigns to bring attention to their working conditions and low pay. There is in fact a current boycott of Sakuma Berry Farms and of Haagen-Daaz, who is their main buyer. I am not quite an unbiased citizen; I am an immigrant activist myself, an interpreter, and married to a Oaxacan man. I am proud to support the farmworkers and encourage everyone to inform themselves more fully about this dark side of our national agricultural system. Thank you again for your report.

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