Book review of Dvera I. Saxton's The Devil’s Fruit: Farmworkers, Health, and Environmental Justice (2021)
The Devil’s Fruit: Farmworkers, Health, and Environmental Justice, by Dvera I. Saxton (2021). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Aniceta, a thirty-five-year-old woman who is part of the Triqui indigenous group in Mexico, migrated with her four children to the Salinas Valley in 2000. She was working as a farm laborer when she discovered she had numerous health problems, including diabetes, cardiomyopathy, and arrhythmia – conditions that could be attributed to pesticide exposure. In her new text The Devil’s Fruit: Farmworkers, Health, and Environmental Justice, anthropologist Dvera Saxton narrates how she accompanied Aniceta to cardiac-clinic appointments and helped her with other matters, including the provision of emotional support and the translation and interpretation of legal and medical documents.
While Saxton’s role as a researcher was made clear to the farm laborers with whom she worked, several healthcare workers and others she met in the field were under the impression that she was a social worker. Her assistance to farmworkers, however, was part of her politicized practice of care as a researcher, which she calls “accompaniment” (acompañamiento). After Aniceta died in 2019, Saxton continued helping Aniceta’s family, stating that “accompaniment as an act of politicized care carries on, even in the afterlife” (p. 136).
The Devil’s Fruit illustrates the harmful elements of California’s multibillion-dollar strawberry industry as well as the importance of being a committed, engaged ethnographer who assists the studied community whenever possible. In particular, the book argues for the need for an activist anthropology to achieve environmental justice and health for farmworkers. Saxton combines theoretical frameworks derived from critical medical anthropology with the grounded perspectives of Mexican farm laborers and their children as well as community members and activists. Drawing from interviews, participant-observation, and an analysis of policies on environmental and occupational health, Saxton brings to light the myriad ways in which workers in the strawberry industry are put at a (dis)advantage.
In Chapter 1, Saxton explains and counters numerous myths about the strawberry industry. Picking and spraying strawberries is hard and cruel work, which reveals why farmworkers call the strawberry la fruta del diablo (the devil’s fruit). In frequent contact with toxic pesticides, farmworkers constantly bend forward in order to pick berries. Furthermore, she demonstrates how US im/migration laws and policies and agribusinesses structurally disadvantage im/migrant farmworkers; for example, undocumented farmworkers frequently remain silent about their working conditions out of fear of being deported. The chapter contrasts farmworkers’ vulnerabilities and the industry’s continued dependence on harsh and demanding labor practices with consumers’ interest in consuming fresh, healthy, and inexpensive strawberries.
In Chapter 2, Saxton presents a brief social and economic history of the strawberry industry and strawberry consumption. She delineates the plant-breeding practices that have led to common contemporary strawberry varieties. In strawberry breeding, several traits were preferred over taste, namely the varieties’ hardiness for shipping, capacity to generate high yields, and ability to conform to industrial, input-intensive production modes. Closely tied to the history of strawberry breeding and cloning is the history of strawberry monocultures. Chemical inputs, which are detrimental to farmworkers’ health, were considered necessary for treating strawberry wilt on monoculture farms. This is at odds with the way large agribusinesses, such as Driscoll’s, frame strawberry production, namely associating it with joy and health. Finally, Saxton stresses how agribusinesses have historically played an important role in creating and stimulating demand for strawberries.
In Chapter 3, Saxton explains how pesticides are harmful to both farmworkers and communities living near industrial farms. As she explains, their toxicity consists of several layers. First, farmworkers are commonly burdened by several diseases and conditions simultaneously. Second, toxicity and the concomitant visible and invisible harm inflicted on communities are not only related to intensive pesticide use but also to “socially, economically, and politically harmful conditions and relationships” (p. 89).
Furthermore, this chapter unveils the politics of scientific knowledge and expertise by demonstrating how expert knowledge on toxicants tends to differ from the “embodied and grounded knowledge” of farmworkers (p. 96). In other words, scientists, regulators, and businesspeople in positions of power habitually fail to notice and act upon farm laborers’ layered toxicities. Nevertheless, agribusinesses and pesticide corporations control and regulate knowledge production and policy-making on pesticide use and its effects. For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency usually turns to pesticide corporations for information on toxicants.
By means of Saxton’s thick descriptions, the book sets forth acompañamiento (accompaniment) as a politicized practice of care for helping communities as an ethnographer. More specifically, acompañamiento enables a nonhierarchical form of engagement with im/migrant farmworkers and presents an alternative to conventional top-down approaches. Researchers observe and engage meaningfully with their participants’ concerns as opposed to following a fixed, predetermined research plan. While acompañamiento can be challenging, it carries “a lot of imaginative power when it comes to communities’ and activists’ efforts to seek, create, and build alternatives to current exploitative, extractive, and toxic ecosocial relationships throughout the food system” (p. 123).
Chapter 5 illustrates how, in an effort to oppose toxic soil fumigants, collaborations and solidarities have emerged between different groups in California – across occupations and generations. These coalitions present opportunities for politicized care work, and therefore, allow for what Saxton calls “ecosocial solidarities” (p. 139). Saxton elaborates on the ecosocial suffering experienced by farm laborers and explains how different experiences and understandings enabled actors to respond to ecosocial harm.
The Devil’s Fruit not only contributes insightfully to the anthropological study of farmworkers, health, and environmental justice, but also demonstrates how ethnographers can conduct care work with vulnerable communities. Saxton’s activist approach to engaged ethnographic research has meaningful implications for the anthropology of work, as it delineates ways in which ethnographers can respond to dehumanizing politics and ecosocial harm. Additionally, Saxton describes how soil fumigants applied on monoculture strawberry farms damage numerous species, including those that were not purposefully targeted. Hence, Saxton’s activist method can provide opportunities and tools for studying human and nonhuman labor and relations between these species, and for working with, accompanying, and supporting life in ethnographic research.
Lara Roeven is a Ph.D. student in Development Studies at Cornell University. Her research examines how the introduction of agricultural robotics on strawberry farms reshapes the relations between human labor, technology, and nonhuman life in California (United States) and Baja California (Mexico).