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University of California Press
They Leave Their Kidneys in the Fields: Illness, Injury, and Illegality among U.S. Farmworkers / Edition 1

They Leave Their Kidneys in the Fields: Illness, Injury, and Illegality among U.S. Farmworkers / Edition 1

by Sarah Bronwen HortonSarah Bronwen Horton
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They Leave Their Kidneys in the Fields takes the reader on an ethnographic tour of the melon and corn harvesting fields of California’s Central Valley to understand why farmworkers suffer heatstroke and chronic illness at rates higher than workers in any other industry. Through captivating accounts of the daily lives of a core group of farmworkers over nearly a decade, Sarah Bronwen Horton documents in startling detail how a tightly interwoven web of public policies and private interests creates exceptional and needless suffering. 


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520283275
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/19/2016
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #40
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 1,014,198
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Sarah Bronwen Horton is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, Denver. To learn more about Sarah, please visit 

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They Leave Their Kidneys in the Fields

Illness, Injury, and Illegality among U.S. Farmworkers

By Sarah Bronwen Horton


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96254-5


Burning Up

Heat Illness in California's Fields

Why do farmworkers die in the fields? On the highway in the Central Valley in the summer of 2013, the state's answer to this question is prominently displayed. As I drive, the wizened face and torso of a female farmworker loom into view on an oversized billboard. As she rests under a shade structure, a vast, cloudless blue sky and field stretching behind her, she stares down at drivers soberly. "If you want to last, don't forget to rest," she warns (si quiere durar, no olvide descansar). Down the road, another billboard features a young male farmworker shaded by a straw hat, his shovel slung over his shoulder as he raises a cup to his lips. "With water, you can deliver more," the billboard proclaims (con agua, uno rinde más). The captions reflect migrants' gendered work goals as imagined by the state: the women's goal is to endure, the men's to maximize productivity. These signs are part of a state campaign to reduce heat deaths in the fields by mandating that employers provide rest, shade, and water for farmworkers and by zeroing in on farmworkers' preventive behaviors themselves.

In 2005, after five farmworkers died from heatstroke, California became the first state in the nation to adopt emergency regulations to protect outdoor workers. With the motto of "Water, Rest, Shade: The Work Can't Get Done without Them," the heat-illness prevention standard established a series of protections for outdoor workers. It required that once the temperature exceeds 85°F, agricultural employers provide a shade structure that can accommodate at least a quarter of their crew at any one time, and that the shade remain as close to the workers "as practicable." It mandated that employers provide enough cold water for each member of a crew to drink at least a quart every hour. Finally, it permitted workers to request a minimum five-minute "cool-down rest in the shade" when they "feel they need to do so."

California's regulations were hailed as the most far-reaching in the nation. Yet nearly twice as many workers died in the three years following their enactment as in the three preceding years. Laying the blame for these deaths squarely at the feet of the state's worker safety regulatory agency, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the United Farmworkers union (UFW) sued the state for inadequate enforcement — the ACLU in 2009 and the UFW in 2012. The plaintiffs not only argued that the heat illness prevention law did not go far enough; they also claimed that the state's official tally of heat deaths undercounts the true extent of heat mortality. The state's numbers exclude those deaths in which heat was deemed by the county coroner a contributing factor but not the sole cause.

Based on participant-observation of melon harvesting during a heat wave in Fresno County in 2013, this chapter examines why heat deaths have continued among migrant farmworkers despite the state's protective regulations. It takes the reader on an ethnographic tour through the Valley's melon fields to explore the public policies and private interests that impinge upon farmworkers' immediate work environments. It suggests that the very organization of industrial agriculture contributes to heat deaths. Participant-observation in the fields illustrates how the farm labor hierarchy capitalizes on men's pride in their labor capacity, encouraging them to press on despite illness.


An understanding of the broader contexts that contribute to farmworker deaths is notably absent from the state's campaign against heat mortality. The figures on the highway billboards labor as though in a vacuum: the images zoom in on the workers themselves, and the workers' supervisor and crew — let alone the federal and state policies that shape their actions — are nowhere to be seen. The publicity campaign pictures workers as autonomous agents. With the refocusing of a wide-angled lens, heat deaths are reduced to an issue of poor individual decision making; the billboards imply that it is simply up to the worker to decide when to rest and rehydrate.

In June 2013, I decided to visit the fields to better understand the immediate work context in which heat-related illnesses unfold. Because farmworkers in California often work for large corporations and labor contractors, it can be difficult to gain access to the fields they harvest. After weeks of leaving messages for local companies and contractors, I resorted to conducting unannounced visits to the fields. I interviewed workers and supervisors during breaks; I also worked packing cantaloupe, canary melons, and watermelon on three different labor crews. Below, I use my field notes from trips to the cantaloupe fields during a historic heat wave in Fresno County to correct the myopic vision of farm work displayed on the state's billboards.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The air conditioning is on full blast as I drive down the highway, sunglasses shielding my eyes from the glare of the asphalt. It is only 11 A.M., but my car thermometer reads 110°F as I pass the cramped corner store that marks the dusty town of Tres Piedras (Three Rocks). Today's official forecast predicts a high of 105, but it is hotter out on the road, just as it will be hotter in the thick of the vegetation in the field.

