"Oaxacans like to work bent over"

An anthropologist/doctor goes berry picking on a farm in Skagit County, Wash. Remind us again who wants to do those jobs?

Published May 14, 2007 9:41PM (EDT)

The migrant labor camps look like chains of rusted tin-roofed tool sheds lined up within a few feet of each other and have been mistaken for small chicken coops in long rows.

...The farm and the clinic make up gray zones in which difficult economic survival and narrow perceptual lenses constrain ethical growers and idealistic clinicians to complicity with structural violence.

It takes some nimble dancing to balance anthropological fieldwork based on spending 15 months with undocumented migrant berry pickers in the Pacific Northwest and Oaxaca with an analytic framework partially derived from such thinkers as Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and Primo Levi. But Seth Holmes -- boasting an M.D. from the University of California at San Francisco, and a Ph.D. in cultural and medical anthropology from UCSF and U.C. Berkeley -- is both smart and an excellent writer. He pulls it off. His paper, "'Oaxacans Like to Work Bent Over': The Naturalization of Social Suffering Among Berry Farm Workers," is carefully observed, both in capturing the grinding details of what it takes to get that raspberry or strawberry out of the fields, and in the equally challenging task of figuring out what it all means -- and what to do about it.

A common call-and-response jingle from the illegal immigration wars is the claim that laborers from south of the border are "doing jobs Americans don't want to do," followed by the assertion that "if the wages were raised there would be no problem finding native-born workers." It's always useful to view these slogans in the context of the kind of grueling facts delivered by Holmes, who spent months living in the same "chicken coop" shacks and plucking the same berries as the pickers.

The lowest of the low at Tanaka Farms in Skagit County are the Triqui, indigenous people from Oaxaca.

The Triqui people inhabit the bottom rung of the pecking order with the most stressful, humiliating, and physically strenuous jobs picking berries. They live in the coldest, wettest shacks in the most hidden labor camp. Strawberry pickers must bring a minimum weight of fifty pounds of de-leafed berries every hour; otherwise they are fired and kicked out of camp. In order to meet this requirement, they take few or no breaks from 5 a.m. until the afternoon when the field is completed. Many do not eat or drink anything before work so they do not have to take time to use the bathroom... Triqui strawberry pickers work seven days a week, rain or shine, without a day off until the last strawberry is processed. Occupying the bottom of the ethnicity-citizenship-labor hierarchy, undocumented Triqui strawberry pickers bear an unequal share of health problems, from idiopathic back and knee pains to slipped vertebral disks, from diabetes type II to premature births and developmental malformations.

Let's be clear -- no one really wants to do these jobs, whether Oaxacan or native-born American. But the cold logic of the market -- a market that can put Chinese strawberries from across the Pacific in San Francisco more cheaply than Tanaka Farms can -- requires it. Holmes describes the third generation Japanese-Americans who run Tanaka Farms as "ethical, caring people who ... work toward a vision of a good society that includes family farming." But the $7.16 hourly minimum wage they pay makes it difficult for them to compete with South Carolina, much less Asia, and "the corporatization of U.S. agriculture and the growth of international free markets squeeze growers such that they cannot imagine increasing the pay of the pickers or improving the labor camps without bankrupting the farm."

At the crux of Holmes' analysis is the disturbing realization that both the Triqui and their supervisors believe that they, in a sense, deserve the abysmal work conditions that they labor under. The Triqui pride themselves in an ethnically denominated "toughness" -- and their supervisors believe that their short stature means that they don't have to bend down so much to pick their berries, and thus they are more suited to their jobs than the taller mestizos. Even the most idealistic clinicians end up blaming the workers, in part, for their health problems. All of this constitutes what Holmes calls a kind of "symbolic violence" relentlessly visited upon the pickers.

Holmes loads a hefty basket of theory to explain what he means by "symbolic violence" and the project of "denaturalizing" social inequities, by which I think he means making it so that society does not see brute exploitation as a normal or accepted practice. But he also confesses that "an academic critique of the social order can take us only so far and may lose touch with the lived reality it purports to analyze."

"Pragmatic solidarity" is a phrase used by Paul Farmer to encourage us to join alongside the struggles of oppressed people instead of working solely as disconnected "experts." The academic project of denaturalizing social inequities must be accompanied by efforts at all levels of a micro to macro continuum: from including pickers in farm English classes to including the social determinants of health in medical education; from buying the products of farms that treat workers fairly to the lobbying of governments to change unrealistic and violent immigration policies, from programs working for cross-cultural understanding to activist work for a more equitable international market such that people would not be forced to leave their homes to migrate in the first place. The U.S. government and U.S. society gain much from migrant laborers and give little back beyond criminalization, stress, suffering, and death. This dishonest relationship must change.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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