Enduring Violence: Ladina Women's Lives in Guatemala

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Drawing on revealing, in-depth interviews, Cecilia Menjívar investigates the role that violence plays in the lives of Ladina women in eastern Guatemala, a little-visited and little-studied region. While much has been written on the subject of political violence in Guatemala, Menjívar turns to a different form of suffering—the violence embedded in institutions and in everyday life so familiar and routine that it is often not recognized as such. Rather than painting Guatemala (or even Latin America) as having a cultural propensity for normalizing and accepting violence, Menjívar aims to develop an approach to examining structures of violence—profound inequality, exploitation and poverty, and gender ideologies that position women in vulnerable situations— grounded in women's experiences. In this way, her study provides a glimpse into the root causes of the increasing wave of feminicide in Guatemala, as well as in other Latin American countries, and offers observations relevant for understanding violence against women around the world today.

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Editorial Reviews

ReVista - Aviva Chomsky
"The books shows how years after the war's end, echoes of its large-scale violence continue to blight the lives of Guatemala's most vulnerable, especially the poor, and especially women."
The Americas
“This study is rich. . . . Makes an important contribution.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520267664
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2011
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Cecilia Menjívar is Professor of Sociology in the School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University. She is the author of Fragmented Ties: Salvadoran Immigrant Networks in America (UC Press), among other books. Menjivar won the Julian Samora Distinguished Career Award from the Latino/a Sociology section of the American Sociological Association.

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Read an Excerpt

Enduring Violence

Ladina Women's Lives in Guatemala

By Cecilia Menjívar


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-26767-1


Approaching Violence in Eastern Guatemala

The aim of the psychological war is to win people's "hearts and minds" so that they accept the requirements of the dominant order and, consequently, accept as good and even "natural" whatever violence may be necessary to maintain it. —Ignacio Martín-Baró, "Violence in Central America"

Rather than view violence ... simply as a set of discrete events, which quite obviously it also can be, the perspective I am advancing seeks to unearth those entrenched processes of ordering the social world and making (or realizing) culture that themselves are forms of violence: violence that is multiple, mundane, and perhaps all the more fundamental because it is the hidden or secret violence out of which images of people are shaped, experiences of groups are coerced, and agency itself is engendered. —Arthur Kleinman, "The Violences of Everyday Life"

Much has been written about violence in Guatemala, a country that has come to be known for the contrast between its spectacular beauty and its unspeakable suffering. This book, however, is not about the direct, political violence in the highlands (Altiplano) targeting the Maya, a form of violence for which Guatemala has long been known. It is about the everyday violence in the lives of ladinas in Oriente, eastern Guatemala, where few outsiders, either scholars or tourists, venture to visit. It is about violence not directly attributable to individual actions intended to cause harm but embedded in institutions and in quotidian aspects of life—the familiar, the routine; violence so commonplace and so much a part of life that it is often not recognized as such. In contrast to many other works about Guatemala, this book is about the violence that becomes visible only when its consequences, in the form of suffering, are talked about. It is about the violence that women habitually experience, which is intertwined with the other forms of violence that have held sway in Guatemala for a long time.

Guatemala is a society dealing with the aftermath of nearly four decades of state terror (Grandin 2000; Manz 2004) and undergoing "civic insecurity," with high levels of violence, persistent impunity, and an inability to address the postconflict instability (Torres 2008: 2). Although it has been more than a decade since the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, Guatemalans are still experiencing the consequences of an internal armed conflict that was, in some respects, the most brutal in the region during the past century. The United Nations–sponsored Truth Commission (CEH 1999) estimated that as many as 200,000 people were killed—a majority at the hands of government forces—during the thirty-six-year war that ended in 1996. The victims were mostly unarmed civilians, and the government's methods were often extraordinarily cruel. According to the U.N. commission, the methods employed by the state could be said to constitute "acts of genocide." The armed conflict left the country awash in weapons, with webs of people trained to use them and a civil society accustomed to the horrors of violence. The conflict not only left widows, orphans, and whole communities traumatized; it also left a population distrustful of the authorities.

Therefore, recent accounts of violence (Benson, Fischer, and Thomas 2008; Snodgrass Godoy 2006; Steenkamp 2009) in postwar, "peace-time" Guatemala reveal some of the highest homicide rates in the hemisphere, daily kidnappings, extortion, robberies, lynchings, and feminicide, the new wave of killings in which women, regardless of their ethnicity, are the targets. Guatemalans now face multiple forms of violence, often at higher rates than during "wartime." Angelina Snodgrass Godoy (2005) notes that in Guatemala the boundaries between "common" and "political" crime have become blurred; thus familiar distinctions between the two no longer stand up to empirical scrutiny. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of these as "peacetime" conditions.

