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Adoring our Wounds: Suicide, Prevention, and the Maya in Yucatán, México


The first decade of the 21st century has seen a transformation in national and regional Mexican politics and society. In the state of Yucatán, this transformation has taken the shape of a newfound interest in indigenous Maya culture coupled with increasing involvement by the state in public health efforts. Suicide, which in Yucatán more than doubles the national average, has captured the attention of local newspaper media, public health authorities, and the general public; it has become a symbol of indigenous Maya culture due to an often cited association with Ixtab, an ancient Maya "suicide goddess". My thesis investigates suicide as a socially produced cultural artifact. It is a study of how suicide is understood by many social actors and institutions and of how upon a close examination, suicide can be seen as a trope that illuminates the complexity of class, ethnicity, and inequality in Yucatán. In particular, my dissertation -based on extensive ethnographic and archival research in Valladolid and Mérida, Yucatán, México-- is a study of both suicide and suicide prevention efforts. As such, the first half of my dissertation focuses on how suicide is produced in public and state discourse. The second half of my dissertation considers how foreign mental health treatment models are applied in local clinical settings as part of state suicide prevention efforts. These programs, however, are entangled in a complex web of regional and national politics, very often to the detriment of the programs and the populations they purport to help. This research deconstructs the idea that suicide is due to a Maya cultural predisposition and suggests that chronic poverty, addiction, class inequality, and unique local worldviews contribute to the phenomenon in a decisive way. My thesis calls into question the viability of a Maya-centered research approach, arguing that such an approach creates a false research object and excludes a large segment of the local population from study. I conducted ethnographic research in the town of Valladolid (pop. 45,000) and the city of Mérida (pop. 1,000,000). My research methodology included "traditional" participant observation research with members of both communities as well as institutional ethnography at the Ministerio Publico or public ministry of Valladolid, and Hospital Psiquiatrico Yucatán, the regional public psychiatric hospital. I conducted extensive archival research with the Valladolid police suicide case files and studied representations of suicide in newspaper media. By studying 1) how suicide is produced in state and local discourse and 2) how suicide prevention methods are deployed, I demonstrate the production of new subjectivities in a population that continues to struggle with numerous social and economic challenges

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