Joyce N. Bennett

Good Maya Women: Migration and Revitalization of Clothing and Language in Highland Guatemala

University of Alabama Press, 2022

160 pages


Reviewed by Erin N. Wheeler

In her book Good Maya Women: Migration and Revitalization of Clothing and Language in Highland Guatemala, anthropologist Joyce N. Bennett explores the impact of migration on Kaqchikel Maya women, specifically highlighting the ways in which community expectations of language and clothing work together to create the figure of a “good” Maya woman (utziläj ixoqi’) against which Indigenous migrant women are compared. When Maya women in Guatemala migrate nationally and internationally for work, their communities often assume they will lose their traditional cultural practices. Bennett looks at how these “mobile” women contest this assumption through engaging in particular linguistic and cultural practices that connect them with their home communities as well as to the broader pan-Maya activist movement. Combining linguistic anthropology literature on enregisterment (Agha 2005; Gal 2018) with extensive literature from affect theory, Bennett aims to create a framework for understanding Indigenous women’s empowerment that fully accounts for the overlapping influences of language, gender, class, and Indigeneity. 

In Chapters One and Two, Bennett introduces two case studies that form the foundation of her analysis. Brenda, from the smaller and largely Indigenous town of Santa Catarina Palopó, is the focus of Chapter One, while Lucia and Melinda, sisters from the more urban San Juan Comalapa, are the focus of Chapter Two. The unique contexts of these towns and the three women’s experiences help Bennett to explore a range of situations that mobile Maya women encounter as they migrate throughout Guatemala as well as internationally for employment. This migration opens women up to community accusations of linguistic and cultural loss. As the remainder of the book explores, however, mobile women actively navigate and dispute these accusations, particularly through the linguistic and clothing practices they adopt.

Chapter Three focuses on the three women’s language revitalization work involving the Kaqchikel Maya language. Brenda, Lucia, and Melinda position themselves as good Maya women through the use of the Kaqchikel puro dialect, which aims to avoid code mixing by purging influences from the dominant Spanish language. The majority of people in the women’s hometowns, in contrast, speak colloquial Kaqchikel, which contains many Spanish lexical items. Bennett argues that the women’s use of Kaqchikel puro functions to demonstrate simultaneously that they have maintained their Maya roots, while also presenting themselves as cosmopolitan and educated due to the dialect’s connection to the intellectual pan-Maya movement. The colloquial Kaqchikel spoken by the majority population in the women’s hometowns, on the other hand, receives negative judgements from non-Indigenous society as being primitive and lower class, as well as by the mobile migrant women and Pan-Maya activists as being too inclusive of Spanish. Part of the women’s language revitalization work attempts to not only change their own speech, but to convince others in their communities to switch from colloquial to Kaqchikel puro. Despite the challenges of this work, Bennett finds that the women experience a feeling of chuq’a, or strength, resulting from their language revitalization efforts that motivates them to continue promoting the Kaqchikel language.

In Chapter Four, Bennett focuses on the role of traje, or Indigenous clothing, in the performance of good Maya womanhood. Maya women are expected to wear traje to maintain traditional cultural practices, but also face discrimination when they do so. Bennett draws a parallel between how mobile women use Kaqchikel and how they use traje. Just as the women avoid linguistic code mixing through attempting to keep Kaqchikel and Spanish separate, mobile women also avoid fashion code mixing through wearing “traje puro.” The particular styles of traje puro they choose, however, connects them with contemporary Indigenous fashions and therefore contemporary Guatemalan society. In this way, Maya women “collapse the false binary between tradition and modernity” and lay claim to both. As in the previous chapter, Bennett does a nice job connecting the daily decisions women make regarding cultural practices to the larger political, social, and economic issues at stake. Throughout the book, Bennett makes a compelling argument for her dual focus on language and clothing in the construction of the “good Maya woman.” There were a few moments, however, when I felt that there was perhaps too much emphasis on the explicit spoken use 

 The next two chapters, “Against Death” and the “Afterlife of Colonial Gender Violence” document the struggles of Dominican women as freedom fighters and activists within the post-dictatorial period of the 1960s. Many of these women were forced to migrate in order to escape repression and violence at home. The book makes a novel contribution here to the study of Dominican migration and the role of women, especially working class guerrilleras or soldiers, by highlighting Dominicans who have relocated to Italy. As such, these two chapters reveal Italy as a significant and understudied site of the Dominican diaspora, and it should be of interest to those looking to explore the ways race and racism shape contemporary Italian society as a European nation receiving Global South immigrants. They also analyze the intersections of race, colonialism, empire making, and migration in the creation of italinatà (Italian identity), emphasizing the afterlife of colonial racism and sexism within current conceptions of an Italian identity exclusive of Black immigrant bodies. Chapter Four engages in a brilliant exploration of the uses of photography and film to depict African women under Italian colonialism as deviant, exotic objects of desire through which Italian manhood and imperialism were mutually constituted, and the ongoing effect on Black female bodies of the racist colonial representation of these “afterimages.”Chapter Five, “Second Generation Interruptions,” continues García-Peña’s exploration of how in Italy “nonwhiteness is assumed to be a marked of 

of the lexical term “good woman.” In Chapter Three, for example, Bennett examines how Brenda’s family reacts to her language revitalization work as Brenda attempts to get her family to switch from speaking colloquial Kaqchikel to Kaqchikel puro. Bennett claims that when Brenda’s family members, such as her brother Juan, do not explicitly label her as “good,” they “reject her attempted enregisterment of mobile women with ‘good’ women and her attempts to revitalize Kaqchikel.” This claim opens an interesting question: Does Juan have to explicitly refer to Brenda as “good” to support or think positively about the work she is doing? Similarly, does Brenda’s father not changing his own speech automatically mean that Brenda “failed”?  I felt that these examples needed more clarification, as the conclusions here seem to contradict the overarching claim that revitalization work empowers Maya women even when few concrete results are seen.

In addition, I would have liked to read more about the role of verbal art and speech play in the creation of good Maya womanhood. Bennett’s book focuses primarily on everyday conversation, as well as interviews and surveys that she conducted. I would be curious to know if the linguistic relationships between Kaqchikel puro, colloquial Kaqchikel, and Spanish manifest in similar ways in performances of song or poetry, for example. In addition, what is the role of humor in relation to these dialects? Bennett briefly points to some humorous moments that emerge from the use of Kaqchikel puro in contexts where its use is unexpected; these moments offered fascinating insights and I would have liked to see their analysis expanded.

Ultimately, Bennett’s book provides a clear and detailed analysis highlighting the specific life histories of three women while also illustrating broader issues affecting Indigenous women engaged in revitalization work not only in Guatemala but worldwide. Her attempts to center women’s voices and to bring together a language-centered approach with feminist and Indigenous studies scholarship succeed in moving beyond theories that paint women and Indigenous people’s empowerment in a primarily economic light. Bennett’s work highlights the importance of grounding the analysis of large revitalization movements in the small scale linguistic and cultural decisions made daily by people, and particularly women, who bring these movements to life.