by Ellie Plumb
In Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States, Seth M. Holmes seeks to uncover the synergistic effects that citizenship, race, ethnicity, and class hierarchies have on migrant farmworkers’ bodies. Drawing on five years of ethnographic fieldwork, Holmes sheds light on how these hierarchies interact with the economic challenges of agricultural production, and what social inequalities mean for farmworkers’ health. This multi-sited ethnography follows the movements of Triqui farmworkers from their hometown of San Miguel, Oaxaca to the Mexico–U.S. border, to farms in Washington and California, and medical clinics both in Mexico and the United States.
Holmes effectively utilises the theoretical frameworks of structural and symbolic violence to analyse the forces that relegate Triqui farmworkers to the bottom of the farm labour hierarchy, and to examine why this hierarchy remains unchallenged. Holmes defines structural violence as “the violence committed by various configurations of social inequalities” (p.43). In this case, structural violence is enacted through unequal neoliberal free markets and then channelled by classism, racism, nationalist rhetoric and anti-immigrant prejudice. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) eliminated tariffs on corn in Mexico while U.S. corn subsidies continued, which effectively put Mexican farmers out of business and dispossessed them from their farms. Holmes argues therefore that farmers were “forced” (p.186) into transnational migration because there were few other livelihood options.
Migrant farmworkers – particularly those who were undocumented – did not have the credit histories or financial resources to rent accommodation in the United States, so they lived in farm camps. Because unofficial farm policies mean that those who lived in the camps could not move up the hierarchy – “they can only pick” (p.77) – they were consigned to the bottom of the hierarchy. Holmes uses Bourdieu’s (1997) concept of symbolic violence, which he defines as “the naturalisation including internalisation of social asymmetries” (p.156), to describe how the structured work hierarchies are upheld, normalised and justified through a rhetoric of bodily inferiority. People working in higher-ranking farm jobs, for example, claimed that the migrants “like to work bent over” (p. 170) and that they were naturally better suited to harvesting jobs because of their shorter stature. The perceived “natural characteristics” of migrant bodies exemplify how symbolic violence is enacted so that bodies are ethnically and racially divided and how each category of body is understood relative to its social position. The migrant farmworkers sometimes participated in this naturalisation – claiming for example that they could better withstand pesticide exposure than white people’s “weak” (p.173) bodies.
Holmes draws on migrant farmworkers’ and his own experiences to analyse how structural and symbolic violence is embodied as pain. By examining his own bodily experiences of illegally crossing the border and working on the farm, his ethnographic account of “how the poor suffer” (p.33) is “thick” (Geertz, 1973, p.311) and reflexive. Holmes’ accounts of his bodily pains and emotions provide an affecting and compelling insight into power hierarchies, social suffering and the experience of multi-sited fieldwork. From this viewpoint, the author provides an original description of the everyday experience of migrant farmworkers whilst framing these experiences in broader theorisations of power and inequality.
Holmes shows how the pains of migrant farmworkers represent an embodiment of structural inequalities and economic violence. He exemplifies this with a vignette vividly describing how a worker’s knee injury illustrates the structural violence of segregated labour. Holmes admits that as a researcher his experiences were not identical to those of his Triqui companions, even though he lived in the same tin-roofed squatter shacks, was exposed to pesticides in the fields and experienced the impact of labour practices. Unlike the farmworkers, Holmes could afford to use a hot tub in a local gym to ease his aching body, and he was not subjected to racist abuse by supervisors. Yet, by drawing on the analytical insights of his own bodily experiences, much of the book is focused on Holmes rather than the Triqui workers. Unfortunately, the Triqui workers lack voices in this monograph. The reader learns little about the workers’ own perceptions about their place in the hierarchy, or how these perceptions differ over time. In addition, Holmes does not discuss how the workers resist the conditions they face: they are represented more as subjects of violence lacking in agency.
Holmes took on Laura Nader’s famous call to “study up” (Nader, 1972, cited in Holmes, 2013, p. 29) and interviewed people at every level of the farm’s social hierarchy. After conducting interviews with farm executives, Holmes argues that they are “ethical, good people” (p.52) who are themselves subjected to the structural imperatives of global agriculture. He suggests that structural factors such as international free markets and the corporatisation of U.S. agriculture “squeeze” (p.52) farm owners so that they cannot afford pay increases for the workers or improve the labour camps without risking bankruptcy. Holmes concludes that the suffering of migrant farmworkers is not caused by these individual agents but by structural factors. Holmes argues that a complex web of racial stereotypes, arbitrary organisational processes and repressive medical practises further contribute to the worker’s suffering. However, in his sympathetic portrayal of people with higher-ranking jobs on the farm, Holmes neglects attention to strategies used both by them and U.S. policymakers to maximise value extracted from farmworkers. Workers are deprived of wages by supervisors checking them in after their start time and are short-changed at fruit weigh-ins, but why supervisors do this remains unanalysed. The reader is left unsure as to whether these typically white teenage supervisors are following orders to do this or not. An exploration of how both U.S. and internal farm policies have systematically disadvantaged farmworkers would add to this analysis.
Holmes has achieved an in-depth understanding of migrant farmworkers’ everyday lives and the forms of violence they are subjected to. His work raises fundamental questions regarding the racialisation of labour in the global capitalist economy and the invisible structures of power that shape the experiences of migrant farmworkers. The use of both medical and critical political economy perspectives provides a unique insight to analyse “broken” migrant bodies. Although Holmes effectively exemplifies how symbolic violence acts within processes “of perception, hidden from the conscious mind” (p.156 – 157) parts of his arguments about structural and symbolic violence feel deterministic. An area of further analysis could be the ways farmworkers employ “tactics” (de Certeau, 1984), small everyday acts of resistance, to challenge these power structures. Overall, Holmes’ dedication to fieldwork has meant he has successfully produced an “embodied anthropology of migrant labour” (p.33).
Ellie Plumb is a final-year BA Anthropology student at the University of Sussex. She enjoys writing about multi-species ethnography, animal rights, embodiment, and the environment.
de Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520271456/the-practice-of-everyday-life
Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books. https://www.basicbooks.com/titles/clifford-geertz/the-interpretation-of-cultures/9780465093557/
Holmes, S.M. (2013) Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. California: University of California Press. https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520275140/fresh-fruit-broken-bodies