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In Search of Providence
Transnational Mayan Identities

Author(s): Patricia Foxen

Traveling back and forth between the Guatemalan highlands and Providence, Rhode Island, the author followed the migration paths of a community of K'iche' Indians, often acting as a courier to bring news and photographs to families. As several said to the author, "Now you have lived with your own skin what we have gone through, only you can leave at any time."

This ethnography juxtaposes the context of post-war reconstruction at home, shaped by a fragile institutional peace process and emerging pan-Maya movement, with the hidden, marginal lives of mostly undocumented K'iche' transmigrants in New England, and describes the continuous movement of people, money, symbols, and ideas between the two locations. Transnational migration creates tension between material success and K'iche' traditional suspicion of standing out and displaying that success. Showing off or losing touch with one's responsibilities at home can invite envidias (envy), chismes (malicious gossip), and even brujería (witchcraft).

Some of the perpetrators of violence in Guatemala have re-created their positions of dominance in Providence. One K'iche' recounts, "He used a notebook, like the one you have, and each time I took even a glass of water he would write it down. He charged me $300 just for arriving, those $300 were like a tip for him. He told me he would not help me find work, and he would drink a lot and would say, 'You thought it would be easy here, you thought it is just picking up dollars here--well, you are screwed.'"

For students, the book provides rich accounts of the difficulties of entering the field and maintaining trust among people in divided and changing communities.

Biography of Author(s)

Patricia Foxen, a cultural anthropologist, is currently the Deputy Director of Research at UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of La Raza) and a Research Fellow at American University.


  • With her in-depth case study of Guatemalan K'iche migrants from Xinxuc to Providence, Rhode Island, Patricia Foxen has filled a significant gap in the literature on Guatemalan migration to the U.S. This beautifully nuanced account captures the complexities of reproduced, changing and multiple K'iche identities in new settings, and of Mayan transnational practices. It also provides a window for seeing the contradictions of post-war rural Guatemala
    --Susanne Jonas, University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Patricia Foxen has written an impressively thorough, sensitive, insightful, stereotype-and-complacency shattering, and thus also courageous, portrait of one of the most complex and tragic immigrant communities in the United States: the Guatemalan highland Maya of Providence, Rhode Island, for whom coming to the U.S. hardly means leaving Guatemala's horror or cultural pathologies behind. (How appropriate that this takes place in the city of HP Lovecraft!) I learned a great deal from this astonishing, beautifully written, brilliant and heartbreaking book.
    --Francisco Goldman
  • Foxen's text is a fascinating analysis of the experiences of a community of K'iche' Mayans, the largest indigenous group in Guatemala, who have been migrating to Providence, RI over the past two decades. She vividly describes how transnational K'iche's develop new survival strategies and mechanisms for reshaping identities in a context of growing hostility toward undocumented migrants in the country of settlement, and in the face of turmoil at home--both of which have left deep marks on the social tissue. She also highlights the many problems that researchers face in unstable post-war environments where suspicions, expectations and distrust shape most interactions. Through her rich narrative, Foxen transmits a deep understanding of life in indigenous communities in Guatemala and in the US, describing with clarity events and behaviors that often remain perplexing to 'outsiders'.
    --Manuel Angel Castillo, Colegio de Mexico