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Maya Intellectual Renaissance

Maya Intellectual Renaissance
Identity, Representation, and Leadership

A leading Mayan intellectual and activist discusses the Maya movement and the future of Guatemala.

Series: The Linda Schele Endowment in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies

August 2005
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260 pages | 6 x 9 | 10 b&w photos, 3 line drawings |

When Mayan leaders protested the celebration of the Quincentenary of the "discovery" of America and joined with other indigenous groups in the Americas to proclaim an alternate celebration of 500 years of resistance, they rose to national prominence in Guatemala. This was possible in part because of the cultural, political, economic, and religious revitalization that occurred in Mayan communities in the later half of the twentieth century. Another result of the revitalization was Mayan students' enrollment in graduate programs in order to reclaim the intellectual history of the brilliant Mayan past. Victor Montejo was one of those students.

This is the first book to be published outside of Guatemala where a Mayan writer other than Rigoberta Menchu discusses the history and problems of the country. It collects essays Montejo has written over the past ten years that address three critical issues facing Mayan peoples today: identity, representation, and Mayan leadership. Montejo is deeply invested in furthering the discussion of the effectiveness of Mayan leadership because he believes that self-evaluation is necessary for the movement to advance. He also criticizes the racist treatment that Mayans experience, and advocates for the construction of a more pluralistic Guatemala that recognizes cultural diversity and abandons assimilation. This volume maps a new political alternative for the future of the movement that promotes inter-ethnic collaboration alongside a reverence for Mayan culture.

  • 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
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Victor Montejo is Professor of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis.


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This book collects essays I have written over the last ten years. Some were contributions to collections of essays, others were presented at national and international conferences. Many of the ideas expressed in these essays first took form when I wrote a column for the Guatemalan newspaper Siglo Veintiuno. Taken together they present critical points of view about three issues facing Maya people in Guatemala today: issues of identity, representation, including the right to self-representation, and Maya leadership. Although the essays deal with cultural, political, or spiritual matters rather than the economic aspects of Maya culture, I believe that these themes are important because Mayas need to feel pride in their Maya culture in order to be secure in their personhood and in their nation.

The analyses and comments found here are strictly my own. As a Maya, I am part of the Maya movement, and many of these criticisms touch me as well. I am not free of the charges I have laid here against other people and groups. Throughout the book, I advocate an end to the racist treatment that Mayas experience and the construction of a new interethnic relationship as a means to achieve a more pluralistic Guatemalan nation.

The current process of revitalization of Maya culture serves as the foundation point of these essays and gives us hope for the future, creating new forms of identity beyond the old models of survival and victimization. Our pride in our own heritage and our link with our ancestral past has reconnected the fabric of Maya culture, worn by centuries of neglect.

The task before us is the elimination of racism and discrimination, a first step toward the goal of creating a Guatemala with respectful relationships between Mayas and ladinos and the elimination of economic barriers for the Maya. With economic self-sufficiency and appropriate higher education, indigenous people can shatter the ethnic tension and prejudice against them. Education is one major tool to move toward genuine ethnic reaffirmation and to obtain access to economic and political power in our country, but achieving this is difficult while the Maya majority remains mired in poverty in the most remote rural areas of the country. Past governments have not worried about indigenous people, and have kept them powerless as second-class citizens. And when Mayas criticize their oppressors, they are often accused of being racists or of promoting a reverse racism. Another important tool for us is autocriticism and ethnocriticism. Self-criticism and introspection are necessary to understand ourselves and others as we recognize our failures and achievements, not only as Maya, but as Guatemalans.

Anthropologists and foreign scholars have been closely following this process of revitalization of Maya culture in Guatemala and have written about it, hoping to be of service to the indigenous people they study and with whom they do research. Among the dozens of recent publications on the Maya, I will refer here to those having bearing on the issues of Maya leadership and the pan-Maya movement. These publications indicate much confusion among scholars on the definition of the pan-Maya movement and the delineation of its main actors.

One report on the revitalization of Maya culture written before the signing of the 1996 peace accords is Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy by Victor Perera (1993). Perera wrote about the early (pan-Maya) relationship between Q'anjob'al refugees and Lacandón Maya in Mexico resulting from forced exile and refuge. During the armed conflict in Guatemala, thousands of Maya, Q'anjob'al, Jakaltek, Mam, Akatek and Chuj, came into contact with other Mayan linguistic communities in Chiapas: the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Lacandon and Tojolabal Maya (Earle 1988, Gossen 1999, Montejo 1999a). These works give evidence that the Mayan linguistic communities across the Mayab', the area occupied by the Mayan-speaking people (past and present), have been in a process of cultural, political, economic, and religious revitalization since that time.

