Friday, 24 October 2014 / TRUTH-OUT.ORG

Migrant Workers' Bitter Fruit

Friday, 05 July 2013 09:11 By Dennis J Bernstein, Consortium News | Interview

Migrant workers.(Photo: Bread for the World / Flickr)The battle to overhaul U.S. immigration policy has now moved from the Senate to the House where its future is at best uncertain. The debate continues even as the Obama administration presses forward with the most stringent deportation policies in modern history, as Dennis J Bernstein reports.

Every week, thousands of migrant workers are arrested and deported, many separated from their love ones, leaving broken families, and causing untold suffering. Oftentimes, the deportees will turn right around and make the dangerous and sometimes deadly trek north back to the U.S. to be reunited with their families and continue to do the back-breaking work that so many Americans depend on.

This harsh journey to the north, made by millions of migrant farm workers, is invisible to most Americans though they literally bear the fruit of this labor. But Dr. Seth M. Holmes hopes to change that invisibility with his new book, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farm Workers in the United States.

Holmes, a medical anthropologist and Martin Sisters Assistant Professor at U.C Berkeley’s School of Public Health, not only observed the plight of farm workers as they traveled to the United States but he lived it, making the dangerous journey north from Oaxaca, Mexico, via a “coyote.” In a recent interview with Dennis J. Bernstein, Holmes talked about his work with the farm workers and his trek north which ended in his arrest.

Dennis J. Bernstein: Please say a little bit about your own background, and how it is you came to actually go down, and come back with a group of folks crossing over with a coyote.

Dr. Seth M. Holmes: I’m a physician and an anthropologist, and as an anthropologist I use the classic field research method of participant observation. So not only do we observe what’s going on in the world but also participate in it on some level and learn from our own bodies data about what that way of life is like. For 18 months I lived with and migrated with undocumented indigenous Mexicans from the state of Oaxaca in Washington State, lived in a labor camp, and picked strawberries.

Then in central California, I lived with this same group of people in a slum apartment and pruned vineyards when there was work, went down to their home village in the mountains of Oaxaca, helped with harvesting corn and planting corn, and then crossed the border back with them through Sonora state in northern Mexico into Arizona, and then went into the border patrol jail with them, which I’m sure we’ll talk a little bit more about. And then back to California and to Washington again. I did this field work in order partially to understand how ethnic hierarchies and hierarchies of citizenship and immigration work in the U.S. today, and how that affects peoples’ health and health care.

DB: Now, clearly given the risks people are taking and the fears that they face, it took a great deal to build trust. And the trust building began long before you headed to the border. Could you talk a little bit about how that evolved?

SH: My research started up in Washington state on a family farm that grows … it’s famous for strawberries, but also grows blueberries and apples and raspberries. I lived in a labor camp along with this indigenous group of Mexicans who were mostly picking strawberries. And I picked strawberries with them, one or two days a week.

The other days I observed what was happening in the migrant clinic, and I interviewed pickers, managers, supervisors, and neighbors of the farm to understand all levels of what Laura Nader here at U.C.-Berkeley would call the “vertical slice” of U.S. agriculture through these different kinds of hierarchies.

DB: Was the work hard? Was it hard to keep up with the other folks?

SH: Yes. I never was able to keep up with the other folks. At the beginning of the season, the strawberry season, there were four U.S. citizen non-Mexicans who were picking strawberries. By the end of the season, I was the only one left. If I hadn’t been a white person who was interesting to the farm owners I would have been fired several times because I could not keep up. Unlike media coverage of farm workers as unskilled labor, I saw that they are very skilled.

I worked as hard as I possibly could to pick strawberries as fast as I could and I never could keep up. They have to pick 50 pounds of strawberries – the appropriate kind of ripeness, without any leaves – per hour, in order to make the minimum wage. And if they pick less than that for a couple days then they’re fired.

DB: And so through that, you began to meet folks, develop trust, and that’s how you began to connect ahead?

SH: At first … I spent four or five months in Washington state on that farm. And I would say that there was a very slow process of developing trust in Washington state. The trust really started to develop when I was asked by an extended family to go with them to central California. We moved to Madera, California, together. We spent about a week homeless, living out of cars and using the bathrooms in city parks until we could find someone who was willing to rent to people who don’t have credit history. Because I was the only one who had a credit history. So once we found an apartment that, to use a “technical” term was “slummy enough” to rent to people without a credit history, 19 of us moved into a three-bedroom apartment.

And I think that’s when people started to trust me. “Oh, he’s actually with us, he’s not just watching us for a summer. He’s actually really trying to understand.”

DB: And that’s 19 men?

SH: No. That was four families. Yep. Each bedroom had one or two families. The living room had three people. And then I, ironically, had the closet. They wanted me to sleep in the living room, too, because there was more room for an actual mattress. But, growing up the way I grew up, with my own bedroom, in semi-suburban Washington state where I grew up, living in a living room with kids running around and waking up in the morning sounded horrible. I needed to be able to close the door. So I slept in the closet and had to kind of sleep corner to corner. So my feet would fit and my head would fit in opposite corners.

DB: And you began to develop this trust, and at what point did you decide – I really need to go and do this – put your life on the line, really, to do it?

SH: Well, a lot of the people I worked with were from the indigenous group known as the Triqui people from Oaxaca. A lot of them spoke of “sufrimiento”, suffering as a major metaphor for what happens for them in the process of migration. They talked about the back pain, and the hip pain, picking, but one of the main sites that they talked about earlier relating to sufrimiento was crossing the border.

A lot of people had stories of going with a coyote whom they didn’t know, who mistreated them and pushed them into a chemical tank and closed them on the train until they got to the U.S. Or other people who were told by someone “Oh, I work for your coyote, come with me.” And then were kidnapped, all the way to one man who was told … actually told by a border patrol agent “I’ll take you to border patrol jail unless you let me have sex with you, in which case, I’ll let you go free.” So there were a lot of stories of the trouble with the border, and the violence on the border.

And I felt like if I was going to have an understanding of health and suffering related to this group of people, and the work they do, and the lives they lived, then I needed to understand the border.

DB: So, you built trust in this country and then how did you make arrangements? I imagine going over the border, it was even more difficult to establish trust and to create a situation where people didn’t think you were dangerous for one reason or another, an undercover agent, whatever.

SH: It’s interesting that you bring that up. There were a few stories, rumors, that were told around the labor camps among the Mexican workers, while I was there. One was that I was a spy for the border patrol or the police, trying to figure out who was documented and who wasn’t, and there was another rumor that I was a drug smuggler looking for a good cover. And it took a while, it took several months of me being with them for them to see me more as an anthropologist trying to understand what’s going on in the world in terms of agriculture and immigration.

So I talked with many of the farm workers I knew about – should I cross the border or not? How important is this to understand? If I do cross, how should I do it, whom should I do it with? And I got a lot of advice from people. People told me how dangerous it was, but people also told me how important it was to understand and to write about.

The first chapter of the book, the opening chapter, tells the story with relatively raw field notes of the border crossing. The border crossing happened after spending a season picking berries in Washington state, spending winter in California, pruning vineyards when we had any work, and then moving down to their home village in the mountains of Oaxaca, and helping with whatever I could do while there.

