Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala

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1. Introduction

His body was found several days later in a ravine not far from the pueblo, marked with the soon-to-be commonplace signs of torture. Like others who dared to challenge the status quo, Miguel was denounced by local ladinos to the military authorities as a guerrilla.

Guatemala: The State of Research | Sciences Po Mass Violence and Resistance - Research Network

And while neither challenges to local power structures nor the breakdown of local-level social relations is unique to the period, what these explanations do reveal is how the forces of structural inequalities and political violence intersected, in some cases with lethal consequences. On that day, the central plaza located in front of the national palace in Guatemala City was crowded not with the usual protesters but with celebrants.

Many of them wore tshirts or baseball caps or carried signs openly declaring their allegiance to the URNG, an act unthinkable even in the months preceding the official signing. Somewhat disconcerting, however, was the eerie, distinctive hum of helicopters circling overhead. In another context, they would have passed by unnoticed—simply signaling the presence of the press corps capturing the historic event on film—yet insofar as helicopters were the preferred means for transporting military troops into rural villages during the counterinsurgency war, the constant whirling of their blades was an evocative reminder of a not-too-distant past.

Individual accords between the Guatemalan state and the URNG were negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations over a period of several years before their final ratification. But increasing international pressure was brought to bear on the Guatemalan state to achieve a political resolution to one of the longestrunning insurgent wars in Latin America. Several of the accords, however, if fully implemented, may actually undermine rather than contribute to the possibility of peace and justice in Guatemala. The peace accords negotiated a settlement to a stalemated armed conflict.

Exercises in State Terrorism, the Counterinsurgency Campaigns in Guatemala and Peru

Because they did not address the indissoluble link between structural and political violence, they in fact reinforced exploitation, marginalization, and powerlessness. The Accord on the Establishment of a Commission for Historical Clarification of Human Rights Violations created a commission to investigate and report on the human rights violations that had taken place since the beginning of the thirty-six-year armed conflict. While the NRL does not provide a blanket amnesty for human rights violators and excludes disappearances, torture, and genocide although not extrajudicial killings from amnesty cases, it does hold out the possibility for continued impunity through several key features.

For example, the wholesale slaughter of unarmed Mayan campesinos thought to be guerrilla sympathizers may or may not be deemed genocidal. That accord, for the first time in Guatemalan history, officially recognized the multicultural, multiethnic, and multilinguistic character of the nation. While the accord goes a long way toward redressing the more flagrant exclusions of Mayas from Guatemalan society, it is not likely to have any more positive material effects on Mayan well-being than independence from Spain did.

While the accord recognizes the importance of land and the growing of corn as fundamental elements in Mayan cultural production, it fails to demand land redistribution, a factor vital to rural Mayan economic and cultural survival. Moreover, the neoliberal economic policies the accords promote have intensified the push to pave over some of the prime farm lands in Chimaltenango Department for the construction of more maquila factories or second homes for wealthy Guatemalans and to grow nontraditional crops for export. The majority of rural Mayan people thus are left to bear not only the high costs of war but the high costs of peace as well.

As such, the accords have the potential to do more harm than good, separating widespread Mayan beliefs even further from a material reality. Similarly, the Accord on the Socioeconomic Aspects and the Agrarian Situation does not articulate precise terms that would guarantee a fundamental restructuring of the national economy through agrarian reform or other means that would provide possibilities for economic justice. Moreover, the accord conceptualizes modernization as an expansion of free trade zones and contract farming whose profits rely on cheap and docile labor force.

While these accords address the issue of basic rights for Mayas in Guatemalan society—rights systematically denied them—most Mayas, as well as their poor ladino counterparts, have not had a central voice in these negotiations and have been denied the power to define their own realities or their own vision of the future.

These restricted definitions both overlook the multifaceted problems that circumscribe Guatemalan society—economic, ecological, demographic, narcotic, and gender issues—and discount their importance in constructing lasting peace and justice in Guatemala. The accords serve to limit and in fact make illegitimate other visions of possibilities for substantive change in Guatemala. Quite clearly, contemporary Mayas are not the same as their ancestors.

Peoples lives, and therefore their culture, have changed over the centuries, as has the world around them. War, trauma, Christianity, loss of land, loss of control over their labor, poverty, and the introduction of farming crops and modern institutions have influenced who the Mayas are today. And each generation has had to respond anew to the challenges of survival under different historical and structural circumstances.

Yet Mayas have reworked their economic organization and ideological apparatus within kinship and community structures as best they could to reinvigorate what they deemed important and desirable under conditions not of their own making. What is unique about the present situation for rural Mayas in the altiplano is that there has been a substantial weakening of the spaces that they have long utilized to survive. The land surrounding their communities, where for centuries they have established their milpas, is being penetrated by new forms of global capitalism.

