Harvard Educational Review
  1. Youth in Postwar Guatemala

    Education and Civic Identity in Transition

    Michelle J. Bellino

    New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017. 270 pp. $34.95 (paperback)

    The term post-conflict is regularly employed in mainstream media and political analysis to denote societies that have ostensibly transitioned from war to peace. The phrase, however, is misleading. While official treaties between opposing parties mark the beginning of peace, rarely do such agreements translate to large-scale and immediate changes on the ground (Brown, Langer, & Stewart, 2011). As societies gradually transition to peace, they must make critical decisions about how to teach the next generation about the violent past while attending to how such narratives might shape young people’s engagement in the nation. In Youth in Postwar Guatemala: Education and Civic Identity in Transition, Michelle J. Bellino, through an ethnographic examination of the lived experiences of young people, shows how understandings of historical injustice affect “young people’s civic identity formation and their sense of agency to participate in the civic life of a democracy in transition” (p. 6). 

    The book consists of eight chapters. The first two set the historical background of the Conflicto Armado in Guatemala through analyses of historical records and social studies curricula. The next four are composed of ethnographic case studies in four distinct school communities that document the formal and informal ways youth learn about the Conflicto Armado and how it forms their civic engagement. The last two chapters provide a comparative analysis of young people’s civic identities within and across the four cases.  

    Among the many things that set this book apart from others on conflict are the methods Bellino utilizes. Weaving together vertical case study with ethnography, she crafts rich, layered narratives that detail the experiences of young people in schools and communities. In building these narratives, she draws on principles of portraiture, enabling her to search for what is strong and healthy in a context marred by ongoing insecurity and the breakdown of the social contract between citizens and the state. 

    Chapter 1, “Citizen, Interrupted,” presents the context for the book. Bellino begins with a historical overview of the Conflicto Armado, Guatemala’s civil war between the state and guerrilla forces that lasted from 1960 to 1996. Despite the Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (Commission for Historical Clarification) concluding that the state committed the vast majority (93 percent) of atrocities, including ethnic genocide of indigenous peoples, the state has not been held accountable. Twenty years after the armed conflict, the country continues to experience spates of violence, with a recent upsurge in criminal violence carried out by young people. While official narratives pre­sent this violence as new, Bellino argues that Guatemala’s violent past cannot be easily disentangled from the current rise in violence. She shows how young people not only constitute the perpetrators of violence but are often the victims. Furthermore, she asserts that blaming youth for violence, as adults tend to do, and the state’s inability to address the underlying drivers of conflict have cast young people in positions of “wait citizenship” (p. 11). In this waiting, they feel a sense of control over their own personal development but “see little capacity to impact the broader social, political and economic reality” (p. 11).

    In chapter 2, “Education and Conflict in Guatemala,” Bellino discusses the role of education as a driver of conflict. As she reveals, the education sector exacerbated tensions between the dominant Ladino group and indigenous communities through unequal access to school, discrimination against indigenous students, and deficit representations of indigenous culture. In the face of these patterns and the role of the state in the armed conflict, Bellino finds that a common narrative across several curricular texts portrays the Conflicto Armado as having occurred between “two devils,” the state and the guerilla armies (p. 40). Rather than grappling with the historical injustices that led to the armed conflict, the two devils narrative, portraying both sides as having equal power, serves as a “usable past” for the Guatemalan state. Bellino argues that by erasing discussion of power asymmetries, this narrative criminalizes all those involved and places a high value on neutrality in the current nation-state, “linking a stance of conflict aversion and disengagement to perceptions of good citizenship” (p. 4). Across the diverse contexts explored in this book, a rewriting of the conflict to obscure the government’s part as well as ongoing instability reinforces the position of young people as wait citizens.

    The first of the four case studies, captured in chapter 3, “International Academy: The No-Blame Generation and the Post-Postwar,” centers on an international school in the capital city. Bellino focuses on Alejandro, an outlier at his school who must navigate the radical stance of his family and the school’s conservative messaging. Unlike his elite peers who travel with security guards, Alejandro comes from a more humble background. His parents actively engage in protests against mining corporations exploiting native land and resources. At school, his social studies teacher, Profe Castillo, insists that the students “think like a state” and presents conflicting accounts of history without explaining why these differing accounts might exist. Through this pedagogical tactic, Bellino argues, ultimately Profe justifies state aggression, reinforcing rather than challenging the outlooks of the majority of students. At home, Alejandro’s activist parents present a counternarrative—the state as aggressor. While there are moments when Alejandro’s frustration with his elite peers bursts through, in the end, rather than engaging with the state in the way his parents do, he retreats from taking a side and plans to leave the country for college. His teacher’s presentation of history forces him into the wait citizenship endemic to his generation. 

    Chapter 4, “Paulo Freire Institute: The All-or-Nothing Generation and the Spiral of the Ongoing Past,” follows a group of urban working-class students in a self-described “liberal” school that aims to prepare the future leaders of Guatemala. Beti, the social studies teacher, engages students in investigating the structural inequalities that led to the Conflicto Armado. In contrast to Profe, Bellino argues, Beti helps students connect the violence of the past to the prevalence of criminal activity that affects their day-to-day lives. To illustrate the context young people must navigate, Bellino follows this group of students in public spaces. They must stay vigilante and guard their possessions and bodies in public transportation from unwanted touching. The pervasiveness of criminal activity among youth in their community, combined with their economic status, puts them at risk of being perceived as criminal youth by law enforcement and community members. As such, young people feel the need to be invisible. Yet, Bellino explains, invisibility carries the danger of being “easily eliminated” (p. 110) by gang members or law enforcement. Despite instilling a fear of being violated by delinquents, Beti’s lessons help these young people recognize that “delinquents are so poor that they are forced to steal to survive” (p. 100). In this way, the working-class students at the Paolo Freire Institute begin to resist wait citizenship, developing the tools to analyze the inequality of “postwar” Guatemala.

