Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies Essay

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies Essay

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies Essay

“In Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, Seth Holmes offers up an important and captivating new ethnography, linking the structural violence inherent in the migrant labor system in the United States to the social processes by which it becomes normalized. Drawing on five years of fieldwork among the Triqui people from Oaxaca, Mexico, Holmes investigates local understandings of suffering and illness, casting into relief stereotypes and prejudices that he ties to the transnational labor that puts cheap food on American tables. Throughout this compelling volume, Holmes considers ways of engaging migrant farmworkers and allies who might help disrupt the exploitation that reaches across national boundaries and can too often be hidden away. This book is a gripping read not only for cultural and medical anthropologists, students in immigration and ethnic studies as well as labor and agriculture, and physicians and public health professionals, but also for anyone interested in the lives and well-being of the people who provide them cheap, fresh fruit.”

Paul Farmer, Cofounder of Partners in Health and Chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School

Struggling to meet your deadline ?

Get assistance on

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies Essay

done on time by medical experts. Don’t wait – ORDER NOW!

“This book takes concepts from the world of scholarship to enrich the understanding of people’s lives, while its vivid detail and empathetic portrait of the reality of people’s lives enrich scholarship. Holmes leaves the reader in no doubt that economic arrangements, social hierarchies, discrimination, and poor living and working conditions have profound effects on the health of marginalized people, and he does so with the touch of a gifted writer. The reader lives the detail and is much moved.”


Professor Sir Michael Marmot, Director, UCL Institute of Health Equity

“A tour de force ethnography. Holmes gives us the rare combination of medical, anthropological, and humanitarian gazes into the lives of Oaxacan migrant farmworkers in the United States. Their agricultural field work and his anthropological fieldwork intersect to produce a book full of insights into the pathos, inequalities, frustrations, and dreams punctuating the farmworkers’ daily lives. Through Holmes’s vivid prose, and the words of the workers themselves, we feel with the workers as they strain their bodies picking fruit and pruning vines; we sense their fear as they cross the U.S.-Mexico border; we understand their frustrations as they are chased and detained by immigration authorities; and we cheer at their perseverance when faced with bureaucrats and medical personnel who treat them as if they were to blame for their own impoverished condition. A must-read for anyone interested in the often invisible lives and suffering of those whose labor provides for our very sustenance.”

Leo R. Chavez, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine

“In his first book, anthropologist and doctor Seth M. Holmes gives us an intimate look into the lives of migrant farmworkers. Through his exhaustive research, Holmes reveals the struggles of the millions who work in our fields, every year, to put food on our tables. In deliberations about immigration and farm policy, these are the stories that should be at the center. Holmes helps us put them there.”

Anna Lappé, author Diet for a Hot Planet and founder of the Real Food Media Project

“In this book, Seth Holmes recounts the experience of Mexican workers who cross the border illegally at their own risk, hoping to be employed on the farms of the West Coast of the United States and, above all, to allow their children a better existence. His engaged anthropology provides a unique understanding of the political economy of migrant labor and of its human cost.”

Didier Fassin, Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and author of Humanitarian Reason

“Like the reporting of Edward R. Murrow and the labors of Cesar Chavez, Seth Holmes’s work on these modern-day migrants reminds us of the human beings who produce the greatest bounty of food the world has ever seen. They take jobs that other American workers won’t take, for pay that other American workers won’t accept and under conditions that other American workers won’t tolerate. Yet except for the minority of farmworkers protected by United Farm Workers’ contracts, these workers too often don’t earn enough to adequately feed themselves. Seth Holmes’s writing fuels the UFW’s ongoing organizing among farmworkers and admonishes the American people that our work remains unfinished.”

Arturo S. Rodriguez, President, United Farm Workers of America

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies


The California Series in Public Anthropology emphasizes the anthropologist’s role as an engaged intellectual. It continues anthropology’s commitment to being an ethnographic witness, to describing, in human terms, how life is lived beyond the borders of many readers’ experiences. But it also adds a commitment, through ethnography, to reframing the terms of public debate—transforming received, accepted understandings of social issues with new insights, new framings.