I was supposed to go with one group to cross the border; I showed up at that person’s hut in the village at the appropriate time, and no one was there. The hut was locked, and the family that I was staying with, who was the extended family of one of the families up in Madera, California, and Washington told me that they must have been scared that I was some kind of spy and so they told me a time that was after they actually left.

DB: They didn’t just say “No.” Because that would have given away their own suspicions.

SH: RIght, right. So then I ended up being introduced by one of the people who had been living next door to me in Washington State, in the labor camp, introduced to a friend of his who was a coyote, and introduced to the other people he was going to cross with.

DB: A coyote is the guide, who is the one who is responsible, if you will, for bringing you across the border, not always the most trustworthy folks. Tell us about the multiple struggles in terms of that 49-hour ride from Oaxaca. Because … you learned a lot there.

SH: Yep. Well, Dennis, first I want to respond to what you said about coyotes, and then I’ll answer that question, if that’s okay with you?

DB: Sure.

SH: So this group of people, in a relatively small village, with extended families who know each other, tend to go with a coyote from their home village who is a friend of a friend, or a relative of a friend, or something similar. And the truth is, for them, that the coyotes are very much trustworthy, and try to look out for the group. In my research, the people who are more unfortunate are people who come from other parts of Mexico, or even more so, from Central America. They arrive at the border without any contacts for a coyote and have to try to figure out who to trust at that point. And that’s where people get into more trouble with coyotes.

DB: I mentioned to you that I covered the Tucson Sanctuary trial and the name of the coyote that blew the whole operation, his name was Jesus Cruz. You know, Jesus Christ. You can trust me. And it was a brutal situation.

SH: So, you asked about the border crossing … we started in the village in Oaxaca, up in the mountains. We rode a Volkswagen van – which is the primary form of transportation up in the small roads – down to a nearby town. In that town, every Saturday, from something like January until May, there is a bus full of people who want to cross the border. Who leave that one particular town, and the bus takes them all the way up to the border, in northern Mexico, in Sonora. And most of them are men.

I rode a bus; I think there was one woman on the bus, and the other maybe 30 of us were men. I was the only white person on the bus. That whole time we stopped twice a day, for food, and gas, and bathrooms, and the rest of the time, including through the night we were on the bus, and got worn out and exhausted. Each time we arrived at a military check point, on the highway, the bus driver would announce over the p.a. system – “Okay, everyone tell the military that you’re going to Baja California to pick tomatoes.” Because if we tell them we’re going to the border then they will ask more questions and it will take more time. And, each time, they told me “you tell them that you’re going to” … and then they’d pick a nearby tourist town … “Guadalajara”, or something like that.

And, ironically, during that bus ride I was sitting next to a military officer who never told the other military people in the check points what was happening.

DB: The bus ride itself took a lot, just the bus ride, in terms of the food, the stopping, bathrooms; this is not an easy road, is it?

SH: No, it isn’t. It was exhausting. It was packed full of people, without air conditioning, nonstop all night without being able to sleep, so that by the time we arrived at the border town in northern Mexico, we were all … I was very exhausted.

DB: And, so there were checkpoints all along the way, and you were talking about that … you must have brought forth a lot of suspicion. What did people think? What did soldiers think? What did the bus driver think? And how do you pass in that context?

SH: Interestingly, the military checkpoint officers never paid that much attention to me. I followed directions from the bus driver and said that I was going to Guadalajara, or whatever I was supposed to say and I didn’t get asked a lot of questions. The soldier who was sitting next to me kept asking me questions as thought I was a coyote bringing people from southern Mexico into the U.S. And when I answered that I was not a coyote, that I’d been living with these people, I was just going with them. He would respond with questions like “Well, then why are you taking all of these people with you?” So it was very hard for him to understand why a white American person would be interested in doing this or learning about this, unless they were doing it for financial gain themselves, as a coyote.

DB: Now, talk about what happened as you approached the border, and the multiple struggles that take place at that point.

SH: We arrived, at the end of our long bus ride, up in northern Mexico, in Sonora, in a small town. And the driver let us out, out of town, in the middle of the blazing heat, the blazing sun, and told us that he wouldn’t take us into town, essentially, because there was too much police activity, or border patrol activity.

So, we got out of the bus, walked into town through the heat, followed the cousin of our coyote down back streets to a little apartment where we were to stay, with no furniture in it, no running water. We slept on the floor, on swaths of old carpet, and waited. There was a shower out back that was made of sheets hanging above mud that was shared by all the apartments that opened up into this same backyard area. Other groups came and went from the apartment.

People came in from time to time and told us “You have to pay me for staying here.” And the first time, some of us did pay. And then, after that we realized that was a scam that people were pulling and we didn’t pay anymore. From time to time people would come in and tell us that they were our driver, and they would pick us up tomorrow. But we didn’t know whom to trust.

We went through town … the town was very clearly, in my eyes, set up for border crossing. There were several money changers, places to wire money. There were several places you could buy dark-colored clothing and dark-colored backpacks, which is what you wear if you were crossing the border. The grocery store had aisles and aisles of Gatorade, and water bottles, and Pedialyte. And at that point, our group hid all of our cash in zip lock bags in mayonnaise jars. And the grocery store we went into had aisles of different kinds of small mayonnaise jars. So apparently that wasn’t just our group’s plan.

Part of the reason we had to hide the money in the mayonnaise jars was that whenever, in that town or crossing the border, you run into someone else who is dressed in dark clothing, you don’t know if they’re someone else trying to cross the border for work, and to support their family, to let their family survive, or if they’re someone who is after your money because everyone knows that there are a lot of people with thousands of dollars of cash in order to pay their coyote, in order to pay the drivers of the cars, and all of that to get across the border. So there was a lot of fear and anxiety in the whole process.

DB: Now we know given the intensified border security, that folks are being forced to take more and more risks, in terms of crossing the border. I was telling you when I was in Nogales, Arizona, the border… to say it was porous would be to put it mildly. You know there would be a wedding on the Mexican side at the church and then the reception would be in Nogales, Arizona. But it’s not like that anymore.

SH: Right.

DB: Now, talk about the real dangers that occur, the multiple dangers that occur in that process, particularly because of this so-called heightened security.

SH: Well, interestingly … several senators proposed a “border surge,” I believe, $30 billion increase in funding.

DB: Double the funding.

SH: Exactly. And roughly double the number of border patrol agents, including more drones, and heat sensors and other kinds of militarization of the border. … There was a study released by the Binational Migration Institute, I think it’s called, at the University of Arizona, this month, that showed that the number of deaths in the border lands has, in general, been increasing over the last decade or two. And several scholars, including myself, have written about the ways in which certain border patrol policies and actions have actually contributed to those increased deaths, unfortunately.

So there’s a policy that the border patrol has been using called “prevention through deterrence,” which has, to simplify it, put more border patrol agents near the safer regions of the border, and less agents in the more dangerous areas. In essence, to redirect the flow of migrants into the most dangerous and risky areas. And there have been statements by border patrol administrators and U.S. government officials showing that they know that this policy will increase the danger for the people crossing.

