lunes, febrero 23, 2009

Green (1999). Fear as a Way of Life.

Laura Green. 1999. Fear as a Way of Life. Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala. New York: Columbia University Press.

In an environment of violence, fear and impunity the Guatemalan Mayan sense of collectivity and community, and the social connections among people, when completely destroyed and demolished, had to be constantly rebuild. In this book, Green tries to understand and represent the contradictions and (im)possibilities that Maya widows and orphans who survived the military and guerrilla violence, especially the (para)military destruction of hundreds of rural Maya communities, mass-massacre of at least 80.000 people (mostly men), face in their everyday life.

In a constantly shifting social landscape filled and formed with violence and impunity, fear could be considered as a logic response, some sort of tactic according to Green, by which Maya widows embody the memory of their lost husbands, cousins, parents, uncles, brothers and (re)create affirmative actions in their realities of suffering and oppression when now they have to become “mothers and fathers” at once. In a context of structural violence, when humiliation and fear, denial of dignity and integrity are over-present forms of micro-social processes of domination, when local communities are traversed by relationships of victim-witness-victimizer between neighbors and even family members are shaping the intricate forms of political and micro-social violence. One of the main forms of dominance and destruction created by the Guatemalan army was to use Maya boys as foot soldiers and local men as civil patrollers and military commissioners for surveillance and often for murdering, digging deeper fissures in family and community social relations. Maya women have to work to sustain their families, organize themselves and re-territorialize forms of political and community action when working in the milpas, something that before was usually done by men, producing corn in the same land in which the ancestors had cultivated and worked and harvested it. Here, the psychological, emotional, social and spiritual connection that Maya people have with their land is something worth noting. The massive destruction of hundred of rural communities not only killed and displaced thousands of people but also helped to augment the concentration of land and the exclusion of Maya people from their own lands. But this is a long process in which non-Maya Ladinos have used force, torture and the disappearance of Maya men for their own political and economical interests: forces of structural inequalities and political violence created a deadly cocktail. As Green says, “War, trauma, Christianity, loss of land, loss of control over their labor, poverty, and the introduction of farming crops and modern institutions have influenced who the Mayas are today” (52) and each generation have to confront the causes and conditions of their Mayaness.

And fear, when becomes chronic, when inscribed in the body and the collective imagination, when is the referee of power, it grows and grows and becomes a way of life: a meta-narrative of people living in a constant macro and micro “state of exception” when injustice is the rule. And this endless state of violence cannot and should not be taken in any abstract way, these are specific forms of fear and (in)visible violence which concretely traversed people’s lives in this capitalist neo-colonial Guatemala (with a huge portion of violence produced by the same state). Fear turns into the very nature of interactions and relations among people in rural communities (and perhaps in all the country). For Greeen one of the main “quality” of fear is its power to produce a sense of doubt in our own perception of reality: a self-censorship that internalize and anestheticize fear when situations of fear are constantly being repeated. Moreover, when people are living under constant surveillance and scrutiny by the military forces surrounding the Maya villages and the inner Maya people working for the army is not easy to felt overwhelmed by the (in)capacity to be in a continuous state of alertness.

The internalization of war and the militarization of everyday life in the context of Guatemala, some sort of “militarization of the mind” (Martin-Baro 1990), was a consequence of the continuous and very visible presence of soldiers and paramilitary personnel all over the country. So one relation between silent, fear and secrecy could be that silence can work as a survival tactic, but on the other hand, silencing is a brutal mechanism of control imposed through fear. When fear is a constant state in everyday life how can people act and react to it? Thus, silence via terror is not only psychological and individual but also collective and social as well. Added to this the fact that these women were transformed from wives to widows aggravating their suffering, and their need for economic, social and emotional support. With fear to return to their own villages and the kin ties completely destroyed and transformed many women and children left their villages as inner displaced within Guatemala or went to exile in Mexico in order to overcome their fear and suffering and re-start their lives economically, socially and politically renovating their network of support. These women live in a “chronic state of emotional, physical, spiritual, and social distress” (112), thus, I agree with Green that considering their organic disorders and their “folk illnesses” as manifestations of “clinical syndromes” or “culture-bound” illnesses is to “dehistoricize and dehumanize the lived experiences of the women” (112).

Green criticizes certain assumptions within anthropology, particularly how embodiment and the body are taken for granted in many theorizations when trying to understand everyday forms of violence. For Green, an analysis of the relation between violence and embodiment clearly shows the incapacity to split experience and cultural representation, and also reveals how power, gender and history work via “embodied subjectivity” and “concrete bodily activity.” Green considers that the body “is both a sociological and historical phenomenon, and knowledge is gained though the senses and sensory immersion in the natural and supernatural world” (114). This particular definition emphasizes embodiment as the territory in which human beings struggle beyond its usual consideration as a metaphor of human action or a mere text. What these women had and felted and experienced was connected with their emotional memory and bodily pain, their ill conditions had an obvious political causation. And when the women were meeting together and discussing about their common condition certain forms of community of pain and healing were being developed. For Green naming their suffering as illness had powerful results, “[it] created spaces for struggle while giving bodily shape to the image the women have of themselves as widows. Memory and pain served as a source for regenerating community and identity and for political consciousness” (117). The body in “itself” was the center of political demonstration due to women’s bodies were indeed the physical representation of the violence against the Maya population.

What I take from this book is a couple of things. I will have to come back often to issues of fear and other strong embodied emotions when dealing with children's end of life, family members and medical professionals for my dissertation. Also I will have to consider the role of the state as provider and mediator of services for terminally ill children. So in many ways Green's book would be useful to think on how to approach these issues. The situation is totally different because these women's fear comes from other sources, the state was the main producer of violence, death and fear; whereas in Argentina fear, anxieties and distress is mainly produced by the awareness of children's dying process. But still I think I will have to re-consider very closely if fear does not transform as a way of life for these people and what's the role of the state promoting or precluding those feelings and emotions of fear in children and their families.

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