    In chapter 5, “Sun and Moon: The No-Future Generation and the Struggle to Escape,” Bellino illustrates the experiences of Maya students in an indigenous high school. The first of the rural communities considered in the book, Rio Verde, is impoverished with significant presence of mining corporations. Poverty shapes the education students receive. Cesar, the social studies teacher, instructs students to prepare group presentations on the Conflicto Armado without providing them with many reliable or accessible resources. During the presentations, Bellino notes students’ recurring use of the passive voice to describe the conflict. As she pushes students to identify an agent, Cesar steps in to reinforce the two devils narrative with an emphasis that the Maya were the victims of both sides. While the guerilla movement “mobilized on behalf” of indigenous communities, Cesar and the students come to the conclusion that the guerrilla presence itself and the threat it posed to the state caused the conflict (p. 146). Through employing passive voice and ambiguous language, Bellino reasons, the Maya distance themselves from the guerrillas and embrace neutrality in an effort “to be recognized as legitimate victims” (p. 146). 

    Chapter 6, “Tzolok Ochoch: The Lucha Generation and the Struggle to Overcome,” portrays the experiences of youth in a rural, indigenous boarding school focused on community empowerment. While its remote location makes the school a sanctuary away from the instability of the outside world, its survival depends on the shared labor of students, volunteers, and international donors. Lisandro, a teacher, and Valeria, a volunteer, engage students in critically examining what led to the Conflicto Armado, unpacking the structural inequalities that explain the dire conditions of their communities. These school leaders actively challenge the two devils narrative and call on students “to participate in the lucha,” the struggle for justice (p. 182). Bellino, however, notes there is recognition in the community that they occupy a space in the margins of society and lack “opportunities for mainstream civic participation” (p. 182). While awareness of their marginality compels community members to focus their efforts on the struggles of the pueblo, the school’s emphasis on leadership development is designed to equip young people to “hold the state accountable for its obligations to citizens” (p. 183). In essence, Bellino concludes that students at the school are encouraged to challenge their position as wait citizens and take on the risks of collective action.  

    In chapter 7, “What Stands in the Way,” Bellino compares themes across the four school communities to understand the ways youths’ historical consciousness facilitates their civic development in post-conflict Guatemala. She explains that whether schools actively present or erase historical conflict gives shape to unique civic identities. Moreover, young people’s understanding of the roots of injustice defines how they perceive themselves and their communities in relation to the state. Finally, with the election of a former military general as the president of Guatemala, Bellino finds that perceptions of the current government depend “on one’s interpretation of the military’s role in Guatemala’s past” (p. 199). The chapter presents important insights and connects threads across and within the four schools while accounting for discrepancies. 

    In chapter 8, “The Hopes and Risks of Waiting,” Bellino discusses the ways youth approach their civic choices. In making decisions about how to engage as citizens in the nation, young people weigh the risks and benefits involved in action. Bellino adds that “risk is relational and context-specific” (p. 207)—as one risk is mitigated, another is elevated. Through an examination of the careful risk calculus young people practice, she argues that “the state of waithood is a consequence of the structural context and not an inherently passive or apathetic state” (p. 206). She ends the chapter by considering the ways that the risk structure young people navigate brings together hope and fatalism by encouraging “patience as a long-term adaptive strategy” (p. 216). 

    Bellino does a masterful job of documenting narratives across four diverse communities in Guatemala. By bringing together the vertical case method and ethnography, she weaves complex narratives that elevate community experiences and highlights the various national and international forces that give shape to these narratives. For a reader unfamiliar with the context of Guatemala and civic engagement literature, the conceptual framework might seem overly complicated and dense; nonetheless, Bellino painstakingly shows how the informal and formal learning experiences of young people connect to configure their perspectives and ambitions. By providing rich contextual backdrops and foregrounding the voices and perspectives of young people in each case, she captures how youth navigate various, and at times competing, messages about past injustices and how these messages shape their role as civic actors. And while the focus of this book is on youth, it raises critical questions about teachers’ decision-making processes as they present the history of past atrocities in settings marked by ongoing violence and instability. This is fruitful ground for further research. 

    Youth in Postwar Guatemala illuminates our understanding of civic engagement in societies in transition and makes a case for how knowing (or often not knowing) the past influences young people’s sense of agency as civic actors. It is an important read for researchers studying the intersections of education, conflict, and civic identity. More broadly, in our ever-evolving and increasingly intolerant world, this book presents a powerful portrayal of the hopes that young people carry and the challenges that force them out of their communities for greater opportunities and for peace. 

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    Reference

    Brown, G., Langer, A., & Stewart, F. (2011). A typology of post-conflict environments. Leuven, Belgium: Centre for Research on Peace and Development.

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    Book Notes

    Youth in Postwar Guatemala
    Michelle J. Bellino

    American Hookup
    Lisa Wade