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Final Paper Elders

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Victoria Kline
May 18, 2005
Seminar in Ethnology
Dr. Pérez

Setting the Record Straight: Tales from the Field

The ethnography I chose to read and engage with is “Our Elders Teach Us” by David Carey, Jr. This book centers on the oral history of the Kaqchiquel speaking Maya of Guatemala in five different locales against historical and other literary accounts as mined by the author. The author received his MA and PhD in Latin American Studies, and is now a faculty member of the History department at the University of Southern Maine (Carey n.d.). “Our Elders Teach Us” is based on the dissertation he wrote for his PhD.


Carey’s book begins with methodology and an introduction. These beginning chapters lay the foundation for the rest of the book and are actually the more informative and better written portions of the book.

Carey’s research began in 1994 with a six-week class in Kaqchikel language and culture taught by native speakers in Antigua, Guatemala. As the class progressed, teachers invited him to stay in their homes and personal relationships developed between him and his native teachers. The personal relationships gave him a foothold into the community where the eventual anthropological research began.

Each summer from 1994 to 1997, Carey returned to Guatemala to attend classes and socialize with those friends he met during his stays. Then in 1997 he began a full year of residence in Comolapa, Guatemala. Then returned after that year in the summer of 1999. Carey’s research design included living in the community under study, and writing down oral histories as they came his way. He documented both informal conversations as well as formal interviews in native Kaqchikel that by the time of the actual interviewing, he was fluent in (Carey n.d.).

Conduct of the research advanced in this order:

1) He lived in his community of study prior to accessing the archives
2) He formed research questions from his observations, interviews, and conversations
3) He then went to the archives to conduct research

The archives he researched were those at AGCA (Archivo General de Centro América) for reasons of comparison of written histories to oral histories.

In retrospect, Carey opined that the most challenging thing about his research was gaining the trust of the Kaqchikel people. Mastery of the language was a definite plus in his favor in this regard. Also, he found that asking direct questions about history was often not fruitful and that he had to let the conversation flow freely around to what he desired to hear about. This interviewing method took some time but was worth the effort in his opinion. Since he was in residence in Comolapa, he interacted daily with his research subjects.

Town Origins

David Carey relates how the Kaqchikel use oral histories to pass down stories of the origins of their towns. The sense of place is important to the Kaqchikel. In his essay, “Enduring Yet Ineffable Community in the Western Periphery” author John Watanabe argues that there are assumptions about Maya identity that constitute dress, custom, worldview etc. and that assuming Maya identity thusly tends to be reductionist. But a situational approach, according to Watanabe, would locate Maya in contextual history, “that derives Mayan communities and their distinctiveness from the past and present hegemony of the rest of Guatemalan society” (Watanabe 1990: 183). This is how Carey attempts to locate the true identity of the Kaqchikel through oral histories and origin stories. The Kaqchikel have a sense of place and belonging in the world that is different than that captured in the Ladino histories that were written about them. Carey says, “Ladino accounts fail to capture the basics, and certainly the essence, of their forebears’ lives” (Carey 2001: 77). With ancestors they are proud of that serve as connections to their locations of origin, the Kaqchikel have strong ties to place.

The towns that are of interest to Carey are the ones that he is researching. Those are: Tecpán, Comolapa, Poaquil, Aguas Calientes, and Barahona. Carey is able to show similarities and differences between the community oral histories, those of the neighboring towns, and archival records. The dates of origin are usually off but close. Memory is not a timekeeper.