Series Editor: Robert Borofsky (Hawaii Pacific University)

Contributing Editors: Philippe Bourgois (University of Pennsylvania), Paul Farmer (Partners in Health), Alex Hinton (Rutgers University), Carolyn Nordstrom (University of Notre Dame), and Nancy Scheper-Hughes (UC Berkeley)

University of California Press Editor: Naomi Schneider

Fresh Fruit,

Broken Bodies




With a Foreword by Philippe Bourgois


BerkeleyLos AngelesLondon

University of California Press, one of the most distinguished university presses in the United States, enriches lives around the world by advancing scholarship in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Its activities are supported by the UC Press Foundation and by philanthropic contributions from individuals and institutions. For more information, visit .

University of California Press

Berkeley and Los Angeles, California

University of California Press, Ltd.

London, England

© 2013 by The Regents of the University of California

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Holmes, Seth M., 1975–

Fresh fruit, broken bodies : migrant farmworkers in the United States / Seth M. Holmes, PhD, MD ; with a foreword by Philippe Bourgois.

pagescm — (California series in public anthropology ; 27)

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-520-27513-3 (cloth : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-0-520-27514-0 (pbk. : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-0-520-95479-3 (ebook)

1. Migrant agricultural laborers—United States—Social conditions. I. Title.



Manufactured in the United States of America

22  21  20  19  18  17  16  15  14  13

10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1

In keeping with a commitment to support environmentally responsible and sustainable printing practices, UC Press has printed this book on Rolland Enviro100, a 100% post-consumer fiber paper that is FSC certified, deinked, processed chlorine-free, and manufactured with renewable biogas energy. It is acid-free and EcoLogo certified.

To Ed and Carolyn Holmes, for introducing me to a life open to new questions

To the Triqui people in the United States and Mexico, for allowing me into your lives and guiding me toward new answers

. . . our work is not done.


Dolores Huerta



FOREWORD The Symbolic Violence of Primitive Accumulation in the United States

The good doctor tells us, “Eat fresh fruit—lots of it!” You, the reader—the tiny fraction of the world’s population that has access to important critical and moving books, like this one by physician anthropologist Seth Holmes, are likely to take this healthy biopower dictate for granted. Most Americans who are not poor have learned to avoid the worst of the cheap, processed, and biologically engineered convenience foods saturated with sugar, salt, and fat (Moss 2013) that the global poor increasingly are condemned to eat because of transnational corporate domination of food markets. A few of the global privileged in the United States who remember reading Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and boycotting grapes in support of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers movement may be vaguely aware that the delicious, health-giving fruit they worthily devour is produced cheaply by literally breaking the backs, knees, hips, and other overstressed body parts of Latino farmworkers.

Holmes lets us know in no uncertain terms why we often fail to recognize the association between our “care of the self” and the suffering imposed on indigenous Mexican farmworkers that has been rendered invisible through the naturalization of racialized hierarchies. He shows us the urgency of recognizing that global assemblages are unequally structured and, although they impose themselves on all of us, they distribute embodied suffering differentially onto structurally vulnerable populations (Quesada, Hart, and Bourgois 2011). The stakes are high: these global inequities damage the body, and they are too often deadly. Holmes shows exactly who gets physically and emotionally hurt, and in what intimate ways, by the effects of racism, international trade policy, the everyday practices that normalize inequality, law enforcement, and disciplinary forms of knowledge. He explores the intellectual, political, practical, and ethical implications of the ideas of Marx, and especially of Bourdieu—not to mention the early Foucault—so that readers cannot continue to misrecognize the relationship between their biopower benefits and the damage inflicted on the bodies and lives of indigenous undocumented workers. In fact, as Holmes documents ethnographically, access to affordable fresh fruit in the United States, and in many of the wealthier parts of the world, is made possible by a symbolic violence that treats racism as a natural state of affairs. More concretely, he shows how this translates into abusive workplace hierarchies, residential segregation, and unhealthy living conditions.

