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Author: Juliet Hooker
Title: Book Review
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
Summer 2001

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Source: Book Review
Juliet Hooker

vol. 3, no. 1, Summer 2001
Article Type: Book Review

Juliet Hooker

Cornell University

Diane M. Nelson, A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999. 448 pp. $55.00

Diane Nelson's account of indigenous organizing in contemporary Guatemala, and the psychic (as well as bodily) wounds it evokes in the context of Guatemala's bloody civil war is nuanced and insightful. The focus of the book is Mayan cultural rights activism in Guatemala. Indigenous activism in Guatemala, Nelson argues, tends to divide between the "popular sector," which emphasizes class analyses and human rights abuses, and cultural rights groups, which demand rights to difference based on the recognition of a particular "Maya" identity. The members of the Mayan cultural rights organizations primarily are educated Mayans who live in urban areas, and tend to focus on issues related to linguistics, education, and development. Nelson analyzes in particular the experiences of Mayan cultural rights organizations that have chosen to struggle for representation in the Guatemalan state, as well as the response to those efforts by the state and the ladino elite that historically has been dominant in the country.

Guatemala, like many other Latin American countries, has developed a discourse of mestizaje, or racial mixing, to suture over the psychic wounds of the conquest and to legitimate the oppression and exclusion of the Maya within the structures of power. Maya cultural organizing challenges this narrative because it contests the hierarchical ordering of binaries such as ladino/indian and modern/traditional, and it disrupts the idea of an overwhelmingly mestizo body politic as well. [1] Nelson also suggests, however, that while the discourse of mestizaje appears to reject the existence of the Maya-"Other," certain ideas about the Maya are also necessary to the production of ladino identity: only in relation to an indian can one be ladino, and only in contrast to tradition can modernity be felt. Mayan women, she argues, play a particularly important role in shoring up both Maya identity and ladino images of indians: because they wear traje (traditional dress) they serve as a visible reminder of Maya identity, and of their identification with the traditional. [2] This double bind of ladinos in relation to the Maya is likewise reflected in the state and ladino sectors' ambivalent reaction to indigenous organizing: on the one hand, Guatemala's indigenous population is central to its status as a tourist attraction, and a way to assert the country's "difference" from the West. At the same time, however, demands for power-sharing by the Maya are greeted with fear by ladinos of all classes, and lead to dire ladino warnings that such demands can only lead to Guatemala's becoming the next Yugoslavia.

Drawing on insights from post-structuralism and recent literature on nationalism, Nelson uses the example of Maya cultural organizing and Guatemalan ladinos' negative response to it to argue that nationality, ethnicity, and culture are all the products of multivalent relationships. Nelson uses Laclau and Mouffe's notion of articulation to argue that

ethnicity and the nation are not always already there, nor are they naturally opposed to the modern nation relying on the homogenizing state to repress these differences. Instead, in the wounded body politics of Guatemala, modernity and tradition, nation and ethnicity are interpenetrated on every side—and the state, rather than trying to erase multiple identifications, is a productive site for their articulation. (2) [3]

Nelson's use of articulation and the idea of mutually constitutive identities and binaries is useful, and avoids many of the pitfalls that befall Western academics writing about indigenous organizing. Nelson herself identifies this as the danger of falling into "ethnonostalgia," the idealization of indigenous cultures that are in turn hailed as the opposite of the problematic modern West, thus fixing indigenous people in time, in the past. Instead, throughout this book Nelson reminds us that national and ethnic identifications are not fixed, that they are constantly in the process of articulation and struggle.

At the same time, however, Nelson's attention to the problematic position of speaking for "the Other," while necessary and useful, sometimes verges on being self-congratulatory. Similarly, while her work is rich in ethnographic detail she resorts too often to quoting famous theorists as a substitute for her own analysis. For example, the most important contribution of the book, the idea of Quincentennial Guatemala as a wounded body politic in which discourses of mestizaje and gender serve to prop up the wounded patient that is the nation and suture over the wounds caused by the conquest and recent civil war, is almost lost amidst the profusion of new terms coined by Nelson like "fluidarity" (61) and "Maya-hacker" (249). These terms unfortunately tend to impede rather than enhance understanding. After all, the problems she is describing are fairly commonplace if nonetheless problematic: how to engage in solidarity without falling into ethnonostalgia or an uncritical valorization of "the Other," and whether activists can sustain a position of critique while working within state structures. These are only minor failures, however, in what still remains an important resource for scholars writing about the construction of the state, national, and ethnic identities in Latin America.

1. To claim that 'we are all mestizo' in an effort to transcend the ladino/indian binary continues to occlude the presence of the Maya; it suggests there are no indigenous people who could reclaim that identity as a site for political struggle.

2. That is, traje and other traditional ways have been recuperated by the Maya as a way to assert their indigenous identity and resist cultural assimilation. On the other hand, as Nelson points out, this also means that Mayan women (who are the only ones who wear traje) carry the burden of representing the Maya and suturing over the cracks in that identity (as Nelson would put it). Because it serves multiple functions, traje can be read in a variety of ways, and is of particular relevance in Guatemala, since its survival is more pronounced there than in other Central American countries.

3. This point does not necessarily imply that the Guatemalan government is less implicated in the country's ethnic strife inasmuch as Laclau and Mouffe often suggest that a precondition of the play of articulation that they envision is that the country in question be an industrialized liberal democracy.