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A Beauty That Hurts

Life and Death in Guatemala, Second Revised Edition

By W. George Lovell

Publication Year: 2010

Though a 1996 peace accord brought a formal end to a conflict that had lasted for thirty-six years, Guatemala’s violent past continues to scar its troubled present and seems destined to haunt its uncertain future. George Lovell brings to this revised and expanded edition of A Beauty That Hurts decades of fieldwork throughout Guatemala, as well as archival research. He locates the roots of conflict in geographies of inequality that arose during colonial times and were exacerbated by the drive to develop Guatemala’s resources in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The lines of confrontation were entrenched after a decade of socioeconomic reform between 1944 and 1954 saw modernizing initiatives undone by a military coup backed by U.S. interests and the CIA. A United Nations Truth Commission has established that civil war in Guatemala claimed the lives of more that 200,000 people, the vast majority of them indigenous Mayas. Lovell weaves documentation about what happened to Mayas in particular during the war years with accounts of their difficult personal situations. Meanwhile, an intransigent elite and a powerful military continue to benefit from the inequalities that triggered armed insurrection in the first place. Weak and corrupt civilian governments fail to impose the rule of law, thus ensuring that Guatemala remains an embattled country where postwar violence and drug-related crime undermine any semblance of orderly, peaceful life.

Published by: University of Texas Press

Title, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xv

The privileges of university life are many. One that I hold in special regard is the luxury of sabbatical leave. Released from routine and duty on one such leave, I was able to devote myself entirely to writing, sitting at my desk without any need...

Part One: Struggle and Survival

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pp. 1-46

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1. Q'anjob'al Canadian

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pp. 3-16

Genaro Castañeda was only four years old when, in 1974, I first saw the Cuchumatanes Mountains that are home to him and another quarter-million Q’anjob’al Mayas. The life that awaited him in Canada was a long...

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2. Nobel K'iche'

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pp. 17-25

I heard Rigoberta Menchú speak for the first time in Toronto on February 6, 1988. That very day The Globe and Mail ran a travel feature with the headline “Guatemala in Style for a Mere $5 a Day...

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3. Jakaltek American

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pp. 26-31

Jacaltenango is a remote, unkempt-looking town at the western edge of the Cuchumatanes Mountains close to the Guatemalan border with Mexico. It is known to the scholarly world as a stop on the route taken in 1925 by Frans Blom and Oliver La Farge, who afterward produced...

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4. Doña Magdalena

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pp. 32-38

We arrived in Santa Cruz del Quiché shortly before noon, drove slowly around the main square, then waited as instructed in front of the church. I spotted Tina before Lorenzo did. She made her way unhurriedly across the plaza, looking...

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5. Through A Lens, Darkly

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pp. 39-41

Imagine the naked body of a young woman. Her head is turned to one side, eyes closed, lips apart, mouth half-open. She is dead. A soiled cloth has been laid across her genitals. Her arms, in repose, are arranged across her chest, but they have no hands...

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6. Devils and Angels

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pp. 42-46

Just as the photographs of Jean-Marie Simon cut to the heart of Guatemala’s dark reality, so too do three features by documentary filmmaker Mary Ellen Davis. Her Maya trilogy spans a decade of faltering transition from war to peace. In...

Part Two: Blood and Ink

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pp. 47-104

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7. The Delivery Man

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pp. 49

Joselino arrives with the newspapers every morning shortly after seven. He prefers to ring the doorbell rather than summon attention with the brass knocker cast in the shape of a hand. When I open the door, I usually find him flicking...

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8. Into the Fire (1981)

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pp. 50-56

The man sitting next to me in the sauna is a doctor from Guatemala City. He has come out to Jocotenango in the hope that he can cleanse himself of more than just the capital’s filth. The story he tells me concerns one of his colleagues...

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9. Peace of the Dead (1982-1983)

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pp. 57-65

I missed the visit of Pope John Paul II by only a few days. He was in Guatemala on March 7, 1983, during one of his whirlwind pastoral engagements. Part of his address to an assembly of indigenous Mayas was delivered...

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10. Futility at the Polls (1984)

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pp. 66-70

My two weeks passed quickly. Visiting Guatemala for such a short time is by no means ideal, but at least it affords me some opportunity to take stock in situ. Ríos Montt is gone, ousted in August 1983 by a coup that saw General Oscar...

