Berkeley researcher examined, lived the life of a migrant farmworker

The screening at  UC Berkeley last night (Wednesday, March 5) of “Cesar Chavez,” the first feature film about the late farm-labor organizer and civil rights activist, prompted a Berkeley medical anthropologist who has studied Mexican migrants to share his observations of current conditions for farmworkers.

Seth Holmes, an assistant professor of public health and medical anthropology, draws on his experiences living, working and traveling with mostly undocumented, indigenous migrant farmworkers going to and from southern Mexico to work along the West Coast over the course of five years. At one point, he was arrested in Arizona by U.S. Border Patrol agents along with his migrant companions after trekking together through the desert from Mexico into the United States.

Seth Holmes with some of the Mexican migrants he traveled with.

Seth Holmes with some of the family members of Mexican migrants with whom he traveled and worked.

Holmes, who is also a physician, was especially interested in the physical and emotional effects of spending 12-hour days, six or seven days a week, in physically demanding jobs such as berry picking or pruning trees and vineyards. His observations and conversations with workers, farmers and medical personnel are documented in his award-winning book, “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States” (2013).

The laborers’ most common health problems, Holmes found, include musculoskeletal problems such as chronic back pain or knee injuries. Some also reported symptoms of pesticide poisoning, according to Holmes. As for medical care, he learned few workers have health insurance and all have difficulty navigating the uneven American healthcare system, which often excludes them. Holmes says many farmworkers rely on native healers or help from the few available health clinics, where barriers of culture and language can discourage or hamper treatment.

Two West Coast artists and the California Institute for Rural Studies in Davis have collaborated to send the book to every member of the U.S. Congress, to the Oval Office and to the governors of California and Oregon.

The Holmes  book has won the Society for Medical Anthropology’s 2013 New Millennium Book Award, which recognizes a work’s impact in and beyond the field of medical anthropology. “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies” also took the Society for the Anthropology of Work’s top honors for 2013 for what judges said is Holmes’s particularly illuminating work in light of current debates about immigration reform, healthcare and industrial agriculture.

Below is an exchange with Holmes on a few issues relating to California farmworkers.


Q: What has or has not changed for farmworkers in terms of their work-related health issues and treatment options since the days of Chavez?

A: First, I should say that this film about Cesar Chavez and the movement for fair wages and decent treatment of farmworkers depicts a very important part of our history in California.  I urge every Californian to watch it when it opens on March 28 to learn the history and the stories of Cesar Chavez and the other people involved in the movement for farmworker rights.

To answer your question more directly, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and many others involved in farmworker organizing have had many victories, like the explicit right to organize in California and the outlawing of the short-handled hoe, which was used despite growers knowing that it damaged the backs of workers.

But many of the hierarchies of people that are based on ethnicity and citizenship are still active in U.S. agriculture, and unhealthy living and working conditions persist in farm work. A friend who visited me during my field research called the labor camp where I and many farmworkers lived “one inch above squalor.” The conditions are not what many of us in the United States would accept. It is important that we continue to support the efforts of the United Farm Workers, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos, and other farmworker organizations.

Q: Why is this?

A: I found that many levels of explicit and sometimes subtle racism are involved in the unofficial justification or legitimization of the substandard living and working conditions of farmworkers. Many people see the social inequalities and ethnic hierarchies in agriculture as normal, justified or natural. The justification of inequalities and poor life conditions for certain categories of people is persistent and troubling.

As Cesar Chavez pointed out, it is a problem that so many people who harvest food for the rest of us cannot afford to feed their own families.  This unequal reality needs to change.

In many ways, we need solutions for unhealthy living and working conditions that are sustainable for farmworkers and for farmers, who may feel trapped by a globalizing market that does not value local food or fair labor practices.

Q: Aren’t there laws to protect workers — migrant and otherwise — from spending excessively long hours in the fields or being exposed to toxic chemicals?

A: Yes, there are many labor laws that need better enforcement in farm work.  Many farmworkers are at a disadvantage due to language differences and citizenship power differentials, so they are less likely to point out mistreatment or demand their labor rights for fear of being fired, mistreated or deported.  Fair enforcement of existing laws and fair, comprehensive immigration reform would decrease these power differentials.  The explicit right for farmworkers to organize in other states beyond California is also very important.

Q: Where do they go for health care?

A: Many migrants who are seriously injured or disabled return to their hometowns and extended families in Mexico for care. Some try to navigate the health system in the United States and learn that some healthcare facilities do not allow them access due to lack of insurance, some allow for limited care for specific populations, and some allow only emergency care. This is often a difficult and time-consuming process of navigating the confusing healthcare system for migrant farmworkers.

Several farmworkers I lived with had so much difficulty with the system that they concluded, “The doctors don’t know anything. (Los medicos no saben nada.)” At the time, I was not only finishing my Ph.D. in anthropology but also working on my M.D., and I found this very disconcerting.

Q: There is vocal hostility in some quarters to undocumented immigrants. From your experiences, how do these workers react to or feel about that animosity? Did you observe health impacts?

A: I should point out that during my field research, there were no white U.S. citizens (besides myself) who tried to work as farmworkers on any of the farms I observed. And many farmworkers feel the animosity and fear the potential for violence or anger from people they run into around town, at the grocery store or elsewhere. This causes some migrants to stay home and live a limited, largely shut-in life that can lead to loneliness and depression.

Q: You are not an economist, but, based on your research, how do you think California and its food industry would respond without migrant workers to tend harvest and crops?

A: We have already seen recent cases where some farms lost their fruit when their state passed anti-immigrant laws and fearful migrant farmworkers either left or stayed in hiding.

On a related note, I want to point out that all migrant farmworkers pay sales tax. The farmworkers I worked with were all paid in checks that had Social Security and other federal taxes, state taxes, and local taxes taken out, even though they on average made between $5,000 and $7,000 annually and didn’t get the usual tax refunds. Migrant farmworkers contribute to California by feeding us healthy fruit and vegetables at the expense of the health of their own bodies, as well as by making important economic contributions that are often unseen by the general public.