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Maya after War: Conflict, Power, and Politics in Guatemala by Jennifer L. Burrell (review)

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 87, Number 1, Winter 2014
pp. 291-295 | 10.1353/anq.2014.0008

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In many ways, as Jennifer Burrell and Ellen Moodie argue in their introduction to Central America in the New Millennium (2012), Central America is very 1980s. In the late 20th century, revolutionary tumult in the region captured the attention of solidarity-minded North Americans, Nobel Peace Prize jurors, and the US State Department. The Annual Review of Anthropology published two review articles dedicated to Central American research in that decade. But once peace accords were signed and democratic transitions declared, the geopolitical spotlight moved on, and the region once again slipped into relative obscurity. Nonetheless, scholars whose commitments formed during this period of hope and violence have continued to document the region, producing moving accounts of the aftermath of war and the lived experience of a “peace” that exists in name only (e.g., Moodie 2011, Zilberg 2011).

Jennifer Burrell’s thoughtfully constructed and eloquently written Maya after War is the latest contribution to this emerging literature on transitional periods, which she defines as people struggling to come to terms with the past while trying to move onto something new. Maya after War opens with the celebration of the signing of the 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accords in the Mam Maya village of Todos Santos, where the mood is decidedly muted. As one of Burrell’s interlocutors observes, “as long as we’re still poor, peace hasn’t arrived.” The myriad ways in which peace has yet to arrive structure the chapters that follow, which use the specific context of the village to explore many of the new forms of violence that typify the post-war period throughout the region, including lynching, gangs, and reparamilitarization. Burrell has the advantage of hindsight in this account: she has been conducting fieldwork in this predominantly Mayan village in highlands Guatemala off and on for the last 20 years, with several years of consecutive residence in the late 1990s. This perspective allows her to document changes over time, including people’s experiences of the changing Guatemalan state and the rippling social effects of intensive outmigration.

The area glossed as Mesoamerica boasts a long ethnographic record. Much of this work was produced during the reign of functionalism, when scholars privileged solidarity and cohesion in their accounts of the social. Burrell mines this extensive ethnographic literature to contextualize her study, but her theoretical trajectory (along with the indubitable evidence from her fieldsite) leads her to emphasize conflict over cohesion. At one point, she refers to her book as a “compendium of conflict,” noting that, “shared conflict binds people as much to each other as shared culture” (9). In this compendium, “Disputes that had been ongoing for generations seethed in different registers and became newly consequential” in the post-war period (6). Paul and Demerest (1988) memorably made this point in Harvest of Violence when they recounted the ways in which Mayan villagers took advantage of counterinsurgency politics to pursue personal grudges. In the seething post-war register that Burrell chronicles, anti-communist discourse has morphed into anti-gang politics as generations’ old conflicts over land continue to play out in the post-war securityscape.

A related point to Burrell’s concern for conflict is her interest in the processual. She situates her work in a Marxist intellectual lineage, with nods to Raymond Williams, Eric Wolf, and William Roseberry. As Burrell explains: “A focus on history and violence invites thinking about process, thereby moving away from static notions of culture and society and from reading particular forms as received or natural” (151). Thus, this work goes against the grain of the regnant common sense in Guatemala (and beyond) that sees the Maya as static bearers of tradition and interprets the violence besetting the region as an ahistorical product of culture. Burrell carefully delineates the contingencies that go into creating these categories.

In addition to its careful historical contextualization, Maya after War is also marked by a refreshing transparency about the ethnographic methods that went into its making. One of these examples is the engagement that produced the ethnographic meat of Chapter 2: a mapmaking workshop that Burrell conducted with middle school students before the end of the war. Although map sales were illegal at the time, Burrell received...



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