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The Americas 61.2 (2004) 189-216

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From Symbols of the Sacred to Symbols of Subversion to Simply Obscure:

Maryknoll Women Religious in Guatemala, 1953 to 1967*

California State University
Northridge, California

In December of 1980 three women religious and a lay missioner from the United States were brutally raped and murdered by the Salvadoran military. This outrage brought international attention to the violence in El Salvador and led to a temporary halt in US military aid.1 The sisters were neither the first nor the most violently killed—8,000 people were massacred in 1980 and 45,000 between 1980 and 1984—but their rape and murder, the murder of Archbishop Romero in March of 1980, and that of six Jesuit priests in 1989 were consistently cited as evidence of the sheer brutality and impunity of the Salvadoran military regime.2 Killing priests and bishops and raping and murdering nuns signified quite simply that "nothing was sacred."

In "killing priests, nuns, women, children," Jean Franco made this point explicit by arguing that the military had violated an "imaginary topography in which the 'feminine' was rigidly compartmentalized and assigned particular territories, [which] were loaded with significance and so inextricably [End Page 189] bound to the sacred that they were often taken for spaces of immunity."3 She concluded that in Latin America "sacredness . . . attaches to certain figures like the mother, the virgin, the nun and the priest."4 Franco's powerful critique relied on the assumption that nuns, priests, women, children were sacred symbols. In her account, the identity of the victims was vitiated by this sacred status. This was especially true for the nuns murdered in El Salvador. While they became important public symbols of the military's impunity, we rarely heard their names. We knew little of their work. They appeared to have no personal history.5

Franco's analysis pointed to a paradoxical truth about nuns—their status as sacred symbols obscured their role in society, yet it also gave them the power to transcend boundaries. Nuns not only occupied sacred space, they sacralized space, as a result they could move through territory closed to women without being "defiled" by it or "violating" gender norms. Nuns' symbolic status as paragons of virtue, as the epitome of perpetuation of patriarchy, and as living anachronisms allowed them to perform a variety of roles. Yet, because their work took nuns to places deemed threatening or suspicious—they worked among the poor, with abused and battered women, in urban slums, with indigenous catechists and health promoters—they could quickly be transformed from symbols of the sacred into symbols of subversion. Thus, while the murder of the nuns in El Salvador signified the military's violation of the sacred to Jean Franco, to Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations, it signified the nuns' violation of their own sacred identity. "The nuns were not just nuns," she declared, they were "political activists," suggesting that they had transcended the boundary of the sacred and deserved to lose their immunity.6 In Jeane Kirkpatrick's account, the nuns had asked for it. [End Page 190]

This article examines the history of Maryknoll women religious in Guatemala from 1953 to 1967 to illustrate a case in which nuns' work and the contradictions inherent in their roles led to politicization. Yet, it also provides insight into why women religious who were not political became identified as subversives simply because of the form of their religiously-mandated labor. The US women who entered Maryknoll in the 1940s and 1950s did so as an expression of their faith and of their desire to "be something more," to work in the world to improve the lives of those "less fortunate." In the post-World War II era, when options for women in the United States were limited, Maryknoll provided a way to transcend and yet simultaneously to reinforce existing gender norms.7 Maryknoll sisters in Guatemala ran schools, a hospital, medical clinics...


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