The weather forecast has predicted highs between 105 and 111 all week. Warning of a "historic heat wave," the Fresno Bee ran an article stating: "The last time Fresno flirted with several days of 110 degree-plus weather, heat played a role in killing 14 people. Now at the doorstep of July, Fresno is flirting again." Cal-OSHA, the state's department of occupational safety and health, has issued a press release warning employers of the heightened risks to outdoor workers. "Employers should know that workers who labor under excessive heat for extended periods are likely to exhibit fatigue more quickly than in shorter heat waves. The probability of serious heat illness for outdoor workers is much higher right now."

The field I have come to visit today lies south of the city of Dos Palos (Two Sticks), near the small town of Tres Piedras. My long-term interviewee, Elisabeta, has told me where a local company named Fresco harvests its cantaloupe, and I have come to observe. "This way you will see it with your own eyes: the field and the melon and the casitas [shade structures] and all," she had said with excitement. The worst that could happen, she had reassured me, was that a supervisor would ask me to leave.

I turn off the highway onto a gravel county road and cross an aqueduct. The valley gives way to fields of melon, lined with neat green furrows of vines. In the distance, I can see eight field-packing machines crawling up and down the rows like spiders.

Hauling a bag heavy with Gatorade, I begin the half-mile walk to the path where a machine has discharged a crew of workers to break for lunch. A crew of eighteen is eating lunch under a shade structure, and I approach. The men are wearing long-sleeved shirts to protect themselves from the sun, and some of the women wear white pañoletas, or coverings, over their faces. The men have been trailing the machine to pick melon for six hours, working without the benefit of the machine's protective awning. Their faces are flushed a deep red and appear swollen.

Usually, within minutes of my arrival at a field, the large white truck of a supervisor rolls up beside me to ask me my business. I brace myself for the familiar crunch of gravel under the truck's supersized wheels. Today I am in luck; there is no truck and no contractor.

I start the conversation by asking the men what they do to protect themselves from the heat. The table is quiet for some time, with only the soft sound of chewing and the occasional scraping of bowls. Finally, Samuel, a short man from Acapulco, speaks up as though irked by his coworkers' passivity. "Pues, drink water, take rest, find shade," he recites, with a shrug at the question's obviousness. He is parroting the state's recommendations, which he seems to think I want to hear. "Not a lot of water all at once — that isn't good for the body," he clarifies. "But water as often as you can."

Given his pat response, I suspect that Samuel has mistaken me for a visitor from Cal-OSHA. Despite the explanation of my purpose and research agenda, after all, I am a gabacha, like many well-meaning visitors from the state. This is but one of the limitations of conducting research on heat illness in the fields. While participant-observation reveals the immediate work contexts that cause heat illness, it only provides clues as to the invisible pressures that migrants themselves bring to work. Moreover, if supervisors are present, it is unlikely that migrants will discuss their work conditions freely.

I ask Samuel where his mayordomo is, and he gestures at the cars parked at the side of the road. So I ask Samuel whether taking such precautions is possible — whether he can in fact drink as much water as he needs to when he's working. He scrunches his face into a frown of disbelief, as though insulted by the ludicrousness of the question. Drinking water, he explains, would interrupt the very process of production. "Ni hombre [no way]. They'd have to stop the machine for me to get at the water jugs. And they're not going to do that!"

A tall, ungainly man with a floppy straw hat — who I later learn is called Miguelito — chimes in excitedly, as though encouraged by the line of questioning. "A lot of people start to get sick, and they won't say anything. Better not to say anything," he repeats. I ask why not. "Because they're afraid the mayordomo won't believe them, that he'll just say, 'That one's lazy.'" There are mutters of agreement from around the table. Encouraged, the man continues. "That's the problem about preventing la insolación [heat illness]. It's better to wait until you are going to fall over. If you fall over, they'll believe you. If not, they'll just say, 'That lazy ass [flojón] just doesn't want to work.'" He screws up his mouth and dismisses the imaginary worker with his hand; the men laugh.

Samuel jumps in, warming to the discussion. "The law says that if we need to take a break, we should go to the side of the field and sit down if we need to," he says. There are knowing looks from around the table, preparing me for the caveat to come. "But it all depends on the mayordomo. There are some that will let you take a break, and you'll still have your job. In other cases, though, ni modo [no way]. You'll have to look for work elsewhere," he says.