The study released by the University of Arizona argues, as do many of us, that this policy is one of the reasons that the numbers of deaths have been increasing. And if this policy continues, of redirecting migrants to the most dangerous areas of the border, then increasing the power and militarization of the border patrol may simply increase the number of deaths by putting people more and more into harm’s way.

DB: And the statistics will bear this out, right? More and more people are dying, right?

SH: Right.

DB: What do we know about the statistics? What does that look like?

SH: I believe it was within the last 30 days we know that 177 people were rescued by the border patrol from near death, according to the Border Patrol. We also know from different organizations such as Humane Borders … if you look up Humane Borders on the internet you can see maps in which they put information together from the Border Patrol and the Mexican Consulate and from independent sources about exactly where and when different people died. And that’s likely not everyone. They’re likely are other people we don’t know about. But that’s the best information that I’ve been able to find on border deaths. And it, as I said, it’s slowly been increasing in general even though the number of people entering has decreased.

So the risk of death for each person who goes through this process is higher and higher. One thing that I thought about, a fair amount with the border crossing was simply that I was continuously surprised by how dangerous it was. We ran into rattle snakes, we ran into people with guns and weren’t sure what their motivations were. We ran into other people through the desert and tried to avoid them. There were cactuses that we would run into in the middle of the night, because you can’t use a flashlight if you’re trying to hike in the darkness, and not be seen. There are scorpions, etc. and not to mention, different kinds of vigilantes, and some of the reports of what some vigilantes have done.

In the Catholic church in the center of town, in the border town of northern Mexico, one of the people I got to know well and I went to the church while we were there the day before we crossed. There were posters that were hand-painted, each one of them had some kind of danger in the border, either a scorpion, or a cactus, or a rattlesnake, or a picture of someone dying of dehydration and heat stroke. And at the bottom of each poster, in Spanish in red letters it said, “Is it worth risking your life?”

And at first it seemed to me, it had to be … the answer had to be “Yes.” Because there are thousands of people who are trying to do this every year. But as I’ve thought more about it as an anthropologist I’ve realized, of course, we have to question the framing of that question itself. That question – “Is it worth risking your life?” – presumes that each immigrant is choosing based on pluses and minuses. I’m going to choose…

DB: That they have an option…

SH: Right, that they have an option. And Border Patrol administrators, and U.S. government officials, have made similar statements to the effect that these migrants are taking on unnecessary risks. But when you actually do interviews and do research with immigrants who are crossing from Mexico into the U.S., they do not experience this as a choice. There were several times, and in the book I write about someone telling me “there’s no other option for us.” It’s either certain death, a kind of slow death in our villages which we can’t survive in, largely due to NAFTA…

DB: NAFTA, free trade … which has really been a boon for drug traffickers, but not for everyday people.

SH: Right. … Or we can have the potential for our family to survive, by us going through this very risky process. And so they feel like they are forced to do that. Which then makes us question the difference between … you know, often times in the U.S. people talk about refugees and political immigrants as deserving certain rights where they end up and they talk about economic or labor migrants as voluntary and not deserving of health care, etc. But when you actually do the research and talk to people, these people do not experience this as a voluntary choice and there are many ways that politics, including NAFTA, relate directly to why they can’t survive in their home towns anymore, and feel like they have to migrate in order for them and their children to be able to live.

DB: I want to sort of tap the M.D. side of this. When we talk about the actual suffering that grows out of the crossing … this is a terrible death. When people die, they die a horrible death. Could you talk a little bit about that, what happens in those situations?

SH: Well, there are several ways that people die in the border unfortunately. And as we talked about a minute ago, these deaths have been increasing over the last years. Some people have died violent deaths due to assailants whether they are assailants from Mexico or the U.S. looking for their money or anti-immigrant assailants who are very angry at an immigrant for being there. There are also people who die related to rattlesnake bites or scorpion bites, but the most common way that people die is due to simply to heat and dehydration.

I drank through a gallon of water every few hours while I was hiking. And we took a relatively easy path, a relatively flat path through the desert. I had several gallons of water, and several bottles of Gatorade and Pedialyte with me. And if I had gotten separated from the group … the truth is I had no idea where I was. So it was very ironic when the soldier in the bus, or later the border patrol agents who apprehended us accused me of being a coyote. I was exactly the opposite. I would have died without direction from the people I was with. But if someone gets separated and they only have enough water to make the trip under perfect circumstances, then they can easily become dehydrated and die.

DB: And that’s often the case. If you don’t have a friendly coyote, you have less of a shot. If you’ve got somebody who’s in it for the cash and that’s it, you’re not going to get much help there. And you’re going to die alone, in terror and great pain.

SH: Right. There are some organizations Humane Borders, Border Angels, No More Death, Samaritans, who do things…

DB: They leave water…

SH: They leave water, and walk through the desert and say “We have water” and try to get people to the hospital if they need help. And there is an arm of the border patrol that works on this as well. If they see people in distress they try to take care of them as well.

Ironically, last week, the L.A. Times wrote an article; something like “Over the Past 30 Days Border Patrol Rescues 177 People.” And while that is important, and it is true, we also have to, of course, remember the context of the Border Patrol policies that increase the danger that people are put in based on where they are encouraged to cross and where they are discouraged to cross.

DB: Yeah. It’s an amazing thing. Meanwhile, the people, in terms of law enforcement, you mentioned the Border Patrol, also a number of people were prosecuted for leaving, for taking water, for going out there and leaving water there. Prosecuted as alien smugglers. You know, under really horrifying prosecutions. I don’t know if anybody went to jail yet for leaving water so people could survive, but I think so.

SH: I do know of people who went to jail because they came across people who were dying in the desert and put them in their car to take them to the hospital, or take them to a clinic or take them to some sort of refuge, shade, or something. I also saw that some of the water containers that are left in the desert were shot with bullets that then drain them of their water by someone who doesn’t want there to be water in the desert.

DB: I can imagine, what are you in for? Leaving water for … it’s a felony, water-leaving, because you’re trying to prevent this kind of horrible death. Well, I know that you also had an encounter and ended up getting arrested. Tell us about what happened there.

SH: So, we hiked through the night starting at sunset, over and under and through several barbed wire fences and hiked. I’ve been a back-packing guide in the state of California several years. And I’m used to hiking long distances for many days, but I’ve never hiked as fast for as long a period of time … especially in the heat and dryness that we experienced while crossing.

And every once in a while we would stop in a dried-up creek bed and share frijoles or different food with each other; grasshoppers that had been dried that some groups in Oaxaca like to eat, and things like that. Then we would hike again. And we would stop sometimes and pull out cactus spines from each other’s legs, if we had crashed into cactuses in the dark.

When we got into Arizona we stopped in a dried-up creek bed, because those are the least likely to have cactus spines. Our coyote went to talk with the driver who usually takes his groups further into Arizona. And this driver said he wasn’t driving anymore because there had been more and more border patrol activity. So we were sort of stranded in this dried-up creek bed for a time.

