Rutgers Ph.D. Student (anthropology) Joyce Lu will present a paper at the MACLAS Conference this month.  

From Columbus to Coronavirus: discourses of pandemic in post-genocide Guatemala

On July 29, 2021, protesters arrived to the Central Park of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala to protest the President and Attorney General’s dismissal of anti-corruption prosecutor, Juan Francisco Sandoval, as well as the delayed distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Both pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine protesters rallied together against government corruption, carrying posters asking where the vaccines were, demanding resignations from the President, Attorney General, and Minister of Health, and promoting a plurinational Guatemala. Others depicted the face of democratically elected former President Jacobo Árbenz, who was overthrown in a 1954 CIA-backed coup that sparked four decades of civil war. In this paper, I situate narratives about COVID-19 within discourses about Guatemala’s history of civil war and colonialism. Despite limited state acknowledgement of the genocides of indigenous communities during the civil war, how do memories of war resurface in Guatemala’s current sociopolitical milieu? What insights do rumors and theories of COVID-19 origins and nefarious vaccines reveal about collective memories of annihilation and elimination in postwar, postcolonial Guatemala? I examined these questions through ethnographic methods of participant observation and unstructured interviews between June to August 2021 amongst residents of urban Quetzaltenango. Drawing from methods in narrative analysis, I find that stories about origins, spread, and management of the COVID-19 pandemic take on various discursive forms that include those of perpetrators vs. victims, duplicity, and Guatemala’s place in a global political economy. I also suggest that these different discursive forms have distinctive implications for how Quetzaltecans perceive possibilities of political participation and activism.