Podcast

Joyce Bennett, Connecticut College – From Migration to Empowerment: The Story of Indigenous Maya Women

Keeping your culture when oppressed can be tough.

Joyce Bennett, assistant professor of anthropology at Connecticut College, looks to one group that has succeeded.

Joyce Bennett is an anthropologist whose research and teaching focus on sociocultural and sociolinguistic issues in Central and North America, especially as they relate to social justice. She mostly focuses on the Kaqchikel-speaking population of the Western highlands of Guatemala, but she is also interested in other ethnolinguistic groups in the country and, most recently, some of their indigenous counterparts in North America. She is an advocate of community engaged learning and regularly connects her courses to local communities in Southeastern Connecticut. Professor Bennett is an avid supporter of multi-method and cross-disciplinary approaches. She firmly believes that learning and scholarship must be connected to the people and places academics study through mutual collaboration, service, and respect. Professor Bennett’s publishes at the intersections of language revitalization, feminism, social justice, and political economy. She was the Central American Visiting Scholar at the David D. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University in the 2019-2020 academic year. Her articles appear in Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, International Journal of Women’s Studies, Maya America, and more. Her most recent book, Good Maya Women, examines how marginalized Indigenous Kaqchikel Maya women revitalize their Indigenous language and customs as a result of their migratory experiences.

From Migration to Empowerment: The Story of Indigenous Maya Women

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Indigenous Maya women in Guatemala are thought to be some of the most oppressed in the Western hemisphere. They earn, on average, fractions of what their non-Indigenous counterparts earn; lack access to education and healthcare; and are targeted by Guatemalan state policies to modernize the country through intentionally marginalizing Indigenous languages, while rewarding Indigenous people passing as white. Affect scholars say that marginalized people like Maya women cannot experience true hope or empowerment. But depicting Maya women as victims ignores the complexities of their lives under an oppressive capitalist government. My research analyzes how Indigenous women’s migration contributes to women’s empowerment in their Guatemalan home communities.

Based on more than 20 months of fieldwork, my research shows how economic policies force Indigenous women into migration for wage work. To survive, many leave their education, families, and highland homes to work in cities or other countries. They might work as vendors, selling crafts to tourists, or as housekeepers or waitresses. Their work exposes them to structural violence, including anti-Indigenous slurs, sexual harassment and violence, and robbery.

Furthermore, women are pressured to wear Western clothing and to speak Spanish, endangering Indigenous culture and language by devaluing it–associating it with “backwardness” and poverty. Yet, these Indigenous migrant women do not abandon their Indigenous clothing and language, Kaqchikel Maya. Instead, they find inspiration and pride in revitalizing Kaqchikel traditions in their hometowns post-migration. As women revitalize Kaqchikel Maya language and clothing, they seek to earn the title of “good” women in their home communities. Unpacking women’s daily activisms reveals that women attempt to retain their traditions while collectively seeking to make space for Indigenous people in the modern world. And, in turn, women find these efforts to be personally empowering, even when their communities do not support them.

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