An Ethnographic Journey Through a Transnational Guatemalan CommunitySkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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What Guatemalans say about the extreme state terror they faced in the early 1980s is intricately linked to places - where they have been, where they are and where they hope (or fear) to go.
The displacement of Joseños, people originally from the town of San José, Guatemala, as refugees from political violence and as economic migrants, has created new possibilities for the narrative representation of the civil war in Guatemala, popularly known as la violencia.
For two years I did various fieldwork in San José, visited refugee camps and did work in Chiapas, Mexico and finally returned to Los Angeles in August 1996 to complete my research.
My research examines the ways Joseños have come to construct narratives of their violent past in the context of their present circumstances in Guatemala, Mexico and the United States.
In order to protect informants, I used pseudonyms for the people, the town in Guatemala from which they came and the refugee camps in Mexico.
On what I've designated as my last day in "the field," I happened to be in Los Angeles. Rather than a single place, the field for me was a constellation of several places in which I interacted with people originally from and still very much connected to the Guatemalan town of San José. The field emerged out of my relationships with members of this transnational community - the relations and community shaped by the contexts of place and politics in Guatemala, Mexico and the United States. While these three geo-political contexts are very different, the people from San José, who have been dispersed by violence and economic necessity, in many ways, continue to be part of a single community. This is the story of some of the places, people and relationships that made up my field site. It begins on a hot August day in Los Angeles when I went to the home of my friend, Magdalena, to do one last interview.
I first met Magdalena two years earlier in San José, Guatemala. We were introduced by Angelina, my Kanjobal language teacher. Magdalena was in Guatemala to attend the fiesta of San José and to replace a lost copy of her daughter's birth certificate needed to secure her daughter's US citizenship papers. I was excited that Magdalena was in San José so I would have another single woman with whom to go to that evening's dance at the Catholic Church. Magdalena said she liked to dance, and I was hoping that we could dance together so that I wouldn't have to worry about fending off the uncomfortable advances of drunken men.
Unfortunately, plans changed when later that afternoon Magdalena received a message from her sister-in-law in Los Angeles informing her that her 14-year-old daughter had run off with a 22-year-old man. Magdalena quickly made arrangements to get a ride back to Guatemala City that night so that she could return to Los Angeles the next day.
Six months later when I called Magdalena in Los Angeles, it was clear that she barely remembered me but I asked her if I could drop by. That afternoon Magdalena filled me in on the details of her daughter's elopement. Her relatives had gotten the man's license plate number and called the police to help find her. Magdalena said that since the runaway, they watched her daughter all the time, never letting her go out without a chaperone. She also told me about her family's flight from the violence in Guatemala, how they had been frightened all the time, how army soldiers and guerrilla fighters would pass through town day and night. While she had never been to school and her Spanish was limited, she wasn't shy to talk to me. I told her that I was looking for a Kanjobal teacher in Los Angeles since everyday conversations took place mostly in Kanjobal. That very afternoon she arranged for me to meet her friend, Juana, who would become my language teacher, roommate and confidante.
Magdalena also suggested that if I wanted to meet other Joseños, I should go with her daughters that night to the weekly meeting of a Catholic prayer group, Hombre Nuevo (New Man). So I climbed in the van that came to pick up the Hombre Nuevo regulars and 45 minutes and several stops later we arrived at the site of that evening's meeting. There were about 20 of us crowded into a small, one-bedroom apartment.
I was the only non-Joseño there, which gave me the feeling of being back in San José. On the wall was an aerial photograph of the town of San José. I was pleased to find that Francisco Gaspar was there. In San José, a priest had told me that Francisco had single-handedly run the church after the nuns and the priests (along with other community leaders) were forced to flee in fear of being suspected of subversion by the Guatemalan army. That evening in Los Angeles, Francisco told me the saga of his journey to the United States five years before. "I came by land ... on foot ... the whole way," he explained. He told me he would like to go back to Guatemala but that first he wanted to visit more places in the United States. He particularly wanted to visit his good friend, "Madre Dianna," an American nun who had worked in San José for two years. She fled Guatemala in 1989, after Guatemalan security forces had kidnapped, raped and tortured her during 24 hours of interrogation. Francisco expected that as an American familiar with San José, I would know her.