Guatemala also has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the hemisphere, which means that structural violence shapes many aspects of life and has manifold expressions, such as multiple forms of exploitation, extreme forms of poverty, and deeply unequal access to society's benefits. But in describing Guatemala's state of affairs today, one must bear in mind that such conditions do not have roots in the recent past. They are the culmination of a long history of abuse, exploitation, and repression brought about by the legacy of Spanish colonialism, U.S. foreign policy, and recent neoliberal economic reforms, intersections that scholars of Guatemala have amply documented (Cojtí Cuxil 1997; Hale 2006; Lovell 2010; Manz 2004; Smith 1990). Thus some of the violence Guatemala has experienced is directly related to the militarization of life during the political conflict, whereas other forms are tied to long-standing structural inequalities that have assaulted the lives of the majority of Guatemalans for centuries. These sources of violence are linked: it is not a matter of tracing root causes to one or another factor but of recognizing that multiple forms of violence act on one another and are experienced all at once. As Paul Farmer (2004) notes, the systematic violation of human rights as a product of capitalism is not unrelated and indeed is made possible through the use of state-sponsored violence (see also Binford 2004). Accordingly, links among vulnerability, inequality, human rights violations, and neoliberal restructuring are key to understanding the root causes of multiple forms of violence, as evinced in the work of Benson, Fischer, and Thomas (2008) and Benson and Fischer (2009) on Guatemala, Moodie (2006) on El Salvador, and Gill (2007) on Colombia, as well as Burkhart's (2002) quantitative analysis of the relation between capitalism and human rights violations. As Benson and Fischer (2009: 153) observe in their work on Guatemala, "By implicating neoliberal ideologies and policies in the production of the new violence, we complicate simple assessments of the Peace Accords' successes and failures and challenge the guiding premise that unfettered market forces are necessary for achieving peace and security."

An examination of the multiple forms of violence in the lives of ladinas in eastern Guatemala, who live away from the zones where direct political terror was "a way of life" (see Green 1999), exposes the deep, broad, and often indirect consequences of living in a society in which the population has been brutalized and life has become fragile and cheap, depicting the "long arm of violence." In pointing to the violence in women's lives, I do not pathologize them. In fact, it would be easier to fall back on frames that focus on pathologizing individuals than to attempt to dissect the multiple systems of oppression and exclusion that generate suffering in the manner I do here. The ladinas' lives are much more complex, and a close-up look reveals those extrapersonal forces that produce suffering for them. I have strived to convey this complexity fully. And whereas women turn to others when in need, it is often those others—friends, family, husbands, and neighbors—whose actions instantiate the violence in the context in which the women live. It is for this reason that in my discussions I intersperse instances of comfort with narratives of suffering, as they intertwine in complex ways. However, my goal is to focus the analytical gaze on violence and suffering so as to retrieve them from the recesses of normality and in this way to propose alternative ways of thinking about violence,2 perhaps, in the words of Kleinman (2000: 231), a critique "of the normal as well as of the normative social order."


My main objective is to unearth the misrecognized violence that women routinely experience in familiar, commonplace spaces. I seek to unveil the violence that is difficult to see and to measure (and therefore often to define as violence) because it is not confined to individual acts or horrific crimes that can be reported or tabulated. I focus on, as Kleinman (2000: 226) puts it, "the effect of the social violence that social orders—local, national, global—bring to bear on people [original emphasis]." I bring attention to the veiled violence in forms of social control of women that result in devaluation, humiliation, a lowered gaze, the kind of violence that does not shock the observer because it is part of the everyday but that is deeply connected to the more noticeable acts that inflict physical injury because both kinds of violence arise from the same structures. Thus the forms of violence that I examine here are related to and make possible (though perhaps not cause), through the devaluation of women's lives, the more gruesome expressions that come in the form of feminicides in Guatemala, a discussion to which I return in the conclusion. The links to which I draw attention here are evident in other contexts as well, such as the cases that the journalists Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (2009) have written about from a human rights stance, based on their work in Cambodia, India, Pakistan, Congo, Ethiopia, among other countries, in which they chronicle the manifold and mutating forms of oppression and violence against women that arise from multiple structural inequalities.

In the process I aim to develop an approach to examining structures of violence grounded in women's experiences. This approach captures the suffering in the women's lives that comes from deep inequalities in access to resources based on socioeconomic position, superimposed on the humiliations and fear originating in orthodox gender ideologies that constrain women's lives, all occurring in a background of fear and insecurity. Malnourishment, lack of opportunities to secure dignified work, and unequal access to education and health care are all expressions of the forms of violence I explore. However, I also include the physical forms of interpersonal violence that are more strongly associated with the phenomenon of violence, because in real life they are intermingled. As Irina Carlota Silber (2004) notes, when women are economically vulnerable, they also become vulnerable to men's sexual violence and exploitation and are seen as culpable for their own conditions, which in turn limits their ability to seek redress for their predicament. Although my project is to make multiple sources of suffering visible in the women's lives, I do not mean to present only this aspect of their lives or to argue that everything in the women's lives is violent. I would not be doing justice to the complexity of their lives if I presented them as being spent in abject subordination or insurmountable social pathology and spirals of violence. As well, my focus on gender domination and violence should not foreclose the potential for gendered agency and survival. Thus I also highlight, in each sphere of life I examine, the women's spaces of sociability and the collective dimensions of their experiences. I do so by focusing on the presence of other women in their lives—family members, friends, coreligionists, and coworkers, among others—that allows them the potential to create oppositional spaces and responses to their conditions. At the same time, I do not mean to portray the presence of others in the women's lives in a black-and-white manner, as nothing more than sources of support devoid of complex dynamics and contradictions. These social relations also occur in a broader context of violence.

