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"Here, Our Culture Is Hard"

"Here, Our Culture Is Hard"
Stories of Domestic Violence from a Mayan Community in Belize

How Mayan women endure, escape, and avoid abuse.

Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Book Two, Louann Atkins Temple Women & Culture Series

August 2001
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
320 pages | 6 x 9 | 8 halftones, 5 line drawings |

Marriage among the Maya of Central America is a model of complementarity between a man and a woman. This union demands mutual respect and mutual service. Yet some husbands beat their wives.

In this pioneering book, Laura McClusky examines the lives of several Mopan Maya women in Belize. Using engaging ethnographic narratives and a highly accessible analysis of the lives that have unfolded before her, McClusky explores Mayan women's strategies for enduring, escaping, and avoiding abuse. Factors such as gender, age inequalities, marriage patterns, family structure, educational opportunities, and economic development all play a role in either preventing or contributing to domestic violence in the village. McClusky argues that using narrative ethnography, instead of cold statistics or dehumanized theoretical models, helps to keep the focus on people, "rehumanizing" our understanding of violence. This highly accessible book brings to the social sciences new ways of thinking about, representing, and studying abuse, marriage, death, gender roles, and violence.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • I. The Field Site and Fieldwork
  • 2. Laziness and Work
  • 3. Another Legitimate Beating
  • 4. Daughters
  • 5. "When We Go to High School, We Change"
  • 6. Traveling Spirits
  • Summary and Discussion
  • Epilogue: Milling Data
  • Appendix: List of Main Characters
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • References Cited
  • Index

Laura J. McClusky, Ph.D., is an adjunct faculty member at SUNY at Buffalo, Buffalo State College, and Erie Community College.


I: The Topic

Why Focus on Domestic Violence? The Haunting

You don't choose to write the books you write, any more than you choose your mother, your father, your brother, your children, or your comadre. (Behar 1993: xi)

So-called participant obseruation has a way of drawing the ethnographer into spaces of human life where she or he might really not prefer to go .... (Scheper-Hughes 1991: xii)

I was sitting on the veranda of the hotel. My companions, two other anthropology graduate students, had left earlier that morning. They went north looking for a field site. I stayed behind, to think. I was enjoying time alone, swinging back and forth in a big colorful hammock. The comfort I felt was important. It was the comfort that let me know that this village would be my field site.

A woman, maybe thirty years old, wearing a bright yellow dress and carrying a multicolored plastic woven handbag, appeared at the top of the steps. I smiled at her, dismissively, and tried to ignore her. I knew she would try to sell me some baskets or embroidery, and I didn't feel like buying just then. I was busy planning my future. I was trying to think about what sort of project I could do here. In my graduate training I was interested in a wide variety of subjects. I had written my master's thesis on dream theory, but I also had interests in midwifery, health and healing, and concepts of self and gender. I was all over the place, really.

The woman smiling at the top of the stairs, I later found out, was named Antonia. On that day, when we first met, she sat down on a bench along the railing and ignored my attempts to ignore her. She giggled and smiled. Her top incisors were missing, making her canines look like fangs. Still giggling, Antonia pulled samples of baskets and embroidery from her handbag, as I knew she would, and carefully placed each one on the bench next to her.

"I'm not interested in baskets or embroidery, thanks." I forced a sweet little smile across my face. I faced her so she could see my smile, so she could see I wasn't rude. I didn't look at her, though. Eye contact gets me into trouble with vendors. It traps me into buying, and I didn't want to buy. I already had enough. Deb, one of my companions, was already saying I had too many and was reminding me of the time we spent together in Guatemala, when I hauled a backpack full of textiles and jade and wood carvings all over the country due to my inability to say no to vendors.

Antonia giggled.

"REALLY," a little sterner, my smile a little more taut, "I don't WANT any."

That's when she began to stare at me. I could feel her gaze on the side of my face. She was trying to trap me, a big fish in her net. But I was holding my ground. I was stubborn. I just kept swinging, back and forth, back and forth, silently. If she looked away for just a moment I would escape from this standoff. I would get out of the hammock and go to my room where she couldn't follow. So I waited, silent, swinging. She'd have to give up and look away.

When, finally, she did look away, it surprised me. I could tell she wasn't packing up her wares. She wasn't giving up. She wanted my attention. Without her gaze on the side of my face, I didn't know what she was doing. I became intrigued. I looked at her. She had her hands in her lap, and her head was bowed. Her soft whispery voice, barely audible, asked, "Do you like men?"

What kind of a question was that? "Do you like men?"! Did I hear her right? Was this some kind of proposition?

"Excuse me?"

"Do you like men?" She spoke a little louder, shifted her gaze from her hands to the mountain view. "I don't." She glanced at me. I expected a giggle but none came. "My husband, he lash me too much."

I stopped swinging. I couldn't respond. Emotionally, I was frozen. I couldn't speak, I couldn't move. I was blank. Not only was emotion blocking me, but I didn't know what to say if I could speak. In the States, I would tell the woman to get help, to contact a women's shelter, to leave her abusive husband. Here, I didn't know what to say. I didn't know what options she had; I didn't know who she was or if what she said was true. I was upset that she would pull me into such a mess when I wasn't even part of the village yet. All the warnings I had heard about upsetting a field site, being careful not to ally oneself with any particular faction, being careful not to make waves, all of that flashed through my mind. I said nothing. I stood up and went into my room as I had planned.

Writing this today, I still feel the chill in my spine, my inability to move, my inability to speak. I still ask myself, How could I have been so cold? So selfish?

