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Human Rights Quarterly 23.3 (2001) 827-832

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Book Review

Voices from Exile: Violence and Survival in Modern Maya History

Voices from Exile: Violence and Survival in Modern Maya History, by Victor Montejo (Norman, Oklahoma: Oklahoma University Press, 1999).

The legacy of the violent civil war in Guatemala persists. Most recently, the murder trial has begun for the five assassins of Bishop Juan Gerardi, bludgeoned to death on 26 April 1998, after issuing a report holding the military responsible for the 200,000 deaths in Guatemala's civil war, and a bomb exploded in the judge's backyard. 1 Still, much of the world remains unaware of the genocide directed at the indigenous people of Guatemala in the last decades. Victor Montejo gives us that history in this rich study. An Associate Professor in the Department of Native American Studies at the University of California--Davis, Montejo is a Maya expatriate and anthropologist. His own scholarly training in anthropology and a passionate commitment to his people brings both authority and authenticity to this work. Montejo writes, "I have a moral responsibility to make evident to the world the plight of my people in exile." 2 Dedicated "To Those Who went into Exile," the book is a compelling account of that forced exile.

The book focuses on one group of Maya from Kuchumatan Highlands in western Guatemala that fled into Mexico in the 1980s because of government counter-insurgency programs to destroy the guerilla movement. These communities were seen to be supporting guerillas, so they were targeted: 440 communities were destroyed; tens of thousands killed; hundreds of thousands fled. Montejo was among them--as a young teacher he was forced to flee Guatemala in 1982. Raised speaking Mayan and participating in Maya ceremonies, Montejo also received a Catholic education, trained as a primary school teacher, but was forced into exile after ten years of teaching in Jacaltenango. (His wife and children left in 1984. One brother was killed in 1981; the other brother and three sisters fled to Canada.) In the United States, Montejo earned a B.A. and a Ph.D., becoming both an informant and scholar in Mayan Studies. He speaks candidly of this dual role: "I am within the tradition of Maya intellectuals and scholars, advocates of pan-Mayanism, Maya cultural revival and Maya self-representation." 3 He criticizes the field of anthropology for avoiding difficult subjects, but he takes them up himself, writing: "My task is to decolonize this Maya experience of exile and to write critically from my insider perspective about its causes and outcomes." 4 He adds that his "efforts as a Maya scholar are strongly directed toward the revitalization of Maya culture" threatened by the experiences of exile. 5 Rather than [End Page 827] compromising academic integrity, this committed scholarship brings insight, clarity and otherwise silenced voices to his work. Drawing on both experience and research, Montejo incorporates his participant/observer field work in two major refugee camps in Chiapas, Mexico--La Cienegrita and La Gloria--in the 1980s and 1992. In these trips he sought "to analyze the dynamics of cultural resistance and transformation that occurred in the refugee camps largely as a result of the of the interrelationship between several Maya ethnic and linguistic groups." 6

The resulting book, one might argue, is a collective autobiography: he uses the word, authoethnography, referring to those writing ethnographies of their own culture. In twelve chapters with detailed maps, population and linguistic charts of Mayas, and photographs of the refugee camps in Mexico, Montejo combines historical perspectives with descriptions of the militarized assaults on indigenous populations, testimonial narratives of Maya exiles, and analyses of refugee life in order to provide the reader with a complex and informative account of the Guatemalan exiles in the last decades.

After an introductory chapter, Montejo gives a short but meaningful overview of Mayan history from the pre-Columbia period to the present, the larger context of the recent struggle. Discussing the colonial period, he emphasizes brutal structures of oppression such as the encomienda system of land grants...


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