Land, Labor, and Integration

Land, land use, land distribution, and how various laws affected the Kaqchiquel, and interpretations made during different leaders/president’s reigns is the subject matter of this second chapter. Carey compares the oral history to archival history once again. There are similarities and differences. The Kaqchikel remember many of the leaders and how their new laws and policies affected their lives and livelihoods. Land used to be the basis for Maya survival. It was all about land. When the Spaniards arrived, the Maya were engaged in subsistence agriculture that they had done from time immemorial. Several presidents made land reform laws that greatly affected the way the Maya eked out their living. There were great changes in the way that land was tenured; Maya had used local communal property laws to organize land use amongst themselves. New divisions and restructuring of who got what access and possession of what lands was done at the expense of the Maya (most of the time). From complete independence of outside resources to the inability to raise their own subsistence crops, the Kaqchikel histories are biased towards the view that they were much better off and had no land  problems prior to the arrival of the Spanish. As the Spanish invaded Maya territory and claimed land, the new landowners needed labor to work those lands, and there was plenty of labor available in the indigenous population. These circumstances were the root of the turn of Maya peasant populations towards wage labor. 

President Barrios, beginning his regime in 1870, forced registration of land titles with the government. Of course those contracts were in Spanish, and the Kaqchikel spoke only their native tongue. Many lost rights to their lands through Barrios’ new laws. Robert Carmack concurs “Indians were forced by the Liberals to register their lands. In the process they lost some of the most productive (piedmont) holdings, and many fell in to debt peonage to the ladino-owned plantations” (Carmack 1990: 126). Some Kaqchikel were able to secure titles to land at this time. This was the beginning of land privatization. It is interesting to note, that in Carey’s oral histories, he says that most Kaqchikel agreed with the need to own land, that they welcomed the land ownership because ownership would protect their land from encroachment (be more secure). Others do not agree with Barrios’ land policies, as he ended up giving much of the best land to Ladinos, and they believe he had no respect for the land (Carey 2001: 82-96).

Eighty years later, Arbenz attempted to equitably redistribute land under a new Agrarian Reform Law. Kachiquel resisted this measure by Arbenz even though Arbenz was attempting to give some of the land to Kaqchikel and other Maya groups. By this time the idea of private ownership was well set, and Kaqchikel oral histories tell of Kaqchikel protecting lands that they worked on for a Ladino landowner.

One intrusion on land use that was initially resisted by Kaqchikel farmers is the use of chemical fertilizer. This subject became one of Carey’s research interests and he has written extensively elsewhere about this. The initial resistance stemmed from the sacred place that land held in the Maya belief system. To add fertilizer was seen as a desecration of the sacred land. When finally convinced that the fertilizer would allow the people to raise crops enough to alleviate hunger among the people, the first crops were so abundant that coastal immigration for work was no longer necessary for a time. However, after the first few burgeoning crops, the fertilizers began to loose effectiveness, and some crops would not grow without chemical fertilizers. Thus, the Kaqchikel farmers became part of a new cycle of dependence on chemical fertilizers that they had to purchase from outside the community adding additional costs to subsistence and export farming. Other authors back up the material on peasant farmer’s use of chemical fertilizers for example John Watanabe talks about the introduction of chemical fertilizers to Chimalteco, Guatemala in the early 1960s. At first productivity nearly tripled, and smaller plots of land could support whole families and precluded the need for immigrating to other areas for wage labor. Then productivity ebbed and it became a necessity to find wage labor to earn money to purchase chemical fertilizers (Watanabe 1990: 188).   

Epidemics and Natural Disasters

Epidemics and natural disasters are covered in two chapters in Carey’s book. Both are related in oral histories as important events. Both are events the Kaqchikel had little control over and that they were unable to avoid or defend themselves from. The Spanish brought in devastating contagious diseases to the people, which the people had little resistance to. Of interest are Kaqchikel beliefs concerning epidemics: “Kaqchikel do not imagine a time free of pestilence; rather, they recognize illness as part of the natural course of life” and that “epidemics and illness fit within Kaqchikel worldviews, but interaction with outside forces can bring misunderstanding and fear” which includes the “threatening advances of foreigners into their communities” (Carey 2001: 135). In some instances epidemics were thought to be man made evil brought into the communities by government in order to eradicate Maya (Carey 2001: 135). Further, interventions by government officials in times of epidemic were considered intrusions. Some stories of live burials of individuals succumbed to disease are from periods of epidemic stress.

