Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Booknote: Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies

Seth M. Holmes, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-0-520-27514-0.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: politics, current events, ethnographic studies, medical studies, labor studies
Format: Paperback
Source: Book provided for Dean's Faculty Book Reading Group. 

I usually do my review segment first, then I do additional reading notes after the review. However, this book gave me so much to think about, that I am just presenting my reading notes along with my commentary to give my four readers a sense of my thought process as I read it. You will find my rating and overall assessment at the end of the post.  This is a book with a timely and sensitive topic (the 2016 election is coming up in the U.S., and I am sure some presidential candidates will want to talk about immigration). It is a complex topic, and the author strives to be inclusive of all sides, though the focus is on the undocumented workers, Triqui indigenous people from Mexico in this case that he follows and learns from. Still, it is not a perfect book, and I will discuss the pluses and minuses as I go along.

The first chapter serves as an introduction. Her the author describes  how he set up his ethnographic project. When he arrives at the Mexican border town of Altar in Northern Mexico, he notices the town seems to be set up for border crossers. One has to wonder how much law enforcement in both sides is most for show. After all, the border crossing provides cheap labor in the United States, which the U.S. can't do without, and it provides a source of revenue to Mexico via remittances. The author writes:

"Everything is so clearly and obviously set up for border crossers in this town. I wonder to myself why the whole operation hasn't been shut down by the U.S. Border Patrol if their primary goal is really to stop undocumented entry" (12). 

The chapter's structure goes back and forth between the author's narrative of the project and flashbacks of the journey to cross the border. And here comes a spoiler; he gets caught the first time he attempts to cross with some other undocumented workers. What strikes me about that is how casual and easy the author gets mistreated and gets his rights violated. He barely got to make a phone call. The agents pretty much play hardball in nothing more than a bully display of power. As the author writes:

"I wonder to myself with the agents seem so focused and angry at me when there seem to be so much more clearly dangerous criminals in the borderlands on whom they could focus their time and energy" (23).

When he finally manages to get out of jail, he asks what a few of us often ask as well:

"I wonder why law enforcement officers seem often to lack respect for the other human with whom they are interacting" (25). 

One reason I am sure is because they are not worried about being held accountable for their abusive actions.

The second chapter is largely the obligatory explanation of the scholar, what his field does (anthropology and medicine in his case), and justifying the validity of the work. This is not exactly riveting reading, but given what he is trying to achieve overall, it is necessary to lay down the foundational groundwork.

Moving on, when it came to things like NAFTA, the U.S. basically cheated in terms of agricultural subsidies. NAFTA banned tariffs, so the Mexican government was forced to ban tariffs on corn, which was the primary crop of indigenous families in Mexico. However, subsidies were not banned, so:

"Thus the U.S. government was allowed to increase corn subsidies year after year, effectively enacting a tariff against Mexican corn" (25). 

The result is that subsidized American GMO corn (by the way, these subsidies are also a big reason why we find corn syrup and derivatives in all sorts of products) undersold and flooded the Mexican market. If Americans wonder why all those poor Mexican farmers risk their lives to work in the United States, this is a key answer. The U.S. has to bear a lot of the blame for causing the issue.

Holmes goes on to show that the body of the worker itself is a major source of information. The aches and pains of labor "offered important field notes on social suffering. Without paying attention to my bodily experiences, I would have missed out on much of the valuable data about the everyday lives of migrant laborers" (35).

Throughout the book, Holmes brings in critical theory to further explain and illuminate his experiences. For an academic audience, this is essential to establish credibility as well as to provide insight.. However, at times, the theory can be heavy. If the goal is to get other people to read this book too, then the theory may get in the way given the strength of the book is really in the narrative experiences and the stories of the Triqui people.

Another issue I can see is that the farmers and owners who employ undocumented workers are part of a system, but at times Holmes may be a bit too sympathetic to these farmers and owners. He writes:

"Of course, the executives share some complicity with the unfair system, and some are more actively racist and xenophobic than others. Overall, however, perhaps, instead of blaming the growers, it is more appropriate to understand them as human beings doing the best they can in the midst of an unequal and harsh system" (53). 

Human being in an unjust system, sure, but my sympathy only goes so far for racists and xenophobes and those who excuse or enable them. And I am even less sympathetic to growers who show allow their workers to live in subhuman conditions to save a few extra bucks. As nice, decent, church going as the Tanakas are, they still have workers living in squalor, and they do benefit from it. I guess the definition of "ethical farm" is in the eye of the beholder. And yet the reality that Americans do not generally acknowledge is that:

". . . the current structure of U.S. farming would be impossible without undocumented migrant workers" (65). 

Another strength of the book is that Holmes not only learns from the experience. He not only looks at both labor and management. He also looks at the health and bodies of the workers, how they suffer physical and mental pains from the work and their forced journeys.

And what is some of the cost of crossing for Triqui laborers?

"Crossing the border from Mexico to the United States involves incredible financial, physical, and emotional suffering for Triqui migrants. Each migrant pays $1,500 to $2,500 to various people along the way for rides and guidance. They walk hurriedly in physically impossible conditions, getting speared by cactus spines, attempting to avoid rattlesnakes, climbing and jumping over numerous barbed-wire fences--all the while using no flashlights in order to avoid being seen by the Border Patrol and vigilante groups. As a rule, they do not bring enough food or water because of the weight. Every step of the way carries a fearful awareness that at any moment one might be apprehended and deported by the Border Patrol, which would entail beginning the nightmarish trek all over again after figuring out a way to scrape together enough money for another attempt" (92).

And by the way, if they do manage to get here, they are not exactly making a fortune, plus they often get cheated on pay. Samuel, a laborer, tells the author about pay and costs:

"Samuel: Here with Tanaka, we don't have to pay rent, but they don't pay us much. They pay 14 cents a pound. And they take out taxes, federal taxes, social security. They pay $20 a day.
. . . They don't pay fairly. If a person has 34 pounds of strawberries, 4 pounds are stolen because the checker marks only 30. It is not just" (76).

And if things were not bad enough, American (read United States) media loves to rile up public hysteria about "illegal immigrants." However, let the division chief of Border Patrol in Washington State speak on these workers:

"these migrants are more hardworking and law-abiding than most U.S. citizens. He stated that they drive the speed limit, they pay their taxes, they work very hard, and they avoid any activities that would draw attention from the police. In fact, the division chief explained to me that Social Security in the United States would have gone bankrupt years ago if it were not for the undocumented workers paying into it without collecting from it. He went on to say that every once in a while, there is a Mexican migrant who commits a crime, just like there are U.S. citizens who commit crimes, and these undocumented migrants are sought and deported. Otherwise, he said, he is not interested in prosecuting people who are working hard on U.S. farms" (187-188). 

And how does U.S. society show its gratitude to these hard workers that bring their produce to their grocery stores?

"American society gains much from migrant laborers and gives little back beyond criminalization, stress, and injury" (197). 

Overall, this is a solid and fairly wide ranging look at migrant farm labor in the United States from various perspectives. Given Holmes worked alongside some of them and crossed borders with them, he is well able and informed to bring their stories to life. There is a lot more I can say about this book, but the best I can say is read it and learn from it, and then find something to do, even if it is a small action. This book needs to be read beyond the usual choir. Maybe send it to a few Congressmen to read. It is not an easy read at times, and it can get a little dense here or there, but it is a necessary read. As a final note, the book does feature some graphs and some photos, photos mostly taken by the author, which add a good visual element for the text.

3 out of 5 stars given I liked it.

This book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges:

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