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11. Civilian Rule (1985-1986)

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pp. 71-74

I arrived in Guatemala well ahead of the date set for the runoff election, December 8, 1985. Victory at the polls that day belonged to Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, who won comfortably with 68 percent of the popular vote. There was a fiesta feel...

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12. A Militarized Society (1987-1990)

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pp. 75-79

A number of people told me they had heard the bombs being dropped. I didn’t know whether to believe them or not. “Not that close to Antigua,” I remember thinking. I remained skeptical until I read about it afterward, the accounts...

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13. The Daily News (1990)

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pp. 80-89

I make my way to my favorite table, in the corner of the patio where the light is good, and start to read. The waitress brings me coffee. She hovers, nods at the papers, and asks, “Don’t you ever get tired...

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14. The Fiction of Democracy (1991)

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pp. 90-93

At Chimaltenango, fifty-five kilometers west of Guatemala City, the Pan-American Highway becomes a desolate strip of bars, nightclubs, gambling joints, and brothels. Branching off the highway, the road to Antigua is lined on both sides by towering...

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15. Searching for Peace (1993-1994)

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pp. 94-97

The tense days between May 25 and June 5, 1993, saw Ramiro de León Carpio, the country’s human rights ombudsman, replace Jorge Serrano Elías as the president of Guatemala. I was working in Spain at the time, but I managed...

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16. Scarred by War (1995)

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pp. 98-103

The caption on the calendar at a friend’s house catches my eye: “1995—The Year of Peace.” It is only my first week back in Guatemala, but nothing I have heard or read warrants such an assertion. In Guatemala, declaring peace...

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17. How Was Guatemala?

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pp. 104

I miss my morning chats with Joselino very much. Even on days when the news he delivers is particularly grim, he has something to say about soccer, the rains, his girlfriends, Antigua gossip, or world affairs that cheers me...

Part Three: Spaniards, Ladinos, and the Enduring Maya

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pp. 105-147

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18. The Colonial Experience

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pp. 107-119

Unlike native peoples elsewhere in the Americas, whose memory belongs to history, whose trace on the earth is faint, the Maya of Guatemala are very much a living culture. They sustain a presence no visitor to the country can fail to notice...

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19. The Century After Independence

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pp. 120-131

It’s ironic to think that we often know more about the history of Guatemala under Spanish rule than we do about postcolonial times, especially the nineteenth century. Bit by bit, however, a more grounded appreciation of the events...

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20. Arbenz and the Fruit Company

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pp. 132-137

The struggle for justice in Guatemala is inseparable from the struggle for land rights on the part of its impoverished majority, Ladinos as well as Mayas. No chapter in the country’s history revolves so pivotally around the land question...

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21. The T-Shirt Parade

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pp. 138-143

Leonardo Buch Chiroy doesn’t quite look like the indigenous Maya he truly is, at least compared to the exotic images that greet passengers who arrive at Aurora Airport in Guatemala City. It’s his clothes that do it, especially the T-shirt...

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22. Natives in the Backcountry

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pp. 144-147

The backcountry north of Kingston, Ontario, is home to a mix of people who seem to have little in common save for where they happen to live. I know, or know of, lots of backcountry residents: secretaries and factory workers...

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pp. 149-180

Genaro Castañeda, who fled his war-torn country as a teenager, has lived most of his life away from Guatemala. For seventeen years the province he calls home has been British Columbia, not his native Huehuetenango. Genaro has a steady job as the headwaiter...

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Sources and Commentary

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pp. 181-201

People began to write about Guatemala a long time ago. Our oldest records, those left by the Maya themselves, are in the form of hieroglyphic inscriptions that appear on various artifacts dating from as early as A.D. 250. Classic Maya culture...


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pp. 202-206

E-ISBN-13: 9780292792937
E-ISBN-10: 029279293X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292721838
Print-ISBN-10: 0292721838

Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 27 b&w photos, 1 map
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Indians of Central America -- Guatemala -- Government relations.
  • Mayas -- Guatemala -- Government relations.
  • Guatemala -- History -- 1985-.
  • Guatemala -- History -- 1945-1985.
  • Human rights -- Guatemala.
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