Unidad, Servicio y Recuperación: Twelve-Step Recovery in Civil War Guatemala, Part I

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Heather Vrana. Vrana (Ph.D. Indiana University, 2013) is Associate Professor of Modern Latin America in the Department of History at the University of Florida. Vrana’s research interests include disability, social movements, human rights, photography, and youth and student movements in Central America. She is author of the monograph This City Belongs to You: A History of Student Activism in Guatemala (University of California Press, 2017) and the anthology Anti-colonial Texts from Central American Student Movements 1929-1983 (Edinburgh University Press, 2017). She is co-editor with Julie Gibbings of Out of the Shadow: Revisiting the Revolution from Post-Peace Guatemala (University of Texas Press, 2020). Her articles have appeared in the Journal of Genocide Research, the Radical History Review, and elsewhere. Vrana has conducted archival and oral history research in Central America since 2007, focusing first on Guatemala, then on Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Today’s post is the first of a two-part series on AA in Latin America; the second part will run on Thursday. 

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and its sister fellowship Narcotics Anonymous (NA) arrived in Central America during the region’s nearly four-decade crucible of civil war. Incredibly, at a time when gathering in private was suspicious, if not explicitly forbidden (by countless states of emergency, curfews, and skirmishes), anonymous alcoholics and addicts met in homes and rented rooms most nights of the week. In their move to Central America, very little changed in the texts and practices of the fellowships. The literature and spoken rituals (like the Serenity Prayer, or Oración de la Serenidad) of group meetings were direct translations from the English-language texts. But the mid-1990s saw the emergence of a new and distinct twelve-step program, Neurotics Anonymous (N/A). 

The civil wars have largely been the purview of social movement history. At the same time, social movement history and alcohol and drug history are essentially separate subfields. But together they suggest why twelve-step recovery was so popular in Central America and, in turn, how some Central Americans responded to the trauma, political violence, and religious tensions of the wars and their aftermath. Histories of alcohol and drugs have turned decisively toward transnational and global approaches, a turn the upcoming bi-annual conference of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society aptly reflects. This research proposes that the same approaches might be usefully brought to bear on transnational and global exchanges of recovery.

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Dr. Heather Vrana

In this and a follow-up blog post, I summarize the history of three central twelve-step recovery groups in Guatemala: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Neurotics Anonymous. Like Stanley Brandes, whose wonderful Staying Sober in Mexico City offers a rare ethnography of AA outside of the U.S., I am curious about the reasons for AA’s impressive expansion in Latin America. But where Brandes emphasizes AA’s adaptability, I find orthodoxy. Through that orthodoxy, twelve-step programs provided an apparently apolitical outlet for affects, thoughts, and outlooks that were outcomes of political turmoil before and during the civil war (1960-1996). I also suggest that meeting spaces and fellowship practices provided a space for community that was largely unfettered by surveillance and political repression at a time when that was hard to come by. 

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