I know women in the States who have left abusive partners. We rarely talk about it, though. The knowledge just hovers between us; only occasionally do we let it affect our emotions or our time together. We never talk about it without some sort of preparation, without some sort of warning, never spontaneously, never out of the blue as Antonia did. Nor have I ever been approached by a stranger in the States who told me her partner beat her. Of all the topics strangers have confided in me during "bus experiences," long encounters with strangers wanting to tell other strangers their woes, domestic violence has never been raised.

When I returned to the States, Antonia's desire to talk and my inability to listen haunted me. When a man I was dating confronted me, saying that he didn't like the way my anger tended to be violent, Antonia's stare hit me across the face again. When the Buffalo News Sunday magazine ran a cover story about spousal abuse, complete with color photos of a battered woman in a blood-stained powder blue housecoat (Deed 1991), I remembered the way I blocked Antonia's attempts to talk.

So, I Started Studying the Topic

When I found almost no anthropological discussion of wife-beating or battering, I called Judy Brown for help. Because of her long interest and considerable expertise in women's issues, I knew that if anyone would be familiar with the anthropological literature on wife-beating and battering it would be Judy. Intrigued with the problem, Judy did her own search of the literature. Her research results were similar to mine; clearly anthropologists had ignored or had glossed over with throw-away one-liners a topic of serious dimensions and great importance to women. (Counts 1992: xi)

I found hundreds of articles and books by sociologists, psychologists, and political activists presenting theories, case histories, and statistics on domestic violence in the United States and England. Surprisingly, my own discipline had little to offer. There were only a few articles and just one monograph written specifically about domestic violence from an anthropological perspective (Levinson 1989). All, at the time, rested on cross-cultural analysis using the Human Relations Area File (HRAF).

I didn't know that Dorothy Counts, Judith Brown, and Jacquelyn Campbell had organized a session for the 1987 American Anthropological Association, and three sessions and a symposium for the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania between 1986 and 1988, on the topic of domestic violence. These were the first organized attempts anthropologists had made to discuss the topic seriously. I was excited when, in 1992, two years after my first visit to Belize, their book, a collection of papers presented during those sessions, appeared (Counts, Brown, and Campbell 1992). The book is the first anthropological collection of ethnographic articles focusing on domestic violence. Finally, eight years after Gerald Erchack (1984) called on anthropologists to take domestic violence seriously and contribute to our understanding of the problem, the topic had been broached.

While I am happy my discipline is beginning to discuss domestic violence, I am reminded of a phrase my Belizean friends would use when I thought I was being generous by offering a small gift: Only this? The number of anthropologists who focus on domestic violence is few.

It is true anthropologists haven't completely ignored the issue. Indeed, rereading Mayan ethnographies, I found a scattering of anecdotal information, enough to know that Antonia was not unique (Wisdom 1940, Wagley 1949, Bunzel 1967, Danziger 1991). Bunzel even proposes a theory to explain the high prevalence of wife abuse in Chichicastenango. She suggests that men are frustrated by social requirements to remain monogamous and to gain sexual satisfaction from wives chosen by parents for reasons other than sexual attractiveness. Bunzel proposes an alternative theory as well, suggesting that men need to beat their wives in order to feel they control their own lives, to build a sense of manhood.

Other Mayanists have discussed spouse abuse in the context of their work on alcohol use (Eber 1995) or gender dynamics (Rosenbaum 1993). Scholars of domestic violence would classify their data as supporting the status-inconsistency theory. Status-inconsistency theory suggests that in societies maintaining a gender hierarchy, men are likely to beat their wives if their wives reach a status higher than their own. Husbands beat wives in order to maintain a status consistent with the requirements of the gender hierarchy. Eber and Rosenbaum (1993) say essentially the same when discussing increases in "marital tension" resulting from women benefitting from the global market for Mayan women's weavings.

Scholars of women's movements and social revolutions in Latin America have also raised the topic of domestic violence (Alvarez 1990, 1994, Jaquette 1994, Stephen 1997, Hernandez Castillo 1997). Many Latin American women's movements have organized around the issue of domestic violence, trying to decrease its rate and ensure support for victims of abuse. Most scholars, however, rarely look at the violence itself, rather, they focus on the organizing.

Some scholars have also pointed to the fact that men sometimes violently punish their wives for participating in women's marches and other activities associated with women's movements (Hernandez Castillo 1997, Stephen 1997). Such scholars tend to place their understanding of domestic violence within patriarchal theory, emphasizing the ways men use many types of violence, including rape, to control women politically, economically, and sexually. Few scholars coming from this framework recognize domestic violence as a unique form of violence against women.

In general, anthropologists who discuss domestic violence have treated it as a symptom of patriarchy, or as an issue women organize around to gain rights, rather than seeing it as a social phenomenon within a specific cultural context. Few have taken domestic violence as a primary topic. Why?

Problems with Studying Domestic Violence: "It's a Closed Topic"

The problems I least expected about doing research on domestic violence were financial. My first hint came when a faculty member warned me that I would never get grant money if I were to submit proposals to study domestic violence. "It's a closed topic," she said. Her discomfort, she stressed, came from her belief that the topic would never get funded, and she felt getting funding was an important part of building a good curriculum vitae. She never expressed concern about the topic itself.

Gerald Erchack, with whom I was in contact before I went to Belize, agreed that the topic would never get funded. He had tried to study spousal abuse in Micronesia in the early 1980s but faced a wall of harsh reviews, causing him to reroute to the United States. Later, he published his thoughts on why anthropologists have avoided the topic (Erchack 1994). Anthropologists, he says, are uninvited guests of the people they study. As a result, they tend to turn a blind eye to the less savory elements of native cultures. For many, it isn't polite or ethical to focus on certain topics. While this practice is understandable, he suggests, it harms our understanding of domestic violence as a social phenomenon.

