Reviews

Review: Our Time is Now: Race and Modernity in Postcolonial Guatemala, Julie Gibbings (2020)

Written by Jamie Gemmell. Dr Julie Gibbings' 2020 work on postcolonial Guatemala offers an ambitiously broad examination of race and modernity, creating a multi-vocal historical narrative which is simultaneously complex and readable.

In the acknowledgements, Julie Gibbings states “[t]his book has taken far longer than I care to admit to complete”. Reading Our Time is Now: Race and Modernity in Postcolonial Guatemala, this much is obvious. Gibbings charts a history of postcolonial Guatemala, from the eve of the 1871 Liberal Revolution to the 1954 CIA-led coup that ended the Guatemalan Revolution. At the centre of Gibbings’ work are the Q’eqchi’ Mayas (one of roughly twenty-six Maya groups that live in Guatemala) and German and Ladino settlers who, respectively, inhabited and settled in the region of Alta Verapaz. Through indigenous epistemologies, Gibbings weaves together a multi-vocal historical narrative and abandons a progressive historical trajectory. She tracks the fractured, contested, and racialised modernities that came to define postcolonial Guatemala, layering up historical temporalities like sediment. The result is a detailed, careful, and readable text: it may have taken time to produce this book, but it was clearly time well spent. 

Structurally, the book is chronological. However, this is no linear historical narrative. Instead, Gibbings, drawing on Dipesh Chakrabarty’s and Florencia E. Mallon’s theorisation of “time knots”, traces the ways in which the past, present, and future interlocked. Both parts of the book fold together, with the events, individuals, and processes of the nineteenth century (considered in Part One) erupting and re-erupting in distinct ways during the early twentieth century (considered in Part Two). Through her broad yet deep knowledge of the archival record, Gibbings carefully reveals the ways in which events, such as ninety-nine-year-old Jorge Yat’s 1865 uprising or Juan de la Cruz’s 1885 pilgrimage to the Tzuultaq’a (mountain spirit) Xucaneb, re-emerged in later periods. Thus, Gibbings manages to simultaneously critique progressive historical narratives and enact this critique through her historical praxis. 

The core of the book is, what Gibbings terms, the “politics of postponement” and the ways in which this racialised political strategy was contested and subverted by Q’eqchi’ Mayas. As Guatemalan governments, both liberal and conservative, and coffee planters pushed for modernisation, they relegated Mayas to the outskirts of society by racialising them as “out-of-time” or anachronistic. Like indigenous communities and nations across the Americas, the Mayas were considered a lingering presence, outside a modernity racialised as white. Through her theorisation of the politics of postponement, Gibbings demonstrates the continual suppression, belittlement, and delegitimization of Q’eqchi’ political projects and strategies. Yet, Gibbings goes further. Through a rigorous reading of municipal archive records, Gibbings fractures modernity into modernities. She reads documents from indigenous perspectives, exploring the modernities wielded and crafted by the Q’eqchi’ themselves. This moves away from top-down approaches and enriches the historical narrative. From the political organising of José Ángel Icó to the theorising of Miguel Yat, individuals, and their efforts to contest, subvert, remould, and resist, a racialised, top-down modernity emerge. 

Gibbings not only recounts indigenous perspectives and epistemologies but incorporates them into her historical analysis. Chapter Three, which covers the period 1886 to 1898, positions the Tzuultaq’a Xucaneb as a historical actor through the devastating frost of 1885-1886. Through “Xucaneb’s revenge”, Gibbings charts the contestation and translation of Q’eqchi’ and liberal ontologies that defined the 1880s and 1890s. In her analysis of German “fincas de mozos” (literally “plantations of boys”), Gibbings theorises through the figure of El Q’eq. This creature, the result of sexual relations between a German settler and a cow, roamed the plantations, stealing from the poor and guzzling eggs (symbols of fertility). Considering El Q’eq as the embodiment of a barely controlled German capitalism, Gibbings positions the creature as “allegory and metaphor” for the changes brought by the formation of German coffee plantations. 

The chapter on El Q’eq raises the prospect of comparative analysis for historians of the Americas more broadly. Gibbings builds on and critiques the Foucauldian analysis of discipline, comparing El Q’eq to Foucault’s notion of the panopticon – an all-seeing eye that monitors and conditions behaviours. Reading Gibbings alongside Diana Paton’s work on Jamaica reveals some of the possibilities for comparisons to nineteenth-century Caribbean societies. Like Paton, Gibbings emphasises the mixture of “norms” and violence that define plantation sovereignties, breaking down the Foucauldian divide between “modern” and “premodern” forms of punishment. This critique is now well-established, however it raises questions about a hemispheric approach to the nature of plantation sovereignties and their relationship to emerging national sovereignties across various local context.                       

Whilst indigenous epistemologies are a core theoretical framework, Gibbings is promiscuous in her use of theory. In the space of the book’s 372 pages, Gibbings manages to refer to theorists of racial capitalism, Foucauldian frameworks of discipline, Ann Laura Stoler’s approach to coloniality, and various postcolonial literatures. The risk in this approach is theoretical chaos, with conflicting frameworks leaving the reader confused and disorientated. However, Gibbings is always careful and successfully holds various ideas in productive tension. In some moments she uses a deep analysis, weaving together different theoretical paradigms, as with the discussion of El Q’eq and Foucault. At other moments, multiple ideas are held together, allowing the reader space for their own interpretations. This feeds into Gibbings’ broader strategy of writing a multi-vocal history of Guatemala. 

Our Time is Now is a carefully-written and rich historical text. It is complex, yet immensely readable. It successfully braids together textured stories from the archive with sharp historical analysis. Gibbings has clearly done extensive research and produced a narrative brimming with ideas. This text will be foundational to historians of Guatemala and the Americas more broadly.  

Written by Jamie Gemmell 

Our Time is Now: Race and Modernity in Postcolonial Guatemala was published in 2020 by Cambridge University Press. To find out more about the book, you can check out Retrospect’s interview with Dr. Julie Gibbings here

Bibliography 

Paton, Diana. No Bond but the Law: Punishment, Race, and Gender in Jamaican State Formation, 1780-1870. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.   

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