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Center for Human Rights - Celebrating 15 Years! Students • Partners • Research

Emily Willard Studies K’iche’ and Hones her Dissertation

September 4, 2016

With the support of the Mack-Mayerfield and Caldwell Funds, I completed my preliminary dissertation research this past summer in Xela (also known as Quetzaltenango), Guatemala. I learned the basics of K’iche’, a native language in Guatemala, built relationships with new and old friends, and revised and strengthened my dissertation topic, which seeks to understand why, and under what conditions, some Guatemalan women chose to join the guerrillas during their country’s 36-year long armed conflict that lasted from 1960-1996.

My short children’s story with draft edits in K’iche’.

My short children’s story with draft edits in K’iche’.

I spent one week improving conversational Spanish and learning about politics/history of Guatemala and three weeks learning K’iche’ language and culture from a native speaker – building and strengthening important relationships. I wrote a short children’s story in K’iche’ drawing on cultural details that I learned with my teacher. I was learning K’iche’ in Spanish, and found myself thinking in Spanish the first day of K’iche’ class. I shared my short story with native speakers and spoke with them about my language learning, enabling relationship growth and more inter-cultural understanding and connection. My learning more about Maya culture through language helps me understand different perspectives and viewpoints of the war, history, and politics.

Through connections at the school, I was had dozens of informal conversations about my research to get different perspectives on the topic, on current politics in Guatemala, and on the history of the conflict. I was building relationships and gaining the trust of community members, where I heard un-common and personal narratives about the war and began getting answers to burning questions. The language school proved to be an excellent resource and starting point. I was able to identify various leads of communities and people that I want to talk to and interview next summer.

After the completion of my courses at the language school, I continued to nurture previous relationships established years ago. I met with a few Guatemalan academics, and gained more academic contacts. I was identified a few ways in which I might give back by providing access to declassified US documents about Guatemala’s history of human rights violations, and working to support communities’ efforts to preserve their own history of the conflict.

On this research trip, I gained more information, which allowed me to adjust and refine my research question, test out methodological approaches of listening and conversation, so that changes can be made accordingly. I found myself being with people as opposed to being an outside researcher studying my “subjects.” This experience led to new ideas to a clearer, stronger, better, and I believe, more ethical approach to my research.

Visit to a community during anniversary celebration.

Visit to a community during anniversary celebration.

One of the highlights of my trip included a conversation with a guide and former guerrilla member who shared the story of his time fighting in the mountains, and the history of his comrades’ sacrifices on the volcano. He told us how important it is that we are asking questions, listening, and learning about the history of struggle in his country. Although it wasn’t a highlight, I experienced a memorable moment when I was struck by the realities of current-day racism in Guatemala. A colleague from the US arranged for me to meet with her friend, a doctor, who is also an indigenous leader in her community, working on women’s health issues; she wears traje (traditional Maya dress). She was refused entrance to the hotel where we were meeting. My colleague had to exit the building and argue with the guard so that she could be let in. It was only an hour earlier where I had no trouble entering the hotel. I heard stories from friends about children who are specifically NOT taught to speak indigenous languages because of discrimination against native language speakers.

In conclusion, I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to conduct my preliminary dissertation work, which would not have been possible without the support of the Mack-Mayerfield and Caldwell Funds at the UW Center for Human Rights.