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Unseen sacrifices

New book reveals misperceptions, attitudes about migrant workers

Dr. Seth Holmes poses with several Triqui Mexicans he worked alongside in agricultural fields. The Triqui are an indigenous group in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, but many travel to the U.S. as migrant laborers.
Dr. Seth Holmes poses with several Triqui Mexicans he worked alongside in agricultural fields. The Triqui are an indigenous group in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, but many travel to the U.S. as migrant laborers.

Here’s a group Americans don’t hear about much about during immigration reform debates, according to physician and anthropologist Seth Holmes: immigrants – especially the migrant workers who toil in U.S. fields.

“It’s usually statements like, from one side, ‘These people are draining our economy.’ And from the other side you might hear, ‘These people are important to our economy,’ ” Holmes said. “But you don’t actually hear much about individual people. So I think it’s easy for us to forget that they’re mothers and daughters and sisters and brothers.”

Holmes, a 1993 Lewis and Clark High School graduate, spent five years in the field – including in the farm fields, working alongside migrants in Washington, California and Mexico – to write his book, “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies.” In town for a class reunion, Holmes, 38, will read from his book today at Auntie’s Bookstore.

While he learned about the health problems suffered by migrants related to their working conditions, he also strove to understand how those around them justified maintaining an apparently inequal system. Along with time spent as a “participant-observer” and interviewing migrant workers, Holmes’ research included interviews with their employers, neighbors who lived near farms that used migrant labor, and the doctors and nurses who treated the workers.

Among statements he heard during his research were iterations of a statement by California Sen. George Murphy in the 1960s: Mexicans were well-suited to farm labor because they were “built lower to the ground.”

“Things like that I tried to get behind and understand: How are we making sense of this as a society?” Holmes said.

An assistant professor at University of California at Berkeley, Holmes, 38, spoke from his home in San Francisco about his book, what he learned about the health of migrant farmworkers and the ways others perceive them.

“There’s a group of people who come to the U.S. and work so hard,” he said, “in essence breaking their own bodies in order to give us fresh fruit that makes the rest of us healthy.”

Q. What did you see and learn working in Washington?

A. In some ways it’s similar to a lot of the rest of the country, in that there is that heirarchy of ethnicity.

If you are a farm owner, you’re much more likely to be a white person. If you’re a farm supervisor or manager, you’re likely to be either white or Latino. If you have a good labor job – driving tractors or maybe picking apples, which makes a little more money – then you’re more likely to be mestizo Mexico. Mestizo means mixed blood, a mixture of indigenous native blood and the Spanish blood of the Spaniards who moved there.

If you have a job bent over picking berries, you’re more likely to be a native Mexican, an indigenous Mexican.

People’s health and diseases changed according to that hierarchy, too. If you’re working bent over in the fields in pesticides, you’re more likely to get sick and get knee injuries and hip injuries. If you’re the owner and you’re working at a desk talking on a phone or working on a computer, you’re not as likely to get as many sicknesses.

Q. How do you think Americans generally understand or misunderstand migrant workers’ stories?

A. A lot of us justify systems that are unequal, and it doesn’t always make sense. Just because someone might be a few inches shorter doesn’t mean they should be working in pesticides or kneeling.

Another thing the media says a lot is that these people are draining our economy. You hear that a lot, especially in immigration debates. But the truth is, from my research, they were doing the opposite. They pay sales tax just like everyone else. Social Security tax, state tax, local tax are all taken out of their checks every week. … None of them get any of that money back, and they don’t qualify for welfare or food stamps.

Q. What effects of poor conditions did you witness among migrant workers?

A. The main health problems they had were bad knees, bad hips, bad backs – so by the time they’re in their 40s, they might have the kind of back pain that a lot of people have in their 70s. At that point, a lot of them go back to Mexico to be with their families to be taken care of.

There was a fair amount of diabetes. A lot of the doctors saw a fair amount of depression – from being far away from their home, being far away from loved ones, working seven days a week. …

The research shows there are higher rates of cancer among farmworkers. Some of that is likely due to the pesticides that they’re exposed to, but some of it’s likely also due simply to being in the sun a lot more than the rest of us.

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