Maya Intellectual Renaissance: Identity Representation and Leadership by Victor Montejo

This is the fourth of Montejo’s books I’ve read and reviewed as part of my research for a documentary on migration issues, “Guatemala: Trouble in the Highlands.” I’ve talked to the author, who is undoubtedly one of the most respected Mayan intellectuals and activists, when he was home in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, where he works, and also follow his Facebook page, “Mayalogue,” for all things Mayan.

I especially appreciate the author’s insights because I’ve worked throughout the highlands of Guatemala, starting with the Peace Corps in the early 70s, but never stayed in one place long enough to learn any of the 23 languages and cultural complexity of the various Maya linguistic groups in the country.  Montejo’s appreciation of the Maya “worldview” is impressive. He brings a clear vision of a new political alternative for the future of a movement that promotes interethnic collaboration alongside a reverence for Maya culture.

This book is the first to be published outside of Guatemala where a Mayan writer other than Rigoberta Menchu (who won the Nobel Peace Prize) discusses the history and problems of the country. It contains essays Montejo has written over the past ten years that address three critical issues facing Mayan peoples today: identity, representation, and Mayan leadership. He explores the realities of the ancient and contemporary Maya world and is deeply involved in furthering the discussion of the effectiveness of Mayan leadership because he believes that self-evaluation is necessary for the movement to advance.

One of the revealing parts of the book explores the role of non-Maya scholars of Maya and how some of the real icons, such as the influential scholar, Sylvanus G. Morley, whose cultural image and history he wrote of was based on the Yukatek Maya area, but became the prototype of all Maya, “extending beyond Yucatan and encompassing all thirty-one modern Mayan linguistic communities n the region.”  Like many Maya scholars, he relied heavily on material provided by Diego de Landa, the Spanish Bishop of Yucatan, whose campaigns against idolatry resulted in the burning of almost all the Mayan manuscripts (codices). According to the author, by establishing “historic fact” in ethnographies, scholars have helped to distort not only the image of the ancient Maya, but that of the present Maya as well.

According to the author, racism in Guatemala is best understood as a system originated in the inequality established by the Spanish conquest. The Spanish view of the indigenous people was that of barbarians who needed to be controlled and civilized, and the need for encomienda (forced) labor based on a European feudal system.  He goes on to say, “…the interplay of class and ethnicity in Guatemala is somewhat ambivalent. There are class differences among the elite and the “ladino” (Europeanized local population) and the oligarchy is composed primarily of twenty-two families of European background.” And most importantly, “Indigenous people have been rejected as active participants in social economic and political life of the country.  A hegemonic nationalism has been created in which the ancient Maya are glorified, and the present Maya are disdained and discriminated against.”

The author explains how complex the Maya culture is, although Maya ideology, especially religion and cosmology, motivated the development of this civilization, created elite classes in the pre-classic and classic periods and continuing into the post-classic. So Maya ideology is a powerful unifying force that explains why Maya culture has “persisted as a distinctive entity for the last 3,000 years.”

The author was a Minister of Peace (Secretario de la Paz) and Congressman in Guatemala during the government of Oscar Berger from 2004-2008 and worked on strategies to implement the Peace Accord following the devastating civil war from 1960-1996.  He revealed that much of the ongoing violence in the country was due to “peace without justice – of unrealized peace accords and the abuse of Guatemalans that is compounded by the bribery and corruption that lets criminals go free.”

Amongst the leaders promoting and defining the Maya people are the “ajq’ij, or Maya priests, who have become a symbol of rebirth and unifications of the Maya culture on a national level. Montejo was a great proponent of “Pan Mayanism” as well, a vision of the future of the Mayan people, where the author provides a list of key tenets such as “reaffirming that we are Maya like our ancestors,” recognizing that Maya culture is not a monopoly of a single Maya group and making the diversity of Maya cultures visible. And according to the author, this shared culture should be recognized, “maintaining equality and respect for differences and cultural particularities.” This pan-Maya culture will lay the foundation for the construction of a Guatemalan nationalism that is multicultural, where Maya and non-Maya are treated equally.

