Travels with migrant farmworkers

A conversation with Seth Holmes about on-the-ground research for his new book.

  • Author Seth Holmes with Triqui children in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico.

  • Author Seth Holmes planting corn with a Triqui teenager in the mountains of Oaxaca, while conducting research for his new book.


On an overcast day in September, I met with University of California Berkeley author and assistant professor of medical anthropology and public health Seth Holmes. His apartment, piled with papers and books, overlooks San Francisco’s Dolores Park and the tony restaurants and Mexican markets of the Mission District. Holmes’ new book, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, published in June by the University of California Press, offers a striking perspective on the lives of migrant farmworkers. As in other books on the topic, such as Ted Conover’s Coyotes and Daniel Rothenberg’s With These Hands, Holmes combines academic analysis with powerful first-person narration.

Between 2003 and 2004, Holmes took a 6,000-mile journey, from Triqui villages in Oaxaca, Mexico, north to California’s Central Valley and Washington’s Skagit Valley – and back again. To document the conditions facing farmworkers, he picked berries, slept in tin-and-plywood sheds and was arrested after illegally entering the United States with a group of border crossers.

HCN: In the book’s introduction, you write that you hope your book helps to counter key stereotypes and misconceptions about migrant workers. What are some of those key stereotypes and misconceptions?

SH: We often hear that these migrants are taking away American jobs. But in my research, I never saw evidence of that. The only U.S. citizens who attempted to get these jobs were immediately promoted because they were U.S. citizens.

Another story that we hear is that these people – often referred to as “illegal aliens” – are draining our economy. But there is strong evidence that these people are contributing to our economy in powerful ways. All the immigrants I traveled with paid taxes. They paid sales tax on the things they bought in stores. Every two weeks they’d get their checks from the farm and, without exception, social security, state and local taxes were taken out.

Most of the farmworkers I traveled with were making between $5,000 and $7,000 a year. But at the end of the year they don't get any of that money back because most of them don’t have Social Security numbers. Not only do they not get any of that money back, they are not eligible to get Social Security in their old age.

In fact, the Chief of the Border Patrol Division in Northwestern Washington State at the time told me in an interview that he was convinced that Social Security would have gone bankrupt if it weren’t for undocumented people paying into the system and not being eligible to receive back from it.

HCN: In one chapter, as you prepare to cross the border with a group of migrants, you make a stop in the Mexican town of Altar, of which you write, “Everything is so clearly set up for border crossers in this town. I wonder to myself why the whole operation hasn’t been shut down by the Border Patrol if their primary goal really is to stop undocumented entry.” With all the talk of stopping illegal border crossings, why do such places continue to exist?

SH: In an early review of my book, Tom Philpott from Mother Jones wrote, “Here in the U.S. we both utterly rely on immigrants from south of the border to feed us and erect walls and employ militias to keep them out.” I think there’s something to that.

University of California sociologist Michael Burawoy wrote an article in the mid-1970s comparing labor migration in California and apartheid in South Africa. In that article, he argues that the economic system says, “Come here, come here. We need you. We’ll pay you.” But the legal and social system say, “Stay out. We don’t want you. Our kids will shoot BB guns at you in border towns.”

It’s complicated. There are leaders who know how much we rely on these migrant workers. For example, this summer (U.S. Senator) Dianne Feinstein asked the border patrol to stop raids on farms in California because California is one of the most productive agricultural states in the nation. We need these workers to pick the vegetables that feed the country.

But at the same time they are kept powerless through the legal system. Burawoy argues that this is not a coincidence. He says that this allows the U.S. to extract the maximum economic benefit from the workers. They have little recourse if they are being mistreated. They are afraid to speak up if they are making less than minimum wage. They are trapped in a system built on fear.

JM: The picture we often get of farmworkers through the media is that they are a fairly monolithic group of laborers from Mexico. But your research revealed that there are complex divisions and hierarchies within the communities. Can you explain?

SH: The farm owner whose farm I was visiting allowed me to do this research because he’d recently learned that there were indigenous groups from Oaxaca who were different than the mestizo Mexicans (those of Spanish and indigenous descent). He wanted to better understand the different groups who worked on his farm.

So I paid close attention to difference amongst the workers. There were indigenous people, mostly from Oaxaca. These were Triqui and Mixtec people. There were also mestizo Mexicans, mostly from central and northern Mexico. Then there were U.S. citizen Latinos who were bilingual. And there were also Anglo-Americans and Asian-Americans.

There’s definitely a hierarchy. If you are a U.S. citizen you are much more likely to have a good job or own the farm. If you are a Mexican citizen with a green card you’re not likely to own the farm but you are likely to have a decent job. If you are a Mexican citizen and undocumented, you are likely to have a job that is more physically strenuous with more pesticide and weather exposure.

On the farm where I worked, the mestizo Mexicans were likely to have hourly picking jobs such as on raspberry machines. While they work long hours harvesting the raspberries it’s not as strenuous as some of the other jobs. Another job typically done by the mestizos is picking the apple crop. While this is very physically strenuous work, it’s also the best paying of the jobs that pay by weight.

However, I observed that the Triqui and Mixtec pickers are most likely to have what are considered the most difficult jobs on the farm, such as strawberry picking, where you are bent over seven days a week. You end up getting bad backs, hips and knees. You don’t make as much money. And because of the strenuous and repetitive nature of the job, there’s lots of anxiety about the possibility of missing the minimum weight and not getting paid.

JM: Why is the labor divided like this?

SH: Part of this is because mestizos and U.S. citizen Latinos have better jobs already. Some of them have the discretion of whom to hire. They tend to hire relatives, or friends of relatives, or relatives of friends.

It also has a lot to do with language. If you speak English you’re likely to get a good job. If you speak Spanish you’re likely to get a decent job. But if you speak an indigenous language you have less access to the people who are making the hiring decisions.

There are also forms of racism that play a role. In Mexico, indigenous people are simultaneously celebrated and discriminated against. Those assumptions and stereotypes carry on and combine with anti-immigrant prejudice in the U.S.

JM:  In the book you talk a lot about your experience on the farm and the tremendous physical and mental demands of the job. Can you talk about how those physical experiences changed your intellectual outlook?

SH: There were a lot of ways that my perspectives were changed through participating in the farm work and migration. Living that experience also led me to questions I would not have known to ask otherwise.

For example, I would have not known to ask farmworkers how they sleep at night. But living in the labor camp where the plywood walls and tin roofs of the shacks are not insulated, allowed me to experience this firsthand. At night the temperatures often drop below freezing and your breath condenses on the underside of the tin roofs. In the morning that breath rains down on you. You can’t sleep because everything is damp. Not only is the labor difficult and stressful but the living conditions make it difficult for you to recover each night.

After picking berries your hands are dyed maroon for at least a day. Seeing your hands stained like that, you think a lot about how much pesticide residue there is in the berry juice and how much of it is getting into your system.

Now when I eat strawberries I have a much harder time enjoying them. I am aware of the labor that goes into bringing them to market. My experience of life and food has changed tremendously.

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