Editor’s Note: Today we finish our two-part series from Dr. Heather Vrana on the history of Alcoholics Anonymous in Latin America. Check out the first part here. You can find out more about Dr. Vrana and her work here.
Treatments tell us about more than scientific understandings of ailments. They also reveal cultural and social beliefs. Injections of strychnine and insulin characterized treatment for alcoholism, addiction, and their related manias for about six decades from the late 1800s into the mid-20th century in Latin America. Incarcerated in a logic of addiction as disease, treatment was individual and invasive. Then, the twelve-step method—the 1960 Prensa Libre article called it the “gregarious exercise”—took over. Suddenly alcoholics and addicts could help one another without the risks and costs of hospitalization. While the civil war raged outside the doors, recovering alcoholics and addicts recited the Oración de la Serenidad.
One of the most intriguing, yet largely ignored, legacies of the civil war in Guatemala is the proliferation of twelve-step recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and Neurotics Anonymous (N/A) in every department, city, pueblo, and aldea. The previous blog post discussed the arrival of AA to Guatemala. This post addresses NA and N/A and how their proliferation fit within the nation’s complex and violent civil war.
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.
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.