Written by Mialise Carney, COSS Communications Student Assistant
It took over eleven years before Dr. Dvera Saxton could hold her book, The Devil’s Fruit, in her hands. The Devil’s Fruit, published in February 2021, investigates the harmful industry of strawberry farming through Dr. Saxton’s activist ethnographic work with farmworkers in response to health and environmental injustices. Throughout those eleven years, Dr. Saxton conducted research, developed relationships with farmers, finished her doctorate degree, and moved across the country several times, all while teaching and writing this book.
“[I rethought] what I wrote for the dissertation and how I wanted to frame it differently for the book, drafting it, enduring the loss of a parent, and then a pandemic. It was an emotional ride, and those emotions are a key part of the book’s arguments about activist research. I am glad I did it,” Dr. Saxton said.
Dr. Saxton was inspired to write this book because of her commitment to the farmworker and activist communities she worked with in the Pájaro and Salinas Valleys. The Devil’s Fruit seeks to record and represent the people of these communities’ lives and their work between 2010-2012, a period that gained attention for environmental and immigrant justice.
“I also wanted to share and model and normalize activist scholarship for younger scholars who are coming up in anthropology, including my students at Fresno State,” she said.
As an ethnographer, Dr. Saxton is accustomed to spending a lot of time in communities, observing and working alongside them. She followed the label on a strawberry package to Watsonville, California, where her research first began. There, she socialized in people’s households, eating with them, helping weed their gardens, and supporting anti-pesticide activism. Because she is bilingual in Spanish, she was able to form personal relationships with the communities she was researching, and she took copious amounts of notes.
“I have notebooks and boxes full of my fieldnotes, collected items about farmworkers like occupational health pamphlets, as well as thousands of pages of interview transcripts. All of these things—how we embody our research as well as what we find and the people we meet and who share their stories with us—constitute our data,” she said.
Through writing the book, Dr. Saxton wants student readers from agricultural communities to know that their families and stories matter. She hopes to inspire these students to realize that they can have careers that help to make the world a better place. She also wants general readers to realize ways to support farm workers beyond buying organic and voting for politicians.
“I believe research can be activism and it can contribute to activist efforts in environmental, health, immigrant, and labor justice. I want all readers to see what kinds of alliances and solidarities are possible even across race-ethnic, class, generational, and occupational boundaries,” Dr. Saxton said.
Dr. Saxton highlights the necessity of this conversation, especially during the pandemic where farmworkers have been deemed essential workers, but haven’t received adequate support. Routinely, they are one of the most excluded groups in terms of receiving occupational health and safety protections, workplace rights, health care and social supports, access to affordable, decent housing, and they are constantly exposed to toxic pesticides.
“Farmworkers deserve protection and respect not just because they feed us and contribute to the California economy, but because they are human beings who have endured a lot of unnecessary suffering, sickness, and death. I believe we can do better by farmworkers,” she said. “I am hopeful that proposals to grant amnesty to immigrants and refugees in the U.S. will be realized in the near future; this is one thing that could provide an immense amount of relief. And even then, there will still be more work to do.”
Dr. Saxton is currently involved with another community and activist led research project, the COVID-19 Farmworker Study. They recently released Phase 2 of their report which is based on interviews with 63 farmworkers across California. The report is based on questions and concerns of farmworkers and their communities related to the pandemic. They are not only reporting the findings, but also sending reports to policymakers, state and federal agencies to improve care and resources during emergency circumstances.
“In my research practice, I am committed to not just retelling stories, documenting suffering, or critiquing broken systems that cause harm, but I am also very involved in trying to figure out ways that ethnographic data can contribute to social change that will improve quality of life and human rights for farmworkers,” she said.