We were discussing options, and some of the people in the group suggested that I drive; that we pool the money that we were going to pay the driver, that I go buy a used car, and drive them across the border. I told them that this made me too nervous, that I didn’t want to get a felony. I wanted to be able to work in the future. And if I had a felony it would be much harder to work, and they very much respected the need to work. So we came up with other plans.

Eventually the coyote decided to go back to the driver he usually works with and ask who else he could talk with. So he went back, he found someone else who was going to give us a ride. All of a sudden we see him run and jump down into the creek bed and then two border patrol agents jump down after him and pull guns on us and in Spanish say “Put your hands in the air.” And then they looked at me and said “This doesn’t look good for you with a bunch of illegals?” That’s what they said. They ended up dealing with us for a time in the desert and then taking us up into the Border Patrol jail.

DB: So, what happened?

SH: Well, they separated me from the group. I think they weren’t sure what to do with a white, U.S. citizen. I had a passport, I had letters from my university but they hadn’t seen someone like me before.

DB: Did they know you were a doctor as well, a medical doctor? Or they didn’t care? … That’s what confused them … maybe we’d better be a little bit more careful with this white guy.

SH: So they put all of the Triqui men I was with into the back of Border Patrol trucks that are sort of like pick-ups that have something like a small jail cell on the back. So they put all of them in the back of one of these. They put me alone in a different one. And along the way, in my truck, we picked up two Guatemalans who had been apprehended.

We ended up going to the Indian Health Service Hospital because one of the two Border Patrol agents had been bit by a rattlesnake while he was following our coyote. So we waited in the back of the truck while he was treated in the hospital.

Eventually, we all arrived at the Border Patrol jail. I was put alone in the women’s cell, I think because they were still confused about who I was, and whether I was a coyote, or what they should do with me. All the Triqui people were put in a different cell. They told me that I was not allowed to look at the Triqui people, that we couldn’t look across the hallway at each other.

And for a time I read all the graffiti in the cell that mostly women had written. There were a lot of things like “I’ll see you in Chicago” … kind of hopeful messages. Or “Proud that I’m Mexican” … things like that. And I watched as the Triqui people, one by one, were taken and fingerprinted and taken back to their cell. … I watched as they were looking through my backpack, I had a few anthropology books in my backpack, that I had meant to mail to myself so I wouldn’t have to carry them through the desert, but I ran out of time. I had a digital camera. There were something like a dozen border patrol agents together looking through my backpack because it was such a curiosity.

DB: It was so interesting.

SH: And they, I motioned to them with my hand that I wanted to make my phone call. And one of the agents shook their head at me, ‘No.’ And then later one of the agents came to my cell and asked if they could turn on my digital camera and I said “I want to call my lawyer.” I had contacted a couple lawyers before doing this and asked about the implications of it and I had their cell phone numbers, I had my family’s, my mom and my dad’s numbers and friends’. And so I went up to the front.

I got to call my lawyer. She told me that the Arizona legal system was backlogged and that it would be a couple of weeks before I would get another phone call, before I would get to meet with her. … She asked me if there was anyone I wanted her to call. I gave her my mom’s number and my dad’s number, and this other lawyer’s number.

And at that point I started to cry, just imagining being in this jail cell for two weeks, not being able to talk to anyone, not having a pen, as an anthropologist, not being able to write, and not sure what would happen to me. And that’s the moment that my Triqui friends were taken out of their cell, … in a single file line watching me cry as they were taken to a bus, and deported to Nogales.

DB: And, I imagine they weren’t crying.

SH: They weren’t crying.

DB: Sort of makes me want to cry. Talk about the multiple misperceptions in the U.S. press about what’s going on here.

SH: The first misperception I would say we touched on a little bit although it sometimes seems like it’s hard to get across, and that is the idea that these people coming to pick berries or work on farms in the U.S. are coming here voluntarily. And one problem with that framing is oftentimes even by U.S. government officials and the media … we see that the people who die in the desert are subtly blamed for their deaths.

DB: For their own deaths … they killed themselves…

SH: So they are understood to have chosen to take on that unnecessary risk. But the experience of the farm workers who I met was very much that they were forced to do this. There’s no other option and so this idea that they deserve their death is a subtle but very inhumane way to think about people who are dying…

DB: Multiple forms of racism, it’s a part of…

SH: That’s true. Anti-immigrant prejudice, racism…

DB: Profound ignorance, misunderstanding, confusion.

SH: Whose deaths are mourn-able, should be grieved, should count. There’s also, I think it was two weeks ago there were several Congress people who stated that they wouldn’t vote for immigration reform unless it became clear that the newly legalized immigrants would not get health care in the U.S. for roughly 15 years, despite paying taxes.

And when I think about the essence of the transaction between these farm workers and the rest of us Americans who shop at grocery stores and farmer’s markets it certainly looks to me through my research that the farm workers are going through dangerous border crossings, working bent over six or seven days a week, all day, gaining back problems, hip problems, knee problems, essentially giving away their health in order to pick healthy fruit, grapes, broccoli, asparagus, in order that the rest of us who shop at grocery stores in the U.S. or who go to farmer’s markets can be healthy.

And, so, the transaction in one essence, that’s part of where the title, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, came from which was actually suggested by Philippe Bourgois who wrote the book’s foreword. There’s an exchange, that their bodies are becoming sick and broken, in essence, to give us this healthy fruit, healthy food. If we are to respect this, I think we need to prioritize health care for this group of people who is helping all of us be healthy.

DB: Do you want to just talk a moment about what at the deepest level you learned from this journey and from this work? What can you tell the rest of us Americans about the reality of people who really we have to say do the hardest work that millions, tens of millions of Americans depend on, sit down at their tables, enjoy every day? And yet they may be the same people who want these people kicked out.

SH: Right. Correct. I would say right now in the midst of debates on immigration reform and health reform that we need to remember that immigrants are people. There’s a lot of debate about immigrants in the abstract that goes on among politicians without listening to the stories of, the voices of, the realities of actual immigrants themselves. While all these things are being debated I think we need to remember that these immigrants are humans, they’re fathers, they’re sons, they’re daughters, they’re wives, they’re mothers. They have stories. That’s one thing I try to do in the book; write about actual people so the reader can get to know somewhat why they are doing what they are doing, who they are, what they’re trying to do.

And I hope that this will help Americans vote differently, think differently, listen differently when they hear about people dying in the border. When they taste their strawberries they’ll remember that likely the last person who touched these strawberries was the person who picked them. That’s an intimate exchange that helps us be healthy; what do we owe in response?

DB: Well, yeah, these vegetables are sort of full of the finger prints of suffering. And we’re going to continue to cover this story. We appreciate you coming in and the risk that you took so that we could learn a little bit more about it. Of course, we know because we have friends and brothers, and as I mentioned to you earlier the senior producer of this show, Miguel Gavilon Molina, really watched his mom die in the fields, as he was a young farm worker, and it’s the families that do the work together. They break up the families after they do the work.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Dennis J Bernstein

Dennis J. Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.  You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net. You can get in touch with the author at dbernstein@igc.org.