The public secret of the politically imposed suffering of undocumented Latino farmworkers in the United States in the mid-2010s is unconscionably useful: It generates profits for transnational agribusiness and keeps U.S. citizens healthy. The suffering of the Triqui is arguably more useful, more noxious, and more invisible than was the human-engineered environmental disaster that expelled 2.5 million people from the Great Plains during the Great Depression of the 1930s and sent 200,000 “Okies” into migrant farm labor in California, contributing to the great boom in the multibillion dollar California agricultural industry. The Okies, too, were greeted with insults. Store entrances sported signs saying, “Okies and dogs not allowed inside.” Holmes sought out a real live retired Okie, only to find that this elderly, upwardly mobile former migrant laborer spewed back the same venom that had been directed at him over half a century ago. He tried to convince Holmes that the latest wave of migrant farm laborers, the Triqui Amerindians, were culturally inferior and deserved their poverty. Their phenotype, body size, marriage customs, language, nationality, and even work discipline and exploitability become the pernicious symbolic markers of a racialized ethnicity that assigns them to a toxic occupational location in the global labor force.

The fresh fruit market niche that biopower, symbolic violence, old-fashioned racism, and xenophobic nationalism have rendered profitable and vibrant in the United States is actively enforced through the structural violence of U.S. immigration laws and the details of the Department of Homeland Security’s border and workplace inspection enforcement policies. The political imposition of an “illegal” status on Mexican farmworkers in the United States was provocatively compared by Michael Burawoy in 1976 to the same mechanisms of unequally articulating modes of production (agricultural capitalism with subsistence agriculture) that enabled the mining industry of South Africa to thrive and to subsidize the living and working conditions of South African whites in the second half of the twentieth century through the political and legal enforcement of apartheid and the migrant homelands system. Almost forty years after Burawoy’s critique, U.S. agriculture’s relationship with indigenous rural communities of Mexico continues to institutionalize and, as Holmes demonstrates more subtly, to embody this dynamic. The costs of the reproduction of U.S. agriculture’s labor force (the childhood nurturance and education of the laborers themselves) and their physical degradation (occupational injuries, pesticide poisonings, premature superannuation, and retirement) is displaced onto the home-sending communities. When farmworkers are rendered too sick, from physical exertion and exposure, to continue laboring, most “voluntarily” seek refuge in their rural communities throughout Latin America—but especially Mexico—and increasingly in its indigenous territories. The industry—even the well-intentioned mom-and-pop farm Holmes studied—exposes its workers to massive doses of sprayed carcinogens and imposes on them a choice between hunger and repetitive strain injuries that too often result in severe lifelong disabilities. When the desperation of the workers becomes excessively visible or costly, Homeland Security conveniently deports them, and they are blacklisted as criminals.

Those seasonal laborers who return home aching and exhausted to their formerly semi-autonomous subsistence farming communities find their remote villages and hamlets devastated by the North American Free Trade Agreement. Sooner rather than later, poverty forces most of them to drag themselves back across the militarized northern border for yet another harvest season of brutal labor. These indigenous communities used to supply local Mexican corn markets, but that valuable source of cash income and subsistence food supply has disappeared. Local markets have been flooded by corporate-grown U.S. corn imports and packaged convenience food that benefit from unequal access to tax subsidies and genetic technologies, because neoliberal practice is inconsistent with its own free-market ideology. This unhealthy, politically imposed structural violence can be thought of as a contemporary form of primitive accumulation akin to the enclosure movement of sixteenth-century England described by Marx as a prime example of the violent birth of “capital . . . dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (Marx 1972: 760). U.S. immigration and labor laws and, more distally, the unequal articulation of modes of production across international borders prevent agricultural laborers from organizing for their rights, or even from complaining about their superexploitation as seasonal laborers. This parasitical crossnational labor management strategy fosters a “conjugated oppression” that melds the experiences of racism and economic exploitation into an embodied symbolic violence.

