Violent Memories: Mayan War Widows in Guatemala

Violent Memories: Mayan War Widows in Guatemala

Violent Memories: Mayan War Widows in Guatemala

Violent Memories: Mayan War Widows in Guatemala


This local study of the impact of political violence on a Maya Indian village is based on intensive fieldwork in the department of El Quiche, Guatemala, during 1988-1990. It examines the processes of fragmentation & realignment in a community undergoing rapid & violent change & relates local, social, cultural, & psychological phenomena to the impact of the war on widows' lives. Zur combines a narrative, life-history approach with anthropological analysis, emphasizing the way people talk about & explain the violence. She describes the survival strategies of widows & their attempts to reconstruct their lives, both on a physical level & in terms of meaning, & finds that "remembering" is not simply the automatic engagement of the past within the present, but a process that allows widows to discover new possibilities for action & for reshaping their own positions in society.


The province of El Quiché is in Guatemala's remote western highlands. These beautiful, verdant mountains are slashed by innumerable ravines (barrancos), some of which drop over a thousand feet from plateaux up to 9,000 feet above sea level. For all their lush greenery, arable land and grazing are in short supply in the mountains, giving added emphasis to the K'iche's' traditional attachment to the land. It is one of Guatemala's poorest provinces and also one of the least populated.

People live in dispersed hamlets (aldeas) collectively known by the name of the largest settlement or village (cantón) which houses the local administrative and economic centre. Emol is typical. It consists of a village (Emol Central) with some three hundred families plus five scattered hamlets -- Kotoh, Raxa, Malah, Chi Te, and Pachaq, which are up to an hour's walk away from each other -- with an average of eighty families each: approximately 3,000 people in all (prior to la violencia). Equally typical is that most Emoltecos are descended from the original settlers of the village and are at least distantly related; most live on family-owned land. That Emol's five hamlets are interspersed with hamlets belonging to other villages probably reflects a historical resistance to the merging of disparate ethnic groups aggregated by the Spanish for administrative purposes (parcialidades) following the devastation of the conquest (Smith 1990b:28, n. 10). Centuries of intermarriage between adjacent hamlets belonging to different villages has not diminished local animosities.

Villages are grouped into townships (municipios) which have pre-hispanic roots (Lovell and Sweezy 1990), largely because municipio boundaries are predominantly shaped by the terrain. the differences in municipio topography result in variations in settlement patterns, house styles, methods of cultivation, and minor economic options which supplement the ubiquitous Indian occupation of subsistence corn farming.

Differences in pre-hispanic heritage and historical experience (Smith . . .

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