Home > Recent Post > Anthropology Afflicting the Comfortable: A Review of Seth Holmes’s “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies” – Rachel Stonecipher

Anthropology Afflicting the Comfortable: A Review of Seth Holmes’s “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies” – Rachel Stonecipher

Rachel Stonecipher

Having cut my teeth in anthropology while living in the state of Texas, I am accustomed to trying to explain what, exactly, this discipline is. At Thanksgiving, distant family members ask me whether I have anything interesting to tell them about the dinosaurs. When I correct them and confess that I neither dig up artifacts (certainly not T-Rex) nor analyze crime scenes, but rather practice “cultural” anthropology, I watch their shoulders sink and eyes wander away.

Seth Holmes’ book Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies[1] is here to change that, and in the best of directions. In a tight 200 pages, Holmes lays out a call to action for social scientists, practicing physicians, and average readers to identify and combat the structural violence perpetrated against migrant farmworkers. By accompanying his companions as they migrate, work, and seek health care, Holmes sheds light on the “ethnicity-citizenship hierarchy” that shapes the health outcomes of indigenous Triqui migrant workers on a farm in the Skagit Valley of Washington state. His goal is to perform a “critical and reflexively embodied anthropology” that will “confront the ways in which certain classes of people come to be written off or deemed less human” (40-44). The idea of reflexive embodiment is to think about one’s own ways of sensing the world – such as feeling pain, love, or success – in critical comparison to how others sensorially experience. Holmes is on a trail parallel to the recent ethnographic movement, led by Sarah Willen,[2] to interrogate the social inequality (re)produced when undocumented migrants come to embody their abject status. However, as I argue below, his approach is more akin to discourse analysis than Willen’s “critical phenomenology,” though it would be strengthened by more of the latter.

As promised, the book explores the relationship between social position and perception that produces the widespread “writing-off” of migrant laborers. Following Laura Nader’s call to examine a “vertical slice” of the social hierarchy,[3] Holmes powerfully analyzes his interactions with people from different positions therein – from farm executives to the lowest-paid berry pickers, other farm employees, clinicians, and locals. He cites Bourdieu’s concept of “symbolic violence” to unpack the meanings that naturalize and encourage farmworkers to internalize their location in the hierarchy of suffering.[4] In this strong analytical segment, Holmes gives readers a primer in the capacity of words to ready certain bodies for violence and extend protection to others.

Holmes’ reflexively embodied approach leads readers to the edge of a comparatively embodied anthropology, but does not center around the comparative. From page one, the text reveals two brilliant decisions on his part: first, crossing the border himself, and second, placing that narrative at the start of the book. One benefit of this embodied approach is that Holmes is able to describe both the physical challenges of migrating and the concerning conditions of Border Patrol detention. Second, as a white American, Holmes’ apprehension experience conveys the social expectations attached to his own positioned “embodiment,” including the higher-level charge for “alien smuggling” that occasionally entraps those sympathetic with migrants.

Embodied anthropology mainly appears anecdotally, in scenes where Holmes’ personal experiences conflict with prejudiced perceptions of Triqui farmworkers. No doubt this is public anthropology, engaged in Antonio Gramsci’s “war of position”[5] – the war of symbolic associations – to frame and combat structural violence. The aim is not simply descriptive; it is not to rummage around in anthropology’s “cabinet of curiosities,” as Arjun Appadurai recently termed the ethnological record.[6] With these political ends, Holmes chooses to focus on the medical narratives of three male farmworkers, giving only a passing nod to women and children. Perhaps this is fair, for these three narratives are particularly determined by symbolic violence. The choice to prioritize the politics of social hierarchy orients the ethnography outward, away from describing Triqui migrants and toward scrutinizing the hegemonic mainstream. The product is foremost a political critique, not an exercise in ethnology or embodiment theory.

As evidence in this “war of position,” Holmes notes the structural and physical impediments to keeping his own farm quarters dirt-free, his frustration with oppressive farm policies, and the physical challenge of berry picking – all experiences misconstrued by farm managers. His diagnosis of Triqui migration as forced disrupts the soothing quality of clinicians’ assumptions about their desire (e.g., “Oaxacans like to work bent over,” “migrating is an adventure”) and, among Triquis themselves, of ethnic pride (“We Triquis are strong and we endure”). These anecdotes prove the error of tracing Triqui migrants’ medical vulnerabilities to presumptions about their “culture,” racialized biology, or individual behavior. Yet at the same time, Holmes extends sympathy to farm managers and clinicians, whose own stressors encourage them to rationalize their relative position on the “violence continuum” (86-88). While he finds that suffering is “roughly cumulative from top to bottom” on the ethnicity-citizenship hierarchy, the point is that all parties suffer (95). Through interviews, Holmes shows how biomedicine and neoliberal economics rationalize suffering up and down the hierarchy, producing acontextual and apolitical interventions that are ultimately complicit with the status quo.

