In our conversations about such dichotomies and their critiques of anthropological attention to suffering, Francisco Ventura Martinez, a Triqui Mexican migrant farmworker and father living in Central California, stated in Spanish, “We suffer a lot [sufrimos mucho]. We suffer crossing the border from Mexico. We suffer bent over picking strawberries or cutting asparagus so people can have food. We suffer being treated badly because of the color of our skin and our language.” Armando Celestino Ventura, his nephew, added, “Children suffer moving between schools when we migrate.”
Of course, these conversations on suffering were interspersed with others attending to joy—giving birth, graduating from school—and resistance, such as recent policy changes won by farmworker organizations. As Leslie Butt and others deftly remind us, it is important to represent people not as mere “suffering strangers” but rather in their full, multi-faceted experiences making sense of, at times legitimizing, and at times resisting and disrupting the systems in which they are positioned and position themselves. Life in many parts of the globe includes suffering, violence, resistance, hope and care, often difficult to avoid as well as often intermingled and difficult to separate. My co-presenters ask that we should not flatten the multi-faceted nature of life by leaving out any of these realities, including those experienced as suffering.
Preparing for a presentation to Sonoma State University, Francisco explained, “it is important for gabachos [white Americans] to hear that we suffer a lot to raise and harvest their food” (see also Carney). Later, during the AAG presentation, Francisco explained to the audience, “I hope that in hearing about our lives and our suffering, hearts will be touched and the ways we are treated will slowly change.” He asked those present to tell others what they heard. At the end of the presentation, Francisco, Armando and Elio Santos, Binational Coordinator of Youth for the Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales, encouraged the audience to consider how such academic meetings could support immigrants and farmworkers. In these ways, my Triqui and Mixtec co-presenters explicate the sharing of their experiences of suffering as one way in which they exercise precisely what anthropologists conceptualize as moral action, resistance, agency, working toward more livable lives and better futures.
Ethnographic Refusal, Experiences of Suffering and Resistance
In 1995, Sherry Ortner called anthropologists to avoid “ethnographic refusal,” sanitizing through the erasure of uncomfortable realities. I worry that conjectured dichotomies separating attention to suffering from attention to “the good” or elucidation of connections foster a specific ethnographic refusal in which anthropology students are counseled or ridiculed away from theorizing and representing realities their research participants may experience and narrate as suffering and violence.
In the midst of racialized hyperincarceration, urban and rural police, state, and para-military violence, as well as growing social and economic inequalities in the context of multinational corporate exploitation and free trade agreements, many people in the world experience and articulate important aspects of their lives in terms of suffering and violence. Some of these people, like Francisco, Armando, and other Triqui and Mixteco farmworkers I have come to know, ask anthropologists to analyze, theorize, and write about these experiences. They share their stories of suffering both in a frame of interconnected ecology (“we suffer a lot to raise and harvest their food”) and in hope for affective response (“hearts touched”) that may lead to a different future. A refusal to acknowledge and seek to understand the effects of these realities pushes anthropology away from an ethical “passion for society” (Wilkinson and Kleinman) and risks (further) irrelevance to many outside academia. Francisco, Armando, Elio and others have asked academic audiences, rather, to do the opposite.
Who Suffers and Who Cares? Destabilizing Dichotomies
At Cosumnes River College, a student asked Francisco what he thought when his family first met me. Francisco replied, “[Seth] was alone in the labor camp and we worried about him. Everyone else was there with family. We didn’t want him to be sad.” I had not realized this was the perception I gave off (or reality I was unable to hide). And I had not realized that Triqui people had shared with me not so much because of my anthropological skills or even simply my friendliness, but rather because they saw me as vulnerable and sad and they engaged in care.
Such multi-vocal presentations remind me that social positions are neither unidimensional nor stable. Rather, Francisco and Armando articulate suffering and care response as important both for anthropologists to understand their experiences and for farmworkers as caring subjects responding to the anthropologist who is vulnerable and suffers.
In ongoing conversation and relationship with those who contribute to our scholarship, we may learn a great deal about ourselves, difference, representations of knowledge, suffering, violence, hope, morality and care. Engaging with, listening to, theorizing, writing about, and attempting to respond to the realities, understandings, and requests of our research participants —including those experiencing and articulating violence and suffering—seem to me the central roles of anthropology into the future.
Seth Holmes is Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology & Public Health at U.C. Berkeley. His work focuses broadly on social hierarchies, health inequalities, and the ways in which perceptions of social difference may naturalize, normalize, or challenge these inequalities.
- The Ethnographic Vision of John L. Gwaltney: The Thrice Shy, A Forgotten Gem
- Tarek Elhaik’s The Incurable Image: Curating Post-Mexican Film and Media Arts
- Megan Crowley-Matoka’s "Domesticating Organ Transplant: Familial Sacrifice and National Aspiration in Mexico"
- On Deanthropologizing Anthropology — An Essay on Tarek Elhaik's "The Incurable Image"
- On Responsibility (and Laziness)