Anthropologists do turn a blind eye to less savory elements of native cultures for ethical reasons; likewise, granting agencies will not fund projects on domestic violence out of ethical concerns. Anthropologists should first and foremost be advocates of the people they write about. They shouldn't focus on topics that make their subjects' lives difficult. That concern is reflected in our professional code, Professional Ethics: Statements and Procedures of the American Anthropological Association, under "Principles of Professional Responsibility, Section I."

In research, an anthropologist's paramount responsibility is to those he studies. When there is a conflict of interest, these individuals must come first. The anthropologist must do everything within his power to protect their physical, social and psychological welfare and to honor their dignity and privacy. (AAA 1973: 1)

The problem in determining whether a study of domestic violence CAN be ethical comes from how one defines those who are being studied. The people I am "studying" are women. It is these women I put first. By telling the stories of their lives and their experiences with domestic violence, I hope to protect their physical, social, and psychological welfare. By showing their strength in dealing with the violence they face, I honor their dignity; by keeping them anonymous, I honor their privacy.

Counts (1992: xi) experienced numerous negative responses to her attempts to make domestic violence an anthropological topic. The one she discusses is the idea that, by studying domestic violence, we would be imposing a political agenda, inappropriately and possibly harmfully, on the host society. I agree with her response. Anthropologists are frequently "caught between our own ethnocentrism on the one hand and the sterile aloofness of extreme relativism on the other" (Counts 1992: xii). She reminds us that, yes, it is important to keep our sense of values and sensibilities in check when doing our work. However, many people where anthropologists work see domestic violence as a problem and are interested in addressing the problem. Our work can assist their efforts.

I find anthropologists' treatment of domestic violence as a "closed topic" bizarre. We have regularly dealt with unsavory topics: cannibalism, infanticide, ritual warfare, suttee, genital mutilation, the spread of AIDS, foot binding, colonization, witchcraft, and genocide, to name a few. Wrestling with unsavory topics is really what we do best.

We are comfortable talking about the injustice and violence indigenous populations have suffered at the hands of white European peoples. We are less comfortable talking about the injustices and violence that indigenous peoples have suffered at the hands of their own, thereby perpetuating a kind of paternalistic sentimentality (Dentan 1995: 229, Iyer 1989: 13). Topics in this second category, especially domestic violence, are unspeakable. Why?

Perhaps domestic violence is not exotic enough. Unlike foot binding, unlike suttee, unlike cannibalism, we ourselves perform this ugliness, just like "exotic" cultures. Perhaps studying an ugliness that we share causes categorical confusion and therefore aversion (Douglas 1966). Anthropology is part of a Western tradition that places native Others into one of two categories. We "represent" the "Other" as Noble Savages, whose lifeways hold the key for our own salvation from our own destructive cultural norms. We also "represent" the "Other" as somehow less than human, practicing barbaric rites that we, as members of an enlightened world, must come to understand. In order for differing peoples to inhabit the world, we must come to understand why others do the things they do and what function their actions have within their society. Domestic violence disrupts this binary legacy in anthropology. It crosses the line, blurring us and them. Perhaps that is why it is taboo.

Or perhaps it is taboo because it is just too ugly. That is how I felt in the field, especially when I met Antonia a second time. This time she came to visit my neighbor's house while I was there. We were stripping dried corn from cobs and talking when she arrived. I stared at her face, unable to speak. I listened to her tell how her husband hit her with a big piece of firewood the night before. I was disgusted as the swollen, deep purple bruise across her face contorted when she laughed. She was laughing at me because I was so amazed. She laughed because my reaction strengthened her belief that women in the United States never experience battery. I couldn't convince her otherwise, even though I tried.

Women in the United States do experience spousal abuse. In fact, the U.S. statistics are overwhelming. Battery is the single major cause of injury to women, more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined (Stark and Flitcraft 1988: 301). According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there were 4.1 million cases of family violence between 1973 and 1981. The Justice Department estimates that 450,000 cases of abuse develop annually (U.S. Department of Justice 1984). Recently, in my own part of the world, western New York, six men killed their female partners in a six-month period (Warner 1998). In Erie County, New York, an average of 20 percent of the homicides reported are the result of domestic violence (Warner 1998). Furthermore, as in other parts of the United States, women in western New York are far more commonly the victims of such physical abuse than are men (Browne 1987, Kurz 1989). Women in the United States also suffer far more injuries from spousal abuse than do men (Berk et al. 1983, Kurz 1987, McLeer and Anwar 1989, Stark et al. 1979).

The physical effects of being beaten by one's male partner in the States vary: minor contusions, missing teeth, fractures, severe burns, and spontaneous abortions. Further dangers to a battered woman's health take the form of drug and alcohol abuse (Gelles and Straus 1988: 136, Stark and Flitcraft 1988: 301). Drug use among battered women increases both from self-medication and from physicians' attempts to relieve their overanxious, apparently overstressed patients.

Psychological problems are also common. Battered women tend to suffer from low self-esteem, feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, and powerlessness (Davidson 1978, Gelles and Straus 1988, Dobash and Dobash 1979). Many are ashamed of being beaten and feel responsible for the beatings (Gelles and Straus 1988, Dobash and Dobash 1979). Abused women think about and actually commit suicide more often than nonabused women (Gelles and Straus 1988, Stark and Flitcraft 1988: 304). Women respond to continual physical abuse with emotional numbness, sexual dysfunction, and general desperation (Davidson 1978, Dobash and Dobash 1979). Physicians are also more likely to refer battered women for emergency psychiatric treatment, labeling them hysteric, neurotic, and hypochondriacal (Stark and Flitcraft 1988:303). Finally, abused women in the United States say that they express their anger violently (Gelles and Straus 1988). Violence therefore begets violence.

