I found it pretty important [to spend that much time]. I spent five months on the berry farm up in Washington state, picking strawberries, living in the camps, picking blueberries, interviewing people. And, the Trique people…I don’t think [they] trusted me very much during that time. There were rumors that went around that I was a spy for the government or the border patrol and there were rumors that went around that I was some kind of criminal hiding from the government.
[At first] no one would hang out with me or invite me to dinner or eat food with me or anything. It was really after that five months when I went to California in a big caravan of cars and we all lived out of our cars for a week and were homeless until we found an apartment that someone would rent to people who didn’t have a credit history and credit cards and bank accounts. I think that’s when people started interacting with me more as someone they trusted, or were willing to talk with or spend time with, and I was invited to meals and I lived in that same house with them, with maybe 18 other people.
You write about how Anglo teenagers will go and get jobs in the fields for a summer or something like that. How different is a Anglo kid’s summer farm job, how different is that from the reality that the indigenous workers are facing?
I grew up in eastern Washington and a lot of my friends told me that they picked strawberries when they were kids and it was hard. From my research, the white kids who work on the farm have a much different job than the Trique people do.
The white teenagers would work on separate fields [from the Trique]. They would talk and walk and, oftentimes for an hour or two, and their parents would come and help them pick. They didn’t have to make minimum wage, because they’re under [the age] where the minimum wage law applies in agriculture. So, they would pick at their own speed and they were not pushed the same way.
If you’re not a farmer and you think about working on a farm, you imagine gardening and sunshine. For the white teenage pickers, it was a little bit more like that. But…[for] the indigenous pickers, picking is more [one of] wage labor; like working in a factory, but you’re outdoors. They wouldn’t talk to each other. Arms were flying and picking, with each hand popping off the leaves with thumbs, going as fast as you could. Trique people work seven days a week, rain or shine, and they have to pick a minimum weight in order to keep their jobs. [When I was there,] the state minimum wage was $7.16 an hour, and they were paid 14 cents per pound, so they had to pick 50 pounds of berries per hour.
California has stronger wage and hour protections for farmworkers than Washington. Did you observe any appreciable difference?
The actual working conditions were worse in California. In Washington State, every farmworker was on the payroll of the farm and every few weeks, they got a paycheck. So, the farm was motivated to pay them at least minimum wage and do things largely by the books. In California, there’s a contractor system where the farm would hire one contractor and they were the only person on the payroll [and they would hire people to work for them]. When we had grape and vineyard pruning jobs in California, we were never paid minimum wage; the farm didn’t feel accountable to following the rules with us, because the only person who they had to show that they were paying the right amount of money to—or that they even had hired—was the contractor.
You come to this as someone with training as a medical doctor and you talk about the cost to people’s bodies. What does agricultural production mean in terms of the health of the folks working in it?
A lot of us who are part of the food movement in the U.S. are interested in what we’re putting in our bodies or our kids’ bodies. Part of the reason the book is named “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies,” is that I see one group of people—partially based on citizenship and ethnicity—giving up their own health. Their bodies are becoming broken and sick because they’re working so hard in these conditions, in order to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for another group of people—the people who shop at the nicer grocery stores and farmers’ markets and are able to become healthy or stay healthy.
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