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Book Review: Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies

Book review of Seth M. Holmes's Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (2023)

Published onFeb 29, 2024
Book Review: Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (2nd ed.), by Seth M. Holmes (2023). Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

It is a tragic irony that people across the United States can eat, in no large part, due to the labor of those who are forced to work in unsafe jobs on the country’s farm camps. As Seth M. Holmes writes, in a new edition of his book Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, it is “not [these workers’] choice to engage in risky behavior, but rather [it is] a process necessary to survive, to make life less risky” (p. 21). This book is about the indigenous Mexican workers who cross the Mexico-US border without documents in order to work summers on fruit farms in Washington and then migrate (internally) to spend winters toiling in California. Within this frame, Holmes describes ethnographically how US consumers’ diets have become dependent on the “unskilled labor” that they themselves would not even consider doing (Holmes, 2013a, 2013b, p. 187; Holmes & Castañeda, 2016; MacQuarie, 2023; Ruhs, 2013; Ruhs & Anderson, 2010). Despite the limitations that ethnographers face when researching groups as vulnerable as indigenous migrant workers, Holmes’s trailblazing study is nonetheless insightful, as well as risky – especially given that he was apprehended after being invited to cross the Mexico-US border by foot with his indigenous Triqui companions.

Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies adroitly brings together the fields of migration, labor studies, and public health in a number of innovative ways. First, Holmes’s embodied anthropology of Mexican farmworkers in the United States, and his attention to the “flesh and blood,” physical presence of these migrant fruit pickers, charts new scholarly territory in the vein of “blood, sweat, and tears” inquiry (Wacquant, 2015, p. 1). Second, an important conceptual contribution made by Holmes is how he argues against “individualism in migration studies,” which emphasizes a binary view of socio-political “push-pull” factors that lead to people being classified as either (socio-economic) migrants or (political) refugees. Epistemologically, he argues that such approaches typically fail to account for the fact that labor migration is usually “anything but voluntary” (p. 17). Third, Holmes asserts that other scholars’ lack of recognition of structural factors (for example, globalization-induced forces and mechanisms) denies, on the one hand, the constant demand for “cheap” migrant labor in developed societies (Ruhs & Anderson, 2010); on the other hand, in the interest of protecting their popularity with certain factions of the electorate, many politicians nonetheless blame “immigrants” for supposedly high levels of unemployment in national labor markets.

In making these arguments, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies builds on the work of other scholars – such as Scheper-Hughes & Lock (1987), Bourdieu (1990), Wacquant (1995), Gherardi (2006), and Sennett (2008) – in showing how the “mindful bodies” of undocumented migrants become intimately connected to their host societies, “from hands to mouths.” Throughout the book, Holmes is keen to link the protagonists’ words and experiences to the readers’ senses; in his formulation, the “passing of food between hands” means that the fruit picked by the hands of immigrant farmworkers arrives fresh into those of US consumers (p. 43). The irony here, of course, is that migrant farmworkers experience a lot of ill-being producing the very fruits needed to ensure the well-being of Americans. Thus, as the author asks, how might we alleviate the social suffering and physical aches and pains of these workers? How can we be more humane toward the last pair of hands who touched the fresh fruit that we buy at the supermarket? On this account, in the book’s conclusion, Holmes reinforces his message for practical solidarity with indigenous Latin American migrants and also pleas for more research into their hindered, invisible lives as farmworkers in the United States.

In the Epilogue of the recently published second edition of Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies (2023), Holmes and his co-author, indigenous Oaxacan historian Jorge Ramirez-Lopez, provide life updates on each of the protagonists from the book’s first edition. In this new Epilogue, the combined voices of the authors and these farmworker-turned-organizers strengthen the book’s overall call for engaged research. Here, we meet again Marcelina and Lucia, Samuel and Sara, and David and Maria. Marcelina tells us of how her and others’ efforts to organize their co-workers continued after the fruit-picking season ended and Holmes’s book went to press. Marcelina is still very cognizant of those days, as a single mother working on farms, while her daughter Lucia was growing up – without the improved working conditions benefiting today’s farmworkers. Lucia is now a student at a U.S. community college and is committed to further improving the lives of immigrant farmworkers. Samuel, in contrast, is the more tragic embodiment of the second half of the book’s title: a broken body. Holmes and Ramirez-Lopez nonetheless depict Samuel’s steadfastly unfettered spirit, filled with absolute determination to improve the lives of all farmworkers, and for social change more broadly, despite the defeats and struggles. Sara’s recent experiences with doctors “who don’t know anything” (p. 111) show the challenges that speakers of other languages face in trying to receive healthcare. Along these lines, David and his mother Maria reflect on the movement for healthcare inclusion of undocumented immigrants. While their struggles continue on this front, the future does look promising – with politicians listening, labor standards changing for the better, and health-insurance companies finally acknowledging the need for interpreters fluent in indigenous languages.  