Similarly natural disasters are considered a normal part of the life cycle (or maybe earth cycle). They do not consider natural disasters something that can be controlled and lament the occasions when natural disasters have occurred recently mainly because of the intrusion by western relief organizations into their daily affairs (Carey 2001: 139)! Natural disasters are accepted by Kaqchikel as a normal part of the natural cycle of events over which they have no real control. However, they do not accept human caused disasters as natural, and have trouble comprehending why other humans would take actions against them in cases of genocide, or burying people alive as happened during epidemics, or even the intrusion of human made chemical fertilizer and the belief that it causes adverse effects on people’s health (Carey 2001: 153).


This chapter on the memory of President Ubico’s legacy is long and somewhat repetitive, but demonstrates what lingers from his reign of power from 1930-1944. Ubico ruled with an iron thumb using physical punishment to get people to comply. A despot of a ruler, in Kaqchikel memory, Ubico was good because he brought peace and order to the people and to Guatemala. It is interesting to note that in leadership Maya admire strength (Carey 2001: 210-211), even strong-armed strength, if it brings stability to their lives. The Kaqchikel believe Ubico made Guatemala safe for everyone. 

Ubico thought Maya alcoholic consumption interfered with work and used prohibition and physical punishment to inhibit drinking. Through Carey’s interviews Kaqchikel mostly seem to agree with these harsh measures for compliance! The Kaqchikel thought the rules were for the betterment of their society, so they appreciate his manipulation. Kaqchikel accept disciplinary actions by Ubico as they were doled out equally regardless of ethnicity (Carey 2001: 210).

Ubico visited work sites all over Guatemala and the personal interaction was appreciated by the Kaqchikel (Carey 2001: 211). Ubico visited even remote parts of Guatemala, and the people said he was easily approachable -- a “regular guy” (211). The visits gave the Maya a sense that he cared about them and that they were important members of the state (Carey 2001: 212). Ubico also was known to intervene on behalf of Kaqchikel. Richard Adams relates this story in his essay “Ethnic Images and Strategies in 1944”: On one of Ubico’s forays into the hinterlands, a group of Indian leaders from Panajachel “documented why the intensive labor on their small cash crop plots should exempt them from the forced labor laws, and Ubico granted their request” (Adams 1992: 142). As an administrator Ubico was able to eliminate much of the dishonest grafting in government (Adams 1992: 142).

Unfortunately many gains that Ubico made during his tenure were lost when he left office. Kachikel lament the situation that Guatemala is in today without the strong leadership of a man like Ubico. “The Kaqchikel fault a weak and corrupt government for society’s ills” (Carey 2001: 210). Kaqchikel also liked the attention and gratification his personal visits gave them even though they were meant to keep control over the entire population. So different was Ubico’s treatment of Kaqchikel from previous hostile local officials that he gained popularity and loyalty because of the personal attention he gave to the people. “Clearly, Ubico’s personal touch exponentially expanded his control and impact” (Carey 2001: 212).


The theoretical paradigm that Carey as ethnographer uses is that of applied advocacy. He is using his position as researcher to promote causes of the indigenes amongst whom he worked for so many years. He worked and lived within the community for so long that one family referred to him as son and brother in familial terms. This closeness gave him access to many daily conversations through which he wrote this book.

He had hundreds of informants that he patiently listened to and transcribed what they told him. Then he had the arduous duty to document those words that he took down and analyze them and compare them to other qualitative data that he collected.

This work is of cross-disciplinary importance. One of the goals of his research in Guatemala was to produce a history book to use in Kaqchikel schools aimed at a sixth grade audience using the oral histories as a foundation for the information provided in the book, to help the education process of Kaqchikel youth be more relevant to their daily lives than the Ladino histories usually presented in text books. Carey is also a Latin American scholar using method and theory from anthropology. His teaching appointment is in the History department of the University of Southern Maine, where he is an assistant professor. 


