- The Mayans among Us: Migrant Women and Meatpacking on the Great Plains by Ann L. Sittig and Martha Florinda González
Ann L. Sittig worked on a grant project (2001) funded by the U.S. Department of Education that compared Native Americans with Mayans in Guatemala and Belize. During a visit to her home state of Nebraska, she was surprised to find individuals speaking Spanish with Mayan accents. Inspired by these encounters and foregrounding the oral histories of Guatemalans in Nebraska as primary texts, Sittig partners with Martha Florinda González in writing The Mayans among Us: Migrant Women and Meatpacking on the Great Plains.
A community insider, Florinda González is a college-educated U.S. citizen of Guatemalan Mayan Q'anjob'al heritage who worked as a facilitator at the National Indigenous Women's Commission in Guatemala. As the title suggests, The Mayans among Us provides "us" (read: English-speaking U.S. Americans) with a brief overview of the Guatemalan civil war and the lives of five Guatemalan women and one Ladino man who labor in, or have familial connections to, a unionized meat-processing plant in Nebraska. Easily approachable from a non-academic perspective, the book serves as a general-reader introduction to this understudied population.
The female-centered ethnographic approach of the book makes it a significant contribution to women's labor history, and useful to ethnographers and sociologists interested in the study of the Mayan diaspora to so-called non-traditional rural, Midwest destinations. Other scholars of the Guatemalan Mayan diaspora have not taken such a female-centered approach, but consider issues such as the struggles to unionize in a meatpacking plant (Fink 2003), the lives of Mayans in exile (Burns 1993; Hagen 1994; Popkin 1999; Loucky and Moors 2000), debates around Rigoberta Menchu's testimonio and testimonio as genre (Arias 2001), and child migrants (Menjívar 2002; Terrio 2015). Sittig and Florinda González discuss the multitude of ways that gender impacts how Mayan women understand and experience poverty relationally between the United States and Guatemala, education, migration, intimate and familial relationships, and labor.
The narrative arc of the project concentrates on the testimonies of five Mayan women, who speak Q'anjob'al, Mam, or K'iche', and their memories of Guatemala, migration to the United States, religious practices and community formation in Nebraska, and their connection to a unionized meatpacking plant. The text focuses on commonalities among the women's lives in Guatemala, such as a lack of education for women, reliance on subsistence agriculture, poverty, discrimination against Mayan people by the Guatemalan government, and a trend among Mayan families to invest more in male children. Sittig and Florinda González consider the significance of trajes, or Mayan garments that represent ethnic regions and language groups, across cultural and national borders. In Guatemala, the government discriminated against women who wore trajes; until 1999, women were not allowed to wear them in schools. Now, the tourist industry commodifies textiles. Interestingly, Mayan women explained their past and present economic well-being in terms of traje-purchasing power. The authors argue that "the indigenous dress and its accessibility become the symbol for identity, ethnicity, and favorable socioeconomic status or mobility" for Mayan women that remains applicable as they cross borders (7).
Fleeing a U.S.-backed civil war and violence and in search of economic stability, Guatemalan Mayans came to the United States beginning in the 1970s. Pioneer waves were dominated by young, single men, but later women, children, and families also migrated. When the Mayan women of Nebraska discussed the war they "recalled the conflict in a fragmented and childlike manner because they were mere children at the time" (28). To supplement these memories, Sittig and Florinda González provide readers with a firsthand account of atrocities through the testimonio of a college-educated, Ladino Guatemalan solder who joined the military due to a lack of economic [End Page 131] opportunities. The only male in a book about women...