Dolor y Alegría is a recent addition to the many works on Latin American women written as part of the life history, personal testimony genre. As their subjects, the present authors selected 15 women from a lower-income community in the central Mexican city of Cuernavaca. And true to the genre, the book is most compelling when these 15 women, through their interview texts, speak directly to the reader. A particular contribution of the work is its inclusion of older women, who seldom have been allowed much space even in life history accounts. Given that the authors seek to document social change in women’s lives, the reflections of these older women are invaluable.
This volume continues the worthy tradition of telling women’s stories and preserving women’s history. In this vein, the authors argue that urban living gives women advantages over men, and that urban women are changing their social roles and gaining empowerment more rapidly than men. The book, however, is vague when it tries to pinpoint the particular structural factors that have shaped the changes in women’s everyday lives.
Because the life history, personal testimony literature has expanded so greatly in the past several decades, it might be expected to show a corresponding growth in methodological and theoretical sophistication. Seldom, however, is that the case. Dolor y Alegría unfortunately reflects the inattention to methodology and the absence of theory that too often characterize this literature. For example, the authors never explain why the particular 15 women were selected. Nor do they reveal much about the context of the interviews, such as how they elicited the particular accounts. Clearly, the authors had to gain their subjects’ trust to get the detailed, deeply personal information they did. But the authors do not discuss the questions they asked, which in turn shaped the women’s replies. The authors report, moreover, that they did not use tape recorders when interviewing, although the women are quoted at length. Many other researchers working in similar urban settings with low-income women have reported no awkwardness in taping interviews. Are the authors’ memories so exceptional that they really were able to recall long passages of dialogue with their subjects in such detail?
Finally, although the authors take care to root Dolor y Alegría in the literature on women, urban studies, and social change in Latin America, they do not situate their work in a similar theoretical context. Consequently, another study of women is consigned outside of theory. To let such work on women remain atheoretical is to sideline women’s stories from the intellectual mainstream and to lose the contributions such studies could lend to scholarship on Latin America.