Most social-science research on wife battery in the United States and England has taken place since the 1970s, after the women's movement brought the topic to light. The women's movement led scholars to examine the problem, and the women's movement in turn has benefitted from social scientists' efforts to understand domestic violence. Research has helped the women's movement to coax the issue out of the closet and has sparked anti-abuse advertising campaigns, the establishment of shelters, and the development of group therapies for both batterers and their victims. Battery in the United States is becoming recognized as a serious health care issue. The tendency for doctors to treat the symptoms of wife battery without dealing with the abusive situation or without even questioning the patient about her home situation is currently under challenge (Chez 1988, Chez and Jones 1995, Sheridan 1993, Sheridan and Campbell 1989, Kurz 1987, Greany 1984).

Yet anthropologists have done little to contribute to American efforts to understand domestic violence. Keeping domestic violence a closed topic protects it both in the places we do fieldwork and in the United States. We could do a lot better than we are doing.

A Problem with the Literature: Where Have All the People Gone?

Our very idea of what a human being is, how a family thrives or fails, and how love and fear shape our lives are all given over to experts in white coats and translated into cold, quantified studies. (Moore 1996: 28-29)

For a while we were able to keep our distance. We handed out surveys to college students. Later we ventured out into the community to interview people in their homes. Still, we were insulated by the scientific approach and the numbers. Always the numbers enabled us to remain detached. (Gelles and Straus 1988 : 12)

We base this conclusion on a cost-benefit ratio, which we calculated for each of the eight strategies used by victims of violence. The ratio was computed by dividing the percent of women who said a strategy was effective by the percent who said the approach made things worse. (Gelles and Straus 1988: 155)

That day on the veranda, I realized I was frightened by domestic violence. Confronted with the reality, I wanted to flee. Domestic violence made me feel helpless, and I didn't like that feeling.

Back in the States I could read about domestic violence at a safe distance, far from people's suffering, far from that woman with her baskets. But how strange that is. After the initial comfort, I became amazed by the realization that many of the books and articles I was reading had no people in them. Their pages were filled with statistics and analyses. Among these peopleless pages one might find a short chapter or paragraph describing the types of women abused and the types of men who abused them, but that is all. I got no feel for their lives when they weren't being beaten, when they were shopping, eating dinner, fixing their cars, or playing with their children. The descriptions were cartoonish. It was as if the people were not important. Only the systems, cycles, and numbers counted.

This eerie depopulation is common to social-science depictions of violence and may contribute to our acceptance of atrocities (Dentan 1999, 1997a). To dehumanize violence and to depopulate our depictions of violence is to take the bite out of the offense. If violence occurs and we obscure the victim, does that violence have significance? Can we come to understand the sometimes violent responses of the "victims" (Dentan 1999)? Can we understand "resistance" in any form (Ortner 1995)?

The peopleless books and articles I read about domestic violence reminded me of some ethnographies I have read, especially those influenced by anthropology's struggle to be a science. These ethnographies give the feeling that culture and social systems exist on their own, devoid of people. They provide no clue that people, moving, thinking, emotional people, are a necessary ingredient for cultures and social systems to exist. It is important to say that anthropology has been moving in many directions, and such ethnographies are becoming rare. However, it is ironic how often in the past, and into the present, that the study of people has been so depopulated. It is only recently, with the idea of reflexivity, that the ethnographer has even included herself in her text.

The opposite extreme is also typical of literature on domestic violence. There are books filled with case histories. The author presents us with people, specific women suffering pain. But again the emphasis is on the abuse they suffer. They themselves are faceless women carrying pseudonyms. The author may tell us something of their background, usually to show that domestic violence happens in all kinds of homes. The author does not portray women's experiences, wants, or desires outside of their experiences with violence. Often they fail to discuss women's efforts to change their lives.

Certainly case histories have done much to highlight domestic violence in the United States. It is undeniable that they have provided a useful method for understanding and theorizing about the problem. They have also allowed many women to speak out about the experiences they have tried to hide so hard for so long. Case histories have provided inspiration for others to seek help. However, they often leave us feeling pity; a patronizing sympathy that separates (healthy, strong) unbeaten us from (sick, weak) beaten them.

Indeed, some scholars of domestic violence and advocates working to help women to leave abusive relationships have emphasized the fact that abused women are "survivors," not "victims" (Dobash and Dobash 1992 , Hoff 1990, Gondolf 1988, Bowker 1983). They question the degree to which "learned helplessness" characterizes battered women. Indeed, their studies show that battered women are not passive, nor do they enjoy being beaten. Women continually try to enlist help from friends, family members, and authorities, to little or no avail. They emphasize women's attempts to change their lives.

Likewise, feminist theorists have recognized and criticized anthropologists' tendency to portray Third World women as passive victims unable or, worse, unwilling to affect their destiny (Mohanty 1988, Hernandez Castillo 1997). Both groups of critics, those who criticize "learned helplessness" and those who criticize anthropology, reflect the current feminist focus on women's activism in women's terms (Harding 1986: 31, DuBois et al. 1985). They emphasize women's "activity" and reject the tendency to portray women as passive victims of complex and pervasive structures of domination like "patriarchy" or "capitalism."

