PORTLAND, Maine – A new, sophisticated historiography by a University of Southern Maine (USM) professor reveals how Maya women and men living under two brutal dictatorships in the early 20th century used the criminal justice system in Guatemala to improve their lives and fight for their civil rights.
In his new book, “I Ask for Justice: Maya Women, Dictators, and Crime in Guatemala, 1898-1944,” David Carey Jr., USM professor of history and women and gender studies, uses extensive archival material to tell the stories of Maya people, particularly women, who sought justice in the face of being treated as lower-class citizens.
Recently acclaimed internationally for being the first country to try one of its own former heads of state for crimes against humanity, the Guatemalan judicial system is otherwise largely bankrupt, particularly in light of the failure to arrest, let alone convict, murderers and rapists, Carey maintains.
The first historical study of the Guatemalan judicial system, Carey’s book demonstrates that although it was not always just, the country’s legal system enjoyed legitimacy among poor and working class peoples even during fascist rule.
What readers should get from the book, Carey said during a recent interview, is “a sense of the empowerment of Maya women despite the incredible disadvantages of racism, poverty and sexism that they faced.
“Against all those of odds, they were able to create fulfilling and self-sufficient lives for themselves and their families and make their communities and nation more just” the USM professor said.
It is a fourth book on Guatemala for Carey, who has been studying its indigenous people since 1994 and is a noted historian of Central America. Carey said he became attracted to studying the Mayas of Guatemala while at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he received his doctorate and learned to speak and write the Kaqchikel-Maya language fluently.
One of his previous books includes a sixth-grade Guatemalan history book, written in Kaqchikel. This past summer, Carey ran a Tulane-sponsored course in Guatemala in Maya culture and language for international graduate students.
“I Ask For Justice,” Carey’s latest book, gets its name from the phrase with which many Maya and other poor Guatemalan litigants concluded their judicial petitions. Several of Carey’s previous books focus on oral histories; what makes this book different, he said, is the use of archival materials to survey the criminal-justice system and history.
“What is surprising is the amount of information that is not showing up in oral histories,” the professor noted, adding that the two sources complement each other well.
Carey wanted to get a sense of the way that the Guatemalan government of the period defined crime and social justice during a time of oppressive and abusive dictatorships.
“What I found is that the poor, illiterate, monolingual women stood up to dictators and carved out spaces of autonomy and created entrepreneurial opportunities to improve their lives and the lives of their children,” he pointed out.
In contrast to what the state maintained as the place of the Maya people, local justices of the peace acknowledged the reality of the lives of those indigenous people involved in such crimes as murder, infanticide, domestic violence and bootlegging, Carey discovered.
Maya women could play on the common, innocuous stereotype of female passivity and avoid suspicion of misdeed and even take advantage of the system to create new legal interpretations, the professor said.
Infanticide, for example, was a crime that, according to the way the law was written, could be committed only by women, but Carey found examples of women who dragged offending men into court and judges who determined that the men were in fact guilty of causing those crimes. In some cases, the men received longer sentences than they would for simple domestic violence, and the wives received a respite from physical abuse. Such litigation offers one example of the way Maya women shaped the Guatemalan criminal justice system and gender relations, the USM professor said.
Some women upset social norms and patriarchal power, Carey said. In one of the most unusual cases, a 19-year-old indigenous woman dressed in men’s clothing and later was taken before two local judges to determine if a crime had been committed. At the time, such behavior was unintelligible to Guatemalan society, the professor said.
The local judges had no legal terms to describe the woman’s alleged crime of cross-dressing, which one labeled “disappearance and disguise.” Although the judge eventually freed her, the woman had to undergo a state-mandated gynecological exam, which, as Carey observes, was intended in part to reestablish her subordinate ethnic and gender position.
The book can be found here: http://utpress.utexas.edu/index.php/books/carias