Their communities are militarized in unprecedented ways, and daily life is under surveillance. Today Mayan communities as refuges from the outside world—whatever their shortcomings, factions, and cleavages—have been reshaped under the weight of violence and repression. Kathleen Foster 3. The effects of fear are pervasive and insidious in Guatemala. Fear destabilizes social relations by driving a wedge of distrust between family members, neighbors, friends. Fear divides communities by creating suspicion and apprehension not only of strangers but of each other.

Denunciations, gossip, innuendoes, and rumors of death lists create a climate of suspicion. No one can be sure who is who. The spectacle of torture and death and of massacres and disappearances in the recent past have become more deeply inscribed into individual bodies and the collective imagination through a constant sense of threat. In the altiplano, fear has become a way of life.

Fear is the arbiter of power: invisible, indeterminant, and silent. What is the nature of the terror that pervades Guatemala society? How do people understand it and experience it? In this context survival itself depends on a panoply of responses to a seemingly intractable situation. In doing so, I examine the insecurity that permeates the lives of individual women wracked by worries of physical and emotional survival, grotesque memories, ongoing militarization, and chronic fear. The stories I relate below are the individual experiences of the women with whom I worked, yet they are also social and collective accounts by virtue of their omnipresence cf.

Fear is inseparable from the reality in which the people live. Social conflict and warfare were often problematized in abstract terms, divorced from the historical realities of the colonial or capitalist encounter. Throughout the twentieth century, most studies by political anthropologists emphasized taxonomy over process, for example, the classification of simple or indigenous political systems, political leadership, law, domination, and intertribal relations. There were exceptions, of course.

With the upsurge of internecine warfare since World War II, the number of anthropological studies focusing on conflict and change increased exponentially. While repression itself was not new, distinct patterns of repression and new organizational forms for its implementation emerged in close association with U. Yet systematic inquiry into human rights violations remained elusive. Overwhelming empirical evidence demonstrates that state-sponsored violence has been standard operating procedure in numerous contemporary societies where anthropologists have conducted fieldwork for the past three decades.

What is at stake are the struggles between the powerful and the powerless, and what is at issue for anthropologists is to decide with whom to cast their lot. And the question is not rhetorical but expresses the profoundly moral commitment of his inquiry. The narratives of the people who survived the war speak most forcefully to the unresolved issues of impunity and accountability that continue to plague this beautiful yet deeply divided country. David Maung The Nature of Fear Writing this chapter has been a challenge, not only because of the nature of the topic itself but also because of the difficulty of putting fear and terror into words.

I have chosen to include some of my own experiences of fear during my field research rather than stand apart purely as an outsider and observer. These shared experiences established common grounds of understanding and respect. Fear is an elusive concept, yet you know it when it has you in its grip. Fear like pain can be overwhelmingly present to the person experiencing it, but it may be barely perceptible to anyone else and almost defies objectification.

My own experiences of fear, and those of the women I know, are best described as swinging wildly between controlled hysteria and tacit acquiescence. I described to them the eerie calm I felt most days, an unease that lay below the surface of everyday life. Most of the time the experience was more visceral than visual, and I tried laboriously to suppress it. His response only made me more nervous.

He said that initially he had been upset by the ubiquitous military presence in Central America and he had assumed that the local people felt the same. But lately he had been rethinking his position after having witnessed a number of young women flirting with soldiers or small groups of local men leaning casually on tanks. Perhaps we North Americans, he continued, were misrepresenting what was going on, projecting our own fears onto the experiences of the Central Americans. I went home wondering if perhaps I was being hysterical. Had I become too preoccupied by the violence while doing fieldwork?

Was I misconstruing the terror I had felt? The routinization of terror is what fuels its power. Such routinization allows people to live in a chronic state of fear behind a facade of normalcy, even while that terror permeates and shreds the social fabric. A sensitive and experienced Guatemalan economist noted that a major problem for social scientists working in Guatemala is that to survive they have to become inured to the violence, training themselves at first not to react and then later not to feel or see it.

They misinterpret the contexts in which people live, including their own. How does one become socialized to terror? Does it imply conformity or acquiescence to the status quo, as my friend suggested? While it is true that with repetitiveness and familiarity people learn to accommodate themselves to terror and fear, low-intensity panic remains in the shadow of waking consciousness.

One cannot live in a constant state of alertness, and so the chaos one feels becomes diffused throughout the body. It surfaces frequently in dreams and chronic illnesses. Whisperings, innuendoes, rumors of death lists circulating would put everyone on edge. He explained, holding back his tears, that he had heard his name was on the newest death list at the military encampment.

Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala

That evening, several women from the village came to visit, emotionally distraught; they worried that la violencia, which had been stalking them, had at last returned. The local destacamento military encampment looms large in the pueblo, situated on a nearby hillside above town. The town is laid out in the colonial quadrangle pattern common throughout the altiplano. The town square, as well as all the roads leading to the surrounding countryside, is visible from above. To an untrained eye, the encampment is not obvious from below.

The camouflaged buildings fade into the hillside, but once one has looked down from there it is impossible to forget that those who live below do so in a fishbowl. Military commissioners, civil patrollers, and orejas spies are responsible for most of this scrutiny. These local men are often former soldiers and willingly report to the army any suspicious activities of their neighbors.

But midway through my explanation he cut me off abruptly, explaining impatiently that if I hoped to work there I really needed the explicit permission of the commandante at the army garrison. Without permission from the army, the civil patrols would not allow me to enter. My presence as a stranger and foreigner produced suspicions.

Why do you want to talk to the widows? For whom do you work? The local army officers told me it was a free country and that I could do as I pleased, provided I had their permission. In Guatemala language and symbols are utilized to normalize a continual army presence. From time to time, army troops would arrive in an aldea obliging the villagers to assemble for a community meeting.

The message was more or less the same each time I witnessed these gatherings. The commandante would begin by telling the people that the army was their friend, that the soldiers were there to protect them against subversion, against the communists hiding out in the mountains. At the same time, he would admonish them that if they did not cooperate, Guatemala could become like Nicaragua, El Salvador, or Cuba. Subtienente Rodriguez explained to me during one such meeting that the army was preserving peace and democracy in Guatemala through military control of the entire country.

Guatemalan soldiers at times arrived in villages accompanied by U. National Guard doctors or dentists who would hold clinics for a few days. This was part of a larger strategy developed under the Kennedy doctrine of Alliance for Progress in which civic actions are part of counterinsurgency strategies. It was in mid-June, a week or so before Army Day. During one of the commercial breaks, a series of images of Kaibiles appeared on the screen; they were dressed for combat with painted faces, clenching their rifles while running through the mountains.

Each time a new frame appeared there was an audible gasp in the room. Wallets, key chains, belts, caps, and toy helicopters made in Taiwan are disconcerting in this context. As these seemingly mundane objects circulate, they normalize the extent to which civilian and the military life have commingled in the altiplano. Young men who have returned to villages from military service often wear army boots, t-shirts denoting in which military zone they had been stationed, and their dog tags.

The boots themselves are significant. The women would say they knew who it was that kidnapped or killed their family members, even if dressed in civilian clothes, because the men were wearing army boots. As the young soldier stood in the background shyly, Eduardo and Luisito pointed enthusiastically to a photograph of their cousin leaning on a tank with his automatic rifle in hand and a bandolier of bullets slung over his shoulder; in another he was throwing a hand grenade.

Yet these same boys told me, many months after I had moved into my house and we had become friends, that when I first arrived they were afraid I might kill them. The foot soldiers of the army are almost exclusively young rural Mayas, many still boys, only fourteen or fifteen years old, rounded up on army sweeps through rural towns. The recruiters arrive in two-ton trucks grabbing all young men in sight, usually on festival or market days when large numbers of people have gathered together in the center of the pueblo.

The soon-to-be foot soldiers were packed in like cattle. Little is known about the training these young soldiers receive, but anecdotal data from some who were willing to talk suggests that the training is designed to break down their sense of personal dignity and respect for other human beings. Another said he learned to hate everyone, including himself. The soldiers who pass through the villages on recognizance and take up sentry duty in the pueblos are Mayas, while the officers, who cannot speak the local language, are ladinos from other regions of the country. A second lieutenant explained to me that army policy dictates that the foot soldiers and the commanders of the local garrisons change assignments every three months to prevent soldiers from getting to know the people and the commandantes from getting bored.

Many young men return to their natal villages after they are released from military duty. Yet their reintegration into the community is often difficult. Set adrift, these young men often go on to become the local military commissioners, heads of the civil patrol, or paid informers for the army. Many are demoralized, frequently drinking and turning violent.

Others marry and settle in their villages to resume their lives as best they can. The Structure of Fear The culture of fear that pervades Guatemalan society has roots in the trauma of the Spanish invasion five centuries earlier. Fear and oppression have been the dual and constant features of Guatemalan history since the arrival of Pedro Alvarado and his conquistadores in the early sixteenth century.

