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“Health at the Margins: Distress and Illness in the Aftermath of the 2005 Hurricane Stan Mudslide in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala”

Serena Stein, 2009,

When I first heard about the ‘Guatemalan Mudslide’ that claimed 1,000 lives in October 2005, I was a first semester freshman at Penn. I wasn’t yet aware of my passion for Anthropology or anthropological research, and I was only beginning to navigate the vast opportunities that CURF has to offer undergraduate students. I could not have imagined that only three years later I would be conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the relief camp built for the 2005 mudslide survivors, located on the margins of the Tz’utujil Maya town of Santiago Atitlán in the western highlands of Guatemala. While the camp was intended for ‘temporary’ use, hundreds of the disaster victims continue to reside in makeshift shelters with little food and economic opportunity. They silently bear the great burden of la lucha, or the struggle, to survive in a landscape of precariousness.

In Summer 2008, I traveled to Santiago Atitlán with Penn’s Guatemala Health Initiative (GHI) for 10 weeks. While the team of student researchers from the Department of Anthropology and Penn’s Schools of Medicine and Nursing were primarily conducting research on the culture of childbirth in Santiago Atitlán and the determinants of maternal and infant mortality in the region, my research turned to the traumatic aftermath of the 2005 mudslide: the prolonged disaster recovery and the social, rather than organic, origins of illness among the residents of the mudslide relief camp. Conducting in-depth interviews with over 50 mudslide survivors, community physicians, nurses, social workers, and psychologists, my research explored how distress is embodied and somatized via a constellation of bodily symptoms called nervios. Beyond documenting the salient sources of distress that structure life in the mudslide camp, such as violence, sanitation problems and broken promises from the Guatemalan state and local government, I also analyzed the ways in which the mudslide survivors seek and are denied adequate help to ameliorate their experience of distress. Due to the lack of social programs and psychosocial support for mudslide survivors, self-medication has become a phenomena and suffering is widespread.

From this challenging fieldwork experience, I feel all the more confident in my abilities to pursue a PhD in Anthropology. Moreover, my research regarding the aftermath of the mudslide has also inspired me to continue to investigate questions of humanitarian aid, crisis recovery and the refugee experience. I plan to study International Development as a Master’s student after graduation.

As both a Benjamin Franklin Scholar and University Scholar, CURF has introduced me to a world of resources. Not only have I received grants to pursue research –in a Toba indigenous community in Argentina in 2007 before Guatemala in 2008 – but I have also had the opportunity to present my research to the intellectual community that the Scholars programs cultivate. In March 2009, I built upon this experience and traveled to California where I presented at my first professional conference.

I sincerely thank CURF for helping me shape such an exciting undergraduate career. While I have learned a tremendous amount about others’ worlds via my empirical studies, I have also learned about myself and my capabilities as a researcher.

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