"Here, Our Culture Is Hard"
Stories of Domestic Violence 
from a Mayan Community in Belize

by Laura J. McClusky
University of Texas Press

Marriage among the Maya of Central America is a model of complementarity between a man
and a woman. This union demands mutual respect and mutual service. Yet some husbands
beat their wives. 

In this pioneering book, Laura McClusky examines the lives of several Mopan Maya women
in Belize. Using engaging ethnographic narratives and a highly accessible analysis of the lives
that have unfolded before her, McClusky explores Mayan women's strategies for enduring,
escaping, and avoiding abuse. Factors such as gender, age inequalities, marriage patterns,
family structure, educational opportunities, and economic development all play a role in either
preventing or contributing to domestic violence in the village. McClusky argues that using
narrative ethnography, instead of cold statistics or dehumanized theoretical models, helps to
keep the focus on people, "rehumanizing" our understanding of violence. This highly accessible
book brings to the social sciences new ways of thinking about, representing, and studying
abuse, marriage, death, gender roles, and violence. 

"This is the first book I am aware of that focuses primarily on the issue of
domestic violence in Mexico and Central America. . . . It is a courageous
undertaking for the author to write on this topic, and she carries it off with grace,
humility, and honesty. . . . This book has far more potential to be of interest to a
general readership than most academic books."

 —Lynn Stephen, Professor of Anthropology, University of Oregon 

"...clearly anthropologists had ignored or had glossed over with throw-away one-liners a topic of serious dimensions and great importance to women." Dorothy Counts from Sanctions and Sanctuary: Cultural Perspectives on The Beating of

"Our very idea of what a human being is, how a family thrives or fails, and how love and fear shape our lives are all given over to experts in white coats and translated into cold, quantified studies." Thomas Moore from "Does America Have A Soul" In Mother Jones 21(5): 28-29.

I wrote this ethnography to remedy the problems raised by these two scholars. Anthropologists have done little work on domestic violence as a social phenomenon in its own right. Scholars, anthropologists and non-anthropologists alike, who have dealt with domestic violence have done so, for the most part, with detached cold analysis. In this work, I use narrative ethnography to provide a deep complex understanding of domestic violence as it exists in a Mayan village in southern Belize. 

The text follows the day to day life of several women, each with a different experience to domestic
violence. Some endure, some run away and others avoid marriage altogether. This text explores the ways Maya legitimize wife beating, the growing economic opportunities for women that allow them to avoid marriage and the ways embeddedness into the community help women to endure and prevent severe abuse. 

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Excerpt from Chapter 5
  "When We Go To High School We Change"

I'm walking home from the river. I'm keeping a slow and steady pace in hopes that it will help me to stay cool. I've
just bathed. The river helped me cool down but I'm already beginning to feel sweaty again. It's hot today. The sun
is intense. I swing a small plastic bucket full of clean wet clothing in my left hand as I make my way up the dusty
road. As I pass the soccer field, I see Antonia coming my way. She's swinging a larger plastic bucket of dirty
clothes in her hand. Santos, her two-month old baby, is bundled in a sling over her back. 

"Deyoos," she greets me in Mopan.

"Deyoos." I respond with a lazy nod. "You're going to the river?" I smile, as I shield my eyes from the sun and
look at her. 

"Yeeesss." She speaks slowly, dragging a single word out as long as it will go, like the heat has melted it and made
it more malleable. "From where do you come, ix Laura?" She puts her bucket down on the ground. 

"The river." I put my bucket down too and move my head to indicate direction. 

We smile. We don't have anything else to say to each other today, but we pause a second longer before we each
lift our buckets again. "Okay then," we say in harmony. "Bin ka." I'm going.

By the time I'm standing at the mouth of the footpath that leads to my home, I'm covered in sweat again. I stand
silently for just a moment, feeling thirsty and trying to remember if I have a few limes at home to squeeze into some
refreshing lime juice. I look down the road at Prim's shop. I know he won't have any limes to sell, but it's always
cool there. I could have a nice cold soft drink. The thought is inviting. I pick up my bucket and head toward the

There's no one at the counter, but I enter and quietly say, "Deyoos."

I hear a distant faint, "Deyoos, ix Laura." Leona, Prim's wife is sitting in the private section of the shop. This is
where Prim sleeps if he stays here too late at night to walk home. Leona puts down the embroidery she was
working on and stands behind the counter.

"Oh Leona, I haven't seen you in such a long time." I put my bucket on the floor and lean on the counter. 

"Yes, ix Laura. Today my husband works with the corn, so I mind the shop." Her broad smile seems toothless.
Her eyes twinkle as she giggles. 

"I think nobody is left in the village." I smile. "It's so quiet out there." 

"The sun's hot, gal. That's why. Everybody stay inside." She sits on the stool behind the counter. "Ai! the sun
makes people lazy, ix Laura."