This book is within this emerging tradition. Like Hernandez Castillo's (1997) work on Mayan women who are trying to include issues of women's rights in the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, this work focuses on women's attempts to change their lives. It also discusses the social forces that facilitate and frustrate their efforts. Unlike Hernandez Castillo's (1997) work, however, it does not deal with women's collective resistance. Instead, it deals with individuals working within specific life situations. My emphasis is on variation among women rather than on how women find similarities in their lives.

Anthropology, influenced by hermeneutics and following a linguistic model for understanding culture, has also become interested in "agency": how people affect the world around them, using, manipulating, challenging, and creating "culture" (Marcus and Fischer 1986: 27- 30, Stewart 1988: 1-13, Ortner 1995: 183 - 187, DuBois et al. 1985: 40-48). In this way, anthropological theory suggests that people create culture through a dialectic process of understanding and giving meaning to their actions and the events that happen around them, rather than following static rules of behavior. In other words, anthropologists are now thinking about culture as a repertoire, a system of possible understandings and actions, rather than a code, a limited and prescribed way of being.

This book is meant to fit within the "repertoire" trend of anthropology. However, rather than argue the ways Maya give meaning to domestic violence or the ways Maya create the concept of abuse, it demonstrates them. Within these stories of women's experiences with, or reactions to, wife abuse are examples of the ways Maya legitimize wife abuse and of the ways young women are beginning to redefine gender in efforts to curb future abuse. This work emphasizes repertoire over code, actions over passivity.

As an anthropologist, I try to place Mayan domestic violence in the context of Mayan lifeways. My purpose is to establish an understanding of Mayan women, not to use them as a metaphor for ourselves or to "colonialize" their experiences (Mohanty 1988). This goal is also in line with current feminist theory, which has begun to complicate and deconstruct the category "woman," rather than assume women all over have similar lives and experiences (Behar and Gordon 1995, Alcoff 1988, Moore 1988, Flax 1987). Therefore, I spend little time in this work comparing Mayans' experiences with those of women from other culture groups. Nor do I assume Mayan women are some primitive form of Western middle-class white women. Instead, I have tried to represent a specific linguistic and cultural group of Maya, Mopan, in a specific geographic location, southern Belize, in as complete detail as I can.

I should note, however, that I assume Mopan women in Belize share certain life experiences and sensibilities with women from other Mayan groups. I have surveyed the works written by Mayanists to place the experiences of the women I met into a larger Mayan context. I do this even though few Maya recognize or espouse pan-Mayanism. Maya tend to identify and understand themselves on much more local terms, often through village of birth. My assumption may be wrong, or at least limited; it is, however, common among anthropologists. Certainly, as my relationship with Mopan women develops, I will come to know these limits better. Until then, the reader should be aware that my tendency to understand Mopan lives through a pan-Mayanism may result more from "looking to the literature" or following the traditions of my discipline, than from asking the right questions when I was in the field.

Due to the conditions of my field experience, this study is "woman-centered" (Scheper-Hughes 1992, Eber 1995). Women talked often and openly about abuse. Unprompted, they told me stories of the abuse they, their daughters, and their friends had suffered. Women often included me in discussions about marriage and violence, sometimes imagining scenarios in which my husband beats me. One woman enlisted my help in her efforts to leave her abusive partner.

Mayan men and women live in separate spheres. Although a complementary project of understanding domestic violence from a man's point of view, examining men's roles as perpetrators and as victims of domestic violence, would be interesting, I never felt comfortable in the men's world. I had trouble developing an easy rapport with men, even though some of them are good friends of mine. As a result, I never talked to men about wife abuse and none ever raised the topic with me. Because I have little information about men's thoughts on abuse, few men appear in these pages. Most appear as batterers. I have tried to convey, especially within the narratives, the complicated feelings and understandings I developed about these men.

2: Style

Narrative Ethnography

Indeed, it is difficult to classify these portraits. They are neither fiction nor conventional anthropology. (Lewis 1959:18)

Products of the "imagination," such as novels, can he especially useful tools for understanding how things work in societies far removed from our own experience. Through the telling of a story, a sound ethnographic novel conveys more than information. It involves the reader in the dynamics of life in places where the rules for action are very different from the rules the reader makes his own decisions by. (Wilson 1974:1)

The style of this ethnography differs from previous studies of Maya in Belize. This style has various names. Oscar Lewis calls it "ethnographic realism" (Lewis 1959: 18). Carter Wilson (1974) uses the term "ethnographic novel"; Clifford Geertz (1988:141) uses the term "faction." I prefer the term "narrative ethnography," because the goal is to tell a story. In fact, I want to tell several stories of several women.

Narrative ethnography is not new to Mesoamerican studies. Ricardo Pozas, a Mexican anthropologist, published Juan the Chamula, an "ethnological re-creation of the life of a Mexican Indian," in Mexico in 1952. Ten years later, the University of California Press published an English translation. The translator of the 1962 version said that, "Although the author's primary purpose was not literary, his book has come to be considered one of the most effective treatments of Indian themes in contemporary Mexican literature." Refreshingly, Pozas gives no justification for using the narrative form; he just writes it. He is concerned, however, that a fictional autobiography in the first person might not provide the cultural and historical background readers need. Therefore, he gives a brief account of Tzotzil culture in the introduction.

Like Pozas, Oscar Lewis does not spend time justifying his use of narrative in Five Families (1959). He is more concerned with promoting peasant studies. However, he does link his justification for using the day as a unit of analysis with a brief explanation of the narrative form. In a sense, he conflates the two. There is really nothing intrinsic to the analysis of a day that makes it "an excellent medium for combining the scientific and humanistic aspects of anthropology" (Lewis 1959:18). It is his use of narrative ethnography that does this.

For Carter Wilson (1974), narrative ethnography, like his Crazy February: Death and Life in the Mayan Highlands of Mexico, can "convey more than information" and can be "'true to the spirit' of the place" that it tries to describe (Wilson 1974: 2). Indeed, it is this spirit, missing in traditional ethnographies, that is narrative ethnography's strength.

Wilson addresses the criticism that ethnographic novels are like field notes, unanalyzed statements of field experiences. Playing on the title of Levi-Strauss' (1969) famous work, he suggests ethnographic novels are "cooked" rather than "raw." Authors of ethnographic novels process and analyze their raw data, or field notes. They choose to include certain things, in certain ways, and they choose to exclude other things altogether. Information in ethnographic novels is therefore not raw data, but rather is carefully chosen and presented.

Wilson's defense of ethnographic novels as processed (and therefore analyzed) data is echoed in later suggestions that all ethnographies are "fictions," since the Latin root fingere glosses as constructed or fashioned (Clifford and Marcus 1986: 6). We often think of fiction as untrue, contrived statements with a limited base in reality. However, the degree to which fictive events are based on lived experience is up to the author. Wilson, for instance, tells us that he made every effort to base his work on "actuality," a mix of real experiences and projected possibilities in the flavor of the place and time about which he writes (Wilson 1974: 2).

Indeed, no representation can be true in the sense of being complete, free from the constraints of linear text or the imposition of the cultural conventions of any given epistemology. At best, a representation can be a partial truth (Clifford 1986: 6), based on a certain perspective or particular understanding. It is impossible to convey a complete reality through a single text, because reality is a complex understanding of that which is around us. Much of reality cannot be accurately described, just as the telling of a dream never feels true to the dream itself. But this philosophical approach to defending narrative forms wasn't part of Wilson's thinking, at least not as he represents it in the introduction to his narrative ethnography. It is only within the past ten to fifteen years, during an "experimental moment," that anthropology has taken up questions of representation.

The Crisis of Representation

While ethnography has taken various forms in the past, such as Oscar Lewis' narrative representations of Mexican peasants, it is only recently that anthropologists have begun problematizing and theorizing about the nature of ethnographic representations. Anthropology is not alone. Those interested in this aspect of anthropology are finding allies in "law, art, architecture, philosophy, literature, and even the natural sciences" (Marcus and Fischer 1986:7). Indeed, anthropology's "crisis of representation" can be situated within the "postmodern condition" of Lyotard (1988), the "crisis of legitimation" of Habermas (1975), and, perhaps, within Thomas Kuhn's (1962) discussion of paradigmatic shifts within the sciences.

For anthropology, the crisis of representation is a problematizing of the ways and means by which anthropologists represent "Others." Basically, the movement has taken ethnography to be a literary phenomenon with accepted styles and rules, guided by the spoken and unspoken rules of Western intellectual traditions. That is, ethnographies are cultural artifacts. They are complicated representations, which can be examined in their own right and should not be confused as simple translations of culture (Hastrup 1990:55).

Likewise, the crisis of representation is a problematizing of cultural anthropology's primary research method: participant observation or fieldwork. Rather than calling the method into question as unscientific, anthropologists are investigating its messy, complicated, dialogic nature. Some anthropologists have shifted from thinking that a good fieldworker can eventually obtain "truth," to stressing the idea that there are many truths, or ways of understanding a given phenomenon within a culture. Furthermore, the translation of those truths is much more complicated than standard forms of ethnography can convey.

This crisis of representation is not unique to what has come to be called postmodern or poststructuralist anthropology. Feminist scholars have also been interested in these issues. Indeed, feminist scholars have emphasized the power relations behind who gets to make truth claims and who does not. This has led many feminist anthropologists into collaborative projects with women from Third World nations, across disciplines and within the field of anthropology, to produce works about women's lives (Stephen 1994, Behar 1993, Eber and Rosenbaum 1993). Scholars vary in their willingness to recognize the role of feminist theories in recognizing and dealing with the crisis of representation (Behar and Gordon 1995, Clifford and Marcus 1986).

The Experimental Moment

So what will come of this? Some of our colleagues will not notice that "an experimental moment in the human sciences" (Marcus and Fischer 1986) has come and gone; others have already dismissed it; some of us will find ourselves more self-conscious about what we do in the field and how we write about what we did when we return home; some of us will not be aware of how much we have changed until some fearless graduate student draws it to our attention in a term paper; some of us will gradually drift off into writing fiction. (Wolf 1992: 138-139)

As Wolf suggests, the crisis of representation affects anthropologists differently. The movement may not be important to many. Indeed, it probably shouldn't create the paranoia, hatred, and confusion that it does. In these competitive times, however, the so-called "postmodern" or "poststructural" movement has led to many harsh words in writing, at professional meetings, and certainly, with perhaps its greatest ferocity, in graduate-student lounges.

Those sympathetic to the movement are affected in different ways. Some have taken on the role of literary critics, evaluating the anthropologist as author and focusing on the genre of ethnography as a written text rather than as an unproblematic representation of another lifeway (Geertz 1988, Clifford 1988, Clifford and Marcus 1986, van Maanen 1988).

Others, continuing with the basic anthropological task of describing lifeways, have included some of the topics highlighted by the crisis. For example, Behar (1993) frames her work as a border crossing, investigating, among other things, the relationship between a Cubana ethnographer (herself) and a Mexicana street vendor (her key informant). The relationship between subjects and author has become a common topic in this experimental moment (see Rabinow 1977, Dumont 1978, Crapanzano 1980).

