Pick Your Poison: Racism Ravaging Health of Indigenous Farmworkers
The racist discrimination against indigenous Mexican farmworkers in the United States is literally making them sick, and their plight is clearly misunderstood by immigration policy makers, according to medical anthropologist Dr. Seth Holmes who just published "Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States.”
The book by Holmes, who is Assistant Professor of Health and Social Behavior at the University of California Berkeley, chronicles his in-depth study of the lives of indigenous Triqui farmworkers who travel from Oaxaca, Mexico to the western states of the United States and back, and how the discrimination against these farmworkers, and to a certain extent all migrant farmworkers, leads to unfair treatment, inadequate healthcare and horrible living conditions for the people who pick our fruit and vegetables not as a matter of choice but for survival.
In an interview given last week, Holmes explained that he lived and worked with a group of Triqui farmworkers for over one and a half years, traveling with them during an illegal cross of the Arizona-Mexico border, then on to picking berries in Washington state, pruning vineyards in California (along with a week of homelessness living in cars), and harvesting corn in Oaxaca, Mexico, the home state of the Triquis.
The discrimination against Triqui farmworkers, Holmes said, that leads to the suffering could be seen in a number of their situations, starting with the jobs they are given on farms.
"The Triquis were given the hardest jobs, picking strawberries in Washington state for instance," he recounted. "This work involved putting their bodies into repetitive positions, crouched and picking, under stress and all weather, seven days a week, exposed to pesticides and insects that made them get sick more often."
Holmes described how his body reacted to this type of labor in Chapter 4 of the study. He noted that he often felt sick to his stomach the night before picking, due to stress about picking the minimum weight; and went on to say that his knees, back and neck began to hurt very badly due to the nature of the tasks. For his Triqui co-workers, many of whom were adolescents and young adults, the pain had become constant; one group of young men could no longer run and play basketball after work due to the constant hurt.
"They were also put in living conditions with less temperature control, meaning their shacks or buildings were hotter in the day and colder at night so they did not sleep well and were less rested," he continued, "which is also bad for the health."
"The migrant camps look like rusted tin-roofed tool sheds lined up within a few feet of each other," Holmes wrote in Chapter 3 of the book, "In the labor camps where I came to live, the plywood walls are semi-covered by peeling and chipping brown-pink paint. There is no insulation, and the wind blows easily through holes and cracks. ... During the day the rusty tin roofs of the units conduct the heat like an oven, regularly bringing the inside to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. At night, the air is damp and cold, reaching below 32 degrees Fahrenheit during the blueberry season in the fall."
On top of the harsh working conditions the health care provided to indigenous farmworkers was problematic. Holmes related several stories but when in his description of how difficult the circumstances are for medical staff in small clinics that are underfunded and without the instrumentation they need for better treatments, he chose to quote a Dr. Samuelson, about his frustrations:
"I see an awful lot of people just wearing out. They have been used and abused and worked physically harder than anybody should be expected to work for that number of years. ... In their early forties they have the arthritis of a seventy-year-old, and they're not getting better. ... They're told, Sorry, go back to what you're doing and they're stuck. They're screwed in a word, and it's tragic."
For Holmes, another tragedy affecting the Triqui and other indigenous farmworkers involves U.S. immigration policy.
"All of my Triqui companions did not want to come here to work, and they don't want to stay. They have to," Holmes asserted. "Due to economic pressures created by NAFTA and other policies, the market for their corn in their country is gone. There is no work in their town of San Miguel and they have to come north to survive. One of the things we need to do is to create policies that allow communities like the Triqui's to come legally to work and then go home."