Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Seth Holmes's "Fresh Food, Broken Bodies"

Seth M. Holmes is an anthropologist and physician. He received his PhD in Medical Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco, and his M.D. from the University of California, San Francisco. He is Martin Sisters Endowed Chair Assistant Professor of Public Health and Medical Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Holmes applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States, and reported the following:
In the photo on page 99 of my book, Fresh Food, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (2013), garbage bags overflowing with crushed beer cans stand behind housing for workers at a berry farm in Washington. The housing -- called cabinas -- were a temporary home to a group of indigenous Mexican farm workers whom I accompanied as they worked on farms in the U.S., crossed the U.S./Mexico border, were detained by border patrol, and were homeless between harvests in California.

The photo is captioned "self medication." The image comes at the end of a passage describing the experiences of Crescencio, a young male farm worker who had suffered severe headaches for years, which he explained were triggered by anti-indigenous racial epithets and unfair treatment by supervisors on the job. He went to doctors for injections and pills and traditional healers in his home community for cleansing. But the only remedy that worked, he explained to me, was to drink 20 to 24 beers, a treatment he had to self-administer a few times in an average work week.

Nationally, migrant farmworkers are sicker than other groups of people. Much of this illness is caused by the political and economic forces that oblige people like Crescencio, to leave their own farms in order to live and labor in damaging conditions in an intricate social and economic hierarchy. Most farmworkers share the experience of having been driven from their home communities by poverty and the international policies affecting local economies. They experience risk and danger crossing the border, particularly under current U.S. policy which has intentionally routed migrants through some of the most treacherous terrain in the region. But for indigenous workers like Crescencio, this suffering is compounded by subtle forms of intentional and unintentional racism from white and non-indigenous Mexican farmworkers. The discrimination takes overt forms such as slurs and insults from farm supervisors and more subtle ones like the idea that indigenous workers are best suited to do harvesting work that involves crouching over because they are assumed to "like to work bent over" and are understood to be "lower to the ground."

In general, the book explores the ways in which global political and economic structures produce labor migration among indigenous Mexicans, the ways in which regional and local ethnic and immigration hierarchies affect the health and sickness of migrant farmworkers, and the ways in which such hierarchies become understood as natural in society and in health care. The book develops concepts such as Foucault's "clinical gaze" and Bourdieu's "symbolic violence" to answer these questions through the stories of several indigenous Mexican migrant farmworkers in southern Mexico, Central California, and rural Washington State. The photo from the story of Crescencio relates to all of these topics. Crescencio's headaches are produced by his labor position and the treatment he receives as an undocumented indigenous Mexican. His predicament is then, subtly, blamed on him through the ways in which society in general and health professionals specifically understand Mexicans, the body, and sickness.
Learn more about Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue