Seth M. Holmes brings an unusual expertise to his writing about migrant Mexican farmworkers in “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies.” He’s both a primary care physician and an assistant professor of public health and medical anthropology at the University of California-Berkeley. So he’s looking at the suffering of migrant workers through a medical/academic lens in his new book, which he’ll discuss in Austin on Sunday with Mother Jones reporter Tom Philpott.
But Holmes goes far beyond mere observation in his book. For two summers, he worked on berry farms in Washington state and lived with the workers, many of whom were from the Triqui village of San Miguel in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. And he makes it quite clear that the berries that we eat for our health come at a high cost to those who pick them.
“I often felt sick to my stomach the night before picking, due to stress about picking the minimum weight,” he writes. “As I picked, my knees continually hurt; I tried different positions, sometimes squatting, sometimes kneeling, sometimes propped up on just one knee. … All day, I leaned forward to see the strawberries below the leaves, and my neck and back began to hurt by late morning.”
He goes on to describe the physical ravages that farmworkers face, as well as the racism, the put-downs, the inherent degradation of being on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder. Yet, he isn’t strident. He also talks to the owners of the farms and realizes the economic pressures that they’re facing — fearing that competition from countries like China will force them to close, partly because U.S. farm managers have to pay far more for labor than farms in some countries.
And there’s the rub, especially for the Triqui people. As Holmes points out repeatedly, the Triqui do not feel as if they have chosen to become migrant workers — an argument that comes up often in political debates over immigrants. They simply feel that they have no choice but to leave Mexico if they wish to provide food and clothes for their families. And their economic troubles, as Holmes shows, come from various international market pressures, specifically from the North American Free Trade Agreement.
As Holmes notes, NAFTA has made the traditional Triqui occupation of growing corn obsolete. They simply can’t compete with lower-cost corn that comes from the United States and elsewhere as a result of NAFTA. And to make matters worse for Mexican farmers, the United States has consistently raised farm subsidies while a cash-strapped Mexican government has “reduced financial supports for corn producers, most of them indigenous campesinos from southern Mexico, leading more and more to migrate in order to survive.”
While Holmes makes a powerful argument to help us understand the plight of Mexican farmworkers in the United States, his most powerful writing comes in the introduction, where he describes in detail how he was part of group of Triqui villagers who attempted to enter the U.S. with the help of a coyote, or border-crossing guide.
To get to the U.S. from southwestern Mexico, he takes numerous grueling trips on crowded vans and buses, stopping briefly to go the restroom or buy food, only to finally arrive in the northern desert town of Altar, where they’re left at an abadoned gas station. Eventually, they end up in a one-room apartment with no furniture and no water service in the bathroom. And then they move on to a van for a long ride along dirt roads, before being left at a rundown outpost for several hours. Then a pickup arrives and they begin the journey anew.
Throughout all the exchanges of vehicles during weeks of travel, both Holmes and his village companions wonder whether they’ll be attacked or betrayed. But they eventually arrive in the middle of the desert near the border. They hike single file, for hours, toward the U.S., crawling under row after row of barbed wire, ducking to hide from a helicopter, rubbing garlic on their boots to repel rattlesnakes. And when they get inside the U.S., their suffering has become pointless: They’re caught by Border Patrol agents.
Holmes details how he and his companions are treated once they’re in jail. And it’s not a flattering picture. “I wonder why law enforcement officers seem often to lack respect for the other human with whom they are interacting,” he writes. “I wonder how I will pay the fine (of $5,000 for charges of Entry Without Inspection). I wonder how my Triqui friends are doing and how it would feel to know you had to attempt the long trek again.”
After reading “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies,” you’ll probably understand that the long trek through Mexico to the U.S. will never stop unless significant policy changes occur.
Holmes will discuss his new book at 7 p.m. Sunday at 5604 Manor, a community center at 5604 Manor Road.
Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies
Seth M. Holmes
University of California Press, $27.95 (paperback)