All of us were thus. We were born to die. Roads and trails were strewn with poor Indian women, tied as prisoners, carrying children on their backs, left to fend for themselves. Fear has been the motor of oppression in Guatemala. There are upper-class ladinos in Guatemala City who deny that the massacres in rural areas ever really happened. All the suffering that took place was not really suffering because it happened to Indians.

The unimaginable to us has already happened to them. Like most fledgling anthropologists, I had been nervous about getting my first major research project under way, particularly in view of the special circumstances in which I had chosen to work. The military remained firmly in charge, although backstage. He had in effect yielded power to the military without vacating the presidential palace.

Human rights violations in the capital and in rural areas continued unabated. The U. While the state denounced the atrocities, it also tried to explain them away as crimes by delinquents. While it vowed to investigate and prosecute fully those responsible, no one in the high command of the military has ever been convicted or served a prison term for human rights violations, despite the fact that frequently there has been substantial evidence indicating the complicity of the state security forces.

Thus, with a wink and a nod to its citizens, a policy of impunity makes it clear to everyone who retains power and under what conditions. Yet inside the country, repression continued unchecked. If one crosses the arbitrary line, the consequences are well known; the problem is that one cannot be sure where the line is, nor when one has crossed it, until it is too late.

The terror and fear that pervaded daily life were not immediately perceptible to me. Military checkpoints, the army garrison, and civil patrols were clearly visible, yet daily life appeared normal. Although guerrilla troops moved throughout the area, clashes between them and the army were limited. The war had reached a stalemate. While the army claimed victory, the guerrillas refused to admit defeat. The battlefield was quiescent, yet political repression continued. Scorched-earth tactics, massacres, and large population displacements had halted, but they were replaced by selective repression, militarization of daily life, and relentless economic insecurity.

Silence and Secrecy The dual lessons of silence and secrecy were for me the most enlightening and disturbing. Silence about the present situation when talking with strangers is a survival strategy that Mayas have long utilized. Their overstated politeness toward ladino society and seeming obliviousness to the jeers and insults hurled at them, their servility in the face of overt racism, make it seem as though Mayas have accepted their subservient role in Guatemalan society.

Apparent Mayan obsequiousness has served as a shield to provide distance and has also been a powerful shaper of Mayan practice. When Sophia disclosed to a journalist friend of mine from El Salvador her thoughts about guerrilla incursions today, her family castigated her roundly for speaking, warning her that what she said could be twisted and used against her and the family. Subaltern groups construct their own margins as fragile insulators from the center. When I asked the head of a small self-sufficient development project that was organizing locally if he was bothered by the army, he said he was not.

While I talked with the women, at times our attention would be distracted momentarily by a military plane or helicopter flying close and low. We would all lift our heads, watching until it passed out of sight yet withholding comment. Sometimes, if we were inside a house we might all step out to the patio to look skyward. Only once was the silence broken. The silences in these cases do not erase individual memories of terror but create more fear and uncertainty by driving a wedge of paranoia between people. Most do not address the reality in which people live. When I asked him how the project was confronting the emotional trauma of war and repression in which the widows live, he admitted obliquely that it did not.

Yet not to address the situation perpetuates the official lies.

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On Breaking the Silence Despite the fear and terror engendered by relentless human rights violations and deeply entrenched impunity, hope existed during this period. The goal of the project was to collect individual stories of repression to document as precisely as possible under the present circumstances the extent of the violence that had taken place. Perhaps what is most remarkable about the project is the use of Mayan promoters to gather the testimonies, often in Mayan languages, throughout the regions most affected by the violence.

In effect, the project laid the groundwork for ongoing political struggles between the state and the victims and survivors over the interpretations of the history of the war. Its findings may effectively serve as a counterpoint to the Amnesty Law and Truth Commission created by the peace accords. They went to government offices to demand that the authorities investigate the crimes against their families.

As they marched in silence every Friday in front of the national palace with placards bearing the photos of those who had disappeared, they ruptured the official silence, bearing testimony with their own bodies to those who have vanished. Family members said they knew where their loved ones had been buried after having been killed by security forces.

While other judges in the area had previously allowed the exhumations, this was the first time they were performed with the intention of gathering physical evidence for verbal testimonies of survivors in order to corroborate reports against those responsible. Judge Lemus was eventually forced to seek political exile. During the same period, the eminent forensic anthropologist Dr. These cemeteries and mass graves are the secreto a voces: something everyone knows about but does not dare to discuss publicly.

