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Forced and Forbidden Sex: Rape and Sexual Freedom in Dictatorial Guatemala

From: The Americas
Volume 69, Number 3, January 2013
pp. 357-389 | 10.1353/tam.2013.0034

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

As the sun was setting on December 12, 1907, the 16-year-old Tecla Xicay and her sister Inocenta were returning to their village of Tonajuyu, San Martín Jilotepeque (henceforth San Martín), in highland Guatemala when a portly ladino with a thin blonde mustache jumped out from behind a gate, took off his shoes, and attempted to rape Tecla. When she resisted, he hit her twice in the neck and then stabbed her in the back as she fled. Illiterate and monolingual speakers of Kaqchikel-Maya (henceforth Kaqchikel), the sisters recounted their harrowing ordeal through an interpreter the next day in Chimaltenango's municipal court. Apparently eager to escape the grasp of the state and ladino world, the two indigenous women did not tarry in Chimaltenango. Despite the military surgeon's insistence that Xicay be admitted to the hospital to cure her open wound, she refused, saying she would take care of it herself. Ladino and patriarchal in their design and operation, institutions such as courts and hospitals that held the potential to assist indigenous women often alienated them.

As was true elsewhere in Latin America, more than any other violent crime in Guatemalan jurisprudence, rape litigation disadvantaged women. In my sample of 15 rape trials in the Chimaltenango Juzgado de Primera Instancia (the court of first jurisdiction, or department court) between 1900 and 1925, only one ended in conviction and the charge was reduced to rapto (abduction). Although rape was ultimately adjudicated at the department level, plaintiffs generally initiated their claims in municipal courtrooms. For this reason, I studied over 650 petitions and judicial proceedings from two predominantly Kaqchikel municipalities in the department of Chimaltenango: Patzicía and San Martín. Although only about a dozen from each collection explicitly referred to rape or attitudes about sex, the sources afforded a study across the first half of the twentieth century.

Even during the reign of General Jorge Ubico y Castañeda (1931-1944), who cast himself as a "protector of women," perpetrators of sexual violence generally enjoyed impunity. Guatemalan judges' reluctance to convict rapists bolstered authoritarian and patriarchal power. In pursuit of more efficacious routes to justice, some victims bypassed the judicial system altogether and appealed directly to the jefe político (governor). Particularly for the Ubico period, petitions and official correspondence in the jefatura política (governorship) papers for Chimaltenango and Sacatepéquez, along with police reports and newspapers, were crucial for understanding the broader parameters of rape in the first half of the twentieth century in Guatemala.

This study explores the ways in which sex—both violent and voluntary—shaped individual lives, communities, and the nation during the regimes of two of Latin America's most repressive dictators, Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898-1920) and Ubico. By perpetuating a sense of fear that helped the government control the population and reinforcing the right of the strong to attack the weak, rape helped these dictatorships to deepen both their own power and local patriarchs' privileged positions vis-à-vis women. Rape records suggest some of the ways the judicial system upheld men's power over women—legal resolutions often had more to do with male litigants than female victims. After almost two years in jail, for example, Manuel Tum Ardón was released in August 1902 when the Court of Appeals ruled that the stepfather of the victim had no legal right to bring a rape or abduction charge on her behalf. Although deflowering a virgin marked a loss of honor for the girl and her family, particularly the father because it indicated he lacked control over or failed to protect his female kin, Tum's lawyer successfully argued that a girl's lot had no effect on her stepfather's honor. Because Guatemalan jurisprudence considered rape a "delito privado" (private crime) or crime of honor rather than a public crime that could be prosecuted by the state, it was tried only at the initiative of the persons affected. When victims did not make formal accusations themselves, those who did often controlled their fate, as Andrea Caná learned when her husband dropped the charges against her rapist in 1911.

As much as the legal system might be designed...



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