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Migrant Workers' Bitter Fruit

Friday, 05 July 2013 09:11 By Dennis J Bernstein, Consortium News | Interview

Migrant workers.(Photo: Bread for the World / Flickr)The battle to overhaul U.S. immigration policy has now moved from the Senate to the House where its future is at best uncertain. The debate continues even as the Obama administration presses forward with the most stringent deportation policies in modern history, as Dennis J Bernstein reports.

Every week, thousands of migrant workers are arrested and deported, many separated from their love ones, leaving broken families, and causing untold suffering. Oftentimes, the deportees will turn right around and make the dangerous and sometimes deadly trek north back to the U.S. to be reunited with their families and continue to do the back-breaking work that so many Americans depend on.

This harsh journey to the north, made by millions of migrant farm workers, is invisible to most Americans though they literally bear the fruit of this labor. But Dr. Seth M. Holmes hopes to change that invisibility with his new book, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farm Workers in the United States.

Holmes, a medical anthropologist and Martin Sisters Assistant Professor at U.C Berkeley’s School of Public Health, not only observed the plight of farm workers as they traveled to the United States but he lived it, making the dangerous journey north from Oaxaca, Mexico, via a “coyote.” In a recent interview with Dennis J. Bernstein, Holmes talked about his work with the farm workers and his trek north which ended in his arrest.

Dennis J. Bernstein: Please say a little bit about your own background, and how it is you came to actually go down, and come back with a group of folks crossing over with a coyote.

Dr. Seth M. Holmes: I’m a physician and an anthropologist, and as an anthropologist I use the classic field research method of participant observation. So not only do we observe what’s going on in the world but also participate in it on some level and learn from our own bodies data about what that way of life is like. For 18 months I lived with and migrated with undocumented indigenous Mexicans from the state of Oaxaca in Washington State, lived in a labor camp, and picked strawberries.

Then in central California, I lived with this same group of people in a slum apartment and pruned vineyards when there was work, went down to their home village in the mountains of Oaxaca, helped with harvesting corn and planting corn, and then crossed the border back with them through Sonora state in northern Mexico into Arizona, and then went into the border patrol jail with them, which I’m sure we’ll talk a little bit more about. And then back to California and to Washington again. I did this field work in order partially to understand how ethnic hierarchies and hierarchies of citizenship and immigration work in the U.S. today, and how that affects peoples’ health and health care.

DB: Now, clearly given the risks people are taking and the fears that they face, it took a great deal to build trust. And the trust building began long before you headed to the border. Could you talk a little bit about how that evolved?

SH: My research started up in Washington state on a family farm that grows … it’s famous for strawberries, but also grows blueberries and apples and raspberries. I lived in a labor camp along with this indigenous group of Mexicans who were mostly picking strawberries. And I picked strawberries with them, one or two days a week.

The other days I observed what was happening in the migrant clinic, and I interviewed pickers, managers, supervisors, and neighbors of the farm to understand all levels of what Laura Nader here at U.C.-Berkeley would call the “vertical slice” of U.S. agriculture through these different kinds of hierarchies.

DB: Was the work hard? Was it hard to keep up with the other folks?

SH: Yes. I never was able to keep up with the other folks. At the beginning of the season, the strawberry season, there were four U.S. citizen non-Mexicans who were picking strawberries. By the end of the season, I was the only one left. If I hadn’t been a white person who was interesting to the farm owners I would have been fired several times because I could not keep up. Unlike media coverage of farm workers as unskilled labor, I saw that they are very skilled.

I worked as hard as I possibly could to pick strawberries as fast as I could and I never could keep up. They have to pick 50 pounds of strawberries – the appropriate kind of ripeness, without any leaves – per hour, in order to make the minimum wage. And if they pick less than that for a couple days then they’re fired.

DB: And so through that, you began to meet folks, develop trust, and that’s how you began to connect ahead?

SH: At first … I spent four or five months in Washington state on that farm. And I would say that there was a very slow process of developing trust in Washington state. The trust really started to develop when I was asked by an extended family to go with them to central California. We moved to Madera, California, together. We spent about a week homeless, living out of cars and using the bathrooms in city parks until we could find someone who was willing to rent to people who don’t have credit history. Because I was the only one who had a credit history. So once we found an apartment that, to use a “technical” term was “slummy enough” to rent to people without a credit history, 19 of us moved into a three-bedroom apartment.

And I think that’s when people started to trust me. “Oh, he’s actually with us, he’s not just watching us for a summer. He’s actually really trying to understand.”

DB: And that’s 19 men?

SH: No. That was four families. Yep. Each bedroom had one or two families. The living room had three people. And then I, ironically, had the closet. They wanted me to sleep in the living room, too, because there was more room for an actual mattress. But, growing up the way I grew up, with my own bedroom, in semi-suburban Washington state where I grew up, living in a living room with kids running around and waking up in the morning sounded horrible. I needed to be able to close the door. So I slept in the closet and had to kind of sleep corner to corner. So my feet would fit and my head would fit in opposite corners.

DB: And you began to develop this trust, and at what point did you decide – I really need to go and do this – put your life on the line, really, to do it?

SH: Well, a lot of the people I worked with were from the indigenous group known as the Triqui people from Oaxaca. A lot of them spoke of “sufrimiento”, suffering as a major metaphor for what happens for them in the process of migration. They talked about the back pain, and the hip pain, picking, but one of the main sites that they talked about earlier relating to sufrimiento was crossing the border.

A lot of people had stories of going with a coyote whom they didn’t know, who mistreated them and pushed them into a chemical tank and closed them on the train until they got to the U.S. Or other people who were told by someone “Oh, I work for your coyote, come with me.” And then were kidnapped, all the way to one man who was told … actually told by a border patrol agent “I’ll take you to border patrol jail unless you let me have sex with you, in which case, I’ll let you go free.” So there were a lot of stories of the trouble with the border, and the violence on the border.

And I felt like if I was going to have an understanding of health and suffering related to this group of people, and the work they do, and the lives they lived, then I needed to understand the border.

DB: So, you built trust in this country and then how did you make arrangements? I imagine going over the border, it was even more difficult to establish trust and to create a situation where people didn’t think you were dangerous for one reason or another, an undercover agent, whatever.

SH: It’s interesting that you bring that up. There were a few stories, rumors, that were told around the labor camps among the Mexican workers, while I was there. One was that I was a spy for the border patrol or the police, trying to figure out who was documented and who wasn’t, and there was another rumor that I was a drug smuggler looking for a good cover. And it took a while, it took several months of me being with them for them to see me more as an anthropologist trying to understand what’s going on in the world in terms of agriculture and immigration.

So I talked with many of the farm workers I knew about – should I cross the border or not? How important is this to understand? If I do cross, how should I do it, whom should I do it with? And I got a lot of advice from people. People told me how dangerous it was, but people also told me how important it was to understand and to write about.

The first chapter of the book, the opening chapter, tells the story with relatively raw field notes of the border crossing. The border crossing happened after spending a season picking berries in Washington state, spending winter in California, pruning vineyards when we had any work, and then moving down to their home village in the mountains of Oaxaca, and helping with whatever I could do while there.