The act of unearthing the bones of family members allows individuals to reconcile themselves to the past openly, to acknowledge at last the culpability for the death of their loved ones, and to lay them to rest. Such unearthing is, at the same time, a most powerful statement against impunity because it reveals the magnitude of the political repression that has taken place. These are not solely the work of individuals with individual consequences; they are public crimes that have deeply penetrated the social body and contest the legitimacy of the body politic.

See a Problem?

As such, amnesty becomes both a political and an ethical problem, with not only individual but social dimensions. Certainly, the idea of political expediency has a measure of validity to it. Without a settling of accounts, democratic rule will remain elusive in Guatemala as has been the case elsewhere in Latin America.

Social reparation is a necessary requisite to healing the body politic. At first many people thought we might be representing a development project and therefore distributing material aid. When this proved not to be the case, some women lost interest, but others agreed to participate. Fortunately for me, there was little traffic on these back roads. The biggest obstacle to driving is the possibility of meeting head on logging trucks carrying rounds of oak and cedar for export.

With their heavy loads, it is impossible for them to maneuver, and so I would invariably have to back up- or downhill until I found a turnout wide enough to allow the truck to pass. Yet the most frightening experience was rounding a curve and suddenly encountering a military patrol. Although the air temperature was in the fifties degrees Fahrenheit , the chill penetrated to the bone.

Heading north, we caught glimpses of the dark ridges of the Sierra de Cuchumatanes brooding in the distance. The scenery was breathtaking. Every conceivable hue of green was present—pine, cedar, ash, oak, bromeliades, and the wide lush leaves of banana trees—and mingled with brilliant purple bougainvillea and ivory calla lilies that lined the roadway. The hills, the softness of the sky, and the outline of trees created an unforgettable image. This was the Guatemala of eternal spring. On each side of the road, houses were perched on the slopes, surrounded by the milpas, which lay fallow after the harvest in late January, only the dried stalks left half-standing, leaning this way and that.

In the altiplano several houses made from a mix of cane or corn stalks, adobe, and wood are usually clustered together. Most people now use tin roofs lamina , even though they make houses more oppressively warm in the hot dry season and colder when it is damp and rainy. Many people were crushed under the weight of the tiles as roofs caved in on them. Today, halfburned houses stand as testimony to the scorched-earth campaign, while civil patrollers take up their posts nearby with rifles in hand.

Although we frequently saw people on foot, most women and children ran to hide when they saw us coming in the truck. Months passed before women and children walking along the road would accept a ride with me. Most would ask Sophia in Kaqchikel if it were true that I wanted to steal their children and that gringos ate children.

Walking the last four miles down to the village, we met local men repairing large ruts in the road where the heavy September rains had washed away the soil. Soil in this area is sandy and unstable. Most of the trees on the ridge above the road had been clear-cut, and the erosion was quite pronounced.

The men were putting in culverts and filling in the deep crevasses that dissected the road; their only tools were shovels and pickaxes. Perhaps there had not been much violence in Ri Bay, I suggested. It was one of the notable features of the military campaign known as scorched earth that neighboring villages fared quite differently.

Army strategy began with selective repression against community leaders not only to garner information but also to spread fear. The second phase of the counterinsurgency plan included cutting off rural areas from the city. The massacres and brutality seemed to occur according to some deliberate plan, despite the disorder and panic they provoked: while some villages were left unscathed, others were completely razed.

And in numerous testimonies of survivors, the army more often than not launched its so-called reprisals against the guerrillas by brutally killing the population at large. Sophia and I found Marcelina, Eufemia, and a third younger woman sitting in front of the school where we had agreed to meet. We greeted the women and sat down in the sun that was just breaking through the clouds. She replied that it was because so many people had been killed, not just men but whole families, old people, children, and women.

The village was deserted for several years, its inhabitants had fled to the mountains, the pueblo, or the city. Many people never returned, whether because they were dead or merely displaced, no one knew for sure. This was the third village we had visited, and each time it was the same. The women, without prompting, took turns recounting their stories of horror.

Using vivid detail, they would tell of the events surrounding the deaths or disappearances of their husbands, fathers, sons, brothers as if they had happened the previous week or month rather than six or eight years before. And the women—Marcelina, Eufemia, Juana, Martina, Alejandra, Elena—continued to tell me their stories over and over during the time I lived among them. At first as strangers, and then later as friends, why were these women repeatedly recounting their Kafkaesque tales to me?

What did they gain by the telling? What was the relationship between silence and testimony? The public areas used to thwart surveillance were transformed into a liminal space that was both private and public during the recounting. In each of the villages where I met with women, the routine was always the same in the beginning. We would meet in groups of three or four in front of the village health post, the school, or the church, always in a public space. It would be three months or more before anyone invited me into her home or spoke with me privately and individually. Above all else, they did not want the gringa to be seen coming to their houses.

