Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers In The United States
Readers of a certain vintage and background will be unable to read Seth Holmes’ absorbing and illuminating Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers In The United States without hearing the plaintive, haunting and—because they’re as relevant today as when first written over two generations ago—damning questions of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)“:
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except “deportees”?
Holmes, a native US physician and anthropologist, spent 18 months living and working with Triqui- and Spanish-speaking migrant farmworkers from Oaxaca, Mexico as they made the dangerous trek across the border, and worked their way up and down the west coast of the United States, spending several months each year picking berries on the Tanaka farm in Washington’s Skagit Valley.
His ground-level (literally) view allows Holmes to see the ways in which global economic and political forces create the constraints within which his companions live their lives. So, for example, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) prohibits domestic corn price subsidies for Mexican farmers, but allows US subsidies for corn exports. This results in Oaxacans unable to make a profit on corn grown on their own land, and drives young men and women from towns like St. Miguel thousands of miles north where they can make more money picking berries in Washington.
By inserting himself into the lives of migrant farmworkers, Holmes confounds the invisible-yet-strict ethnic-national-linguistic hierarchy of the global food industry in North America: English-speakers above Spanish-speakers, Spanish-speakers above Triqui-speakers (and speakers of other indigenous languages), citizens above legal residents, legal residents above those without papers.
One of the few sources of humor in Fresh Fruit,Broken Bodies is Holmes’ periodic encounters with those trying to figure out how he “fits” in the world as it is. When he’s arrested crossing the border with his Triqui companions, he’s mistaken for a coyote. When at a laundry in California one winter, a Mexican migrant is convinced he must be a jefe. His Triqui companion Samuel explains that Holmes “lived in the labor camp, picked strawberries on a farm with them and was learning their indigenous language Samuel then summarized, ‘He wants to experience for himself how the poor suffer.‘” (emphasis added)
Holmes adds, “My confusing presence in the lives of Triqui migrant laborers was considered legitimate, even sensible, once its goal was understood to be ‘experience how the poor suffer’. Poverty, violence, and embodied suffering are central experiences of their lives….” (p. 33)
It’s that focus that makes Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, despite its ungainly academic dissertation framework and its detours into medical and anthropological intra-disciplinary disputations, more like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World & Me than any other book I’ve read recently. Both are relentlessly, vibrantly focused on the dignity of the human body, particularly the bodies of the poor and oppressed, and on the brutal and crippling violations—small and large, casual and intentional—to which those bodies (and the spirits they contain) are routinely subjected.