Monday, June 10, 2013

New Book: Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies & Q&A with Dr. Seth Holmes

I recently had an opportunity to interview Dr. Seth Holmes, an assistant professor of public health and medical anthropology at UC Berkeley, about his upcoming book Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States.

Here's what Dr. Holmes told me:

Dr. Seth Holmes
I would say the most interesting finding from the field research, from my perspective, was how social inequalities and health inequalities come to be taken for granted in society and in health care.  For example, indigenous undocumented Mexican migrant farm workers live and work in very poor conditions and, as a result, have many related health problems.  

However, their living conditions, working conditions, and health are considered normal and natural by many people in society at large and in health care due to different framings of them as deserving these conditions.  Some of these framings relate to understandings of ethnic body differences, including people saying that indigenous Mexicans are perfect for picking strawberries "because they are lower to the ground", etc.  

Perhaps the most interesting part of the field work from a journalistic perspective would be the border crossing.  I accompanied several undocumented Mexican men as they trekked through the border desert from Mexico into the United States.  We were all apprehended by the border patrol, they were deported to Mexico and I was kept in border patrol jail for one day and then released with a fine for "entry without inspection."  During this experience, it became clear to me that the understanding of Mexican migrants as voluntarily choosing to cross the border was incorrect.  

My Mexican migrant companions experienced this crossing very much as something they were forced into by large social, economic, and political structures.  Thus, the common understandings of some migrants being voluntary versus forced does not hold up when it is considered in the context of the actual experience of the migrants most often categorized as voluntary.  

This is important because the understanding of their crossing as voluntary can often be used to blame them for the crossing (and sometimes even to blame them subtly for their death if they die trying to cross the desert).  

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.

About Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies:

This book is an ethnographic witness to the everyday lives and suffering of Mexican migrants. Based on 5 years of research in the field (including berry-picking and traveling with migrants back and forth from Oaxaca up the West Coast), Holmes, an anthropologist and MD in the mold of Paul Farmer and Didier Fassin, uncovers how market forces, anti-immigrant sentiment, and racism undermine health and health care. 

Holmes' material is visceral and powerful--for instance, he trekked with his informants illegally through the desert border into Arizona, where they were apprehended and jailed by the Border Patrol. After he was released from jail (and his companions were deported back to Mexico), Holmes interviewed Border Patrol agents, local residents and armed vigilantes in the borderlands. He lived with indigenous Mexican families in the mountains of Oaxaca and in farm labor camps in the United States, planted and harvested corn, picked strawberries, accompanied sick workers to clinics and hospitals, participated in healing rituals, and mourned at funerals for friends. The result is a 'thick description' that conveys the full measure of struggle, suffering and resilience of these farmworkers.

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