As a physician anthropologist who has a commitment to being a public intellectual as well as a healer, Holmes has a privileged relationship to understanding and theorizing the embodied experience of conjugated oppression. He provocatively straddles two intellectual professional disciplines and epistemologies that see the world very differently: anthropology, with its productively schizophrenic foundation in the humanities and social sciences, and biomedicine, with its positivist commitment to pursuing statistically significant objective evidence. Holmes understands the body with the eye of a medical practitioner who knows technically how our organs, cells, and synapses operate. He has valuable practical skills for healing people, and he makes a U.S. doctor’s high salary—even if significantly reduced by his being a university professor and primary care physician. Above all, Holmes is a border-crosser who is unambiguously on the side of the poor. He violates the apartheids of class, nationality, ethnicity, occupational status, space, and culture that organize most societies and are especially powerful and unequal in the hyperglobalized United States–Mexico nexus—along with gender, sexuality, normativity, age, and ability. He has the chutzpah to put the confrontational habitus of doctors (imposed on him by his rigorous training in medical school as well as his childhood socialization as the son of a doctor who specializes in radiology) to good use by betraying his guild of well-meaning physicians. He reveals from the inside the unintentionally depoliticizing logics of what is one of the most hermetically sealed and self-protected, privileged occupational niches in North America: that of practicing clinicians. In chapter 5, he accompanies his fellow farmworkers to an occupational health clinic to advocate for them, and through this practice-based ethical engagement he is able to open up analytically the operational mechanisms of the basic constitution of symbolic violence, so that naturalized, racist oppression can no longer reproduced itself as an unintended public secret among his colleagues in their clinical practice serving structurally vulnerable patients. At the same time, Holmes always maintains both an analytical and a personal hermeneutics of generosity that transcends Manichean political righteousness and avoids anthropology’s cultural relativist and postmodernist pitfalls of failing to see the ugly contradictions and suffering imposed by political-economic, cultural, psychodynamic, and bodily forces. This political theoretical insight reveals why genuinely committed, caring, intelligent clinicians inadvertently blame patients for their own predicaments and remain largely clueless about social-structural inequality. In fact their misrecognition is largely a knowledge-power disciplinary product of all their years of miseducation in science and medical school. As a practicing physician who strives to work on behalf of the poor, Holmes knows what his colleagues contend with, because he too has to enter into unequal hand-to-hand combat with the byzantine insurance reimbursement illogics that are imposed on overpaid doctors in the United States by a medical system dominated by market forces that cut short patient-physician interactions, limit access to technologies and medication, and narrow the medical gaze. That same theoretically informed generosity allows him to show us how a genuinely nice and ethical family farm owner (whom he met in church) can enforce horrendous conditions on his most vulnerable workers. That farmer, too, is trapped in the same web of unequal global markets that harms the lives of his workers.

Finally, in addition to being an inveterate border-crosser in his intellectual, professional, and private lives, Holmes also proves himself in these pages to be a master artisan adept at the core methodology that makes cultural anthropology so exciting: the participant-observation version of ethnography. By living (and shivering at night) in decrepit farmworker shacks, picking berries for long hours (damaging his own sinews in the process and coughing from pesticide sprays); by accompanying his fellow farmworkers into clinics and advocating for them with physicians; by attending weddings and baptisms; by joining an extended family and migrating with them through California’s Central Valley during the off-season in search of temporary, subsistence-level employment (in a journey reminiscent of the Okies’); by volunteering to drive one of the overcrowded cars that travel, in an awkward caravan, carefully below the speed limit to stay under the radar of hostile highway patrol officers; by bathing and camping out with these families in rest areas; by discreetly insisting on staking out a closet to sleep in at night, as a room of his own for the rest of the winter, when the family finally locates a slumlord willing to rent to them; and ultimately, by “going home” with his companions to their inaccessible rural hamlets in Mexico, Holmes conveys the stories of real people the way anthropology—for all its foibles and its more serious elitist sins—can do so well.

