Guatemala’s Gender Norms Seen Through Film

Cameron Murray ’22

Hispanic Studies & International Relations, Latin American Studies Minor

Project: Gender and Guatemalan Society Seen Through the Films of Jayro Bustamante

Nominating Faculty: Francisco de Alba

Aiding Faculty: Mary Beth Tierney-Tello and M. Gabriela Torres

Picking a Topic

For my senior capstone project in Hispanic Studies I decided to study three films by a Guatemalan director, Jayro Bustamante, and look at the ways in which gender and gender norms are expressed through film. I have been studying Guatemalan society for quite some time now, working on research and co-authoring an article with Professor M. Gabriela Torres on asylum law and the link with violence against women. Through this research I became interested in Guatemalan society and wanted to have my senior capstone project reflect that interest. While I already study legal implications of violence against women, I wanted to incorporate another perspective on gender – this is where I thought of film. I have always been an avid film fan and figured film would be a great way to examine gender norms and expectations in Guatemalan society, as film is an expression of our daily lives and showcases the realities we may not regularly see.

Professor Torres suggested that I should study the films of Jayro Bustamante, as he is a famous director not only in Guatemala, but also for all of Latin America. His works have been applauded at many award ceremonies, and he has received global recognition for his talents. Bustamante makes films that showcase Guatemalan society, but offer perspectives from underrepresented groups, such as Indigenous women or gay men, an effort that not many other people are doing within his country. His films challenge gender norms within Guatemala, with three films being most prominent: La llorona, Temblores, and Ixcanul

Examining the Films

The film La llorona looks at the treatment of Indigenous women during the country’s civil war, and the differences in treatment compared to women of European descent. Bustamante highlights the pain that the civil war has caused, and still causes in the country. He has reflected on the work and the war, and encourages people to talk about the past. He says that ignoring the atrocities has not allowed for proper healing, and this closing the door on the past tells the women of the country that violence and sexual assault need not be looked into, which only continues the cycle of oppression and injustice. With his other film, Temblores, Bustamante looks at the role of the gender binary system in Guatemala and how a man and woman have separate norms to follow. He shows the audience how the main character, who is a gay man, is seen as a danger to society, and the Guatemalan way of life. Due to this perceived danger, the main character loses his children, his job, and more. The film highlights the inhumane treatment of queer people in Guatemala, especially due to strong religious values and practices, and how the patriarcal norms are maintained by many members of society, including women at times. Lastly, Bustamante’s film Ixcanul looks at the role of gender in an Indigenous community and the ways in which a young Mayan girl seeks autonomy, but after acting against her intended path, she starts to face the consequences of her actions. This film looks at the burden that falls on many women, and how they must bear the cost of their family’s survival and wellbeing, as their lives are designed first for their family and the men in their lives, and secondly for themselves. The film showcases the harsh realities for many women in Guatemala, especially Indigenous women, as they can face these restrictive norms within their communities as well as in the outside cities of Guatemala.

Jayro Bustamante uses his films to create a space for conversation. He wants to talk about the mistreatment and injustices going on in his country, as Guatemala has high rates of femicide, which is the murder of women, and hate crimes against the LGBT community. Bustamante understands the impact that colonization has had in creating and maintaining patriarchal norms in Guatemala, thus he wants to use his films to share the stories of people who have been impacted negatively by restrictive gender norms, in efforts to reverse these norms. 

Looking Ahead

With this capstone project I wanted to showcase the various ways that gender norms affect people within Guatemala, and how film is one way to call on these injustices. Film can open the eyes of viewers, from both within the country and outside, of the restrictive roles that men and women are supposed to uphold. Guatemala’s patriarchal society is an effect of colonization by the Europeans, and the country has roots in oppression and discrimination, all of which trickling down into gender norms. Guatemala maintains the status quo of heterosexual, non-Indigenous men in positions of power, while women, queer and Indigenous people are cast aside. Guatemala has a high rate of femicide and gender-based violence, and the hope is that with increased research and exposure, the injustices and discrimination against the underrepresented groups in the country can stop. The goal is to inspire change and progress, and with the help of filmmakers, like Bustamante, a door can open for these conversations and hopefully allow room for healing and progress in gender expression and acceptance. My hope was that my research could offer the start to a conversation here in the states, and alert people to the mistreatment and injustices that have been and currently are happening.