This is a beautifully written ethnography that richly describes the gray zones of society where many agricultural workers in the U.S. spend their lives. Keith Bletzer’s ethnography adds to those anthropological works that through their detailed and sensitive portrayals of lives lived in extremes contribute to developing more just labor conditions and a more just world. This work is a must read for understanding the labor force that puts food on our family tables.
Bletzer’s book is based on over six years of fieldwork in and around multiple communities of farmworkers in several states. Bletzer uses a strongly ethnographic approach complemented with short personal insights from his background that help the reader to understand why he researches in the way that he does. Much of Bletzer’s time is spent being with the subjects of his studies in the places where they spend their time hanging out between field jobs. It is on the street corners, in the bars and in the abandoned lots where the encounters between the ethnographer and, as he calls them, his “tutors” happen. We get the feel that we are hanging out and listening in, too, in the most intimate of ways.
While the overall theme of the book is addiction and the activities that surround using drugs and alcohol, this book brings to the reader a sensitive contextualization of these activities. He makes apparent the logic of drinking, drugging and sex work. We are given the narratives of insiders that show how individuals living in bare life situations use substances like alcohol and crack to dull the pain and the hunger and also how they use their highs to strut their stuff, to engage in power plays, to perform their lives to the best of their abilities. Bletzer gets into the lives of these men and women in a very real way.
With the current and on-going debates related to unauthorized immigration to the US, especially from Latin America, this book describes the tenuous places that individuals have come to occupy years and decades after their journeys crossing borders looking for better lives. While not all the farmworkers described by Bletzer are from Latin America, many are. These narratives give us a picture of uprooted lives.
The reader gets a feel for how one learns addiction on these difficult roads. The need and/or desire to take drugs and drink are embedded in the struggle of searching for work, for respect and for a way to get by. We also see how the different kinds of drugs used by individuals change over their lives and in evolving circumstances. They are in and out of mental hospitals, rehab programs and jail oftentimes spiraling down to very personally dangerous lows. Bletzer’s thoughtful accounts of the cultural meanings of sex and of food create a nuanced background for the reader to understand the choices and the foibles of the individuals he brings to his readers.
Department of Anthropology
Idaho State University
Agriculture has led to continuing shifts in human lifestyles. With it, we moved to growing what we once gathered as nomadic bands, and selling foods whose ancestor species we gradually domesticated. Industrialized farming, the present-day version, has never had the full protections legislated for other U.S. labor categories. Willful negligence permeates agriculture, resulting in isolation and social exclusion, and inattention to basic human needs. Hidden within agriculture are the seeds for a gray zone where workers experience the bare life that is re-created by local infra-structures that render them marginal to privileges experienced by and guaranteed to others. Drug and alcohol use are among the positional consequences to farm workers. Though fascinated by agricultural production, in the end, we too often ignore the men and women, both young and old, who perform the labor that provides our food.
Despite their role in the production of perishable fruits and vegetables, sold canned or fresh, and the grains used in the manufacture of synthetic foods, farm workers are the people who are “invisible and voiceless”, when we think of full labor rights and the systematic enforcement of existing occupational health and safety laws. Farm workers put in long hours generally outdoors, experience sub-standard housing, receive low wages for demanding work, all the while they remain isolated from the rest of society. Routine tasks simplify their labor but generate fatigue, body aches, and the potential for serious accidents as well as the boredom that accompanies succession of the same tasks performed by repetitive body motions.
To ease the pain and cope with their working and living conditions, many workers drink and some use drugs. They seek illicit supplies in familiar areas where they live and/or accept what is offered by labor contractors and third parties while traveling on-the-season, and rare few sellers who arise from their ranks. Borrowing from idioms of criminal justice and addiction services, we can speak of a process of “willful neglect” in agriculture that “enables” farm worker drug use.
Based on six years of extended ethnography in multiple states, this monograph explores the lives of farm workers who use drugs/alcohol. Six additional years were spent analyzing materials for formal presentations to professionals in academia and, importantly, to frontline workers who provide health services to agricultural workers at forums in three regions of the United States.
I am grateful for financial support for the Drug Use Onset Study from Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (Grant #6206, “Inscription in Drug Use among Farmworkers”, K.V. Bletzer, Principal Investigator); transcription of field tapes with a Faculty Grant-in-Aid from College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Arizona State University; analysis of field materials through a National Research Service Award, Arizona State University; and inclusion in the Migrant Worker Risk Study, funded by National Institute on Drug Abuse (Grant #DA07694, “Drugs/AIDS Intervention among Migrant Workers”, Norman Weatherby, Principal Investigator). I acknowledge eighteen transcribers in two states who transcribed tapes (identified in Appendix G). I am indebted to farm workers and others for support extended over six years that I spent in fieldwork, and to the many professionals at conferences and community programs for an additional six years and beyond of continued learning.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
The author confirms that this ebook contents have no conflict of interest.
Keith V. Bletzer
School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ (USA)
To Mölo, Cookie, and Yiyi … His, hers, and mine
For teaching me the ways of horticulture, nutrition, and what it means to educate
To Anthony Espinoza
For recognizing in me the persistence to arrive, despite the enveloping storm
VTo Joe, Scott, Lou, John, Art … Nicholas, Owen, and Charles
For providing training and tools that one needs to do ethnography
To Norman and Jenny and other team members
For the opportunity to take research to the team level
To Joan, Bob, and Mary
For the opportunity to learn to sustain the next level
To the many farm workers who served as tutors, narrators, and players
To the many farm workers who provide the labor that harvests our food
To the many farm workers who persist despite the storms of vulnerability
To Salma Sarfaraz and her editorial staff for their care, dedication and editing finesse
List of Contributors
Keith V. Bletzer