I did know Dianna Ortiz. I had read about her case in a Guatemala City newspaper when I first arrived to begin fieldwork. I finally met and interviewed her in Washington, D.C. several months later. From our emotionally charged conversation it was clear that her experience of violence had welded a strong transnational and transcultural bond with the people of San José.
Madre Dianna's work and ordeal made a deep impression on Joseños as well. In San José, many people told me stories about her, each with a different version of the events and the identity of her assailants. Others mistook me for her. Strangers would come up to me as I visited the weekly market or strolled through town saying, "You've come back!" and "¡Pobrecita!" (Poor dear!). This unwitting association with someone who had so recently been victimized by the Guatemalan army alarmed me.
On my first visit to San José, I had been struck by the army's visual presence. Adolescent boys walked around the town wearing fatigues and carrying semi-automatic weapons. Soldiers worked on the building of the new highway, where they were stationed to guard the dynamite. Municipal events, like the election of a new mayor, were well-attended by the military. Civil Defense Patrols, the armed local militia instituted and enforced by the army ostensibly to search the countryside for guerrillas, were ever present.
While the army's continued physical presence created a pervasive climate of fear and insecurity in Guatemala, Joseños elsewhere faced other threats to their security and peace of mind. Joseños in Mexico were never quite certain that their status as refugees would continue from one year to the next. In Los Angeles, Joseños were constantly threatened both by INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) deportation and by the street violence rampant in the crime-ridden and drug-infested neighborhoods in which they lived and worked. Magdalena herself was physically assaulted and robbed in a Los Angeles flea market.
I visited Magdalena frequently in that first month of my field work in Los Angeles, and during another eight months I spent in that city the following year. At the time of my first visit, she was living just a few blocks west of downtown in a two-bedroom apartment with 16 others, members of both her immediate and extended family.
When I arrived at Magdalena's apartment for our interview just a few minutes after our scheduled meeting time, she wasn't yet back from a shopping trip. She had gone to help pick out her niece's outfit for the upcoming election of the fiesta queen. Joseños in the United States continued to maintain a cohesive community identity. Their celebration of the annual fiesta of their town's patron saint was perhaps the most public performance of this continuity. Magdalena's niece was one of two candidates for queen that year.
When Magdalena returned from the shopping trip, we went into one of the bedrooms and I turned on the cassette recorder. She had a lot to say even though I had already learned much about her life. Her husband had died in a car accident two months after they arrived in the United States. She had gone to numerous doctors and health clinics but no one except a Joseño healer and an expensive and dangerous trip back to Guatemala could alleviate her chronic health problems. She had struggled as a single mother to raise her daughters in an often hostile urban American environment. We talked, filling up an entire 90-minute tape with her thoughts, recollections and opinions about violence, gender and life in San José. Finally I had to leave. I still had some packing to do and I wanted to have time to say good-bye to Juana.
When I first met Juana, she had a child care job which left her evenings and weekends free to give me Kanjobal lessons. After she was denied political asylum, Juana had to quit her job because she was afraid immigration officials would find her through the employer information she had given them. She had received a notice in the mail but she hadn't understood that the summons was for a political asylum interview with the INS. When she asked me to go with her as translator, she explained to me that she had to bring documents to an office in order to prove that her son was really hers. Like her, I didn't quite understand the situation, but I agreed nevertheless.
I discovered the summons from the INS. I remained mystified about the purpose of the meeting until I was sitting with Juana in front of an INS officer and swearing to translate everything that was said. The chances were slim to none that Juana would be granted asylum (at the height of the violence in the early 1980s only three percent of applicants from Guatemala were given asylum in the United States). But even if the political climate had been more favorable to recognizing Guatemalans as refugees, Juana's case would not have been persuasive. She and her family had left San José several years before the worst of the violence swept through her hometown. She admitted that she came to the United States not for fear of her life, but to seek a better one for her son.
One month later we returned to the INS office to pick up Juana's asylum rejection papers. The document reported that in six months she would have to appear before an immigration judge whose job it would be to deport her. We joked that she had six months "to live" (i.e. in the United States legally).
Juana's cavalier attitude toward possible deportation had a lot to do with her access to economic resources. Juana had earned a teaching certificate while living in Guatemala City. Though she faced ethnic and gender discrimination in Guatemala, she had skills as well as some savings to support herself and her son if she were ever deported. She and her brothers (one of whom had served in the Guatemalan army during the late 1970s) had not sold their family house in Guatemala City. In the event that one or all of them were deported, they had a place to which they could return.