I envy those of you who have not yet read the opening chapter of this book. It is beyond gripping. Holmes throws you deep into the Arizona/Sonora desert with his Triqui companions, dodging rattlesnakes, helicopters, armed guards, and all-terrain vehicles. One could not invent a more brutally effective system for culling the best possible self-disciplined laborers if one tried. At the same time, however, Holmes rejects the traditional anthropological trope of macho heroism and omniscience. Despite his courage and ability to endure hardships, take the risks the poor routinely assume, and stand unashamedly for justice, Holmes is no Indiana Jones. He, like all of us, has his own personal vulnerabilities. He bursts into tears when scolded by authority, locked up in an Arizona detention cell. In revealing this detail of his own subjectivity he provides yet another example of how abusive power operates, gratuitously humiliating its detainees at the most intimate level of the body and the emotions.

Thank you, Seth, for being a public anthropologist and confronting an urgent high-stakes subject. The members of your generation of MD/PhDs have the potential to revolutionize medical anthropology and, more broadly, the social sciences and humanities through their hard work, intelligence, and embodied practical empathy as both critical intellectuals and hard-working healers.


I have received a humbling amount of support and encouragement during the processes of researching and writing this book. Most important, I want to thank the Triqui people who allowed me into their homes in Oaxaca, their shacks in the labor camps of Washington, their cars to sleep while homeless and in transit, their apartments in California, and their trust, especially in the border desert. Those who, over time, trusted me enough to enter into the events of their lives—from births to labor negotiations to border crossings—made my fieldwork possible. As I moved into my shack in the labor camp in Washington State, I expected to spend one or two years witnessing jarring realities, yet to my surprise I found myself also making friends. I have altered names and personal information to protect privacy, and I regret that I cannot thank everyone by name. More than anyone, I want to thank the person I call Samuel for trusting me and vouching for me with his family and friends. His family in Oaxaca was amazingly patient with and welcoming to this tall, white, bald visitor from the North, even when their neighbors treated me like the CIA agent or drug trafficker I was often believed to be. His family and friends (as well as some of his detractors) in the United States were instrumental in sharing their experiences with me and staying in touch after I traded the field for the computer keyboard. Specifically, Samuel, Joaquin, José, and Maribel have lent key insights and guidance for my thinking and writing. They have motivated me regularly with phone calls and visits, reminding me of the importance of letting broad publics know about their lives as indigenous migrants. In addition, I am grateful to their families, Marcelina, Crescencio, Abelino, Bernardo, Juana, those who befriended me in Oaxaca, those who trusted me to cross the border with them, and many others.

My research was made possible by many others in the field as well. The staff and friends of Tierra Nueva shared their insights and friendship with me during my first lonely months living in the Washington labor camp. The Tanaka farm gave me the go-ahead to live in its farm camps, observe and pick in the fields, and interview employees. Without this firsthand access to the farm, my research would have been watered down if not impossible altogether. I am grateful to all the employees on the Tanaka farm for allowing me into their worlds. Thank you, especially, to those whom I have called John, Rob, Mike, Sally, Jan, and Mateo. The neighbors of the farm and labor camps, residents of the Skagit Valley, shared with me important insights into agriculture in general and ethnic relations in rural America specifically. Thank you especially to my friends, the rabbit owners and runners, their bilingual friends down the street, my friends in the Skagit PFLAG, the caretakers of Cascade lookouts, and of course my long-bearded friend and his inspiring weekly courthouse vigils. I am grateful to the help from others in Oaxaca as well, especially Kris Olmsted, Alejandro de Avila, and Fray Eugenio, for moral support and intellectual community. I enthusiastically thank all the staff of the migrant clinics in Washington State and California who welcomed me to learn about the medical problems and health care of this population. I hope to work together with all of them toward positive social and health change in the future.