The author describes the Maya worldview clearly and concisely, “when we Maya say that we respect nature, we are sincere, because we live what we say; we feel a unity with other living creatures on earth. …The Maya cosmology and world are centered on communal practices in which all elements that promote life—cosmic elements (e.g., sun, wind), humans and the environment are interrelated….”

The author provides a clear vision for the future of the Maya communities as follows, “A Guatemala that is a bilingual and pluricultural nation – not only in name, but in fact will respect, value and promote the country’s ethnic diversity. It is beautiful to dream that this new millennium could be the millennium of the Maya, secure within a new Guatemala.

What others say: A respected anthropologist from Brown University, Kay Warren, sums up this book as follows, “This striking project will be of wide interest to scholars and students concerned with social movements and indigenous rights. The topic is important and timely, and the author is one of the most respected Mayan intellectuals and activists.”

The Table of Contents provides insights into the important matters covered in this book.

Contents:

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Maya Identity and Interethnic Relations
  • Chapter 2. Pan-Mayanism: The Complexity of Maya Culture and the Process of Self-Representation
  • Chapter 3. Representation via Ethnography: Mapping the Maya Image in a Guatemalan Primary School Social Studies textbook
  • Chapter 4. The Multiplicity of Maya Voices: Maya Leadership and the Politics of Self-Representation
  • Chapter 5. Truth, Human Rights, and Representation: The Case of Rigoberta Menchú
  • Chapter 6. The Ethnohistory of Maya Leadership
  • Chapter 7. Theoretical Basis and Strategies for Maya Leadership
  • Chapter 8. Maya Ways of Knowing: Modern Maya and the Elders
  • Chapter 9. Leadership and Maya Intellectuality
  • Chapter 10. Indigenous Rights, Security, and Democracy in the Americas: The Guatemalan Situation
  • Chapter 11. The Twenty-first Century and the Future of the Maya in Guatemala

The Author: The author received his Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1993 from the University of Connecticut. Victor Montejo was a Professor of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis. His academic interest focuses on indigenous people of Mesoamerica and he has worked extensively on Latin American diaspora, human rights, migration and transnationalism, comparative studies, ethnicity, indigenous worldviews and native knowledge, and indigenous literatures.

Current projects: Indigenous community development, rural development, sustainable development, cultural/economic/political self-determination, cultural resource management, poverty alleviation strategies. Victor Montejo has been a columnist for a national newspaper in Guatemala and obtained First Honorable Mention for Best Column in Native Americas, Cornell University.

In 2000, his Voices from Exile: Violence and Survival in Modern Maya History obtained the National Award: Race, Ethnicity and Politics Award, American Political Science Association, for Washington D.C. In 2003, Victor Montejo obtained a Fulbright Scholars Award, Research and teaching in Guatemala, Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, Central America.

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Reviewer Mark Walker was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala and spent over forty years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world. He came to Phoenix as a Senior Director for Food for the Hungry, worked with other groups like Make-A-Wish International and was the CEO of Hagar USA, a Christian-based organization that supports survivors of human trafficking. He’s presently the producer of a documentary film, “Guatemala: Trouble in the Highlands.”

His book, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, was recognized by the Arizona Literary Association for Non-Fiction and, according to the Midwest Review, “…is more than just another travel memoir. It is an engaged and engaging story of one man’s physical and spiritual journey of self-discovery…”

Several of his articles have been published in Ragazine and WorldView Magazines, Literary Yard, Literary Travelers and Quail BELL, while another appeared in “Crossing Class: The Invisible Wall” anthology published by Wising Up Press.  His reviews have been published in the Midwest Book Review, by Revue Magazine, as well as Peace Corps Worldwide, and he has his own column in the “Arizona Authors Association” newsletter, “The Million Mile Walker Review: What We’re Reading and Why.” His essay, “Hugs not Walls: Returning the Children,” was a winner in the Arizona Authors Association literary competition 2020 and was reissued in “Revue Magazine.” Another article was recognized in the “Solas Literary Awards for Best Travel Writing.”

His honors include the “Service Above Self” award from Rotary International. He is a board member of “Advance Guatemala” and the membership chair for “Partnering for Peace.”  His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. You can learn more at www.MillionMileWalker.com and www.Guatemalastory.net or follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/millionmilewalker/

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