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  • Labor and Love in Guatemala: The Eve of Independence by Catherine Komisaruk
  • Justin Wolfe
Labor and Love in Guatemala: The Eve of Independence. By Catherine Komisaruk. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013. Pp. xiii, 338. Illustrations. Maps. Notes. Works Cited. Index. $65.00 cloth.

This lively and detailed study of Guatemala during the Bourbon Reform era is the kind of outstanding social history that demands a rethinking of the decades that followed. Komisaruk argues that the erosion of forms of forced labor in Guatemala began well before independence from Spain in response to both demographic and economic changes, and that this erosion led to a breakdown of traditional racial and ethnic ties and the emergence of a territory that was increasingly Hispanized culturally. Fundamental [End Page 347] to her analysis and to the changes she charts were the gendered relations of power that undergirded mobility, work, and reproduction. Based on deep archival research, particularly on the fine-grained reading of civil and criminal court cases, Komisaruk offers a window into plebeian life that is worthy of emulation.

Komisaruk argues that Guatemala followed a pattern seen across Latin America: the decline of repartimiento labor in favor of free labor. Occurring in Guatemala in the eighteenth century, somewhat later than in more central parts of the Spanish empire, this process led to significant out-migration of Indian men to new places of work and a decline in tributary resources, in both the short and long term. These changes began to erode ties to Indian communities, producing increasing ladinoization and a masculinization of rural agricultural zones. At the same time, Komisaruk argues, slavery began to decline in Guatemala, not simply as a demographic response to the end of significant importations of enslaved Africans, but also through processes of self-emancipation, principally escape and self-purchase. This, too, led to an increasingly Hispanized African-descent population, one whose identity was less formally tied to forms of unfree labor by the end of the colonial period.

Perhaps Komisaruk’s most impressive research appears in chapter 3, which explores forms of plebeian free labor in urban Guatemala. This chapter calls to mind John Kicza’s tour de force, Colonial Entrepreneurs: Families and Business in Bourbon Mexico City (1983), although Komisaruk’s research relies more heavily on court cases than on the notarial records of Kicza’s study. In contrast to rural migration of Indian men, the urban pattern is one of mostly women entering the cities, particularly as servants, but increasingly in a wide array of activities. This produced an urban center with a strikingly female population, one that was also increasingly Hispanized and disconnected from its communities of origin. Komisaruk’s analysis reveals an urban center with an increasingly diverse middle sector of entrepreneurs, whose members followed family-based strategies similar to their elite counterparts, but for whom success was much more fraught. Finally, Komisaruk analyzes gender relations and notions of honor, particularly in relation to marriage and non-marital sexual unions, in the face of urban Guatemala’s transformed demography and labor relations. The city’s sex imbalance altered the terrain of partner choice, just as it had given women greater economic autonomy. Both of these attenuated patriarchal norms on the eve of independence.

The range and variety of Komisaruk’s archival sources, including notarial documents, tax lists, city inspection reports, census records, and civil and criminal court cases, afford a level of detail and nuance to be envied. Her use of an enormous body of court cases is one of the book’s most important methodological contributions. Focused primarily on materials from urban Guatemala, Komisaruk mines these cases not simply for the conflicts involved, but for the texture of plebeian life. An exemplary case is her analysis of a murder case in a bakery (pp. 165-166). Read across census, tax, and notarial records, the case reveals lines of authority, relations of gender and race, work practices, and social standing. Komisaruk weaves cases like these through and across her chapters in way that presents a rich, almost microhistorical, tapestry of urban life. [End Page 348]

The book calls into question more static interpretations of Guatemala’s social relations, particularly those that too...


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