I was supposed to go with one group to cross the border; I showed up at that person’s hut in the village at the appropriate time, and no one was there. The hut was locked, and the family that I was staying with, who was the extended family of one of the families up in Madera, California, and Washington told me that they must have been scared that I was some kind of spy and so they told me a time that was after they actually left.

DB: They didn’t just say “No.” Because that would have given away their own suspicions.

SH: RIght, right. So then I ended up being introduced by one of the people who had been living next door to me in Washington State, in the labor camp, introduced to a friend of his who was a coyote, and introduced to the other people he was going to cross with.

DB: A coyote is the guide, who is the one who is responsible, if you will, for bringing you across the border, not always the most trustworthy folks. Tell us about the multiple struggles in terms of that 49-hour ride from Oaxaca. Because … you learned a lot there.

SH: Yep. Well, Dennis, first I want to respond to what you said about coyotes, and then I’ll answer that question, if that’s okay with you?

DB: Sure.

SH: So this group of people, in a relatively small village, with extended families who know each other, tend to go with a coyote from their home village who is a friend of a friend, or a relative of a friend, or something similar. And the truth is, for them, that the coyotes are very much trustworthy, and try to look out for the group. In my research, the people who are more unfortunate are people who come from other parts of Mexico, or even more so, from Central America. They arrive at the border without any contacts for a coyote and have to try to figure out who to trust at that point. And that’s where people get into more trouble with coyotes.

DB: I mentioned to you that I covered the Tucson Sanctuary trial and the name of the coyote that blew the whole operation, his name was Jesus Cruz. You know, Jesus Christ. You can trust me. And it was a brutal situation.

SH: So, you asked about the border crossing … we started in the village in Oaxaca, up in the mountains. We rode a Volkswagen van – which is the primary form of transportation up in the small roads – down to a nearby town. In that town, every Saturday, from something like January until May, there is a bus full of people who want to cross the border. Who leave that one particular town, and the bus takes them all the way up to the border, in northern Mexico, in Sonora. And most of them are men.

I rode a bus; I think there was one woman on the bus, and the other maybe 30 of us were men. I was the only white person on the bus. That whole time we stopped twice a day, for food, and gas, and bathrooms, and the rest of the time, including through the night we were on the bus, and got worn out and exhausted. Each time we arrived at a military check point, on the highway, the bus driver would announce over the p.a. system – “Okay, everyone tell the military that you’re going to Baja California to pick tomatoes.” Because if we tell them we’re going to the border then they will ask more questions and it will take more time. And, each time, they told me “you tell them that you’re going to” … and then they’d pick a nearby tourist town … “Guadalajara”, or something like that.

And, ironically, during that bus ride I was sitting next to a military officer who never told the other military people in the check points what was happening.

DB: The bus ride itself took a lot, just the bus ride, in terms of the food, the stopping, bathrooms; this is not an easy road, is it?

SH: No, it isn’t. It was exhausting. It was packed full of people, without air conditioning, nonstop all night without being able to sleep, so that by the time we arrived at the border town in northern Mexico, we were all … I was very exhausted.

DB: And, so there were checkpoints all along the way, and you were talking about that … you must have brought forth a lot of suspicion. What did people think? What did soldiers think? What did the bus driver think? And how do you pass in that context?

SH: Interestingly, the military checkpoint officers never paid that much attention to me. I followed directions from the bus driver and said that I was going to Guadalajara, or whatever I was supposed to say and I didn’t get asked a lot of questions. The soldier who was sitting next to me kept asking me questions as thought I was a coyote bringing people from southern Mexico into the U.S. And when I answered that I was not a coyote, that I’d been living with these people, I was just going with them. He would respond with questions like “Well, then why are you taking all of these people with you?” So it was very hard for him to understand why a white American person would be interested in doing this or learning about this, unless they were doing it for financial gain themselves, as a coyote.

DB: Now, talk about what happened as you approached the border, and the multiple struggles that take place at that point.

SH: We arrived, at the end of our long bus ride, up in northern Mexico, in Sonora, in a small town. And the driver let us out, out of town, in the middle of the blazing heat, the blazing sun, and told us that he wouldn’t take us into town, essentially, because there was too much police activity, or border patrol activity.

So, we got out of the bus, walked into town through the heat, followed the cousin of our coyote down back streets to a little apartment where we were to stay, with no furniture in it, no running water. We slept on the floor, on swaths of old carpet, and waited. There was a shower out back that was made of sheets hanging above mud that was shared by all the apartments that opened up into this same backyard area. Other groups came and went from the apartment.

People came in from time to time and told us “You have to pay me for staying here.” And the first time, some of us did pay. And then, after that we realized that was a scam that people were pulling and we didn’t pay anymore. From time to time people would come in and tell us that they were our driver, and they would pick us up tomorrow. But we didn’t know whom to trust.

We went through town … the town was very clearly, in my eyes, set up for border crossing. There were several money changers, places to wire money. There were several places you could buy dark-colored clothing and dark-colored backpacks, which is what you wear if you were crossing the border. The grocery store had aisles and aisles of Gatorade, and water bottles, and Pedialyte. And at that point, our group hid all of our cash in zip lock bags in mayonnaise jars. And the grocery store we went into had aisles of different kinds of small mayonnaise jars. So apparently that wasn’t just our group’s plan.

Part of the reason we had to hide the money in the mayonnaise jars was that whenever, in that town or crossing the border, you run into someone else who is dressed in dark clothing, you don’t know if they’re someone else trying to cross the border for work, and to support their family, to let their family survive, or if they’re someone who is after your money because everyone knows that there are a lot of people with thousands of dollars of cash in order to pay their coyote, in order to pay the drivers of the cars, and all of that to get across the border. So there was a lot of fear and anxiety in the whole process.

DB: Now we know given the intensified border security, that folks are being forced to take more and more risks, in terms of crossing the border. I was telling you when I was in Nogales, Arizona, the border… to say it was porous would be to put it mildly. You know there would be a wedding on the Mexican side at the church and then the reception would be in Nogales, Arizona. But it’s not like that anymore.

SH: Right.

DB: Now, talk about the real dangers that occur, the multiple dangers that occur in that process, particularly because of this so-called heightened security.

SH: Well, interestingly … several senators proposed a “border surge,” I believe, $30 billion increase in funding.

DB: Double the funding.

SH: Exactly. And roughly double the number of border patrol agents, including more drones, and heat sensors and other kinds of militarization of the border. … There was a study released by the Binational Migration Institute, I think it’s called, at the University of Arizona, this month, that showed that the number of deaths in the border lands has, in general, been increasing over the last decade or two. And several scholars, including myself, have written about the ways in which certain border patrol policies and actions have actually contributed to those increased deaths, unfortunately.

So there’s a policy that the border patrol has been using called “prevention through deterrence,” which has, to simplify it, put more border patrol agents near the safer regions of the border, and less agents in the more dangerous areas. In essence, to redirect the flow of migrants into the most dangerous and risky areas. And there have been statements by border patrol administrators and U.S. government officials showing that they know that this policy will increase the danger for the people crossing.

