As I began my journey to becoming an anthropologist, one of the first pieces of wisdom shared with me by a professor was: “Be prepared, because you will spend a lot of time explaining what it is that you do.”
And this has generally been the case as most people struggle to visualize the daily life of an anthropologist. While some have a vague idea that anthropology is an academic discipline requiring fieldwork, most fall back on popular stereotypes presented in the media: “So, are you basically like Indiana Jones?” a business student asked me.
This kind of generalisation may upset some anthropologists, but it does reveal a certain basic truth: anthropologists do have a special sense of adventure for venturing into the unknown, facing the feared, and discovering treasures of knowledge to bring to the world.
However, most anthropologists would stop short of putting themselves in mortal danger, except for the hardy few who would halt at nothing to get to their truths. Seth Holmes, Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology and Public Health at University of California Berkeley, is one such Indiana Jones type and his latest book “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States” is a gripping tail of danger, social oppression, struggle, and resistance.
Anthropologists gain their data by immersing themselves in the daily lives of the people they want to study. They watch, experience, and talk, making friends along the way to gain deeper and more honest insights from them. This ethnography lasts at least one year and often much longer.
The lower one goes down the ranking, the more broken their bodies are, a health problem that is more to do with social inequality than the work itself.
Over a total of five years, Seth Holmes set out to investigate what it is really like to be a migrant worker coming undocumented from Mexico to the United States to work picking strawberries, blueberries, and sometimes apples for the American fresh fruit market.
To do that he spent two seasons berry picking with his Triqui friends—an indigenous group of the western part of the Mexican state of Oaxaca—as well as attempting to cross the Arizona desert to enter the United States illegally, a journey that thousands of migrants undertake every single year.
Holmes spends the first section of the book dispelling the myth that this journey is one of choice. People leave their homes in Mexico and other Latin American countries because their livelihoods have been largely destroyed by external factors, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, the United States and Canada which has made growing, eating and/or selling traditional corn virtually impossible for a lot of rural farmers.
People risk their lives and their life savings to cross a desert full of deadly rattle snakes, oppressive desert heat, opportunistic thieves, and the possibility of being caught and detained precisely because there is no alternative.
And the dangers are very real. The group with whom Holmes attempted to enter the United States was apprehended by the border patrol, leading to his arrest and imprisonment where, despite his American citizen status, he was denied some of his basic rights as a human being.
But there is much more to the book than that. The story telling is effortlessly interwoven with anthropological theoretical concepts that are explained in an unusually accessible way. A common thread confronts the naturalisation of inequality and suffering of certain population groups.
This refers to the fact that undocumented Mexican farmworkers are seen as deserving of their low social position—and the suffering that entails—by the general public, the people who employ them, the doctors and health professionals who treat them, and, crucially, the farmworkers themselves.
Chapter two embellishes on the experience of the farm work and packed living quarters where for privacy’s sake Holmes, to the confusion and bemusement of his Triqui colleagues, was more comfortable sleeping in a wardrobe. He describes how much care the migrants take in order to stay invisible in the eyes of the law, such as always driving within the speed limit and making sure their cars are fully operational and spotless.
The third chapter exposes the hierarchies on the farm itself: a clear pecking order from the Japanese owners at the top, to white farm managers, to the bottom of the ladder where the Triqui indigenous migrants bend over all day long picking strawberries for very little pay. Chapter four describes how the lower one goes down the ranking, the more broken their bodies are, a health problem that is more to do with social inequality than the work itself.
Chapter five details the cultural gap that exists between medical professionals and the migrant populations they treat, exposing some of the ways in which doctors and nurses are also constrained by the surrounding unequal system.
The penultimate section explores how even the migrants themselves have come to believe that they deserve the social position they find themselves in, and the final chapter is a practical call to arms, including some very specific recommendations for action, for anyone hoping to change things for the better.
Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies is a great anthropological book to dig into for anyone remotely interested in the discipline, the issues surrounding migrant agricultural workers in the United States, or a good real-life read. And while I cannot claim to be "like Indiana Jones" myself, Seth Holmes is an example of an anthropological adventurer who comes pretty close.