"It's true." I nod. "I don't see anybody today, just Antonia and some pigs."

"Oh, ix Laura." She giggles at my unintended joke.

"Maybe, can I have one Sprite?"

"Maybe. I jus put dem in de cooler. But I think I got one cold." She gets up and moves around to the cooler. A
blast of frosty mist stays low around the cooler opening, and surrounds her hand and head as she reaches in.
"Yes, one cold Sprite." She pulls it out.

"Maybe you want a soft drink, too? I can buy it for you."

"Oh no Miss Laura. I don't want one. Too sweet." She walks back over to me and opens the bottle. She picks up
the dollar I placed on the counter and puts the soft drink in its place. 

I stand straight, with my hand on my hip and consume half the bottle in one gulp. The glass is cold in my hand. I'm
tempted to rub it on my forehead and neck, but it's sticky. My stomach rumbles, reminding me of the wonderful
gingerbread she sells. "Maybe a gingerbread too." I smile.

She immediately moves toward the cookie case as I place the half empty bottle on the counter and pull out
another dollar from my wallet. 

When she returns she sees the half empty Sprite and scolds me, "Mind you don't get sick, gal!" Then giggling, she
takes the second dollar, puts it in the money box and returns to her place on the stool. 

"Do you make these gingerbreads?"

"No, gal. Another lady does. You know Olympia?"

"I don't think so." I take a few more bites, "But they are good though."

We visit in silence for awhile. I eat my gingerbread and finish my Sprite. 

"So Justina gone." Leona's voice is a whisper. 

"Yes, she gone already." I put the empty pint bottle on the counter. 

"Maybe that's good." 

"Yes, I think it's good." I hesitate for a moment, unsure how much she already knows. She's a good friend of
Justina's family, maybe even a relative, so I continue. "He knocked her hard, Leona. She had blood coming from
her ear." I touch my left ear, the same side she was bleeding from. "He kicked her on her side," I touch my left
side, the same side where Justina was bruised, my hand follows my body down to my hip. "And on her hip. He hit
her hard, Leona." 

Leona shakes her head. "Maybe it's best she's gone." She cradles her arms. 

"I think so."

We say it again.

"Maybe it's best she's gone." Now she leans on the counter and cradles her chin in her hand, still shaking her

"I think so." I lean on the counter too.

She breaks our chant, without hesitation, without shame. "My husband used to lash me, you know."

I'm silent. She must have been married before Prim. I could never imagine him raising a hand to her.

"Yes," she waves her hand in the air, "he used to lash me hard."

I'm confused. Prim is one of my best friends in the village. "Does he beat you now?"

"No, no more. Juana, our daughter, goes to high school, and one day they tell them high-schoolers that if dey
mother and father fight, they have to go and bring de police to make them stop."


"Yes, it's true. They say, 'You are in school now, and you have to study. If your mother and father are fighting,
then you can't study. You mus go to the police and make them stop."

"Wow, they said that in school."

"Yes, it's true. And my husband hear that and he stop. He don't lash me again."

I shake my head, "But why did he lash you?"

"Because he's jealous, that's why," she snaps. I've never seen her so indignant.


"Yes, jealous! But I stay at home, I do my work." She nods her head, hard, to emphasize her clear understanding
of herself. She is not lazy. "I don't go all kinds of places. I don't look for the next man!" She is not "loose."

"Yes, it's true. I know you work hard." I pause for a moment and continue. "Did you ever leave him?"

No Miss Laura. I never go. I always stay with Prim." She shakes her head as she speaks.

"Why do you stay?"

"You know my father, ix Laura?"

"Santiago Choc, not true?"

She nods. "Yes, that's him. He is a poor man. How can I leave my husband? I can never go back with my father
again. He is too poor. He has nothing. How can I go back to him again?" 

"It's true. He is a poor man." Our eyes meet. "So you stay with Prim?"

"Yes, I can't find my way alone. And what about our children? If I leave my children, who will care for them?
Who can be sure they have a good life? The next lady?"

"But NOW he doesn't hit you?" I ask. Maybe, in some way I'm still trying to clear Prim's name. He's a friend, a
nice guy. But, as I ask this, a young woman enters the shop with her plastic woven handbag. She steps up to the
counter several feet away from me. She leans on the counter and plays with the few dollar bills she has in her
hand. I'm sure the girl hasn't heard my question, but I'm also sure Leona has. 

Leona looks at the girl and says "Deyoos." She takes my bottle away and wipes the crumbs from my gingerbread
onto the floor. I stand quiet while the girl says what she needs. I'll wait. Leona and I will talk again when she

But just as the girl's order is complete, another girl enters the shop. I realize now my bottle is gone, my crumbs are
gone and our conversation is over.