Under the scrutiny of surveillance, the women were afraid of what others in the village might say about them and me. The reports themselves seemed innocuous to me—that I was helping the widows or that I was writing a book about women—yet the repercussions were potentially dangerous. During one particularly tense period, my visits caused an uproar. One day when I arrived to visit with Juana and Martina, I found them both very anxious and agitated. When I said that I would go look for don Martin, the military commissioner, they became very upset.

We know people who went into the garrison and were never seen again. So I went. The next day I decided to go to the destacamento alone. The trek uphill to the garrison was a grueling walk, or so it seemed to me. The last one hundred yards were the most demanding emotionally.

Rounding the bend, I saw several soldiers sitting in a small guardhouse, a machine gun perched on a three-foot stanchion pointed downward and directly at me. I had to calm myself. Finally, stomach churning and nerves frayed, I arrived, breathless and terrified. Ultimately, I knew, I could be found guilty merely because I was against the system of violence, terror, and oppression that surrounded me.

I asked to speak to the commandante, and he received me outside the gates. This struck me as unusual and increased my agitation, as on every other occasion when I had been to the garrison—to greet each new commandante and to renew my permission papers to continue my work—I had been invited into the compound. A few days later, the commandante and several soldiers arrived in the village, called a communitywide meeting, and instructed everyone to cooperate with the gringa who was doing a study.

The soldiers claimed he was not there, but she knew they were lying because his dog was standing outside the gates and the dog never left his side. Either they still had him, or they had already killed him. She demanded to know which and told them to go ahead and kill her and the baby because she had nothing more to lose. Today she is a widow. The stories continued. He was going to burn and clean it in preparation for planting soon after the first rains in early May. He had been gone only an hour when neighbors came running to tell her that her husband was lying in the road, shot.

When Marcelina reached him, he was already dead. With the help of neighbors, she took the body home to prepare it for burial. Marcelina considers herself lucky because at least she was able to bury him herself, unlike so many women whose husbands were disappeared. Hertz has argued that funeral rituals are a way of strengthening the social bond. The Mayas believe that without proper burial souls linger in the liminal space between earth and the afterlife, condemned in time between death and the final obsequies. And yet these wandering souls may act as intermediaries between nature and the living, buffering as well as enhancing memories through the imagery of their violent history.

Sitting next to Marcelina was her daughter, Elena, also a widow. In a quiet voice, she said that she was seventeen when her husband was killed on the patio of her house while her two children, Marcelina, and her sister stood by helpless and in horror. Just as Eufemia was beginning to recall the night her husband was kidnapped, a man carrying a load of wood stopped on the path about fifty feet away to ask who I was and why I was in the village. Don Pedro was the military commissioner in the community.

I introduced myself and showed him my permission papers from the commandante of the local garrison. After looking at my papers, Pedro told me I was free to visit the community but advised me to introduce myself to the head of the civil patrol as well. Several days later she had gone to the municipio to register his death, and the authorities told her that if he was missing he was not considered dead.

Some weeks later, she did find his mutilated body, but she did not return to register his death until several years later. Eufemia planned to leave in a few weeks to pick coffee on a piedmont plantation to earn the money. This village had been a finca de mozos. The owner of the coffee plantation also held land in the highlands that he rented to the campesinos in return for the labor during the harvest.

As I sat there reading, occasionally glancing up to watch the children playing at recess, I suddenly noticed Commandante Lopez walking across the square toward me, dressed in his Kaibil uniform; next to him was a slightly taller man also dressed in a special forces uniform but, instead of the maroon beret of the Kaibiles, wearing the black beret of the parachute forces. Neither of the two officers had guns, but each had a long sheathed knife hanging off his belt. They walked slowly and deliberately toward me. I took a deep breath and waited. This fellow sat down on the bench next to me and began to speak in English.

When I asked where he had learned to speak English so well, he told me he had spent some time in North Carolina and Georgia. After asking very detailed questions about what I was doing in the region and for whom I was working, they left as abruptly as they had arrived.

Later, on the ride home, a very old man who had lost both eyes boarded the bus. They were obviously poorer than most. As one pair of bodies echoed stories of privilege and discipline, the other spoke of suffering and dignity. Jonathan Moller 4. Some widows who had good husbands married again quickly, thinking they would have a good man again. As they assume the role of sole caretakers of their children in a local economic and cultural system that has long been based on a gendered division of labor, the women must cope alone with the psychological and social effects of the deaths of their husbands and other family members as a result of political violence.

