About That Fresh Fruit We Love So Much

My Comments: 20 years ago, I had no problems with the North American Free Trade Agreement. Today, 20 years later, I have no basic problems with the premise which allows goods and services to be translated freely across North America. But there are obvious unintended consequences, which are described in this article.

By Susan Grigsby, February 28, 2016

On January 1, 1996, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, with the goal of eliminating barriers to trade and investment between the three signatories: Canada, Mexico and the United States. Within 10 years, major U.S. corn producers, heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars, had flooded the Mexican market, putting as many as 2 million farm workers out of jobs. Entire villages were wiped out, and while some moved to the cities, the majority went north to the United States, looking for work so that their families could eat. Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas program at the Center for International Policy, wrote in 2013:
As a result, 20 million Mexicans live in “food poverty”. Twenty-five percent of the population does not have access to basic food and one-fifth of Mexican children suffer from malnutrition. Transnational industrial corridors in rural areas have contaminated rivers and sickened the population and typically, women bear the heaviest impact.

The immigrants that Republicans would love to see behind bars, if not behind a massive wall, do not choose to migrate north. They are forced to do so by the very companies that pressured Congress to agree to NAFTA 20 years ago.

The Triqui are an indigenous people of Mexico, from an area known as Mixteca in the mountains of Oaxaca. They have their own traditions and language and, until NAFTA, were subsistence corn farmers. What they didn’t eat, they used to be able to sell. Companies like Cargill dominate that market now, and these people, who managed to survive the Spanish conquistadors, are now forced to migrate to live.

Seth Holmes was a post-graduate student of anthropology and medicine when he decided to do his thesis on the people of the village of San Miguel who travel north to pick our produce.

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies is an ethnography written by a man with knowledge of both anthropology and medicine.

In order to understand and explain this indigenous culture, he immersed himself, over a period of five years, in the Triqui society that he was observing. He traveled to Oaxaca to meet them in their village in the mountains and joined them on their journey north. And in the fields of Washington and California.

Fortunately for the general reader, Seth Holmes, in addition to being an anthropologist and doctor, is a talented wordsmith. His first chapter includes a riveting account of the journey from Oaxaca in southern Mexico to the border and north across the Arizona desert until they are stopped and sent to “border jail.” Seth Holmes was eventually released with a civil fine ($5,000), while his fellow travelers were fingerprinted, photographed and sent back to Mexico. His description of the 49-hour bus ride that preceded the border crossing is fascinating in its own right, as is his description of his initial arrival in the remote village, known for its violence and its lack of tolerance for outsiders.

Throughout the book, Holmes takes the time to put these experiences into a wider context: …my Triqui companions explain that they are forced to cross the border. In addition, the distinction between economic and political migration is often blurry in the context of international policies enforcing neoliberal free markets as well as active military repression of indigenous people who seek collective socioeconomic improvement in southern Mexico.

The migration is forced by the simple need to eat. They willingly endure a marathon journey across Mexico and the Sonora desert just to pick strawberries. These migrants are not interested in remaining in the States. They would rather be home in the mountains, surrounded by friends and family.

Holmes rejoins his travel companions, who have successfully made the crossing this time, in Madera, California. He picks strawberries and blueberries with them in Washington and harvests grapes and asparagus in California. His experiences differ from the experiences of the Triqui people, due to who he is. And it is through this difference that the hierarchy of perceived ethnicity and citizenship is made clear.

The Tanaka Brothers Farm in the Skagit Valley north of Seattle is the setting that Holmes uses to examine the labor hierarchy, and to also look at the precarious position of the growers. The Tanakas are third-generation growers of strawberries, forced to compete with the Chinese who can grow, pick and ship strawberries to buyers in San Francisco for prices lower than what the Washington growers need to break even. The Tanakas pay their pickers $7.17 an hour, and as the owner states in the book, “In most countries that we’re talking about here, China or Chile or wherever, they don’t pay that a day!”

The corporatization of U.S. agriculture and the growth of international free markets squeeze growers such that they cannot easily imagine increasing the pay of the pickers or improving the labor camps without bankrupting the farm. In other words, many of the most powerful inputs into the suffering of farmworkers are structural, not willed by individual agents.

Within the farmworkers, there are the Japanese-American owners/managers, the Anglo-American managers and supervisors, and the Mexican workers. Seth Holmes’ ethnicity as a white man, working the fields, causes some confusion about his place within the hierarchy. Anglo supervisors tend to stop by and chat while he picks, helping to fill his bucket while they talk, something they would never think of doing for the other farm workers.

The Mexican workers are further divided by their citizenship status and their status as indigenous workers, such as the Triqui or Mixtecs, and the non-indigenous mestizo Mexicans. The indigenous Triqui people are restricted to picking and being paid by unit, while some of the Mixtecs and all of the mestizo Mexicans are allowed hourly wage jobs. The fact that the indigenous workers don’t speak Spanish complicates communication with the supervisors and managers.

That same complication occurs when the Triqui need medical care. As a doctor, Seth Holmes follows three workers as they try to obtain medical assistance. Very few of the migrant workers have health insurance and most do not qualify for Medicaid or Medicare due to their immigration status, so they rely on federally-funded migrant health clinics for their care. The staffs are overworked and underfunded and while the clinics might have access to a Spanish speaking interpreter, that is not of much help to the Triqui who don’t speak Spanish.

In addition to on-the-job injuries of one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States, farm workers are exposed to pesticides, and in some areas, valley fever (coccidiomycosis) a lung infection caused by breathing in the soil. At the Tanaka Brothers Farm in Washington state, they grow both organic and traditional blueberries. The Triqui pick the traditional blueberries, on which traditional pesticides are used. The requirements for earning the organic label require machine picking of those berries raised without the use of dangerous pesticides.

Seth Holmes explains his work:
Broadly, this book explores ethnographically the interrelated hierarchies of ethnicity, labor, and suffering in U.S. agriculture as well as the processes by which these become normalized and invisible.

But he also explains his experience:
It was not only my eyes and ears that collected valuable field observations but also the back of my neck as cold rain seeped down the inside of my farm-issued rain gear; my sore knees, hips, and lower back from bending over all day in strawberry fields; my acidic stomach showing signs of stress before a day of racing against the clock to keep my picking job; my foggy and tired mind from night after night of sleep interrupted by rain leaking on my face as well as freezing wind and noises surging through the permeable walls in the migrant camp; my sore legs and hungover mind after a night of dancing, drinking, and celebrating a Triqui child’s baptism; my stiff neck from living homeless out of a car while migrating from Washington to California and looking for a slum apartment; my dry throat, tired legs, and overactive imagination in the midst of running through the deadly Arizona desert after days of struggle to reach the border.

Yes, he includes technological jargon—after all, it is an anthropological field study. But he always makes clear what those terms mean in the real life struggles of the working poor. His conclusion is a powerful condemnation of the status quo, in which …

The neoliberal form of capitalism structuring health care in the United States has led to those with the highest burden of sickness being simultaneously those with the least access to care.

And he includes a call for single-payer universal health insurance.

American society gains much from migrant laborers and gives little back beyond criminalization, stress, and injury.

He makes clear that most of the Triqui migrants would prefer a temporary worker status so that they could work the harvest and return home for the rest of the year. Our current H-2 guest worker program allows 55,000 agricultural employees, and is subject to abuse since the workers are only allowed to work for the single employer who “imports” them. A new program needs to be developed that will allow the migrants—who we need to pick our crops—to follow the harvest, safely travel back and forth across the border, and at the same time, “not increase the power differential between employers and employees.”