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Seth Holmes speaks on social injustice in migrant farm workers' health

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Seth Holmes speaks on social injustice in migrant farm workers' health


According to Seth Holmes, society tells us that skilled laborers have expertise, while unskilled laborer don’t. We have frameworks about certain people working certain jobs. We live in a society in which social hierarchies are so ingrained, we don’t often question why they are the way they are.

Holmes spoke Monday night in Kane Hall about these social structures and the role they played in his book, “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States,” which was selected as this year’s health science common read.

Holmes spent several months living in the lowest income section on a farm in Skagit Valley. He lived in close quarters with 250 other laborers in an unheated, uninsulated house where workers would be fired and evicted if they didn’t meet their daily quota for berry picking.

He processed these experiences through various lenses, including those of a physician, medical anthropologist, and UW alumnus, and most importantly, through this field research.

In his talk, Holmes explained that there was an obvious hierarchy in the workplace. The executives of the company, who were white and Japanese-American, lived in big comfortable homes, while workers, largely undocumented Mexican immigrants, lived in cold, shared poverty.

“The way he inserted himself into the lowest camp in his research really stood out to me,” said UW sophomore Jessica Hartman, who attended the talk.

She felt the way he chose to conduct his research, by focusing on the lowest tier of the hierarchy, created a very valuable perceptive.

Holmes, a white American, challenged the system by putting himself at the lowest level. The managers in the company and on the fields often didn’t hold him to the same standards as other workers, and workers were often suspicious of him.

“I didn’t take the appropriate position in the hierarchy,” he said. “They couldn’t figure out what a bald white guy was doing in the fields.”

He explained that a hierarchy also existed between the Mexican workers from different provinces. The Triqui workers were considered inferior, and given work that was both backbreaking and less lucrative than other types of agricultural work. As a result, they had worse health than workers from other backgrounds.

Holmes explained that many farm workers have serious health-care issues that are rarely discussed. Farm workers have five times the national average of work fatalities and only five percent of immigrant workers have health insurance.

Holmes shared the story of his friend Bernardo, who had been a victim of police brutality in his hometown in Mexico where they had repeatedly punched him in the stomach, inflicting long-term damage. Bernardo spoke the dialect of his home state, little Spanish, and no English. The result of this mutli-level language barrier was a diagnoses of “stomach trauma from an old boxing injury,” no medication, and a $3,000 doctor’s bill.

Although the Affordable Care Act is supposed to make health care more feasible for lower-income families, in most cases, undocumented migrants are not eligible.

Holmes explained that this problem is often ignored because of social constructs in our society that lead us to believe certain norms for certain people.

“Why is this largely unchallenged and unquestioned?” Holmes asked. “We often misrecognize social order as normal because it matches the lenses in which we’ve learned it. It’s all you’ve seen and you recognize it as normal.”

Holmes believes that for our society to address this issue, we need to look beyond the norms of the past and implement changes through our voting, food policies, and health care reform.

The UW Health Sciences Service Learning and Advocacy Group sponsored Holmes’ talk, part of a larger two-day common read event, in hopes of creating dialogue about health equity and social justice in the UW community.

“Having more visible conversations around farm worker health and agriculture policy seemed really relevant to people who want to be health professionals,” said Kelsen Caldwell, the program manager.

Caldwell and the rest of the group hope to bring these topics to student attention in hopes of inspiring future health professionals to combat them.

“There are ways in which the institutions of society privilege certain voices to be heard, and other categories to not have access to the ears of politicians,” Holmes said. “We need to work toward a true version of democracy where everyone is involved and everyone’s voice is heard.”

Reach reporter Megan Herndon at Twitter: @meganherndon

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