Michael Anastario is an author, sociologist and assistant professor in the Department of Health Promotion & Disease Prevention at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work. And, at one point in his life, he worked side-by-side corn farmers in El Salvador.
In 2014, Anastario traveled to the Central American country to conduct ethnographic field research in an agrarian community; he stayed five years. The experience led him to discover how extreme heat and pesticides negatively impacted the people he was working with – many were dying at a young age or experiencing severe side effects.
As a result, today, Anastario is working on a pilot study supported by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) under the FIU Research Center in Minority Institutions (RCMI), examining exposure to toxic agrichemicals among migrant Hispanic farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida.
He recently spoke with FIU News about his journey, what he’s currently up to, and the advice he’d give to students interested in pursuing a career in his field.
Tell us about your background. Where are you from, and what got you to where you are today?
I grew up in Central Florida and did all of my education in Boston, where I ended up studying for my Ph.D. I eventually became a visiting scholar at New York University’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. During this time, I began analyzing data to better understand and prevent sexual risk behaviors in the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of Fort Peck Reservation.
What piqued your interest in corn farming?
After doing ethnographic research in an agrarian community and publishing a book on the topic, I decided to delve deeper and began following corn farmers into their fields to get a better sense of their occupations. On a personal level, I also like plants and I think it’s really cool to watch corn grow.
I was also a Fulbright Scholar in El Salvador (2018-2019), where I had a project with students at the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas regarding memories of agricultural practices in the second half of the 20th century in rural El Salvador. Historically, the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s (the deployment of modern agricultural technology to low-income countries) was effective at improving yields and shifting reliance away from traditional knowledge and cultivars.
The proliferation of agrichemicals that accompanied the implementation of the Green Revolution has changed farming practice today. It has raised a myriad of questions around agrichemical exposures experienced by local farmworkers.
As part of my research, I would do participant observation where I would spend the entire day doing farming tasks with subsistence corn farmers in rural El Salvador, and I started to see that young men in particular seemed to be dying at a very young age. I kept hearing stories about “oh, so-and-so just died, and he was 26 years old.”
Did you see firsthand the impacts these chemicals were having on people?
I spent years witnessing everyday inhalations of organophosphate insecticides, accidental ingestions of herbicides and fertilizers, and intentional ingestions of aluminum phosphide tablets in tragic suicide attempts. I understood why farmers tolerated leaky paraquat pumps that left them soaked in herbicide, as the leaky pumps provided them with a fleeting sense of coolness under the midday sun. These everyday exposures contribute to the common perception that agrichemicals are killing farmers. Witnessing these exposures, experiencing them myself, and documenting farmers’ perceptions of agrichemicals in their increasingly hotter environments inspired my interest in the measurement of agrichemical exposures. I published some of these initial findings in a recent issue of Medical Anthropology Quarterly.
How did you end up at FIU?
I was looking at academic positions while I was still doing work in El Salvador, and I saw one pop up with FIU’s Research Center in Minority Institutions (RCMI), which is funded by NIMHD. I wanted to get more into this research area, so the position at FIU offered an opportunity for me to transition into this line of work in a meaningful way.
What type of research are you working on now?
With support from RCMI and in collaboration with the Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF), I have been piloting a life history calendar with foreign-born agricultural workers from Central America and Mexico in South Florida. There is a limited understanding of how toxic exposures to agrichemicals vary relative to migration over the life course. Agricultural workers of Mesoamerican descent may face unique health risks and may also experience unique agrichemical exposure trajectories.
Since the 1990s, there has been an increase in cases of chronic kidney disease (CKD) that are not associated with traditional risk factors such as diabetes and hypertension and which disproportionately affect younger men who work in agriculture. Through close collaboration with the Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF), I have been piloting life history calendars and have had the privilege of meeting migrants who are primarily from Mexico and Guatemala, many of whom speak Mam, Nahuatl, Zapotec, Mixteco, Otomi, and Chinanteco in addition to Spanish.
So, I have spent my summer thinking about health risks, but also the incredible cultural and epistemic survival of people here in South Florida who cultivate our food.
What would you say to a student interested in pursuing your line of work?
Venture out of the university environment. You can start this type of work through community contacts and everyday conversations. It can be challenging for health researchers to have a good understanding of what farmworkers go through in their everyday lives—but getting a sense of the everyday rhythms and personal histories of the people we study can help us understand what is happening in terms of health problems, particularly those that affect agricultural workers.
Another way to understand critical issues facing farmworkers is to engage with community organizations like FWAF. Students can get volunteer hours and get to know the communities. Once you get on the ground, there are issues that those organizations are dedicated to that directly concern public health.