The study released by the University of Arizona argues, as do many of us, that this policy is one of the reasons that the numbers of deaths have been increasing. And if this policy continues, of redirecting migrants to the most dangerous areas of the border, then increasing the power and militarization of the border patrol may simply increase the number of deaths by putting people more and more into harm’s way.

DB: And the statistics will bear this out, right? More and more people are dying, right?

SH: Right.

DB: What do we know about the statistics? What does that look like?

SH: I believe it was within the last 30 days we know that 177 people were rescued by the border patrol from near death, according to the Border Patrol. We also know from different organizations such as Humane Borders … if you look up Humane Borders on the internet you can see maps in which they put information together from the Border Patrol and the Mexican Consulate and from independent sources about exactly where and when different people died. And that’s likely not everyone. They’re likely are other people we don’t know about. But that’s the best information that I’ve been able to find on border deaths. And it, as I said, it’s slowly been increasing in general even though the number of people entering has decreased.

So the risk of death for each person who goes through this process is higher and higher. One thing that I thought about, a fair amount with the border crossing was simply that I was continuously surprised by how dangerous it was. We ran into rattle snakes, we ran into people with guns and weren’t sure what their motivations were. We ran into other people through the desert and tried to avoid them. There were cactuses that we would run into in the middle of the night, because you can’t use a flashlight if you’re trying to hike in the darkness, and not be seen. There are scorpions, etc. and not to mention, different kinds of vigilantes, and some of the reports of what some vigilantes have done.

In the Catholic church in the center of town, in the border town of northern Mexico, one of the people I got to know well and I went to the church while we were there the day before we crossed. There were posters that were hand-painted, each one of them had some kind of danger in the border, either a scorpion, or a cactus, or a rattlesnake, or a picture of someone dying of dehydration and heat stroke. And at the bottom of each poster, in Spanish in red letters it said, “Is it worth risking your life?”

And at first it seemed to me, it had to be … the answer had to be “Yes.” Because there are thousands of people who are trying to do this every year. But as I’ve thought more about it as an anthropologist I’ve realized, of course, we have to question the framing of that question itself. That question – “Is it worth risking your life?” – presumes that each immigrant is choosing based on pluses and minuses. I’m going to choose…

DB: That they have an option…

SH: Right, that they have an option. And Border Patrol administrators, and U.S. government officials, have made similar statements to the effect that these migrants are taking on unnecessary risks. But when you actually do interviews and do research with immigrants who are crossing from Mexico into the U.S., they do not experience this as a choice. There were several times, and in the book I write about someone telling me “there’s no other option for us.” It’s either certain death, a kind of slow death in our villages which we can’t survive in, largely due to NAFTA…

DB: NAFTA, free trade … which has really been a boon for drug traffickers, but not for everyday people.

SH: Right. … Or we can have the potential for our family to survive, by us going through this very risky process. And so they feel like they are forced to do that. Which then makes us question the difference between … you know, often times in the U.S. people talk about refugees and political immigrants as deserving certain rights where they end up and they talk about economic or labor migrants as voluntary and not deserving of health care, etc. But when you actually do the research and talk to people, these people do not experience this as a voluntary choice and there are many ways that politics, including NAFTA, relate directly to why they can’t survive in their home towns anymore, and feel like they have to migrate in order for them and their children to be able to live.

DB: I want to sort of tap the M.D. side of this. When we talk about the actual suffering that grows out of the crossing … this is a terrible death. When people die, they die a horrible death. Could you talk a little bit about that, what happens in those situations?

SH: Well, there are several ways that people die in the border unfortunately. And as we talked about a minute ago, these deaths have been increasing over the last years. Some people have died violent deaths due to assailants whether they are assailants from Mexico or the U.S. looking for their money or anti-immigrant assailants who are very angry at an immigrant for being there. There are also people who die related to rattlesnake bites or scorpion bites, but the most common way that people die is due to simply to heat and dehydration.

I drank through a gallon of water every few hours while I was hiking. And we took a relatively easy path, a relatively flat path through the desert. I had several gallons of water, and several bottles of Gatorade and Pedialyte with me. And if I had gotten separated from the group … the truth is I had no idea where I was. So it was very ironic when the soldier in the bus, or later the border patrol agents who apprehended us accused me of being a coyote. I was exactly the opposite. I would have died without direction from the people I was with. But if someone gets separated and they only have enough water to make the trip under perfect circumstances, then they can easily become dehydrated and die.

DB: And that’s often the case. If you don’t have a friendly coyote, you have less of a shot. If you’ve got somebody who’s in it for the cash and that’s it, you’re not going to get much help there. And you’re going to die alone, in terror and great pain.

SH: Right. There are some organizations Humane Borders, Border Angels, No More Death, Samaritans, who do things…

DB: They leave water…

SH: They leave water, and walk through the desert and say “We have water” and try to get people to the hospital if they need help. And there is an arm of the border patrol that works on this as well. If they see people in distress they try to take care of them as well.

Ironically, last week, the L.A. Times wrote an article; something like “Over the Past 30 Days Border Patrol Rescues 177 People.” And while that is important, and it is true, we also have to, of course, remember the context of the Border Patrol policies that increase the danger that people are put in based on where they are encouraged to cross and where they are discouraged to cross.

DB: Yeah. It’s an amazing thing. Meanwhile, the people, in terms of law enforcement, you mentioned the Border Patrol, also a number of people were prosecuted for leaving, for taking water, for going out there and leaving water there. Prosecuted as alien smugglers. You know, under really horrifying prosecutions. I don’t know if anybody went to jail yet for leaving water so people could survive, but I think so.

SH: I do know of people who went to jail because they came across people who were dying in the desert and put them in their car to take them to the hospital, or take them to a clinic or take them to some sort of refuge, shade, or something. I also saw that some of the water containers that are left in the desert were shot with bullets that then drain them of their water by someone who doesn’t want there to be water in the desert.

DB: I can imagine, what are you in for? Leaving water for … it’s a felony, water-leaving, because you’re trying to prevent this kind of horrible death. Well, I know that you also had an encounter and ended up getting arrested. Tell us about what happened there.

SH: So, we hiked through the night starting at sunset, over and under and through several barbed wire fences and hiked. I’ve been a back-packing guide in the state of California several years. And I’m used to hiking long distances for many days, but I’ve never hiked as fast for as long a period of time … especially in the heat and dryness that we experienced while crossing.

And every once in a while we would stop in a dried-up creek bed and share frijoles or different food with each other; grasshoppers that had been dried that some groups in Oaxaca like to eat, and things like that. Then we would hike again. And we would stop sometimes and pull out cactus spines from each other’s legs, if we had crashed into cactuses in the dark.

When we got into Arizona we stopped in a dried-up creek bed, because those are the least likely to have cactus spines. Our coyote went to talk with the driver who usually takes his groups further into Arizona. And this driver said he wasn’t driving anymore because there had been more and more border patrol activity. So we were sort of stranded in this dried-up creek bed for a time.

