I Ask for Justice

[ Latin American Studies ]

I Ask for Justice

Maya Women, Dictators, and Crime in Guatemala, 1898–1944

By David Carey Jr.

This study of the Guatemalan legal system during the regimes of two of Latin America’s most repressive dictators reveals the surprising extent to which Maya women used the courts to air their grievances and defend their human rights.

October 2013


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6 x 9 | 363 pp. | 31 b&w photos, 2 maps, 14 tables

ISBN: 978-1-4773-0210-1

Given Guatemala’s record of human rights abuses, its legal system has often been portrayed as illegitimate and anemic. I Ask for Justice challenges that perception by demonstrating that even though the legal system was not always just, rural Guatemalans considered it a legitimate arbiter of their grievances and an important tool for advancing their agendas. As both a mirror and an instrument of the state, the judicial system simultaneously illuminates the limits of state rule and the state’s ability to co-opt Guatemalans by hearing their voices in court.

Against the backdrop of two of Latin America’s most oppressive regimes—the dictatorships of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898–1920) and General Jorge Ubico (1931–1944)—David Carey Jr. explores the ways in which indigenous people, women, and the poor used Guatemala’s legal system to manipulate the boundaries between legality and criminality. Using court records that are surprisingly rich in Maya women’s voices, he analyzes how bootleggers, cross-dressers, and other litigants crafted their narratives to defend their human rights. Revealing how nuances of power, gender, ethnicity, class, and morality were constructed and contested, this history of crime and criminality demonstrates how Maya men and women attempted to improve their socioeconomic positions and to press for their rights with strategies that ranged from the pursuit of illicit activities to the deployment of the legal system.

List of Illustrations, Maps, and Tables

Foreword by Pablo Piccato


Introduction: Justice, Ethnicity, and Gender in Twentieth-Century Guatemala

Chapter 1. Dictators, Indígenas, and the Legal System: Intersections of Race and Crime

Chapter 2. "Rough and Thorny Terrain": Moonshine, Gender, and Ethnicity

Chapter 3. "Productive Activity": Female Vendors and Ladino Authorities in the Market

Chapter 4. Unnatural Mothers and Reproductive Crimes: Infanticide, Abortion, and Cross-Dressing

Chapter 5. Wives in Danger and Dangerous Women: Domestic and Female Violence

Chapter 6. Honorable Subjects: Public Insults, Family Feuds, and State Power

Conclusion: Emboldened and Constrained






David Carey Jr. is Professor of History and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Southern Maine and author of Engendering Mayan History: Kaqchikel Women as Agents and Conduits of the Past, 1875–1970; Ojer taq tzijob’äl kichin ri Kaqchikela’ Winaqi’ (A History of the Kaqchikel People); and Our Elders Teach Us: Maya-Kaqchikel Historical Perspectives.

“Based on hundreds of criminal records from the Department of Chimaltenango, Guatemala, David Carey Jr.’s new book makes a signal contribution to understanding gender relations and the role of criminal courts in the operation of authoritarian politics during the first half of the twentieth century. Every page of this well-written, sophisticated study rewards a careful reading. In Carey’s hands, criminal litigation becomes a mirror of the Guatemalan state as well as one of its chief instruments, a resource for humble litigants thirsty for justice as well as an imposition. Best of all, the voices and actions of scores of Maya women come through in remarkable detail—vulnerable and constrained, but not simply marginalized in the dictators’ rush to control and modernize. Readers will find that Rigoberta Menchú had many older sisters in the defense of their human rights.”
—William B. Taylor, Sonne Professor Emeritus of History, University of California, Berkeley

“Drinking, thieving, wife-beating, murder, infanticide, and abortion—the stuff of everyday life in rural Guatemala and the subjects of David Carey’s excellent I Ask for Justice: Maya Women, Dictators, and Crime in Guatemala, 1898–1944. Carey situates his granular, almost microscopic archival research and impressive knowledge of Mayan life within a broad conceptual frame, producing a fascinating and important study. With this book, Carey has brought Guatemalan historiography to a new level of sophistication.”
—Greg Grandin, author of The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War and Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City

Bryce Wood Book Award from the Latin American Studies Association