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  • I Ask for Justice: Maya Women, Dictators, and Crime in Guatemala, 1898–1944 by David Carey Jr.
  • René Reeves
I Ask for Justice: Maya Women, Dictators, and Crime in Guatemala, 1898–1944. By David Carey Jr. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013. Pp. xxi, 325. Photos. Maps. $55.00 cloth.

If culture manifests as argument, then court records should be an ethnohistorian’s bonanza. Court records are not always preserved, however, and when they are, verdicts are not always reported. Moreover, it is notoriously hard to piece together the fragments of cases that span more than one legal venue. That said, David Carey poses a valid question when he asks why judicial documents have rarely been used systematically to study Guatemalan history. He rectifies this methodological neglect by placing legal records at the center of his study, combining them with oral interviews and other sources gathered from two decades of research to reconstruct tantalizing glimpses of life in early twentieth-century Guatemala.

These glimpses allow Carey to break new ground in theorizing the quotidian ways that subaltern Guatemalans left their mark on the process of nation-state formation. He argues that the judicial system was especially important in this regard, connecting poor, often indigenous, rural folk—including women—to the state. Moreover, it did so with surprising legitimacy, even during the notorious Estrada Cabrera and Ubico dictatorships. Why? Because even though the courts were part of the state’s repressive apparatus, subalterns relied on them to pursue their own interests. On the one hand, the courts imposed unpopular alcohol laws and restrictive market policies on the most disenfranchised Guatemalans—indigenous women. On the other hand, indigenous women used the courts to prosecute men who physically abused them and compatriots who slandered their reputations.

Even vendors convicted of commercial infractions appreciated the courts’ efforts to maintain order and safety in the public markets. Judicial officials treated plaintiffs and defendants alike with a modicum of respect, and court procedures gave both some opportunity to speak their minds. Ultimately, Carey demonstrates that even the most dispossessed could influence how judges interpreted and imposed the law and how they ran their courts in locales across the nation. In short, subaltern Guatemalans shaped the Guatemalan state. [End Page 386]

A multiplicity of crimes brought people into the legal system. Carey’s desire to provide “a more comprehensive portrait of rural life” leads him to focus on “less sensational law violations” such as illegal alcohol, marketplace infractions, infanticide, abortion, domestic violence, and slander (16). Almost all of these crimes disproportionately implicated women. Whatever the crime, however, once in court, even subaltern defendants were afforded the unusual opportunity to speak their version of truth to power. Women caught violating public market regulations red-handed typically found that judges ignored their testimonies, but female moonshiners who recounted how poverty had forced them into the illicit trade could convince judges to reduce their sentences. Similarly, women convicted of infanticide or abortion could obtain leniency by claiming to have acted in defense of their reputations.

As plaintiffs, women enlisted the legal system to protect themselves and their children. They petitioned the courts to prosecute men for infanticide, abortion, and domestic violence. In infanticide cases, women sometimes persuaded judges to resist charging male defendants with homicide even though it would result in more prison time because infanticide carried greater social opprobrium. In domestic violence cases, women typically convinced judges to convict, but the maximum punishment was only ten days in the municipal jail, commutable for a fine, meaning plaintiffs often went home with their abusers.

Women also used the courts to defend their honor by prosecuting insults and defamation. Poor women, in particular, because they often worked outside the home, depended on their reputations for their livelihoods. On the one hand, then, Guatemala’s political leaders considered patriarchy too central to authoritarian rule to more than moderate male violence if the outcome was not fatal. On the other hand, political leaders placed such importance on honor that they cultivated a legal system in which even indigenous women could defend their reputations. In the end, Carey shows, “the tyranny of opinion was as valuable a tool as the combination of...