At present, it is impressive to see the literary and academic writings being produced by Maya in Guatemala. The collection of essays Mayan Cultural Activism in Guatemala, edited by Edward Fischer and Robert McKenna Brown (1996), presents samples of writings by a few prominent Maya scholars. Many are reprinted from older publications by Maya scholars and intellectuals, including Demetrio Cojtí, an early advocate for a Maya autonomy and nationalism. In its form, vision, and goals, the pan-Maya movement is very complex and multifaceted. Edward Fischer also argued that the pan-Maya movement has economic and sustainable development components with "its potential as an alternative to failed development projects of the past" (Fischer and Brown 1996:52).

The revitalization of Maya culture as a pan-Maya movement in Guatemala is well documented in the ethnographic work by Richard Wilson among the Q'eqchi' Maya of the Verapaces in northern Guatemala. In his book Mayan Resurgence in Guatemala: Q'eqchi' Experiences (1995), Wilson chronicles the current process among the Q'eqchi' as they develop their identity as Maya by affirming a "shared past and a common future" (12). Wilson argues that the revitalization efforts among the Q'eqchi' are based on major symbols of identity, such as the symbolism of mountain spirits (tzuultaq'a), as an integral part of Maya religion and spirituality. The importance of religious tradition and Maya costumbres as providers of strength to the pan-Maya movement is also reported in Santiago Momostenango by Garrett Cook in his recent ethnography Renewing the Maya World: Expressive Culture in a Highland Town (2000).

The best-known work on the issue of Maya leadership and the pan-Maya movement is Kay B. Warren's Indigenous Movements and Their Critics: Pan-Maya Activism in Guatemala (1998). This book deals constructively with the current efforts of cultural, political, and intellectual revitalization of Maya culture in Guatemala. This text has been used widely as an authoritative ethnographic report on the current pan-Maya movement and its multiple expressions. Warren's work is an important contribution to Maya studies because it pays attention to the role of several Maya intellectual leaders, where previous works focused primarily on Rigoberta Menchú, one political Maya leader. As Warren suggests, the goal of pan-Maya intellectual leadership is "to undermine the authoritativeness of non-Maya, or kaxhlan, accounts--be they Guatemalan ladinos or foreigners--which, until the recent indigenous activism and resistance surfaced, monopolized the representation of Maya culture and national history" (37).

Scholarship about the Guatemalan army and their counter-revolutionary war against the guerrillas includes Jennifer Schirmer's Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy (1998). Schirmer argues that the Guatemalan army appropriated Maya symbols to combat the guerrillas and undermine Maya cultural beliefs and traditions. Thus, the army appropriated Maya ideas of pan-Maya unity stemming from the Popol Vuh, as if it were an army philosophy, including the following military call: "That you rise up everyone, that you call to everyone; that there is not a group, nor two among us. Everyone forward and no one stays behind" (114-115).

Anthropologist Diane Nelson has also contributed to the literature that deals with the Guatemalan armed conflict, and she too discusses the Maya role and activities in the current revitalization and pan-Maya movement, focusing especially on gender issues. As she interprets the role of Maya leaders, she refers to some of them as "Maya-hackers," a term that she may intend to use to impress readers with the sophistication of Mayas in the use of modern technology (Nelson 1999b). But the term is not appropriate for the Maya who create and strengthen their identities as Maya producers with their own works and ideas and not by cracking computer codes and messing them up.

Another important work is Susanne Jonas's Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala's Peace Process (2000). In this volume, Jonas discusses in great detail the Guatemalan peace process and the peace accords. The positive role of Maya leadership is shown in this work, especially its participation in the Assembly of Civil Society (ASC) to establish priorities for the March 1995 discussions on the peace accords. The implementation of the specific accord on "Identity and Rights of Indigenous People" is perhaps the most important goal in the current Maya struggle for self-determination. This accord legally recognizes the different indigenous people living in Guatemala--the Maya, the Xinca, and the Garífuna--as well as the diversity of Maya culture itself. It calls for the protection of cultural rights and indigenous institutions, including the use of indigenous languages, traditional dress, ceremonial centers, sacred places, and Maya spirituality (Jonas 2000).

