Michael Gorkin, Marta Pineda, & Gloria Leal
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000

Reviewed by Lea Pickard, SUNY-Albany

From Grandmother to Granddaughter is a multigenerational oral history of Salvadoran women’s lives. Authors Gorkin, Pineda and Leal are psychologists who conducted interviews with grandmother-mother-granddaughter trios from three families in El Salvador: the Nuñez family, part of the Salvadoran upper class; the García family, a middle class family; and the Rivas family, poor campesinos. Fieldwork was conducted in the departments of La Libertad and Chalatenango from September 1996 through June 1998. The authors have collected life histories, which they saw as “the opportunity to gather and convey women’s life stories in a meaningful way” (2). The book begins with a short introduction and continues with three sections, divided by family. In each section there is a short contextual explanation, which tells how this family was chosen and gives information for better understanding the women’s life stories. Gorkin et al. end with “Some Afterwords,” an attempt at analysis of the life stories. There is also a short chronological history of El Salvador and a glossary.

The authors state that a “focus on multigenerational families allows us to see how changes occur over time in each family and perhaps, by implication, in the society at large” (3). In this, the book is very successful. The life histories of these women are eloquent and rich in information about each woman’s life, as well as Salvadoran culture and society in general. Gorkin et al. include information on the Salvadoran political climate, religious beliefs, and gender relations. We learn about these women’s views on a wide variety of subjects, including sexuality, birth control, and reproduction; the U.S. role in the Salvadoran war; women’s participation in the FMLN; and the importance of education. Interviewing different generations and families from different classes produced life histories full of information how Salvadoran women’s lives may differ within these factors. As an example, the life histories demonstrate the distinct differences in the way a mother and daughter in the upper class view the role of women. The mother feels very strongly that a woman’s place is in the home and that “things work better if the man gives the orders in the house” (68). The daughter believes quite the opposite, saying, “I don’t go along with that stuff my mother says about the man being the boss in the house. For me, it’s two bosses, both of us equal” (90). This type of information clearly illustrates the changing nature of gender relations. However, these life histories go beyond this. They powerfully bring to light the fact that gender cannot be investigated alone to understand these women’s lives; the intersections of gender, age, class, and ethnicity must be addressed. The authors make these women’s stories the crux of the book, following the recent and welcomed trend of using life histories to allow women to speak for themselves.

The book provides life stories that allow us to see, in many different ways, the impoverishment of women. Not only does the book attempt to make up for the past impoverishment of women’s voices in academic literature, it uses Salvadoran women’s perspectives to address the impoverishment of women within El Salvadoran culture. It reveals how impoverishment occurs not only through a cultural ideology, which tends to value men more than women (one woman tells that midwives were paid more if they delivered a boy, for example), but also through a lack of economic opportunities these women are given. The interaction of these factors created a system that culturally glorified motherhood while it discouraged or prohibited women from pursuing anything not directly related to the household, such as education. This essentially created an economic stranglehold on women’s lives. This is definitely something that did not escape the women in this book. As one woman in the García family stated, “If a woman had it in her mind to go out, the man would tell her she had to obey or he’d beat her. And he did, sure he did” (110).

The life histories also encouragingly expose the ways this system is changing. Each woman indicates in one way or another how this is the case, and how creating opportunities for women to take care of themselves has been an important factor in this. According to the women interviewed, allowing and encouraging girls to pursue an education becomes essential for economic success. Women also recognize the importance of the war in El Salvador, in which women participated with the FMLN, for contributing to the changing gender ideology. The youngest generation of women reveals the positive effects of this changing system. None of these three young women has been denied education and none has been stopped from pursuing their dreams. While each young woman recognizes that inequality existed in the past, they are all determined to be equipped to take care of themselves and to bring equality into their own relationships.