While reading this book I though of many connections to the ethnologies we read in class. First thought was about how Gayatri Spivak, in an effort to bring about recognition for the marginalized post-colonial subaltern, gave voice to them through recontextualization of historical documents. David Carey’s was involved in a similar writing project. Noticing the lack of educational textbooks that provided material pertinent to young Kaqchikel students, he sought to amend that lack through the writing of a history text for sixth graders utilizing the material collected through his oral history interviews.

Another reading encompassed the idea of the everyday as what the ethnographer’s duty it is to write about in “The Rhetoric of Ethnographic Holism” by Robert J. Thornton (2000). Writing ethnography of everyday life is essentially fiction in the sense that a single individual cannot experience the whole of a society, only those parts in which he or his informants are involved. The completed ethnography is “an ideal vision of society” (Thornton 2000: 19) that exists in the mind of the ethnographer.

In the article “Towards an Ethics of the Open Subject: Writing Culture in Good Concience” Debbora Battaglia defines the open subject. From her point of view in the position of ethnographer one must be aware of personal bias no matter how objective the observer, translator, writer thinks he is. The underlying hegemony, the desire for the subject to remain blurred or obscured in the scheme of things (in order to survive), the western ethnographer’s tendency to place a value on the subject under study (the subject that is available or “locatable” gives it value), she just says that all these circumstances combine to reveal that the discourse of ethnography is one of power relations whether one is aware of it or not. Her conclusion is that the ethnographer must know oneself truthfully first and foremost, then in engaging with these far off people and places where ethnography tends to take place, to acknowledge that we are in the position of power to write other’s culture.

I do think that Carey’s intention was to write about the culture of the Kaqchikel in good conscience and be as open as possible in his relations with the people, be as open to opinion and criticism as was required as to establish trust and open dialog between he the ethnographer and the Kaqchikel informants (friends). I believe his own bias is well documented in his chapters on methodology and in the introduction and in the other chapters relating to his reading audience when he speaks about Kaqchikel identity as community and family based, and in his praise for the Kaqchikel turning the other cheek in almost every instance. 

Most pertinent to the discussion of this book (Our Elders Teach Us) are the works by Eric R. Wolf and his research and archival studies on marginalized people throughout the world. The Jane Schneider and Rayna Rapp edited volume of essays concerning topics and persons who were influenced by Eric Wolf contains some pertinent ethnological points that merge with the methods and theories used within David Carey’s research on the Kaqchikel. In the introduction to the Schneider-Rapp volume, Jane Schneider presents Eric Wolf’s paradigms: in discussing any analysis of culture, he first looks to the historical background of the people. He is most interested in those marginalized peoples about whom history was not officially written (Schneider 1995).

Schneider’s discussion and the subsequent volume written in honor of Eric Wolf directly relates to the material, the methods, and the theories used by David Carey in his Kaqchikel ethnography that is being discussed in this paper. The Schneider volume shows the relation of history as told by the indigenes through oral histories, as compared to the history as written by literate Euro American invaders.

The gist of Wolf’s argument as expanded on in his book entitled “Europe and the People Without History” (Wolf 1982): history is made by the literate society, the illiterates had input only via other people who wrote about them. These outside observations were made from a position of one looking down upon the poor peasants and did not take into account how these marginalized peoples were maintaining their lives through transformation diffusion of filtered ideologies or resisting those in power. Eric Wolf’s theoretical paradigms had to do with power, who had it, how it was used to control less powerful or non-powerful peoples, and how those in power managed to marginalize and thereby use people on the periphery to extract labor and resources through tribute or taxation.