The Maya struggle for self-determination has persisted throughout the centuries. Different forms of Maya movements, and gender and leadership roles existed in the past. Historian Greg Grandin's book The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation (2000) describes the role of local leaders in nineteenth-century municipalities and the issues they faced--land, community, politics, labor, and nationalism. Using the example of the K'iche' elite in Quetzaltenango, his book demonstrates that Maya have struggled at every level of society to maintain their distinctiveness and economic prosperity. Their short-term successes have been difficult to replicate for the majority of Maya because many obstacles block the way for their self-representation and self-empowerment.

The visibility of Maya leaders at a national level rose when they opposed the celebration of the quincentenary of the "discovery" of America (1492-1992). This was a period when the popular left organized international gatherings under the title "Movimiento Nacional: 500 Años de Resistencia Indígena, Negra y Popular" ("National Movement: 500 Years of Indigenous, Black and Popular Resistance"). Later, they dropped the word "black" from their list and stayed with "indígena y popular." Among the Maya cultural participants, primarily academics, some wrote poems, essays, and even letters to the king of Spain, denouncing the continuous destruction of the Maya people in Guatemala (Montejo and Akab' 1992).

At that time, Carol Smith wrote brief analyses of Maya cultural and political activism, offering insights into the movement on a more theoretical level. Smith rightly suggested that the Maya nationalist project of some Maya leaders during early 1990s started to become more radicalized. "As it takes on a more militant stance, the movement grows ever more apart from earlier forms of Maya resistance, which to date have guaranteed the strength and resilience of Maya culture" (Smith 1991:31). In a recent essay Smith has stated her current views:

The Maya movement for indigenous revindication, like many such indigenous movements taking place today, has engaged many Maya who were not intellectual (or even literate), who did not leave written views or "archives," and thus did not leave a simple trail for us to trace. (Smith n.d.)

Her assertion is very important. We cannot forget those Maya who patiently work in their communities, telling stories and promoting the values of their cultures so that young Maya learn more about their histories and strengthen their identities. As Smith indicates, some may not leave traces of their knowledge or write about their views, but if we read the work of ethnographers, we see that elders and community leaders are constantly interviewed, and their voices are represented in these ethnographies. Smith is correct. There are thousands of unknown local leaders working for the revitalization of Maya culture who remain invisible to reporters and to those who write and produce written records for posterity. Unfortunately we cannot meet each individual. We can only see and document the contributions of those who have left indelible footprints during their lives, as they wrote, published, or promoted the revitalization of Maya culture.

Although I, Rigoberta Menchú (1984a), dictated to Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, has recently stirred up much turmoil in academia, it is also a contribution to the general pan-Maya movement of cultural reaffirmation and the survival of Maya people in Guatemala. In a similar way, my early works Q'anil: The Man of Lightning (Montejo 1984, 1999b) and The Bird Who Cleans the World and Other Mayan Fables (1991) represent an effort to maintain the creativity of the Maya and to rewrite Maya history. Later works such as Testimony: Death of a Guatemalan Village (Montejo 1987) and Voices from Exile: Violence and Survival in Modern Maya History (Montejo 1999a) are efforts to denounce the violence and massacres that were committed against the Maya, promote a pan-Maya consciousness, and stress the importance of self-representation.

Many scholars are also aware of the editorial and controversial journalistic works of anthropologist Estuardo Zapeta. In his collection of articles Las Huellas de Balam (The Jaguar's Footprints, 1999), Zapeta presents a critical analysis of the national situation in which the Maya play a weak role as a result of their internal divisions and the lack of real leadership. Another scholar and journalist engaged in the revitalization of Maya culture and in promoting the presence of Maya in the national arena is Enrique Sam Colop, whose poetic rendition of the Popol Vuh serves as a symbol for the Maya literary renaissance in Guatemala. The quincentenary of the "discovery" was described by Sam Colop in 1991 as the 500 Años de Encubrimiento (500 Years of Cover-Up). Other academic works important to mention are Cultura Maya y Políticas de Desarrollo (Maya Culture and the Politics of Development, 1989) by Demetrio Rodríguez Guaján; Universidad Maya de Guatemala: Diseño Curricular (Maya University: Curricular Design, 1995) by Manuel de Jesús Salazar Tetzagüic et al.; The Mayan Movement Today: Issues of Indigenous Culture and Development in Guatemala (1997) by Alberto Esquit Choy and Víctor Gálvez Borrell; Mayas y Ladinos en Cifras: El Caso de Guatemala (Mayas and Ladinos in Numbers: The Case of Guatemala, 1994) by Leopoldo Tzián. Other poets and writers are equally important such as Humberto Ak'abal, José Mucía Batz, and particularly Gaspar Pedro González whose works are known nationally and internationally.

