In 1994, I did research in southern Belize among Mopan Maya. When I first came to the village where I ended up doing my research, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to study. My interests in graduate school at SUNY Buffalo Department of Anthropology were all over the place: I was interested in midwifery, gender construction, medical anthropology, dream theory, and psychological anthropology. While in the village topic came to me, not because I sought it out, but because it became evident one day while I was sitting in a hammock day-dreaming about coming back to the village to study. I knew Belize was the place I was going to do my work. It felt right. I felt at home in many ways. But I didn’t know what I was going to study.
That’s when a young woman found me and tried to sell me a basket, much like many Maya women in Belize would do at that time. Maya women, then, and today make basket to sell to tourists. It helps them to have money at hand for little things like soap, cooking oil and most of all school supplies for their children.
The problem was I already had more baskets than my meager graduate student budget could afford. But this didn’t stop her. She slowly showed me each basket she had made. At the time I didn’t understand how time consuming basket making was. I was unimpressed and frankly, I tried to ignore her. She persisted, and there were many awkward silences between us. Then, she told me her husband beats her.
I froze. I didn’t know what to do. I was unprepared for such conversation, so I got up and left. I wasn’t proud of that, and it haunted me. It haunted me so much it became my topic of study.
Spousal abuse wasn’t a big topic in anthropology at the time. My research and subsequent book “Here, Our Culture Is Hard”: Stories of Domestic Violence From a Maya Village in Belize (University of Texas Press 2001) was the first book length ethnographic study that made spousal abuse its focus. Since then others have embarked on the study, and soon another book on domestic violence in Belize will come out focusing on the western part of the country.
What I learned helped people understand that spousal abuse is common worldwide, but the ways different peoples deal with it is significant. I found, at that time, in the village where I did my work, that Maya women protected each other from spousal abuse. Even though their society had many elements of a patriarchy, a system in which men are privileged, women created mechanisms to help each other deal with violence in the home. It’s too complicated to deal with all of it here, but I’ll tell you about a part of it that is the foundation for my next extended research project. I’ll tell you about gossip and education.
In 1994, mothers often made sure their young marriage-able daughters heard about any incidence of spousal abuse that she knew about. Fodder for gossip came easily since Maya women do not hide when they are hit by their husbands. Rather they talked about it openly and honestly. No hidden bruises, no stories of how they were clumsy and somehow caused any visible bruises themselves. Nothing was hidden, like it often is in the US. Women did not feel they were somehow at fault and deserving of their bruises, like they often are here in the US. They were clear about abuse, and they were clear about who was at fault.
So when women got together to wash their clothes in the river, or when they got together to make baskets to sell to tourists, or to stop by a neighbor’s house to see if they might have an extra egg or hot pepper to sell they told each other about their bruises. Mothers would talk about this to their daughters, telling them that they should avoid marriage. Ignore the sweet talk, they would say and study. Education, these women felt, would provide their daughters with more opportunities than finding themselves married to an abusive man.
That’s similar to what we believe in the US. Education gives you opportunities, and opportunities can help you avoid all sorts of bad situations. Education is the key to a good life. This was a radical idea in southern Belize at the time, especially since just a few years prior to my research, Maya arranged marriages. It was a different world, a different way of thinking. At that time building a family was key to establishing solid social relationships and those solid relationships were what allowed you a good life. Maya success depended on staying connected to others, which often meant serving the community in various ways.
At the time of my field stay, going to school was also just becoming possible for young women as the village now had daily bus service to the District capital of Punta Gorda (PG) where the high school was located. Prior to having bus service to PG mostly only boys went to high school. Parents felt it was too risky to allow girls to go since they would have to find lodging far away from home. In PG they might not have a social network strong enough to prevent her, in her loneliness, from developing a relationship with an irresponsible boy. The fear was she would return home pregnant and for Maya, at that time especially, a single mother found it difficult to find a good man to marry. Buses allowed young women to stay home at night, and go to school during the day.
But something interesting was happening. Young girls going to high school were re-creating Maya gender roles. High School girls wore different clothing, talked freely with young men, took important positions in the household doing accounting for their mothers basket selling, they were changing gender roles. Women were gaining independence.
So what is my research now?
Well, after twenty years, times have changed. Education is not so difficult to get in Belize, although for many it requires more resources than are available and more time away from running a successful household than is possible. Besides that, studies in the US are suggesting that economic freedom is not enough to have a sense of well-being. Some suggest well-being is comprised of five elements: career, social, financial, physical and community. The Gallup-Purdue Index of well-being for college graduates in the US uses these five elements to access college graduates sense of well-being in the US. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index also uses these five elements and has declared that Belize is fifth in the world for it population thriving in four of the five elements of well-being.
While not directly using these five elements, I plan on investigating the well-bring of Maya students, especially women. How do they fare today? Do they have a sense of well-being that matches these five elements? Do they feel education has benefited them? What are the struggles they face and have faced getting an education? What do they feel they have achieved? What helped them achieve it? Does education guarantee a good job? Does it get in the way of social well-being as they move away from the village where they were born and face difficulties being an ethnic minority? Does delayed marriage help or hinder a sense of well-being? The questions are endless, and I’m going to ask many. I hope my research will be useful to young Maya women, and to students in the US as they navigate their lives in efforts of creating a sense of well-being. There’s more to life than just avoiding violence. I would guess there’s more to life than just being educated too.
Laura McClusky is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Wells College.