Holmes’ positioned, reflexive conversations create what could be termed a “deep opinion survey” of all those whose beliefs, rationalizations, and actions shape the lives of those on the losing side of structural inequality. His analysis implicates readers’ own structural advantages (“fresh fruit”), as Philippe Bourgois’ foreword notes, showing them “the relationship between their biopower benefits and the damage inflicted on the bodies and lives of indigenous undocumented workers” (xii). I found these comparative anecdotes the most interesting among the narratives Holmes tells, revealing possibilities for a more robust comparative phenomenology.

Although Holmes notes early on that his body was profoundly changed during fieldwork (39), he does not revisit this issue. Throughout, he focuses on the symbolic categories inscribed on bodies in place of sensory data itself, such as the “hierarchy of humanness” (174) associated with different body stances on the farm. He notes how his whiteness was perceived by the Border Patrol and by Triqui companions, but this embodied anthropology is more political than phenomenological. As such, the material lends itself to further examination of relational issues of embodiment between the researcher and interlocutors. In future publications, Holmes could expand on the role his specific habitus played in migrating and working. (One of my favorite moments in the text is when he asks for permission to sleep in the hall closet for privacy, a move that amuses his companions.) In particular, I am curious about the embodied experience of relative privilege. (For instance, does guilt occur, and does it shape experience?) As Holmes recounts, his friend and trusted interlocutor Samuel brings the uncomfortable comparison to the fore: “Right now we and you are the same; we are poor. But later you will be rich and live in a luxury house” (80). To study the internalization of social hierarchies, it is time to forge a transparent, critical perspective on what we, as anthropologists, assume about our own position in the world.

Anthropologists are increasingly bolder about engaging interlocutors themselves in the critical analysis of their sociopolitical situation. In my view, sharing the process of analysis is one of public anthropology’s greatest promises. Although it reflects that spirit, this text does not explicitly reference such an exchange. Holmes writes that he intends its reflexive, narrative presentation to take readers through a process of interpretation similar to the one he experienced during fieldwork. In recounting not only narrative events, but also the communicative environments in which he and others invested them with meaning, he hopes that “readers are reminded…that position, perspective, and context are always involved in the production of knowledge” (200). To that end, stronger analytical perspectives from Triqui people would have been welcome.

In the end, however, such omissions seem deliberately designed to keep readers focused on concrete injustices. This, indeed, is ethnography for a public readership: an ethnography that proves what anthropology can do. As Holmes notes, the methods of ethnography alone can grasp “the multilayered meanings and vertical slices of power that make up social and cultural life, including its inequalities and justifications” (185). Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies is a publicly accessible, relevant, and timely entry in the applied social science of embodiment that answers political questions and poses new theoretical ones. Moving forward, the way is paved for students and scholars of critical embodiment theory to marry Holmes’ sharp political analysis with a truly comparative phenomenology of inequality.

Rachel Stonecipher is Head Writer at AccessDenied. Stonecipher is a graduate of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, with degrees in Anthropology and Film & Media Arts. In fall 2014, she will matriculate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, where she will pursue a Ph.D. with concentrations in critical cultural media studies, digital media, and visual communication. Stonecipher has completed a two-year research project on the practice and experience of migrant advocacy work on the U.S.-Mexico border. She is currently lead interviewer for an SMU Department of Economics study of food insecurity in North Texas


[1]   Holmes, Seth. 2013. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[2]   Willen, Sarah. 2007. Toward a Critical Phenomenology of “Illegality”: State Power, Criminalization, and Abjectivity among Undocumented Migrant Workers in Tel Aviv, Israel. International Migration 45(3): 8-38.

[3]   Nader, Laura. 1972. Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives from Studying Up. In Reinventing Anthropology, edited by Dell H. Hymes. New York: Pantheon Books, pp. 284-311.

[4]   Bourdieu, Pierre. 2001. Masculine Domination. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

[5]   Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers.

[6]   Appadurai, Arjun. 2013. The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition. New York: Verso.

Cite this: Stonecipher, Rachel. 2014. “Anthropology Afflicting the Comfortable: A Review of Seth Holmes’s “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies.” Accessed [date] at http://accessdeniedblog.wordpress.com/2014/03/17/book-review-seth-holmes-fresh-fruit-broken-bodies-rachel-stonecipher.

  1. March 24, 2014 at 10:01 pm

    Rachel– great review, Seth’s book is marvelous. I wish everyone read it :)
    here’s my own review of Seth’s book– 1 sentence + 2 photos
    with best regards, Phil

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