The Bean Trees | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Bean Trees | Context


The Cherokee Nation

The Cherokee tribes lived in what is now the American southeast until the 1830s, making contact with Europeans in 1540 and signing treaties as a sovereign nation in 1725. Along with other Native American tribes, the Cherokee existed alongside white settlers for another century, taking part in several conflicts while simultaneously developing a sophisticated governmental and court system. As increasing numbers of white settlers competed for land, they took control of Native American land through dishonest and sometimes violent means. Beginning in 1830, President Andrew Jackson initiated a formal policy of "Indian Removal" that took land from Native Americans in the rich cotton-growing regions of the South and offered them a new home in what was then called Indian Territory, located west of Arkansas.

In 1835, several Cherokee chiefs signed the Treaty of New Echota, which exchanged all Cherokee land in the southeast for land in Indian Territory. The principal Cherokee chief, along with 16,000 Cherokee, protested the treaty as invalid, but the government persisted. In 1838, any Cherokee who did not leave voluntarily were forced to march to their newly allotted land along the path that would become notoriously known as the Trail of Tears. Although thousands died along the way, the Cherokee established a new nation in 1839 and set up a government, schools, and courts.

As white settlement spread westward, however, Indian Territory shrank, and in 1907, the creation of the state of Oklahoma drastically reduced tribal lands and forced the dissolution of Cherokee governmental structures. Poverty and difficulty followed, but a resurgence in the fight for tribal rights coincided with the civil rights movement in 1960 and resulted in the establishment of elections and a new constitution in the 1970s. By the time Taylor would have passed through the land of the Cherokee Nation, it was truly a nation again, with its own congress and president, just as Taylor tells Estevan and Esperanza in the novel. Taylor could have claimed citizenship there since she had a direct ancestor who was a full-blooded Cherokee who "got left behind in Tennessee because he was too old or too ornery to get marched over to Oklahoma."

The Cold War in Guatemala

A civil war raged in Guatemala for thirty-six years, formally ending in 1996. In the 1980s, however, a confluence of political factors related to the Cold War—which pitted the capitalist, democratic value systems of the United States against the communist ones of the Soviet Union—increased the scale and intensity of the violence, which took a particularly devastating toll on Guatemala's native Mayans.

In the 1980s, a military junta—a military group that had overthrown the pre-existing government—was fighting off a group of insurgents who promoted Marxist values. The junta claimed that the native Mayans were a natural ally of their socialist opponents, and in order to suppress what support the Mayans might offer, committed a wide range of unspeakable atrocities against them. According to the United Nations Commission for Historical Clarification, the junta's campaign was intended "to destroy the cultural values that ensured cohesion and collective action in Mayan communities."

During the time of this genocidal campaign, the United States backed the military junta because the junta was fighting against communist insurgents. The conflict, like others in Central America, functioned as a proxy battle in the Cold War, during which no battles were fought directly between the United States and the Soviet Union, only between the factions they supported in other countries' wars.

Like many real Mayan Guatemalans, Estevan and Esperanza fled their hometowns and country in fear for their lives, and like many real Central American immigrants in the 1980s, they were unable to prove the validity of their request for asylum in the United States. They lived in constant fear of deportation, without an opportunity to claim asylum, back to the country where violence and death awaited them.

The Sanctuary Movement

The Sanctuary Movement was a grassroots religious and political effort that sought to provide shelter to Central American refugees. The Sanctuary Movement arose in response to the high numbers of Central American immigrants who were entering the United States illegally to escape the horrors of civil wars in their countries. In addition to the persecution of native Mayans in Guatemala, a civil war raged between the pro-democratic government of El Salvador and a communist insurgency. Massacres were committed by both sides in the Salvadoran conflict, but in 1980 alone, the government was responsible for the death or forced disappearance—by imprisonment or abduction— of 18,000–20,000 people.

Eligibility to apply for asylum—an opportunity to live in a new country due to the need for protection from a threat in one's home country—in the United States was strictly regulated, and many people were not able to document the danger that threatened their lives. In 1980, members of the congregation of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson offered to help a group of abandoned immigrants and were dismayed to find that the government intended to deport them without giving them a chance at asylum. Over time, churches of many denominations banded together to form a nationwide community to support and give aid to immigrants, whether or not they were in the United States legally. They also established a new Underground Railroad—borrowing the name for the network of smugglers that helped slaves escape to freedom in the north before the Civil War—that moved immigrants further into the United States and even to Canada.

The Sanctuary Movement spread to cities, counties, and even states, some of which enacted laws or policies that restricted police officers from asking about a person's immigration status. These cities and policies have lived on, and many are still in effect today.

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