Recently, a number of works have been published by a Tz'ujuhil Maya using the name of Bizarro Ujpán. He keeps a diary and writes under the shadow of American anthropologist James Sexton. This mysterious writer has produced several books or diaries in which he describes daily life and events in local communities on the shore of Lake Atitlán. His recent book Joseño: Another Maya Voice Speaks from Guatemala, edited and translated by Sexton, describes the life of local leaders, prayer-makers, and traditionalists who struggled to maintain their cultures and beliefs despite military persecution in Santiago Atitlán during the years of la violencia (Ujpán and Sexton 2001).

Many other works by native authors and academics are now becoming widely read, but are not mentioned here. These works rely mostly on oral traditions as they strengthen and document storytelling and cultural transmission in rural Maya communities. Most are stories and folktales collected by local leaders in Maya communities in collaboration with anthropologists or NGO personnel interested in documenting indigenous beliefs and traditions. As an example, the organization Casa de Estudios de los Pueblos del Lago de Atitlán has produced several documents including Literatura Oral de los Pueblos del Lago de Atitlán (Petrich 1998). There are many more unknown Maya writers, poets, and historians who work locally with schoolteachers to produce textbook materials for Maya schools and bilingual education.

The most important theme in this book is that of Maya leadership. From historical, cultural, and political points of view, Maya leadership in Guatemala is very complex. To understand the complexities of the current Maya movement, which is linked to the past history of the Maya, we must ask the following questions: What is Maya leadership? What roles have Maya leaders played in the processes of historical and political changes in Guatemala? Who are these Maya leaders who have developed resistance against the complete assimilation of Maya culture? What are their objectives and goals? What ideologies have they acquired and applied in their struggle for cultural reaffirmation? What is their relationship with the non-Maya population and the dominant elite? How have their roles and strategies changed in the past and present? Which factors forced or motivated these changes? These and other questions can be partially answered when we study the important roles that Maya leaders have played in the past and present. I do not pretend to have all of the answers here, but this work suggests directions for further research so that we may know the talent, courage, creativity, and vision of Maya leaders. By respecting and valuing Maya leadership we will be able to create a better future for the generations of Maya and non-Maya yet to come.

I present these themes in the hope that we may continue an informed debate about the effectiveness and contributions of the Maya leadership. Knowing about the dreams, achievements and failures of Maya leaders in the past and in modern times, we may find ways to contribute more seriously to the education of young Maya leaders for the future. I hope that they will have more and better options and strategies for their struggles and that they can contribute to the construction of a multiethnic nationality in Guatemala. I think that the Maya are aware of how important these times are and of how their presence is necessary for advancing the needed changes to improve the conditions of marginalized indigenous communities. Maya leaders must make themselves heard above the murmur of confused voices in search of social justice. It is to be hoped that one day we will all hear those voices in unison, searching for consensus and approval of those common goals that will make Guatemala a great nation. Insofar as the people remain strongly united, the more power can be generated for action. The people of Santiago Atitlán showed us this when they, with unified force, expelled the army from their community in December 1990, even though such courageous action cost the lives of many Maya in the preceding massacre (Carlsen 1997; Ujpán and Sexton 2001).

The first two chapters of this book discuss Maya identity and interethnic relations in Guatemala. Chapter 2 appeared in a slightly different version in Spanish in the journal Mesoamérica. Current processes of self-representation are enabling the Maya to emerge from under centuries of denigrating images as "Indians" and second-class citizens. The shared Maya base culture draws upon the values and creative knowledge of the ancestors, and the new and powerful pan-Maya identity arising from the ancient Maya culture can shatter the stereotypes imposed in 1524.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 discuss the representation of the Maya by themselves and others. Chapter 3 shows how the Maya are depicted in a third-grade social studies textbook and deconstructs the hidden ideology behind the educational system as it promotes the views of the dominant class and its links to Western thought and values. Chapter 4 was first published in Kay B. Warren and Jean E. Jackson's Indigenous Movements, Self-Representation, and the State in Latin America (2002). It delineates the multiple nature of Maya voices and Maya participation in Guatemalan political parties. There is an urgent need for the Maya to reorient their political work and participation in order to insist on the implementation of the peace accords. Chapter 5 discusses the controversy over the testimonial book Me Llamo Rigoberta Menchú (Burgos-Debray 1983) generated by David Stoll's Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (1999). This chapter originally appeared in Arturo Arias's edited volume of disputatious arguments from scholars and activists, The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy (2001). The bitter debate between those who elevated Menchú to iconic status and Stoll's assessment of her conflicting statements and misrepresentations raged briefly, but cannot detract from her role as an international figure promoting human rights and supporting the prosecution of those involved in massacres and genocide in Guatemala.