In this new edition of Fresh Fruits, Broken Bodies, Holmes not only reinforces the continued need for solidarity with indigenous Latin American farmworkers, but also calls for more research into the too-often invisible lives of other “essential” migrant workers. Whenever discussing my new monograph Invisible Migrant Nightworkers in 24/7 London(MacQuarie 2023), I always share how lucky I was to have read Holmes’s book while revising my manuscript. On that note, I strongly recommend this second, updated edition of Fresh Fruits, Broken Bodies – as Holmes has undertaken the important work of formulating an ethnographic approach that speaks simultaneously to anthropology and the health professions. He also demonstrates the potential of engaged and collaborative research methods to bring about real changes in the lives of his collocutors. In detailing the experiences and actions of migrants who are marginalized and exploited by the very societies of which they form so vital a part, this second edition of Holmes’s book will undoubtedly appeal to a broad readership – from migration and labor scholars and students, to healthcare professionals and legislators, and finally to activists and participatory-action researchers.

 

References

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice. Stanford University Press.

Gherardi, S. (2006). Organizational Knowledge: The Texture of Workplace Learning. In J. Child & S. Rodrigues (Eds.), Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling (Vol. 53). Blackwell Publishing.

Holmes, S. M. (2013a). Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (1st ed.). University of California Press.

Holmes, S. M. (2013b). “Is It Worth Risking Your Life?”: Ethnography, Risk and Death on the U.S.-Mexico border. Social Science and Medicine, 99, 153–161.

Holmes, S. M., & Castañeda, H. (2016). Representing the “European Refugee Crisis” in Germany and Beyond: Deservingness and Difference, Life and Death. American Ethnologist, 43(1), 12–24.

MacQuarie, J.-C. (2023). Invisible Migrant Nightworkers in 24/7 London. IMISCOE Research Series/Springer.

Ruhs, M. (2013). The Price of Rights: Regulating International Labor Migration. Princeton University Press.

Ruhs, M., & Anderson, B. (2010). Migrant Workers: Who Needs Them? A Framework for the Analysis of Staff Shortages, Immigration, and Public Policy. In Who Needs Migrant Workers?: Labour Shortages, Immigration, and Public Policy. (pp. 15–53). Oxford University Press.

Scheper-Hughes, N., & Lock, M. M. (1987). The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology. Medical Anthropological Quarterly, 1(1), 6–41.

Sennett, R. (2008). The Craftsman. In Allen Lane. Yale University Press.

Wacquant, L. (1995). Pugs at Work: Bodily Capital and Bodily Labour Among Professional Boxers. Body & Society, 1(1), 65–93.

Wacquant, L. (2015). For a Sociology of Flesh and Blood. Qualitative Sociology, 38(1), 1–11.

 

Acknowledgments 

Many thanks to Dr. Samuel Weeks for his insightful comments on a previous draft. The writing of this review has been made possible with the financial support from PRECNIGHTS, a project that explores precarity among migrant women nightworkers in Ireland. Funded under Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) – Grant №: 101063938.

 

Author Biography

Dr. Julius-Cezar MacQuarie is a Marie-Skłodowska Curie Research Fellow at the Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century, University College Cork, where he conducts the EU-funded PRECNIGHTS project “Precarity in Women Migrant Nightworkers in Ireland.” Dr. MacQuarie’s latest book is Invisible Migrant Nightworkers in 24/7 London(IMISCOE Research Series/Springer, 2023). 

 

Comments
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Ivy Michael:

Having delved affordable health care packages into "Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies," I commend its poignant exploration of migrant farmworkers' plight. Through vivid narratives, Holmes intertwines anthropology and personal experiences, shedding light on systemic injustices in healthcare and labor. A compelling read, urging reflection on the intersections of race, class, and health in modern society.

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Andreaa Ferrason:

The book sheds bitlife light on the health disparities and injustices experienced by migrant farmworkers.

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Amy Torbett:

You tackled a difficult prostadine subject with grace and intelligence. Kudos!

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tile relse:

The truth is that American tunnel rush consumers' diets have become dependent on "unskilled labor" without them even realizing it.

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