Every week, thousands of migrant workers are arrested and deported, many separated from their loved ones, leaving broken families, and causing untold suffering. Oftentimes, the deportees will turn right around and make the dangerous and sometimes deadly trek north back to the U.S. to be reunited with their families and continue to do the back-breaking work that so many Americans depend on.
This harsh journey to the north, made by millions of migrant farm workers, is invisible to most Americans though they literally bear the fruit of this labor. But Dr. Seth M. Holmes hopes to change that invisibility with his new book, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farm Workers in the United States.
Holmes, a medical anthropologist and Martin Sisters Assistant Professor at U.C Berkeley's School of Public Health, not only observed the plight of farm workers as they traveled to the United States but he lived it, making the dangerous journey north from Oaxaca, Mexico, via a "coyote." In a recent interview with Dennis J Bernstein, Holmes talked about his work with the farm workers and his trek north which ended in his arrest.
DB: Please say a little bit about your own background, and how it is you came to actually go down, and come back with a group of folks crossing over with a coyote.
SH: I'm a physician and an anthropologist, and as an anthropologist I use the classic field research method of participant observation. So not only do we observe what's going on in the world but also participate in it on some level and learn from our own bodies data about what that way of life is like. For 18 months I lived with and migrated with undocumented indigenous Mexicans from the state of Oaxaca in Washington State, lived in a labor camp, and picked strawberries.
Then in central California, I lived with this same group of people in a slum apartment and pruned vineyards when there was work, went down to their home village in the mountains of Oaxaca, helped with harvesting corn and planting corn, and then crossed the border back with them through Sonora state in northern Mexico into Arizona, and then went into the border patrol jail with them, which I'm sure we'll talk a little bit more about. And then back to California and to Washington again. I did this field work in order partially to understand how ethnic hierarchies and hierarchies of citizenship and immigration work in the U.S. today, and how that affects peoples' health and health care.
DB: Now, clearly given the risks people are taking and the fears that they face, it took a great deal to build trust. And the trust building began long before you headed to the border. Could you talk a little bit about how that evolved?
SH: My research started up in Washington state on a family farm that grows ... it's famous for strawberries, but also grows blueberries and apples and raspberries. I lived in a labor camp along with this indigenous group of Mexicans who were mostly picking strawberries. And I picked strawberries with them, one or two days a week.
The other days I observed what was happening in the migrant clinic, and I interviewed pickers, managers, supervisors, and neighbors of the farm to understand all levels of what Laura Nader here at U.C.-Berkeley would call the "vertical slice" of U.S. agriculture through these different kinds of hierarchies.
DB: Was the work hard? Was it hard to keep up with the other folks?
SH: Yes. I never was able to keep up with the other folks. At the beginning of the season, the strawberry season, there were four U.S. citizen non-Mexicans who were picking strawberries. By the end of the season, I was the only one left. If I hadn't been a white person who was interesting to the farm owners I would have been fired several times because I could not keep up. Unlike media coverage of farm workers as unskilled labor, I saw that they are very skilled.
I worked as hard as I possibly could to pick strawberries as fast as I could and I never could keep up. They have to pick 50 pounds of strawberries -- the appropriate kind of ripeness, without any leaves -- per hour, in order to make the minimum wage. And if they pick less than that for a couple days then they're fired.
DB: And so through that, you began to meet folks, develop trust, and that's how you began to connect ahead?
SH: At first ... I spent four or five months in Washington state on that farm. And I would say that there was a very slow process of developing trust in Washington state. The trust really started to develop when I was asked by an extended family to go with them to central California. We moved to Madera, California, together. We spent about a week homeless, living out of cars and using the bathrooms in city parks until we could find someone who was willing to rent to people who don't have credit history. Because I was the only one who had a credit history. So once we found an apartment that, to use a "technical" term was "slummy enough" to rent to people without a credit history, 19 of us moved into a three-bedroom apartment.
And I think that's when people started to trust me. "Oh, he's actually with us, he's not just watching us for a summer. He's actually really trying to understand."