We were discussing options, and some of the people in the group suggested that I drive; that we pool the money that we were going to pay the driver, that I go buy a used car, and drive them across the border. I told them that this made me too nervous, that I didn’t want to get a felony. I wanted to be able to work in the future. And if I had a felony it would be much harder to work, and they very much respected the need to work. So we came up with other plans.

Eventually the coyote decided to go back to the driver he usually works with and ask who else he could talk with. So he went back, he found someone else who was going to give us a ride. All of a sudden we see him run and jump down into the creek bed and then two border patrol agents jump down after him and pull guns on us and in Spanish say “Put your hands in the air.” And then they looked at me and said “This doesn’t look good for you with a bunch of illegals?” That’s what they said. They ended up dealing with us for a time in the desert and then taking us up into the Border Patrol jail.

DB: So, what happened?

SH: Well, they separated me from the group. I think they weren’t sure what to do with a white, U.S. citizen. I had a passport, I had letters from my university but they hadn’t seen someone like me before.

DB: Did they know you were a doctor as well, a medical doctor? Or they didn’t care? … That’s what confused them … maybe we’d better be a little bit more careful with this white guy.

SH: So they put all of the Triqui men I was with into the back of Border Patrol trucks that are sort of like pick-ups that have something like a small jail cell on the back. So they put all of them in the back of one of these. They put me alone in a different one. And along the way, in my truck, we picked up two Guatemalans who had been apprehended.

We ended up going to the Indian Health Service Hospital because one of the two Border Patrol agents had been bit by a rattlesnake while he was following our coyote. So we waited in the back of the truck while he was treated in the hospital.

Eventually, we all arrived at the Border Patrol jail. I was put alone in the women’s cell, I think because they were still confused about who I was, and whether I was a coyote, or what they should do with me. All the Triqui people were put in a different cell. They told me that I was not allowed to look at the Triqui people, that we couldn’t look across the hallway at each other.

And for a time I read all the graffiti in the cell that mostly women had written. There were a lot of things like “I’ll see you in Chicago” … kind of hopeful messages. Or “Proud that I’m Mexican” … things like that. And I watched as the Triqui people, one by one, were taken and fingerprinted and taken back to their cell. … I watched as they were looking through my backpack, I had a few anthropology books in my backpack, that I had meant to mail to myself so I wouldn’t have to carry them through the desert, but I ran out of time. I had a digital camera. There were something like a dozen border patrol agents together looking through my backpack because it was such a curiosity.

DB: It was so interesting.

SH: And they, I motioned to them with my hand that I wanted to make my phone call. And one of the agents shook their head at me, ‘No.’ And then later one of the agents came to my cell and asked if they could turn on my digital camera and I said “I want to call my lawyer.” I had contacted a couple lawyers before doing this and asked about the implications of it and I had their cell phone numbers, I had my family’s, my mom and my dad’s numbers and friends’. And so I went up to the front.

I got to call my lawyer. She told me that the Arizona legal system was backlogged and that it would be a couple of weeks before I would get another phone call, before I would get to meet with her. … She asked me if there was anyone I wanted her to call. I gave her my mom’s number and my dad’s number, and this other lawyer’s number.

And at that point I started to cry, just imagining being in this jail cell for two weeks, not being able to talk to anyone, not having a pen, as an anthropologist, not being able to write, and not sure what would happen to me. And that’s the moment that my Triqui friends were taken out of their cell, … in a single file line watching me cry as they were taken to a bus, and deported to Nogales.

DB: And, I imagine they weren’t crying.

SH: They weren’t crying.

DB: Sort of makes me want to cry. Talk about the multiple misperceptions in the U.S. press about what’s going on here.

SH: The first misperception I would say we touched on a little bit although it sometimes seems like it’s hard to get across, and that is the idea that these people coming to pick berries or work on farms in the U.S. are coming here voluntarily. And one problem with that framing is oftentimes even by U.S. government officials and the media … we see that the people who die in the desert are subtly blamed for their deaths.

DB: For their own deaths … they killed themselves…

SH: So they are understood to have chosen to take on that unnecessary risk. But the experience of the farm workers who I met was very much that they were forced to do this. There’s no other option and so this idea that they deserve their death is a subtle but very inhumane way to think about people who are dying…

DB: Multiple forms of racism, it’s a part of…

SH: That’s true. Anti-immigrant prejudice, racism…

DB: Profound ignorance, misunderstanding, confusion.

SH: Whose deaths are mourn-able, should be grieved, should count. There’s also, I think it was two weeks ago there were several Congress people who stated that they wouldn’t vote for immigration reform unless it became clear that the newly legalized immigrants would not get health care in the U.S. for roughly 15 years, despite paying taxes.

And when I think about the essence of the transaction between these farm workers and the rest of us Americans who shop at grocery stores and farmer’s markets it certainly looks to me through my research that the farm workers are going through dangerous border crossings, working bent over six or seven days a week, all day, gaining back problems, hip problems, knee problems, essentially giving away their health in order to pick healthy fruit, grapes, broccoli, asparagus, in order that the rest of us who shop at grocery stores in the U.S. or who go to farmer’s markets can be healthy.

And, so, the transaction in one essence, that’s part of where the title, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, came from which was actually suggested by Philippe Bourgois who wrote the book’s foreword. There’s an exchange, that their bodies are becoming sick and broken, in essence, to give us this healthy fruit, healthy food. If we are to respect this, I think we need to prioritize health care for this group of people who is helping all of us be healthy.

DB: Do you want to just talk a moment about what at the deepest level you learned from this journey and from this work? What can you tell the rest of us Americans about the reality of people who really we have to say do the hardest work that millions, tens of millions of Americans depend on, sit down at their tables, enjoy every day? And yet they may be the same people who want these people kicked out.

SH: Right. Correct. I would say right now in the midst of debates on immigration reform and health reform that we need to remember that immigrants are people. There’s a lot of debate about immigrants in the abstract that goes on among politicians without listening to the stories of, the voices of, the realities of actual immigrants themselves. While all these things are being debated I think we need to remember that these immigrants are humans, they’re fathers, they’re sons, they’re daughters, they’re wives, they’re mothers. They have stories. That’s one thing I try to do in the book; write about actual people so the reader can get to know somewhat why they are doing what they are doing, who they are, what they’re trying to do.

And I hope that this will help Americans vote differently, think differently, listen differently when they hear about people dying in the border. When they taste their strawberries they’ll remember that likely the last person who touched these strawberries was the person who picked them. That’s an intimate exchange that helps us be healthy; what do we owe in response?

DB: Well, yeah, these vegetables are sort of full of the finger prints of suffering. And we’re going to continue to cover this story. We appreciate you coming in and the risk that you took so that we could learn a little bit more about it. Of course, we know because we have friends and brothers, and as I mentioned to you earlier the senior producer of this show, Miguel Gavilon Molina, really watched his mom die in the fields, as he was a young farm worker, and it’s the families that do the work together. They break up the families after they do the work.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Dennis J Bernstein

Dennis J. Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.  You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net. You can get in touch with the author at dbernstein@igc.org.


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