I want to thank the institutions that generously provided financial support for my work during this project: the Martin Sisters Endowed Chair at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), School of Public Health; the UCB Department of Anthropology; the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), Department of Anthropology, History and Social Medicine; the Medical Scientist Training Program at UCSF; the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States; the Mustard Seed Foundation; the UCSF Graduate Division Dean’s Fellowship; the UCSF Center for Reproductive Health Research and Policy; the UCSF School of Medicine Rainer Fund; the University of Pennsylvania Physician Scientist Program; and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars Program at Columbia University. I want to thank the following organizations for other forms of support: Tierra Nueva and Jesse Costello-Good for quiet space to think and write; the individuals involved in the Society for Humanities, Social Sciences and Medicine (including Vinh-Kim Nguyen, Jeremy Green, Walt Schalick, David Meltzer, Helena Hansen, Jennifer Karlin, Adam Baim, Ippolytos Kalofonos, and Scott Stonington) and in the Harvard Department of Global Health and Social Medicine (especially Allan Brandt, Paul Farmer, and Arthur Kleinman) for believing in my multidisciplinary career path; and the University of Rochester Division of Medical Humanities (especially Stephanie Brown Clark, Jane Greenlaw, and Ted Brown) and Department of Anthropology (especially Robert Foster) as well as the CRUX NYC climbing community for quiet space during my writing in upstate New York.

I must thank my family for introducing me from an early age to realities outside of our comfortable semiurban family life. I doubt my parents knew how these experiences of transnational inequality would start a process of questioning my received understandings of society and the world, eventually leading me back to challenge many of my parents’ own paradigms. My family has taken an active role during my training, reading and commenting on papers, as well as simply visiting and corresponding during some of my lonelier months. My brother, Wynn, has been an especially valuable co-thinker and co-theorizer. Thank you for your ongoing invaluable support, Mom, Dad, Wynn, Deb, Na, Laura, Aidan, Kellan, and grandparents. My grandmother’s last question to me before she passed away this spring was, “Have you finished your book?” Thank you also to my friends who visited me in cards or in person during my fieldwork: Corey and Bethanie, Adam, Kai, Jack, Ippy, Kelly, Rachel, Tim, Cale, Mark and Gwen. Thank you to Cale and to Lane for supporting me during the sometimes angst-filled months of writing, revising and grappling with writer’s block.


Thank you to Vincanne Adams, Philippe Bourgois, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Lawrence Cohen, and others in the UCSF/Berkeley Joint Program in Medical Anthropology; Tris Parslow, Jana Toutolmin, Kevin Shannon, Catherine Norton, and others in the UCSF Medical Scientist Training Program; Helen Loeser, Maureen Mitchell, and others in the UCSF School of Medicine for believing in the possibility of joint training in medicine and the social sciences; Lisa Bellini, Gary Koretsky, Richard Shannon, Ilene Rosen, Robby Aronowitz, David Asch, Skip Brass, and others at the University of Pennsylvania for finding creative ways to give me writing time and support during an incredibly intense internship and residency; and Bruce Link, Peter Bearman, Lisa Bates, Gina Lovasi, Julien Tietler, Beth Povinelli, Lesley Sharp, Kim Hopper, Zoe Donaldson, Kristen Springer, Kristin Harper, Jason Fletcher, Mark Hatzenbuehler, Kerry Keyes, Jennifer Hirsch, Helena Hansen, Cate Taylor, and others at Columbia University for interdisciplinary intellectual discussions, helping me clarify my language and writing. Without the joint support of these individuals and institutions, this project would not have been completed. I am grateful for being able to train in universities open to unconventional career paths and interdisciplinary perspectives.

Struggling to meet your deadline ?

Get assistance on

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies Essay

done on time by medical experts. Don’t wait – ORDER NOW!

Open chat
WhatsApp chat +1 908-954-5454
We are online
Our papers are plagiarism-free, and our service is private and confidential. Do you need any writing help?