The life histories themselves are rich and feel very genuine, addressing the multiple factors that must be taken into account to truly understand not just Salvadoran women’s lives, but Salvadoran culture. Unfortunately, there seems to be either a lack of awareness of these multiple factors by the authors or a dumbing-down of these factors in their analysis. As an example, Gorkin believes that men cannot do interviews with women, saying, “when a man attempts to interview women, the stories he hears are generally less full, less free, and ultimately less fascinating” (7). This assumes the only interesting information is that told by women to women, and implies gender is the only factor considered in understanding Salvadoran women’s lives. Gorkin contradicts this on the very same page, however, when he states that he had a better rapport with one family because of his political beliefs. “Here, the fact that my political sympathies are more leftist…led to a certain irony: a gringo got information about the political involvement and beliefs of these leftist women that Marta and Gloria might have missed” (7). It is important to recognize that gender becomes the most significant factor sometimes, particularly when older women talk about sexuality. To believe it is always the most significant factor, even when Gorkin has evidence that this is not the case, is too simplistic and lacks analytical sophistication.

This book is filled with such missed analytical opportunities, which could have given readers a way to think about the nine life histories. Perhaps the biggest disappointment and most awkward part of the book is its final analysis in dialogue format, titled “Some Afterwords,” and created after “early readers felt there needed to be more analysis” (235). Unfortunately, this section does not add anything analytical to the examination of Salvadoran women’s lives. In fact, this section detracts from the excellent life stories and takes a rather disturbing turn. Instead of attempting to understand similarities and differences of these women’s lives based on gender, class, age and ethnicity, the authors emphasize the main point of the life histories as being the role of machismo in El Salvador and how women deal with and attempt to change it. This is important, but they do so without a consideration of why gender relations may be changing or discussing how different women may deal with machismo in different ways. Their discussion implies homogeneous experiences for Salvadoran women and men, which completely ignores what women say in their life histories.

Class differences are explored only superficially, saying that it is women among the upper- and middle-class that “are leaders in the various feminist groups and women’s organizations, and they’re going out to the campo and educating the campesinos” (238). Since all women who become activists were “educated” in some way by someone else, this statement borders on classist. It also goes directly against their own evidence that the most obviously activist woman they interviewed is a lower-class woman. Factors that might lead to women’s activism are completely ignored; there is no consideration that it might be more acceptable for poor women to become activists because they have already engaged in work outside the home for economic reasons that upper class women may not have to consider. There is also no analysis of why gender relationships and marriage patterns vary for different classes and different generations of women.

The most problematic aspect of “Some Afterwords,” is a section that deals with ethical research questions the authors raise in their dialogue. Since the authors are psychologists, the notion of ethical responsibility may be very different than it is for anthropologists. Regardless, I found some of their dialogue truly disturbing for its implications about ethical responsibility. One issue they raise is their discomfort with including some of the more personal information disclosed by one woman, saying, “if there’s one part in the book that troubles me, it’s the various revelations she made…the two times she was raped, which I have misgivings about seeing in print” (244). This is an important issue that should require delicate consideration. Yet the justification that is given for ultimately deciding to include it is that “she did give us permission to print it,” and “we do have a certain obligation to the readers…to not hide material that renders the lives of the women more revealing and compelling” (244). The first and foremost obligation should be to the people who kindly volunteer their time and life stories, not to the readers.

Raising ethical questions and struggling with these issues are an important component of research that needs to be discussed openly in more ethnographic works, but their treatment of these issues is elementary at best. Gorkin also gives an indication that if one of the women they interviewed knew his political orientation at the start, she would not have consented to the interviews. In dialogue format they agree that she probably would not have consented, but that she will most likely forgive him: “You, after all, are only an intellectual. You didn’t go shoot anybody because of your beliefs” (245). If a researcher is uncomfortable, the answer seems to be to find an equitable solution. Instead, the authors seem to justify what was done after the fact. Why not talk to the women about these questions and make the women part of the decision-making process? I worry that undergraduates reading this may get the impression that the only ethical responsibility of a researcher is to get permission to print.

This last section left me feeling quite conflicted about the book. The life histories were truly fabulous for learning about all aspects of El Salvador, particularly how women’s lives vary by age and class. Yet it troubled me to know that this knowledge might be somewhat exploitative of some of the women willing to share it. This book shows the importance of life histories, which can reveal so much cultural information. It also shows the need to combine this research method with a sophisticated analysis that was missing in From Grandmother to Granddaughter. This book will be relevant to those interested in gender and women’s studies, Latin American history and anthropology, Salvadoran studies, and issues of method and ethical responsibility. It has the potential to be a good text for undergraduate and graduate courses, but only when combined with an instructor willing to support the readings with analytical consideration of the life stories and critical discussion of the problems this book presents.

Comments are closed.