The widows say that options for reshaping their lives are limited. Even the most obvious possibility—finding another mate—is unlikely as repression and fear, poverty, alcohol abuse, and domestic violence have taken their toll on family and community life. Over the next two years of fieldwork, I not only learned about the economic plight of widows but also began to understand something about how the multiple dimensions of survival—social, psychological, cultural, and political—operate within a dynamic of both structural and political violence.

In the first part of this chapter I explore how structural violence operated internally within families prior to the political violence. By focusing on the linkages between subsistence and social relations I situate the present circumstances of the widows historically and ethnographically. The connection between kin relations and social and gender relations of power, among subsistence, the household economy, and marriage practices are central to this analysis. The structural violence I am referring to here reflects a particular historical set of economic, political, and cultural arrangements under twentieth-century capitalism in Guatemala that is embedded in social institutions and social relations through a nexus of class-race-gender inequalities.

The daily experiences of ordinary people reveal the ways in which their lives are objectified by structural violence. Concurrently, the position of women in relation to men in households and families was also weakened. These changes are critical to understanding how the misery engendered prior to decades of political violence affects the choices the widows now make in order to survive and the meanings they give to their lives today.

These projects shaped, to some extent, the daily economic and cultural practices of those widows who chose to participate, as well as the community as a whole. Marriage, Kinship, and Households Not marriage, nor kinship, nor the lives of women has been a central focus of the numerous anthropological monographs on the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica in the last half century. He notes that the early and influential works of Robert Redfield, Eric Wolf, and George Foster, which emphasized, albeit quite differently, the community as the basic unit of indigenous social organization and anthropological investigation, became the model for most subsequent ethnographic studies.

Yet to be fully explored, however, is how marriage and kinship relations functioned as the social fabric that allowed for both a dynamism and an underlying unity in Mayan economic and cultural production practices. As in most monographs from the period, women were conspicuously absent from the Mesoamerican anthropological record. Community studies produced ethnographies of men.

With few exceptions marriage is nearly universal among Mayas of Mesoamerica, even today. Marriage in Mayan communities has usually given women, in particular, social protection, security, and a degree of autonomy. In the rural areas there are usually only a handful of young men and women who do not marry. She lives with her elderly widowed mother in a separate household that is part of a larger compound belonging to her extended family, including her two brothers, their wives, and their children. Juana and I would often joke, to the delight of everyone present, that if one or the other of us were to happen on a good man, we would share him, because at the time of my fieldwork I too was an unmarried woman of almost forty.

And in the eyes of the women I, unlike Juana, was lacking both a family and the everyday skills so necessary to survive. Although several women said they had been married the first time through pedida as the traditional betrothal ritual is called , their subsequent marriages were made through the less formal bonds of cohabitation. A few women said that the first time around they had eloped with their mates, circumventing the elaborate and expensive ritual practices. Yet none of these aldea women reported being married in either a civil or church ceremony, a practice more common in the pueblos of the altiplano.

Again, ethnographers from the period neglected to interpret this variation, attributing it simply as a result of acculturation, without taking into account the relationship between economic and cultural production practices. In addition, the two marriages reveal how in small, seemingly homogeneous communities, even some thirty years ago, social relations of power, of gender, and of cultural production were shifting under the pressures of local economic insecurity perpetuated by larger structures of exploitation.

These bonds importantly created and reinforced larger kin networks based on beliefs and norms of age-prestige-reciprocity that encompassed both the living and the dead.

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  • The material basis of this system rested on filial claims to household land and labor. Marriage functioned at the household and family level in ways similar to how the cofradia system did at the community level. It ordered the distribution of power and land based on age and gender. Jonathan Moller Marcelina was about fourteen years old when she first seriously took note of Pedro.

    Each afternoon, Marcelina, her sisters, and their cousins would go to the small river nearby to fetch the water needed for preparing the evening meal. Marcelina remembered that in May of that year she noticed that Pedro and several of his friends would frequently be waiting along the path as the girls returned. This scenario repeated itself over the course of several months as Marcelina gradually lost her shyness and began to speak with Pedro, albeit briefly. Taking that as a sign of encouragement, according to Marcelina, Pedro told his family of his interest in her.

    This first step initiated a long process of pedida, which would require the involvement of both extended families, neighbors, community elders, and trusted friends, as well as multiple exchanges of gifts. Traditional gifts vary from place to place according to the local sequence of pedida as well as the wealth of the young men and their families.

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    Since all were agreeable to the union in this case, Marcelina and Pedro became officially engaged. Another year passed before the official marriage ceremony took place uniting Marcelina and Pedro. Marcelina described this ceremony as one that creates a concentric circle of respect extending from the ancestors to the youngest members of the family, linking the past and the future. Patrilocal marriage residence is the norm among the Maya of Guatemala, although virilocality may be an alternative.