A tall, pale man with broad shoulders — a man the crew later calls El Güero (the white guy) — seems unnerved by the dark drift of the conversation and its implication of powerlessness. He puffs himself up as he steps in to correct the tone. "I always take breaks if I need to; I can always find another job," he says.

There is an awkward silence. Then Samuel steps in to qualify Güero's statement. Whether taking breaks is safe, he clarifies, depends entirely on whether there is a surplus of workers. If workers are scarce, taking a break may not cost you a job. If they are plentiful, "Well, then you better start looking for work," he says with a morose chuckle.

These are abstract generalities, but I want to know how they play out on the ground. In his discussion of the formation of habitus, Bourdieu has called this embodied knowledge of social contexts a "feel for the game." I want to know how workers decide whether it is safe to rest — whether the mayordomo is amenable, the company sufficiently short-handed, or one has displayed enough ganas [hustle] to earn oneself a five-minute respite in the shade. I am hoping to fill in the empty background on the state's billboard — to understand the way that fieldworkers' work context shapes their everyday behaviors. So I turn to Samuel and ask, "Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you felt you had to choose between saying something to protect your health and possibly losing your job?"

The table is quiet, and Samuel gives me a level stare. "We've all been in that situation," he says, slowly circling his finger in the air to draw an imaginary lasso that will settle over all the men and women sitting at that bench. "Todos" (all of us).


As Samuel's statement indicates, the organization of labor crews enforces a code of silence about workers' vulnerability. Migrant men eschew breaks out of fear that their mayordomo will fire them. Migrants' precarious status on labor crews can be traced in part to the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), an immigration reform bill passed in 1986. By imposing federal fines on employers who were found to have "knowingly" hired undocumented workers, IRCA created a subcontracting boom in California agriculture and deepened workers' precarity.

Employers' degree of compliance with IRCA depends on the size and permanence of their workforce, which largely determines their risk of facing an immigration raid or audit. In the Valley, agricultural employers include small ranches, large packing and processing houses, and large commercial companies and growers. Small ranches, which face minimal risk, are known to hire undocumented migrants with impunity. However, there are few jobs on such ranches. Large packing and processing sheds with a semipermanent workforce face moderate risk and therefore check workers' documents more rigorously. Large agribusiness companies, and growers whose size and visibility might attract federal attention, often delegate their hiring to subcontractors in an attempt to insulate themselves from the risks of directly hiring a predominantly undocumented workforce. Because contractors often employ rotating rosters of workers for relatively short periods, they face less risk of attracting federal scrutiny than their larger and more visible employers. As a result, few contractors rigorously inspect employees' work authorization documents. Thus IRCA has made labor crews the primary source of work for undocumented migrants.

Subcontracting intensifies pressures on field hands by creating what farmworkers call a ladder (escala) of descending workplace pressures. Large commercial growers and agribusiness companies hire contractors to assume responsibility for the hiring and supervision of their workers; contractors in turn hire mayordomos to command each crew and ensure their health and safety in the fields. Because growers typically hire contractors to accomplish a particular task — such as weeding or picking a field — the work on labor crews is repetitive and narrowly specialized. Moreover, the gradated labor hierarchy on labor crews makes the labor process quite unlike that in packinghouses and small family farms. Subcontracting introduces an intermediate layer of supervisors who themselves must derive profit from field hands' labor. Growers pay contractors a fixed commission that covers overhead, the workers' wages, and the contractor's own pay. Therefore contractors squeeze a profit from their commission by maximizing workers' productivity; it is in contractors' best interest for field hands to work as quickly as possible.

The pace of work is very different on family farms because of the lack of a labor hierarchy and the varied tasks workers must perform. Elisabeta temporarily filled a position on a small ranch tending grape vines one summer when a permanent employee fell ill. After more than fifteen years of working on labor crews, she found the transition a shock. Rather than emphasize speed, her supervisors taught her to carefully tie and prune the vines. "I think God gave me this job (me regaló este trabajo)," Elisabeta tells me. At one point, Elisabeta says, the mayordoma even came over to tell her crew to proceed more cautiously. "And I said to my coworker, 'Ay, this is the first job in all my life where the supervisor said to not work so quickly!' And my compañero [coworker] just laughed and laughed."


Excerpted from They Leave Their Kidneys in the Fields by Sarah Bronwen Horton. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1 Burning Up: Heat Illness in California's Fields 17

2 Entering Farm Work: Migration and Men's Work Identities 46

3 Ghost Workers: The Labor Consequences of Identity Loan 72

4 Presión Alta: The Physiological Toll of Farm Work 96

5 Alvaro's Casket: Heat Illness and Chronic Disease at Work 124

6 Desabilitado: Kidney Disease and the Disability-Assistance Hole 148

Conclusion: Strategies for Change 173

Appendix A On Engaged Anthropology and Ethnographic Writing 185

Appendix B Methods 191

Appendix C Core Research Participants 195

Notes 201

References 221

Index 241

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