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Seth Holmes, an American physician and anthropologist in southern Mexico

At Civil Eats Tracie McMillan writes about Seth Holmes, an American physician and anthropologist who undertook a trip that few take for kicks: He migrated from the rural highlands of Oaxaca in southern Mexico to the deserts of Arizona alongside a band of indigenous migrants bound for American farm fields.  

They were apprehended by the U.S. border patrol but that did not stop Holmes, who was determined to document the human cost of providing cheap food to Americans.

Holmes has compiled his studies into a new book, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (California Series in Public Anthropology), which was 10 years in the making. In his investigation he picked berries and pruned grapes; lived in labor camps and at times his car; and, by working alongside, got to know—and observe—his new neighbors and colleagues.

What was it like to make the border crossing from Mexico to Arizona?

It was terrifying. I knew how many people died trying to cross the border each year, but doing it physically with my own body and my own mind and emotions and psyche was a much more intense than I had realized it would be. It was a long process and there were a lot of different ways that things could have gone worse than they did. We came across rattlesnakes and other people who we weren’t sure what their intentions were, if they were assailants or robbers or vigilantes or just other border crossers.

Holmes uncovered how market forces, anti-immigrant sentiment, and racism undermine health and health care. Holmes trekked with his informants illegally through the desert border into Arizona, where they were apprehended and jailed by the Border Patrol. After he was released from jail (and his companions were deported back to Mexico), Holmes interviewed Border Patrol agents, local residents and armed vigilantes in the borderlands. He lived with indigenous Mexican families in the mountains of Oaxaca and in farm labor camps in the United States, planted and harvested corn, picked strawberries, accompanied sick workers to clinics and hospitals, participated in healing rituals and mourned at funerals for friends.

Please continue below the fold for more on the human cost of American agriculture.

What was the big reason that folks felt compelled to migrate? What’s driving that for them?

They all are basically family farmers in their hometowns, growing corn and beans and different kinds of greens, and some of them have oxen, some of them have goats. They used to be able to sell their corn in the nearby markets and then use that money to pay for electricity or to pay for uniforms, to be able to go to the free public schools, but they couldn’t do that anymore.

There was other corn being sold that was cheaper, and as I looked into it, the corn that was being sold was corn coming from the U.S. My understanding of what shifted over the last 15 years or so, [when] Trique people started coming to the U.S., is that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) made it illegal for the U.S., Canada, and Mexico to have tariffs—taxes—on products from other countries. But it didn’t make it illegal to have subsidies. [Author’s note: Since 1995, one year after NAFTA went into effect, the U.S. has spent nearly $100 billion on corn subsidies.] But the Trique people weren’t talking about NAFTA so much. They were just talking about, ‘We can’t sell our corn, and there are no jobs here, and we have to go get jobs, so we’re going to leave our land here and leave our farms here to go and work on farms up there.’

Why should you care? Each year the U.S. employs over 2 million migrant farm workers. Eighty-one percent of our agricultural workers are migrants with 52 percent of those being illegal.

I've written about the negative effect that NAFTA has had on Mexicans' health. Clearly, we must reform our own broken Earth-killing, health-killing agricultural system before exporting it.

The solutions easily stand out: We must reform our broken, inhumane immigration system. It's also imperative that we eliminate the horrendous agriculture subsidies for corn, soy and other monoculture corps which are destroying our topsoils and feeding the climate destroying livestock industry and we must enforce the U.S. labor laws that already exist.

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