Date of Completion


Embargo Period



Guatemala, volunteer tourism, voluntourism, violence, gender, globalization, dark tourism, tourism, human rights, non-governmental organizations

Major Advisor

Françoise Dussart

Associate Advisor

Samuel Martínez

Associate Advisor

Mark Overmyer-Velázquez

Field of Study



Doctor of Philosophy

Open Access

Open Access


Drawing from 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork in the voluntourism program of a women’s weaving cooperative based in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, this dissertation argues that voluntourists and their cooperative hosts developed more globally-oriented subjectivities through their daily information exchanges. Voluntourists shared their knowledge of tastes and practices in their countries; in return, the cooperative leaders offered them exposure to Mayan customs and weaving classes. At the same time, these interactions highlighted the hosts’ anxieties about sharing such knowledge. The cooperative leaders utilized their association with tourists to develop cosmopolitan competencies, pursue alternative gender relations, and push the boundaries of relationships with the state and international clients in which they have historically been subordinated. They drew from transnational rights-based discourses to envision themselves as actors in the public sphere. In their presentations to visiting tourists, the cooperative officers recounted stories of victimhood in the civil war (1960–1996), to appeal for tourists’ financial support. However, they sought to restrict these narratives to foreign humanitarian audiences, concerned about the potential for renewed violence in post-conflict Guatemala.

With prompting from voluntourists, the cooperative leaders embraced the idea of commodifying their Mayan “culture” to promote their products in international markets. This dissertation argues that learning to “mobilize” culture as a resource (both in the sense of deploying it and of translating it for ease of travel across various borders of understanding) is a form of cosmopolitanism. However, this mobilization of local knowledge made weavers anxious that voluntourists were establishing “Mayan” weaving schools in their home countries. Voluntourists for their part became connoisseurs of cultural difference. They struggled less with the contradictions between belonging to a place and adapting to global citizenship than indigenous Guatemalan women because their knowledge had already been made transferrable. Through volunteering they imagined a more empowered role within global capitalism in which they could make an individual impact, however slight. This study unites the critical turn in tourism studies—focused on intangible shifts in consciousness—with the recognition that the traffic in culture has made abstractions such as cultural authenticity crucial to people’s political and economic realities.