The methodological form that would result from using a framework of Eric Wolf’s theoretical paradigms: the methodology would consist of direct ethnography in the area, and a complete combing of the historical writings, a complete grasp of history and how the history of interactions made the history of the present situation possible. Wolf asked why the present situation has come about for those in lesser positions of power and why the system maintains itself. And part of those answers he teases out of written history and oral histories. This is exactly what Carey aims for in his methodology and research goals.
We get a good idea of the methodological framework that would result from the words of Eric Wolf in the introduction to Articulating Hidden Histories by Jane Schneider. The researcher would view the research area as “affected by, and affecting, wider processes, the historical unfolding of which must” (Schneider 1995: 9) be understood. Further, Wolf advises, according to Schneider, that the anthropologist learn much about the evolution of a particular culture by delving into the “local histories if those histories are charted in relation to the large-scale transformations” of the past, in order to find out about “what happened in their research site during times if tributary and mercantile expansion” (Schneider 1995: 9). In other words to take the history into account, the methodology would require extensive historical research as well as participant interviews, observations, and discourses. “Wolf’s method is not just historical; it is also self-consciously comparative” (Schneider 1995: 10). Schneider goes on to say that once the ethnography has been done with its historical component complete, the researcher must then compare his findings with other locales comparing observed occurrences with those in similar situations (Schneider 1995: 11).

In “Discipline and Practice,” Gupta and Ferguson show that there is hegemony in academia, those whose work gets funded versus those who don’t, the theoretical framework which ethnography is hung on against those models that have been set aside and ignored (Gupta and Ferguson 1997).

In illustrating the history of anthropology Gupta and Ferguson show how the now prevalent ethnographic fieldwork gains more prestige and career building potential depending on the place of the fieldwork as a “proper” location, by whose models the researcher is utilizing, by the ethnic profile of the researcher, and the ability of the researcher to gain funding (depending on how his research will further the position of the state) (Gupta and Ferguson 1997).

Anthropology has evolved from mere description and association with natural science, to a science of comparison and analysis, to a conscious effort to instigate change for the betterment of lives. The authors give various descriptions of field and fieldwork and how both manifest at different times in history (Gupta and Ferguson 1997).

When we compare David Carey’s ethnography to the theoretical debate by Gupta and Ferguson, we find that David Carey did not choose an unusual field or fieldwork location but one that was readily acceptable in the academy as one where he removed himself from his normal routine to live among exotic Others, in an attempt to capture the real life in comparison to the historical record made of them. David Carey now works within the academy (Carey 2001).

Theory becomes ethnography in this book through placing the self in the environment where the subjects live. Becoming fully efficient in both languages the population uses daily. By creating a framework to work from: in this case he wanted to become enmeshed in the daily life of the people to hear their stories without stress on them to change the stories into what he might want to hear. He used a framework of participant informants, of interviews similar to that which Eric Wolf would have been proud. Eric Wolf’s interest in the peasant and peasant societies required that the information gathered came from the local level rather than written histories, then evaluated against the written histories.


The material that was collected by David Carey represents hundreds of days of fieldwork, and thorough enmeshing into indigenous life. He plotted out his research areas and research questions carefully. The field location is one of standard acceptable remote areas and the field subjects the marginalized persons they should be for the abundant grant dollars that were donated to his research. Carey stayed long enough to become fluent in Kaqchikel. He is also fluent in Spanish. The academic department that his research proceeded under was Latin American Studies, for both the MA and the PhD.

Carey utilizes direct narratives and interviews of qualitative nature to put this book together. He collected an immense amount of data. He divided his material into chapters that must have seemed natural divisions when he had all his material together. His opening two chapters are the best written in my opinion. Methods are described methodically and in great detail from the decisions on areas to focus on in Guatemala, to those who would be interviewed and the ways in which the interviews were conducted.

From this immense qualitative body of data, he writes nine chapters that I would describe as of the most boring and repetitive that I have read for a while. Far from the dynamic, cerebral, meditative, prose we have been reading in seminar, Carey resorts to simplified recollection of interview statements beginning each sentence with “Kaqchikel lament” or “Kaqchikel opine” ad nauseam. The title “Our Elders Teach Us” was truly misleading. I expected to be let in on the secretive life of the religious ideals that I have been privy to in other readings. There are only brief mentions of religion and beliefs in this book, except to the mundane, daily routine beliefs that they might have such as when Carey refers to Kaqchikel work ethic – which seems almost superhuman in this book; or the devotion of Kaqchikel to the community and family. Does Carey focus purposely on the mundane, daily routine that is as much a part of living as the system of beliefs?

