Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States

Seth M. Holmes, a physician-anthropologist, ethnographically captures the social and physical suffering of Triqui migrant farmworkers in the United States caused by structural and symbolic violence. Holmes’ goal is “to portray and analyze the lives and experiences of…my…Triqui companions in order to understand better the social and symbolic context of suffering among migrant laborers” with the “hope that those who read these pages will be moved in mutual humanity” (p. 29). Holmes’ ethnographic sites are homes in Oaxaca, the path through the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, the labor camps and fields of agricultural companies in Washington and California, and medical clinics in both Oaxaca and Washington. Throughout the book, Holmes attempts to reconfigure public perceptions of migrant farm laborers. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies has won numerous accolades, including multiple book awards. Holmes’ work has the public support of well-known and established medical and cultural anthropologists, such as Philippe Bourgois, Leo Chavez, Paul Farmer, and Didier Fassin, as well as the President of the United Farm Workers of America, Arturo Rodriguez.

Holmes begins exploring embodied suffering of migrant farmworkers with a deeply compelling, personal account of his participant observation of undocumented Mexico-U.S. border crossing. He peppers the narrative with critiques of migration theory’s assumptions of choice and individualism. Holmes delineates the international political economic webs that increasingly narrow Triqui options for economic sustainability without migration. He follows with chapters that detail the utility of an embodied, reflexive, and critical ethnographical stance to uncover “the interrelated hierarchies of ethnicity, labor and suffering in U.S. agriculture as well as the processes by which these become normalized and invisible” (p. 31). He describes class and ethnic hierarchies on a berry farm in Washington State to show how embedded racism and classism conspire with the economic challenges of agricultural production. Ultimately this renders the suffering of Triqui farmworkers invisible to employers, health care providers, police, and, notably, consumers. Holmes then takes readers into medical clinics in both the United States and Mexico to demonstrate how biomedical, neoliberal, and American discourses of individual choice, risk, and responsibility repackage social suffering into fictions of isolated, preventable physical ailments. He concludes with specific recommendations for change in public health and medical school curricula, academic and popular representations of migration and farmworker experiences and identities, consumer purchasing practices, and economic structuring of the American medical system.

The book’s primary strengths are an accessible writing style for a wide audience, Holmes’ reflexivity, and the strength of his evidence about the ways in which structural and symbolic violence act on Triqui farmworkers moving from Oaxaca through the U.S-Mexico borderlands to the West coast of the United States. In part because of its accessibility to diverse audiences, the book has been widely reviewed in popular, academic, and activist outlets. Unsurprisingly, reactions vary by audience. For activist and popular audiences, the book can serve as a persuasive corrective to the dominant American, neoliberal discourse of individual choice that underpins a tacit – if not often, explicit, victim blaming of poor, undocumented immigrants for their higher burdens of economic, social and physical suffering. For academic audiences, the same technique that Holmes uses to illustrate structural violence often obscures individual immigrant responses and resistance, i.e., agency. At times Holmes’ argument about structural and symbolic violence feels deterministic, and it is repeated multiple times in very similar ways throughout the book. Moreover, the book has been criticized for inattention to other axes of inequality that operate on farmworker bodies, such as gender and age. As an academic text, the work would benefit from a ‘deep dive’ in to the potential of his embodied anthropology to productively engage a more traditional political economic frame of suffering.

On the other hand, Holmes wrote Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies for the California Series in Public Anthropology, whose intent is to “analyze important public concerns in ways that help non-academic audiences to understand and address them”  ( This point is crucial when reading the book. The detail academic anthropologists expect to buttress statements such “(t)he pressures of the current neoliberal capitalist system of health care and its financing force health professionals into a double bind” (p. 125) is simply not there; I expect this is intentional. A short book at only 201 pages written for a non-academic audience, can only – and should only, do so much as a theoretical treatise on embodied anthropology, structural and symbolic violence, and neoliberal economic and political processes that generate and sustain transnational migrant labor networks. In fact, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies has already reached a wide readership, judging from the locations of its reviews alone: anthropological journals and forums such as Somatosphere and Access Denied, the New York Journal of Books and the non-profit advocacy group, Harvesting Justice.

Due to in large part of Holmes’ intentional writing style, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies is a powerful teaching tool in diverse settings. Holmes’ professional status as a doctor and anthropologist lends him a distinct and commanding authority on issues of health and structural violence. His use of personal narrative and case studies maps onto anthropological and medical students’ familiar learning tropes, respectively. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies would be an excellent ethnography for undergraduate anthropology courses to explore methods, critical medical anthropology, stratified citizenship and transnationalism, and foodways and food production. It could easily become required reading in medical schools, similar to the teachability of Fadiman’s book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. It could complement readings in undergraduate and graduate public health courses on upstream public health initiatives and in health education curricula that critically examine the educational model of social and behavior change in health disparities interventions. I can also envision the book stimulating discussion on food production, immigration, and the American health care system in book circles as well as becoming a standard in the bookshelves of farmworker justice organizations.

Jill Fleuriet, University of Texas at San Antonio

 Holmes, Seth M. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. University of California Press, 2013. Read more at University of California Press.

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