Chapters 6 through 9 examine issues of Maya leadership. Chapter 6 briefly discusses the ethnohistory of Maya leadership, beginning with the symbols of power and leadership represented in the stelae and Maya codices of antiquity. In the period of contact and conquest, it includes the great Maya leaders Tecún Umán and Kaib'il B'alam, who fought bravely against the invaders for the freedom of their people, and toward the end of the colonial period, Atanasio Tzul and Lucas Aguilar. Maya leaders during the conservative and liberal periods under the governments of Rafael Carrera and Justo Rufino Barrios are largely unknown. Some of the better-known leaders of the late twentieth century, from both the popular and culturalist movements in Guatemala, are included in the discussion. Chapter 7 presents a theoretical and strategic basis for understanding the Maya movements and the role that their major exponents and leaders have played. My hypothesis is that Maya leaders have always worked within a larger framework of repression and disintegration, and their role has been to find ways to advance the survival and self-determination of their people. The current revitalization of Maya culture is seen as occurring in a prophetic cycle of time, oxlanh b'aktun. Chapter 8 examines Maya ways of knowing and of producing knowledge as well as the role of the elders in accommodating and continuing Maya culture within the modern world system. Despite economic limitations and political and religious repression, elders have been and continue to be teachers and promoters of indigenous knowledge and Maya worldviews, perpetuating Maya ways of knowing through the oral transmission of fables, stories, and parables. Chapter 9 looks at the role of Maya leaders and intellectuals and the problems of transparency, charisma, and the manipulation of some leaders by ladinos. In spite of the different ideologies in play, especially during the armed conflict, Maya intellectuals, activists, and revolutionaries were influential in forcing the Guatemalan government to end the counterinsurgency war and negotiate the cease-fire and the peace accords. All this is presented in an effort to understand, revise, and refine the political, cultural, and economic strategies for a better future for the Maya.

Chapter 10 and 11 provide some concluding notes. An earlier version of Chapter 10 was originally presented as a lecture in the panel "Indigenous Rights and Security Issues in the Americas" at the conference "Security in the Post-Summit Americas" in Washington, D.C. in 1995. The material has been updated for this book. It presents the argument that national security begins with respect for and protection of the cultures and peoples that compose the nation. And finally, Chapter 11 presents my hopes for the future of the Maya people and for all Guatemalans. The current preoccupation with the endemic corruption and violence in Guatemala often obscures the view of a more hopeful tomorrow. All Guatemalans must focus on the reconstruction of the country and the development of a true interethnic dialogue that can lead to a nonviolent political culture of peace.

It is my hope that this book will serve as a foundation for future studies of Maya leadership, with the ultimate goal of improving social relationships between Maya and non-Maya in Guatemala. By knowing and valuing the contribution of each sector or ethnic community, we will realize that we have done much to separate or divide ourselves and little to unify ourselves. The emphasis must be on cultural diversity and not on assimilation, a national policy that has violated the rights of the Maya for self-determination. Self-determination is the moral and political authority of the Maya to decide their own future, free of the discrimination and control to which we have been subjected for centuries. We need to be able to call ourselves Maya and Guatemalan at the same time, without fear of repression or discrimination. This book does not promote separatism, but rather advocates for the rights of indigenous people to exist and to be a living part of the nation-states where they coexist with other citizens.

To achieve this, we need good Maya spiritual, political, and intellectual leaders. All people and nations need leaders to open new paths and to serve as guides for their people. The Maya have many leaders on all levels of society, known and unknown men and women who are engaged in the revitalization of Maya culture; leaders in all regions and linguistic communities; and those leaders who stood up for the Maya people and lost their lives during the armed conflict: catechists, schoolteachers, diviners, healers, artists, and simple farmers who were killed or who disappeared during those terrible years. Their example and vision should help motivate us to better understand our histories and our dynamic Maya cultures, which are so in need of a dignified space in our country. We need a leadership that proposes alternatives, with viable strategies that can help us start a true nation-building project based on social justice, democracy, and respect for human rights.


“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.”
Kay Warren, Director of Politics, Culture, and Identity Program, Watson Institute, and Professor of International Studies and Anthropology, Brown University


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