Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies

Oct 30, 2013, 9:00 AM, Posted by Seth Holmes

Seth M. Holmes, PhD, MD, is an alumnus of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars program and an assistant professor of public health and medical anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. The following is an excerpt from his recently published book, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States.

“The first Triqui picker whom I met when I visited the Skagit Valley was Abelino, a thirty-five-year-old father of four. He, his wife, Abelina, and their children lived together in a small shack near me in the labor camp farthest from the main road. During one conversation over homemade tacos in his shack, Abelino explained in Spanish why Triqui people have to leave their hometowns in Mexico.

In Oaxaca, there’s no work for us. There’s no work. There’s nothing. When there’s no money, you don’t know what to do. And shoes, you can’t get any. A shoe like this [pointing to his tennis shoes] costs about 300 Mexican pesos. You have to work two weeks to buy a pair of shoes. A pair of pants costs 300 Mexican pesos. It’s difficult. We come here and it is a little better, but you still suffer in the work. Moving to another place is also difficult. Coming here with the family and moving around to different places, we suffer. The children miss their classes and don’t learn well. Because of this, we want to stay here only for a season with [legal immigration] permission and let the children study in Mexico. Do we have to migrate to survive? Yes, we do.

 “American society gains much from migrant laborers and gives little back beyond criminalization, stress, and injury. This dishonest relationship must change.”


Early in my time on the farm, Abelino explained to me the experience of picking: “You pick with your hands, bent over, kneeling like this [demonstrating with both knees fully bent and his head bowed forward]. Your back hurts; you get knee pains and pain here [touching his hip]. When it rains, you get pretty mad and you have to keep picking. They don’t give lunch breaks. You have to work every day like that to make anything. You suffer a lot in work.”


[One day], while picking, Abelino experienced acute, intense pain in his right knee during one of the countless times he pivoted from the right to the left. At the end of the day, he told me about the incident. He said it felt like his foot would not move, and then the pain suddenly began. The pain was most intense on the inside of the knee just behind the kneecap. He also felt like there was something loose moving around within his knee. He attempted to keep working for the rest of the day in the vain hope that the pain would go away. He tried picking with his knees straightened while he bent at the hips, but this hurt almost as intensely and slowed him down significantly, and he almost missed the minimum weight [of berries he was required to pick].


The social and political genesis of Abelino’s knee pain could not have been clearer. His pain was caused unequivocally by the fact that he, as an undocumented Triqui man, had been excluded by both international market inequalities and local discriminatory practices from all but one narrow and particularly traumatic labor position. This occupation required him to bend over seven days a week, turning back and forth, in all kinds of weather, picking strawberries as fast as he possibly could.


In U.S. society at large, possibilities for solidarity include such things as promoting and buying the products of farms that treat workers fairly, lobbying the government to change border policies and practices, developing experiential education programs working against the exclusion of those considered different, and restructuring education and health care so that they are accessible for everyone.


[My research] shows that “closing the border” is unlikely to stop people from seeking a means for themselves and their families to survive. Instead, our focus should turn to the social and economic policies forcing groups of people to risk their lives in this way in the first place. The Domestic Fair Trade Working Group has attempted to launch a fair trade label in the United States, much like that available in Europe. The United Farm Workers and the Piñeros y Campesinos Unidos organize workers for better working conditions and treatment. Supporters of the Dream Act call for equal access to education for everyone in the United States, including immigrants. Organizations like Physicians for a National Health Plan, the National Physicians Alliance, and others support universal health care for all. In Arizona, organizations like No More Deaths, the Samaritans, Healing Our Borders, Borderlinks, Border Action Network, and Humane Borders seek to stop migrant death on the border by offering medical care to migrants in distress, placing water barrels in especially dangerous areas, and raising awareness through seminars on border issues. Other organizations, such as the Food Justice Alliance and Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, work to develop community conversations about and awareness of the importance of the future of agriculture in the United States. In the Skagit Valley, the People’s Seminary and Tierra Nueva offer seminars in which area residents hear from farm owners, pickers, and Border Patrol agents in order to form more realistic perceptions of Mexican migration and farmwork.


Globally, and perhaps most important, the formation of broad coalitions of people is necessary in order to envision and work for a more equitable international economy such that people would not be forced to leave their homes to migrate in the first place. This includes, among other efforts, the campaigns of Global Exchange and other organizations to defeat the Central American Free Trade Agreement, activities of individuals and movements toward the dismantling and reformation of international economic institutions like the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, and myriad movements promoting local and independent producers instead of multinational corporations.

Moving toward increasing international equity requires that we uncover the hidden workings of hegemony such that the people and corporations in power cannot promote their own interests unequally. Broad coalitions of people must actively engage in the war of position via not only words and representations but also concrete legal, political, civil, and economic actions. All these means are necessary to ameliorate social suffering and its naturalization and to promote health, equality, and genuine democracy. With such a multifaceted approach, we can move toward a future in which our Triqui companions have access to humane and healthy living and working conditions and no longer have to migrate across a deadly border in order to provide us with fresh fruit in exchange for their broken bodies.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.