Still others are experimenting with form, diverging from the ethnographic realism of traditional ethnographies. For example, Tedlock (1991) presents an ethnographic novel which makes use of juxtaposition to compare Zuni and white American understandings of the world. Dentan (1998, 1997b) explores Semai relationships to the violence of slavery by describing ritual possessions through the eyes of the possessing spirits. He also uses the literary device of juxtaposition to develop a theory of violation, which helps to understand the effects of violence both among African American youth and among Semai.

It is within this climate of exciting experimentation and worrisome divisions within the discipline that I present this work: a narrative ethnography, of sorts; a standard ethnography, of sorts. My approach is not unique, nor is it especially innovative. Others have done the same or something similar (Eber 1995, Stephen 1997, Scheper-Hughes 1992, Wolf 1992). This book is, however, part of a growing trend of experiments, a trend that makes room for newly legitimate ways of knowing and many ways of understanding.

Why Narratives? Reasons for This Experiment

Until anthropologists can deal rigorously with the "subjective factors" in the lives of "primitives" their work will be flat and insubstantial. Unless they can learn to delineate the emotional structure of societies, serious persons who wish to learn about the life of human beings in groups will properly continue to turn to literature rather than science for enlightenment. (Kluckhohn, quoted in Stewart 1989:4)

The fictional form of presentation devised by the editor [Elsie Clews Parsons] has definite merit. It allows a freedom in depicting or suggesting the thoughts and feelings of the Indian, such as is impossible in a formal, scientific report. (Kroeber 1922: 13)

In Mama Lola, I am most interested in telling rich, textured stories that bring Alourdes and her religion alive . . .[M]y aim is to create an intimate portrait of three-dimensional people who are not stand-ins for an abstraction such as "the Haitian people" but rather are deeply religious individuals with particular histories and rich interior lives . . . [I]n other words my aim is to create a portrait of Vodou embedded in the vicissitudes of particular lives. (Brown 1991: 14-15)

Anthropologists need to try out different styles of representation, in the Taoist tradition that doing something beats talking about it. (Dentan 1997a:4)

I choose to write narratives about domestic violence for several reasons. First, I feel narrative ethnography is particularly appropriate for this culture group. Pozas' concern that readers may lack the historical or cultural knowledge to understand a narrative ethnography is softened by the fact that several anthropologists have worked with Mopan Maya in southern Belize. Their ethnographies provide the background for a greater understanding of the characters and their stories. Reciprocally, this ethnography provides greater understanding of previous ethnographies by presenting the "spirit" Wilson talks about. My characters are people living in particular life situations that make up the culture, society, and language of those earlier works, albeit somewhat changed with the passage of time.

Even when their discipline required them to be as "scientific" as possible (Stewart 1988: 1-3), anthropologists have suggested that literary forms can provide an understanding of humanity that standard ethnographies cannot. What Kroeber identifies as thoughts and feelings, Kluckhohn (1945: 79-163) groups together with motivations, emotions, and personality as "subjective factors." These aspects of humanity are absent in standard ethnographies, making them somewhat peopleless. Perhaps narrative ethnography, with its promise to focus on people rather than social structures (Stewart 1988: 13) and its ability to represent subjective factors, can rehumanize anthropological research.

As previously stated, students of violence have suggested that it is important to avoid representing violence in ways that dehumanize the issue since doing so obfuscates the danger violence presents and thereby makes it more acceptable (Dentan 1999, 1997a, 1995; Brass 1997; Daniel 1996). Likewise, scholars of domestic violence have warned that certain depictions of abused women leave the impression that such women are passive victims rather than active survivors struggling to escape or prevent the abuses they suffer. Furthermore, critics of anthropology have suggested that ethnographers too often portray Third World women as passive, almost pathetic beings. All of these problems are based, at least to some extent, on the dehumanizing form social-science research takes. Perhaps narrative ethnography's promise to rehumanize research, to create rich textured portraits of three-dimensional peoples, as Brown states, will alleviate some of these problems.

Indeed, narrative ethnography may have even more to offer. It is ironic that anthropologists, who take holism as a basic tenet, break up their works into chapters titled "Religion," "Kinship," and "Economy." The narrative form can allow ethnographers greater room to describe the holistic nature of social systems by demonstrating how culture works. Focusing on people within a social system as participants within a cultural understanding facilitates an ethnographer's representation of how individuals affect these systems as well as how these systems limit people's lives. This is the kind of holism Ortner (1995: 173-174) suggests is integral to the ethnographic method and unique to ethnographic understandings. Narrative ethnography may be better suited for presenting living culture (Stewart 1988: 13). As Dentan suggests in the above epigraph, I am willing to give it a try.

3: Structure

Writing the Narratives

I describe my field methods in the following chapter. Here, I will discuss my methods of writing. The characters in the narratives are all based on real people. The Michael who appears here is my real-life life-mate, and Rachel is the real name of a dear friend. Both have agreed to allow their names to appear here. All other names are pseudonyms.

Occasionally, I have blended people together to make conglomerate characters. For the most part these are minor characters. Their conglomeration is to prevent the reader from being bombarded with too many characters. Having one stand in for the other doesn't change the impact of the events in narratives.

I have chosen to portray myself as a character in this ethnography. Doing so is part of a trend in anthropology to demystify the construction of "anthropological facts." As Scheper-Hughes (1992: 25) states:

By showing, as I go along, the ways that I work in the field, offering glimpses behind the scenes, I hope to give the reader a deeper appreciation of the way in which ethnographic "facts" are built up in the course of everyday participation in the life of the community.