What stories do the elders tell to the youngsters who have no televisions or any other way to entertain themselves? They tell them about the origin of their towns, about the political leaders that influenced their way of life in ambiguous ways, about the epidemics and how may lives were lost and how outside “help” just interfered with their ways of life, about the devastation of earthquakes, who died, and how Kaqchikel accept the natural disasters as part of the life cycle, but do not understand detrimental human intervention that results in genocide.

We get fleeting glimpses of religious beliefs and the sacredness of land. These beliefs were probably part of the body of notes from the interviews, but Carey decided to leave them out. What we are left with is a portrait of a people (Kaqchikel from those areas of study in Guatemala) that are the same as you and I, with desires, and hopes, and strong work ethics, and no wish for retribution on those who have invaded their territory, made up new rules, enforced those rules with physical violence, and sought to change the essence of the Kaqchikel soul. Another point making them seem superhuman (the Kaqchikel that is).
David Carey has a lot of raw data that could be exoticized and made infinitely more readable even without the religious or belief aspect of Kaqchikel Mayan life. He has chosen to keep the perspective down to earth. I just think the writing could be livened up immensely. There is little description of place or of individual people. That is the heart of good writing and what makes readers want to continue reading. All those interviews David Carey recorded contained animated description; yet the delivery of those descriptions is dull. I do not think the people he writes about are dull; I think the writing is dull. With the raw data, the book could be rewritten into a best seller.  

Sources Cited

Adams, Richard
1990  Ethnic Images and Stragies in 1944. In Guatemala Indians and the State: 1540-1988, ed. Carol Smith, 141-162. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Battaglia, Debbora
1999  Towards an Ethics of the Open Subject: Writing Culture in Good Conscience. In Anthropological Theory Today. Henrietta L. Moore ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Carey, David Jr.
n.d.  Curriculum Vitae. 15 May 2005. <http://www.usm.maine.edu/~dcarey/cv.htm>.
2001  Our Elders Teach Us. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. 

Carmack, Robert
1990  State and Community in Nineteenth-Century Guatemala. In Guatemala Indians and the State: 1540-1988, ed. Carol Smith, 116-136. Austin: University of Texas Press. 

Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson.
1997  Discipline and Practice. In Anthropological Locations. Akhil Gupta and James Fergusen eds. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson eds.
1997  Anthropological Locations. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Fischer, Edward F.
2004  Review of Our Elders Teach Us: Maya-Kaqchikel Historical Perspectives by David Carey, Jr. Journal of Latin American Studies 36(1): 178-179.

Marcus, George E. ed.
2000  Rereading Cultural Anthropology, Third Ed. Durham: Duke University

Moore, Henrietta L.
1999  Anthropological Theory Today. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Schneider, Jane
1995  Introduction: The Analytic Strategies of Eric R. Wolf. In Articulating Hidden Histories: Exploring the Influence of Eric R. Wolf. Jane Schneider and Rayna Rapp eds. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Schneider, Jane, and Rayna Rapp eds.
1995  Articulating Hidden Histories: Exploring the Influence of Eric R. Wolf. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Smith, Carol, ed.
1990  Guatemalan Indians and the State: 1540-1988. Austin: University of Texas Press. 

Thornton, Robert J.
2000  The Rhetoric of Ethnographic Holism. In Rereading Cultural Anthropology, Third Ed. George E. Marcus ed. Durham: Duke University

Watanabe, John
1990  Enduring Yet Ineffable Community in the Western Periphery of Guatemala. In Guatemala Indians and the State: 1540-1988, ed. Carol Smith, 183-204. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Wolf, Eric
1982  Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of
California Press.

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last updated on June 13, 2011