    Later, the husband receives land from his father, and the couple establishes its own nuclear residence, usually nearby. Pedro and two of his brothers would also go to the coast together to pick coffee and cotton to earn cash, which they would turn over to their father for distribution. In this system, Pedro was dependent on his father to gain his own eventual economic independence. Like most new wives, Marcelina worked under the watchful eye of her suegra mother-in-law , who was responsible for female labor and the doling out of resources within the household.

    A young daughter-in-law is quite vulnerable as she enters into a household where she has few legitimate claims, and this in itself can often be a source of tension and conflict for a young couple. Yet women are not expected to suffer, and if a young wife is being poorly treated by the husband or his family, she is free to return to her natal household without stigma.

    Although a woman may inherit land from her own family, this is based on her ability to fulfill filial obligations to her parents, which is rendered difficult by her patrilocal residence as well as by the diminishing landholdings available to most families. Marital instability is not uncommon.

    Eufemia, unlike Marcelina, was quite reticent about describing in detail the painful circumstances surrounding her own marriage. She had no idea how much money her father received in exchange for her nor why he forced her to marry Marcos, the man who was her husband for twentyfive years. According to Eufemia, there were problems from the start. Marcos was much older than she, and he frightened her as he was often drunk and abusive.

    Marcos was often gone for long periods of time peddling his wares, leaving Eufemia to fend for herself, often without food or money. Much of the time, Marcos was a poor provider. Although he planted a milpa, he refused to buy fertilizer, and his harvests yielded little. In the early years of their marriage, both Eufemia and Marcos migrated to the coast to pick coffee for several months each year, but he always kept whatever money she earned.

    After the death of her first child from diarrhea while Eufemia was working on a coffee finca, she stopped going altogether. Some ten years passed before she migrated again to the coast out of desperation and hunger. Over the years, Eufemia had eight more children, although four of them died young, from diarrhea, cough, and susto fright. Often strapped for food and cash, Eufemia would make atole a corn-based drink or raise a pig to sell in the local market.

    Without the help of her neighbors and at times her sisters, Eufemia says she does not know how she would have survived. On a personal level, without any significant kin network Eufemia was left without even a modicum of social protection. Feeling she had little recourse because of her children, Eufemia endured the situation as best she could.

    Now as a widow, life is hard, yet Eufemia readily admits that it has improved for her. What little money she earns, she is able to control herself, and she no longer is the object of abusive behavior. For rural Mayan campesinos, sufficient communal and familial landholdings were key factors in maintaining their integrated cultural and economic system of subsistence both at the community and household level.

    The breakdown of this system through the steady intensification of commodified social relations also had important gendered ramifications. As traditional marriage practices based on noncommodified local relations became increasingly obsolete, so too did the linkages among and between families created by the ritual kin bonds of compadrazgo.

    As a result women were left more socially and economically vulnerable. In the altiplano, an Indian market economy had thrived since pre-Conquest times, with people from across the highlands buying and selling their wares in a vast regional market system. Want to Read saving…. Want to Read Currently Reading Read. Other editions. Enlarge cover. Error rating book. Refresh and try again. Open Preview See a Problem? Details if other :. Thanks for telling us about the problem. Return to Book Page. Between the late s and the mids, the people of Guatemala were subjected to a state-sponsored campaign of political violence and repression designed to not only defeat a left-wing, revolutionary insurgency but also destroy Mayan communities and culture.

    The Mayan Indians in the western highlands were labeled by the government as revolutionary sympathizers, and many Between the late s and the mids, the people of Guatemala were subjected to a state-sponsored campaign of political violence and repression designed to not only defeat a left-wing, revolutionary insurgency but also destroy Mayan communities and culture. The Mayan Indians in the western highlands were labeled by the government as revolutionary sympathizers, and many Mayan women lost husbands, sons, and other family members who were brutally murdered or who simply "disappeared.

    Get A Copy. Paperback , pages. More Details Original Title. Other Editions 2. Friend Reviews. To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up. To ask other readers questions about Fear as a Way of Life , please sign up. Be the first to ask a question about Fear as a Way of Life.

    Lists with This Book. This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Community Reviews. Showing Rating details. More filters. Sort order. Nov 02, Neal Hampton rated it it was amazing. Dramatic and in-depth look at the Mayan widows of the Scorched Earth campaign of the early s.

    Jun 23, April rated it it was amazing Recommends it for: anthropolgy dorks. Kara rated it really liked it Mar 17,

    Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala
    Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala
    Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala
    Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala
    Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala
    Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala Fear as a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala

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