En route home from the small farming city of Huron–located on the agriculturally intensive westside of Fresno County–I met an injured farmworker. He sat in a plastic lawn chair outside of a store, clasping a plastic yogurt container in his hands. He had accumulated what looked like about $5.00 in bills and some change.
He also held a tattered piece of cardboard with a message written in multi-colored block letters etched in magic marker, pen, and pencil. My compañeras and I had pulled over to have lunch at a taco truck after a long morning distributing soaps, toothpaste, and other supplies to drought-displaced farmworker families. As we ate our tacos and burritos and quenched our thirst with water and soft drinks, I strained through the bright sun and distance to read his sign. He noticed the attention and intention of my eyes, and purposefully re-angled his sign towards me.
His message implicated the workers’ compensation system, his lawyers, doctors, judge, former employer, as well as a farmworker advocacy organization, as all having committed a fraud against him. This is often what lawmakers, lawyers, doctors, judges, and employers say about injured workers who are trying to follow through with their cases to get what they need to heal, survive, and move on. Injured workers who seek out workers’ compensation (and many don’t for numerous reasons) are accused of malingering, of trying to milk or manipulate the system, of defrauding and wasting state funds, and of laziness (e.g. trying to get out of work).
It is a lot of work, in and of itself, to keep up with a workers’ compensation case, and the permanent or partial disability payments are based on a percentage of your salary. An average farmworker salary is not enough to live on, let alone one reduced or eliminated following an injury.
His head hung low, sustaining his energy in the intense mid-day heat (it hit the low 100s today), sweat beading around his face and neck, and his hands and flip-flop-exposed feet featured cracks and callouses. I asked him what had happened–what was his injury?
While working in a lettuce field, an irrigation sprayer hit his body with what he thought was just water. He soon realized that something was terribly wrong. A chemical burn developed along one side of his body and he experienced other symptoms. He lifted his shirt to show me a stark discoloration that stretched about 18 inches up his torso. “My body has never quite felt the same…I can feel it inside.” His movements overall were ginger and delicate–uncomfortable. Community environmental monitoring and sampling of waterways and irrigation canals in the Valley have shown disturbing results.
Water–a substance we associate with purity, freshness, and clarity and that we routinely use to irrigate crops and quench our thirst–was contaminated by an unknown source (pesticides, fertilizers, heavy metals, run-off from industry?) caused this campesino harm. Water is vulnerable to contamination as are farmworkers. Despite an array of seemingly progressive protective policies on the books, little is done to ensure the conservation of water or of farmworker lives, and the spaces in which the two routinely intersect in symbiosis.
Interestingly, farmworkers often reflect on their bodies using the concept of el organísmo. This was clear in the narratives of campesinos from the 1930s, uncovered by Linda Nash, who described how they felt following exposure to agricultural pesticides to a government agent charged with studying their health. This is not merely a translation of the English word “body.” It is a metaphor describing the interconnectedness between all living things within the body and outside of it. It is a popular and ecologically- and socially-rooted model of health in that it originates directly from the people who are most impacted by contamination and injury resulting from hazardous industrial practices and socio-economic systems.
As a medical anthropologist, I have studied farmworkers’ experiences with injuries, the state policies that govern workers’ compensation, the biomedical and employer practices that are used to evaluate injured workers’ bodies and in turn their moral and economic worth, and the limits of and harms caused by purportedly progressive policies. This one injured man is waiting under the sun for a kind of justice that cannot come from the law alone. What would it mean to folks like this man who I encountered waiting for justice under the Central Valley sun, if we moved away from mainstream and legally mandated definitions of health, disease, and injury, and towards more ecological and social ones?