It was that very house which provided my first lodging when I stopped in Guatemala on the way to Chiapas to continue my fieldwork. Juana had arranged for her friend, Minga, who took care of the family house in the capital and arranged for Minga to pick me up at the airport and "take good care" of me during my week there. Coincidentally, Minga's parents had come to Guatemala City from San José the day before I arrived.
Minga's parents were there to see a doctor about getting medicine for her mother's diabetes. Minga told me that her mother probably got diabetes from the shock of her son's murder by guerrillas in San José. She had to identify his body from a room piled with bodies. I found out later that Minga's daughter-in-law, Marta, had joined the guerrilla army when she was 15. When I met Marta, she told me that since she was not prepared to kill anyone, the guerrilla fighters taught her how to be a nurse. When she told them that she wanted to return to her family, the guerrilla leaders told her that her family was dead to her. So Marta left the guerrillas and went to Chiapas where for two years she lived and worked as a domestic servant for a Mexican family.
When I returned to Los Angeles, Juana's six months had expired. Like many, she had decided not to turn herself in for deportation. In an attempt to hide from the INS, she moved out of the two-bedroom apartment that she had been sharing with her sister, her 11-year-old son, her brother, his wife and their one-year-old child. Since I was looking for a place to stay in Los Angeles, Juana, her sister, her son and I all moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Koreatown. We shared rent and expenses, enjoyed each other's company, and I found an adopted family on the field. In our shared activities - shopping for food, going to prayer meetings, paying the phone bill, going to the movies, watching Mexican soap operas, attending picnics and batting at piñatas - the familiar and the strange mixed together. It was a very different life than the one I encountered in Mexico.
I first showed up at the refugee camp in Chiapas unannounced and unaccompanied, but was quickly offered food, lodging and the opportunity to interview members of the refugee women's organization, Mamá Maquín.
Maria, a 20-year-old mother of two, was the camp's Mamá Maquín delegate for the organized return of refugees to Guatemala. Her father-in-law lived in San José. When I asked her about her expectations for returning to Guatemala, she became very animated. With complete determination she responded that the women would remain organized and spread Mamá Maquín to all Guatemalans.
After lunch, Katarina, another Mamá Maquín representative, took me to see the generator-powered corn mill that was run exclusively by the women of Mamá Maquín. Except for a few privately-owned generators and the ones belonging to Mamá Maquín and the representative council, the camp had no electricity. When we returned to the women's conference room, other women began to arrive, some with children. After chatting among themselves for a while, the women gathered in a circle. They were all Mamá Maquín members who had gathered to answer any questions that I had.
"What do you hope for your children?" I asked.
"That they know their rights - the right not to participate in the civil defense patrols or be forced into the army. That they know the history of why we left."
I asked, "But isn't it better if they just forget the painful things that the Guatemalan government did?"
One woman replied, "No, they should remember so they can continue the struggle."
Two days later, I was back in San José. During dinner that evening at the local eatery where I took my meals, I mentioned to the owner that I had been to the refugee camps. Her entire body tensed and she became more animated than I had ever seen her. "Don't feel sorry for the refugees," she bitterly spat. "They are all guerrillas!"
Back in Los Angeles I learned that this woman, who so vehemently accused the refugees of subversion, may have had something to hide. She was the second wife of Juana's father-in-law and Juana passed on to me the rumor that the woman's husband had hid guerrilla weapons in their home during the war.
Rumors and testimonials of remembered violence, fear and community tensions quickly (though temporarily) receded to the back of my mind as I left the interview with Magdalena to finish loading up my car for the long journey "home" to Michigan. That accomplished, I went to find Juana at her brother's pet shop where she was working. I gave her the garage door opener and the apartment keys. As a going away gift she gave me a plastic turtle aquarium. She said it was to hold my knitting needles. She warned me to be careful on the road and before our tearful good-byes, we spent a few minutes laughing and reminiscing about the time I tried to teach her to drive.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to the author at Department of Anthropology, Lawrence University, 515 E. College Ave., Appleton, Wisconsin 54911 or via e-mail to <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Julie Hastings is an assistant professor of anthropology at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. She received her PhD in anthropology from the U-M in April 2000. This article is based on doctoral dissertation research made possible by support from the National Institute of Mental Health, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the U-M's Institute for Women and Gender and the Rackham Graduate School.