Kidnapped to the Underworld by Victor Montejo Reviewed by Mark D. Walker

It seems appropriate that this book was published on the 500th anniversary of Spaniard Alvarado’s conquering of the Maya in 1524—making this a time to reflect on the impact it had on the Maya, one of the great civilizations of the Hemisphere. Victor Montejo is a respected Mayan intellectual and activist. He believes that racism in Guatemala is best understood as a system originating in the inequality established by the Spanish conquest. The Spaniards viewed the indigenous peoples as barbarians who needed to be controlled and civilized.

Despite the Spaniards’ relentless efforts to alter and eradicate numerous Maya traditions and values, a significant number have managed to endure to this day. Montejo, a staunch defender of Mayan values, has chosen to resurrect his grandfather’s near-death experience and epic journey through the Mayan underworld, a tale passed down to him by his mother. This act of preservation is a testament to the unwavering resilience of the Maya culture.

The book defies conventional categorizations, transcending the boundaries of a family history, a religious testimony, a political allegory, and a work of sacred literature. Regardless of the genre one may assign, the book stands as a testament to the enduring power of storytelling and traditions. Montejo, as a student, drew inspiration from the Mayan religious text, the Popol Vuh, the sacred narrative of the K’iche people, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, elements of which have informed this unique blend of Catholic morality and Mesoamerican mythology.

Two guides and protectors took his grandfather to witness the suffering of the underworld, similar to Virgil rescuing Dante from the Valley of Pain to the eternal realms of suffering and saved souls. According to Montejo, his grandfather’s vision reflected changes in the abstract conceptions that Indigenous people have about eternal values, as well as heaven and hell. However, the story also reflects the worldview and things that have special meaning for the Maya community.

Montejo makes the journey through Xiwb’alb’a, the dwelling place of the lords, even more personal by telling the story in first person. One of the stops during the trip was characterized by raucous music where drunks beat each other violently “like crazed, furious madmen. All were unrecognizable, as their faces and bodies were swollen from so much abuse. They fell and got back up, brutalized by the liquor they consumed without ceasing.”  Alcoholism has and still does take a tremendous toll on the health of Mayan communities.

Similar stories of suffering included women who were unfaithful to their husbands and prostitutes, those who mistreated their horses as well as those who beat their dogs. In a revealing encounter during his journey, Antonio meets his father, who reveals the sorrow he has experienced in his life of poverty. “He worried that his children would continue to be enslaved by the forced labor that the governments ordered in those decades, keeping the Indigenous people in poverty.”

Possibly, the difference between the worldview of Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Maya Worldview revealed in this book is their choice of villains and evil. Dante’s greatest traitors of human history, chewed on by Lucifer’s three mouths, were the betrayers of Caesar, Brutus Cassius, and Judas from biblical history. For the Mayas, this dubious designation went to the disgraced Catholic Priest Diego de Landa.

“He came from the other side of the sea, not long ago, and burned and destroyed all the writings, histories, and literature of our people. He is the one who left our people orphans of wisdom when we could no longer use our way of writing…Instead of turning away from his true mission as a frier and bishop recognizing the knowledge and values of our peoples, he discredited and rejected them, destroying the wisdom of our ancestors…

 Not surprisingly, the individual boiling in blood in the depths of Xiwb’alb’a was Pedro Alvardo, the conquistador of much of Central America.

“This was the conqueror who made thousands suffer and endure what was called the war of conquest. His cruelty was that of a man possessed, and he caused intense pain and misery to the people he slaughtered; this was now the cause of his bloody ordeal. Here, then, were the most violent and hateful conquerors and genocides of all time…

At the end of the book, Montejo provides several reasons it is relevant today: ” It shows us the deep religiosity of the indigenous peoples of Guatemala…In addition, we can affirm that there are many similarities between the Catholic religion and Maya spirituality… “I’d add two more reasons.

In March of 2024, the first hearing of the Oral and Public Debate was held against former General Benedicto Lucas García for the crimes of genocide, sexual violence, and crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship of his brother Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982). The former President of Guatemala, General Rios Montt, was already convicted of genocide and given 80 years in prison, although he died before the sentence could be carried out. Over 200,000 Guatemalans lost their lives during the ten-year Civil War, the majority at the hands of the Guatemalan armed forces, trained and supported by the United States.

As a surprise to many, Bernardo Arevalo of the little-known “Seeds Party,” who ran on a platform to combat corruption, is the new President of Guatemala. Although his first hundred days brought some change and hope, he still didn’t name one Maya member to his cabinet. This country’s population is still 46% Indigenous, yet only 8 of 106 congressional delegates were Mayan.

I was introduced to Montejo over twenty years ago when I read his humorous, satirical story of a North American adventurer mistakenly identified as the new Catholic priest by the local population of a small village in the highlands of Guatemala, The Adventures of Mr. Puttison.

I’ve reviewed seven of his twenty-plus books over the years and got to know him while researching a documentary I collaborated on about the impact of migration on Mayan communities, “Guatemala: Trouble in the Highlands.”

Our production team was interested in Professor Montejo because we felt Mayan intellectuals like him would best tell the story of the challenges that impact the Mayan community, particularly endemic racism, political and economic inequalities, and historical realities that have not changed much in over 500 years.

My respect and appreciation for his writing and activism grew, and eventually, I profiled him as one of my “Extraordinary Lives” in my forthcoming book, The Guatemala Reader.

About the Author

 Víctor Montejo is professor emeritus of Native American studies at the University of California, Davis. His previous books include Popol Vuh: A Sacred Book of the Maya; Maya Intellectual Renaissance: Identity, Representation, and Leadership; El Q’anil: Man of Lightning; Voices from Exile: Violence and Survival in Modern Maya History; and Mayalogue: An Interactionist Theory of Indigenous Cultures.

Sean S. Sell is co-editor and translator of Chiapas Maya Awakening: Contemporary Poems and Short Stories and Ch’ayemal nich’nabiletik / Los hijos errantes / The Errant Children: A Trilingual Edition. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of California, Davis, where he is currently a professor.

The Reviewer

 Mark Walker was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala and spent over forty years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world.  Walker’s three  books are Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond,  My Saddest Pleasures: 50 Years on the Road, named Best Travel Book and  The Guatemala Reader: Extraordinary Lives and Amazing Stories.  He’s written 80 book reviews, and of his 30 published essays, two were recognized by the Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing. He’s a contributing writer for “The Wanderlust Journal” and “Literary Traveler.” His column, “The Million Mile Walker Review: What We’re Reading and Why,” is part of the Arizona Authors Association newsletter.  His honors include the “Service Above Self” award from Rotary International. He’s a Board member of Advance Guatemala and the Arizona Authors Association.  His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. You can learn more at




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