Although there are now many organized responses to the violence in the lives of women, I mention only a few of them in the conclusion in a discussion of the efforts of national and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and women's groups. Thus, without ignoring these efforts or implying that women are victims, I focus on how violence is experienced and normalized in everyday life, because none of the women I met were involved in or aware of these broader efforts. The very nature of the forms of violence I examine often escapes the attention of these groups, as they are the "violent consequences of social power" (Kleinman 2000: 228).

I must note that although the violence that the women experience is often concretized in specifi c acts often attributed to the men in their families, the men's acts per se are not the focus of my discussion. I seek to locate analytically the forms of violence in the women's lives outside of individuals. Focusing on men as "perpetrators" or on their individual acts isolated from a broader context would lead to a facile and misguided analysis that would serve to legitimize and disguise the deeper roots of violence. As Paula Godoy-Paiz (2008: 42) notes, "Through framing violence toward women as merely interpersonal, the laws depoliticize gender-based violence." Indeed, the individuals whose actions instantiate the violence I examine here are far from its main causes. My examination unveils the intertwined nature of power inequalities that shape daily life—in Kleinman's words (2000: 228), "the violent consequences of social power ... [,] not surprisingly, less likely to be labeled 'violence.'" But as George Kent (2006: 55) observes, "The common thread in all these forms of violence is the fulfillment of one party's purposes at the expense of others. Violence entails the use of power."

In many ways this book explores how a geography of marginalization is lived in certain areas of the periphery, by some of the most disadvantaged social groups and by some of the most vulnerable individuals. I seek to understand social processes in relation to the conditions in which women live, work, love, and create. Social relations are not mechanistic reactions to those conditions, nor are they free floating and independent of them. They need to be understood within larger processes of social production and reproduction, as dynamic processes, not monolithic "characteristics" of a group or of individuals. As understood from this viewpoint, an examination of social relations in an overall context of violence allows us to grasp the consequences of living in multiple hierarchies of power and how these operate jointly.

Though direct causal relationships between sources of violence and suffering are difficult to establish, especially when dealing with forms of violence that are not always recognized as such, there were palpable effects of living in a context in which multiple forms of violence came together to shape the lives of women in the Guatemalan Oriente. I will use an instance in one of my informants' narratives to illustrate what I am trying to bring attention to. Hortencia was thirty-four years old when I first met her, had never attended school but had learned to read and write in an adult literacy program, was earning an income as a street food vendor, and was a widow who had had five children (one of whom had died in infancy). She paid Q.50 (about U.S.$10 in 1995) a month for the rent of a small adobe house, plus electricity. Her small house with very low ceilings was sparsely furnished: two beds, a small armoire, one chair, and one table in the main room. Hortencia wanted to share how she had been able to buy some of the furniture in the house:

There was a time that I didn't even have a bed, but thanks to God, the things that you see here, I owe them to the Bomberos Voluntarios [firefighters]. A year ago they had a raffle, and my little boy wanted to buy a ticket. I had just sold Q.2 of tostadas at the park, and I told him that the Q.2 was all I had. He really wanted the ticket, so I said, well, go ahead, and cooperate with the firefighters. And imagine my surprise when they announced that my little boy had won the first prize! It was a refrigerator! I thought they were pulling my leg, I even cried. I asked my neighbor, and she had heard it on the radio, so it was true. At that time I lived in a house where I didn't have [potable] water or electricity and my boy had won a refrigerator! I was shaking when I went to get the prize; I couldn't even walk. So my cousin had to accompany me. They were so nice that they even brought it to my house. They took pictures and everything. They also said, "Look, señora, if you have the need to buy other things, just sell the refrigerator and buy whatever you need. Here is all the paperwork." So I did, I sold the refrigerator. I bought the bed, armoire, and television set. I wanted to get that for my kids because they used to go watch cartoons from the windows of houses, and people sometimes would shoo them, you know how people are with poor patojos [kids]; they treat them worse than animals. Now in this house they can watch whatever they want, and [with the armoire] I have a place to put my clothes.


Excerpted from Enduring Violence by Cecilia Menjívar. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. Approaching Violence in Eastern Guatemala
2. A Framework for Examining Violence
3. Corporeal Dimensions of Gender Violence: Woman's Self and Body
4. Marital Unions and the Normalization of Suffering
5. Children, Motherhood, and the Routinization of Pain and Sacrifice
6. Women's Work: Normalizing and Sustaining Gender Inequality
7. Church, Religion, and Enduring Everyday Violence
8. Enduring Violence

Notes References Index

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