Lives on the threshold in the place of rocks and hunger: The impact of displacement and encampment on Q'eqchi' women in Maya Tecun, Mexico

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Hans Buechler


Q'eqchi', Tecun, Guatemalan, Refugees, Displacement, Encampment

Subject Categories

Anthropology | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Social and Cultural Anthropology


In an ethnographic study conducted from August 1993-November 1995, I examined the effects of sociopolitical violence on Guatemalan women in Maya Tecún, Mexico. The fieldwork that I conducted addressed the complexities of gender role and ideology transformation, resulting from processes of ladinoization and modernization in a Q'eqci' Maya ethnolinguistic community that was forcibly displaced by sociopolitical violence into a United Nations refugee camp in Campeche, Mexico. In particular, I focus on changes and continuities in women's identities, subsistence activities, healing roles, social support networks, and forms of social organization and communication.

In addition to traditional ethnographic methods, including participant observation, surveying, and interviewing, I also employed feminist objectives, principles, and methodologies. I utilized the testimonio method as an experimental feminist method because it allowed me to develop a less authoritative and more advocacy-oriented approach to the fieldwork and writing process.

The ethnographic evidence that I present suggests that women respond to the negative effects of the refugee experience through complex strategies involving both an adherence to traditional culture and an embracing of more ladinoized and modernized cultural traditions. I argue that the ethnographic data indicates that women with strong natal kin networks and those who can most readily manipulate their gender identities and roles in response to the isolation, loss of social support, and traumatic stress associated with displacement and encampment, are coping most effectively with the refugee experience. I also argue that traumatic stress, weak social support networks, and isolation are expressed by Q'eqchi' women in an idiom of distress through the culture bound syndrome much' ke. Finally, my research indicates that factors such as an individual's personality, traumatic experiences, age, social support, natal kin networks, and pre-migration contact with Ladino culture contribute to the variability in Q'eqchi' women's responses to culture change. It is this variability that I address in the dissertation. I conclude with recommendations for more gender-sensitive refugee camp administration and a critique of the testimonio method.


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