I also feel that this practice helps to rehumanize the social sciences. Describing how social scientists create knowledge places the emphasis on people rather than the sometimes vague phrases and descriptions that make up theory.

The events within the narrative are, for the most part, exactly how I remember them. I spent long hours taking notes in the field. I have recreated some events in the narratives from events my friends witnessed and later related to me. When recreating these events, I have tried to maintain what Wilson calls "actuality" (Wilson 1974: 2). That is, I have tried to keep descriptions of events close in spirit to the way things happen among Mopan Maya in southern Belize, and close to the descriptions given to me.

I have occasionally played with the sequence of events that happen within a chapter in order to maintain a linear story line. Also, the reader may notice that events sometimes overlap between chapters. These inconsistencies are the result of my grouping stories and events according to the themes raised in each chapter. Everything I report happened, just sometimes not in the exact sequence in which I present it. I feel, however, that I have maintained respect for the "sacred" (Dentan 1995: 230), that is, the data I have collected. I also feel I have maintained people's anonymity, disguising everyone enough so that someone visiting the village after reading this will not be able to identify anyone's real identity. Not revealing the name of the village, I feel, further protects anonymity.


Throughout the narratives the reader will find words and phrases in italics. Some of these are Mopan, the language villagers use to talk amongst themselves. Readers may recognize some of these as Spanish. Mopan have a history that includes a long relationship with Spanish invaders and colonizers. They have taken many Spanish words as their own. Some quotations are in Belizean Creole; others are Mopan speakers' attempts at Belizean Creole. A few are my attempts to speak the Mayan version of Belizean Creole. Language is complex in Belize. Code switching is common and people have learned to assess a person's level of comprehension in different languages quickly, in order to hide or reveal knowledge. This is especially true of Creole speakers. Belizean Creole can resemble Belizean English, or can be incomprehensible to an English speaker. The Belizean Creole that appears here should be easy for an English speaker to comprehend and therefore is not set off by a specialized font.

Belizean Creole shares a lexicon with English. However, the meaning of the words is often slightly different, and the grammar, especially the conjugation of verbs, differs. Unfortunately, when English speakers hear Creole, they may think that the speaker is erring in his or her attempts to use English. In reality, the speaker may be trying to assess the listener's ability to use and understand Creole. While appearing uneducated, unsophisticated, or unintelligent, the speaker is actually undertaking a complex task which requires great skill. The complexity of this phenomenon is much more easily misunderstood in written form where the "speaker" can't assess the ability of the "listener" to comprehend. Written words are inanimate letters on pieces of dead processed tree pulp, and "speakers" are simply representations of real people. The dialectic of meaning and language is lost, leaving more room for misunderstandings in content and in the significance of what language is used to communicate.

Creole, therefore, means something different in this text than it might in person. Here, Maya speaking Creole can indicate three things: The speaker has attended Belizean school and has therefore been educated by Creole teachers; the speaker has had great experience dealing with people outside the village; or the speaker is a young "hip" kid trying to portray herself as sophisticated or "worldly." Young people in the village use Creole to express their hipness, just as suburban white kids in the United States may use Black English. Among Creole characters, speaking Creole simply means they are Creole.

The Creole I write here does not conform to the standardized written Creole many Belizeans advocate. Instead, I have tried to write Creole the way the people in this work speak it. Few Maya speak Creole as Creoles do. Furthermore, the Creole and Garifuna who speak Creole with Maya and people from the United States sometimes use a form that is easy to understand. The purpose of speaking is to communicate, not to adhere to linguistic rules. Language in Belize is flexible; I have tried to reflect flexibility here.

Furthermore, I have tried to translate Mopan and Creole words and phrases within the text. A glossary at the end of this work provides translation and guidance for pronunciation. The glossary also indicates whether a word or phrase is Mopan, Creole, Garifuna, or from some other source.

Some words in the text, and occasionally parts of words, appear in capital letters. This is to indicate the speaker's emphasis on certain words or parts of words. It is meant to provide the reader with a sense of how the speaker speaks.


This work consists of six chapters, plus an introduction, a summary, an epilogue, and an appendix. Chapter 2 provides a general overview of the village, describes husband-and-wife relationships among Maya in general and Mopan specifically, and presents the conditions of my fieldwork. It provides a context for understanding the events in the narrative.

Chapters 2 through 6 consist of a narrative or a set of narratives that deal with specific themes important to understanding women's experiences and responses to domestic violence in the village. An analysis section follows each set of narratives. Each section provides additional knowledge related to that theme, to help the reader gain a deeper understanding of Mayan domestic violence. The juxtaposition of narrative and analysis in each section may disrupt the narrative flow for some readers. Some readers may want to read the analysis sections after they have finished all the narratives.

The conclusion summarizes the patterns of domestic violence among Mopan Maya in southern Belize, occasionally drawing on information about domestic violence elsewhere. The epilogue reflects on the research and writing process.

Many characters appear and reappear throughout the book. The appendix provides a list of the main characters, with basic descriptions. The glossary of Mopan, Spanish, and Creole words and phrases used throughout the text follows, as well as the list of references cited.


“This is the first book I am aware of that focuses primarily on the issue of domestic violence in Mexico and Central America. . . . It is a courageous undertaking for the author to write on this topic, and she carries it off with grace, humility, and honesty. . . . This book has far more potential to be of interest to a general readership than most academic books.”
Lynn Stephen, Professor of Anthropology, University of Oregon


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