For many years, Maya people of Guatemala were out of sight and out of mind.
But wars, massacres and their own eternal hope and resilience have revealed
their ongoing reality. The political arena is particularly harsh for Maya
people in Guatemala, where the massacres have stopped but where
discrimination against the indigenous people is still rampant and armed
strong-men who brutally ruled the country in the past still walk freely and
This is why not a few friends of Victor Montejo, the noted Maya author,
have wondered if the creative and highly intelligent Montejo has not made a
big mistake leaving a coveted academic position at a prestigious American
university for the rough and tumble world of Guatemalan politics.
Montejo is today the newly appointed Secretary of Peace, a ministerial
level post in the office of the also new and promising president, Oscar
Berger. Montejo's department is charged with monitoring the progress of the
Peace Accords that ended the 36-year Guatemalan Civil War. That war killed
tens of thousands of indigenous Maya-Quiche citizens of that embattled
Central American country. As Montejo is a Jacalteco-Maya speaker and
representative of his Maya-rooted people, as well as a highly trained and
well-respected author and social scientist, most affairs that deal with the
issues and circumstances of Guatemala's indigenous communities of Maya are
presently flowing toward his administrative overview. It is a big job, the
attempt to heal 40 years of intense repression and dislocation, but the new
secretary is as tenacious as his people. Despite the concerns of his
friends and colleagues in the North, clearly Montejo is the perfect person
for a job that is as complicated as it is centrally important to the
Victor Montejo (Ph.D., SUNY-Albany), is the author of a major novel of the
Maya holocaust of the 1980s. "Testimony: Death of a Village," chronicles a
massacre witnessed by the author and follows the adventures of arrest,
torture, near death and escape from the totalitarian nightmare of the
scorched earth campaign conducted against Maya agricultural villages under
General Efrain Rios Montt, the evangelical tormentor. Montt conceived and
directed the "scorched earth" military campaign that massacred at least 440
Maya communities - innocent civilian populations of elders, women, children
- targeted for their independent farming lifestyle and their Indian
Escaping ultimately to exile in the U.S., Montejo went on to finish not
only his signal novel, "Testimony," but other novels, poetry collections
and scholarly works on the Maya peoples and cosmos. In the U.S., Montejo
gained the doctoral degree in anthropology and settled into a teaching and
"It was last summer, I decided to make the jump to the political life of
Guatemala," Montejo said recently over lunch at a tipico restaurant in
Guatemala City. "It happened while on leave from my post at the University
of California at Davis to study in Guatemala on a Fulbright Scholarship."
When the new wave of pragmatic politicians that ultimately ushered out the
corrupt regime of Portillo realized Montejo was in the country, they
offered serious support for a run at the National House of Deputies. Thus
Montejo was pressed into service by politicians that were not only
challenging the corrupt Portillo, but also the old and brutal politics of
former dictator, General Efrain Rios Montt. The nearly retired university
professor ran for the National House of Deputies and won his seat handily
in the election. It was then that newly-elected Guatemalan president, Oscar
Berger, who faces a still-fractured and nearly bankrupt national treasury,
appealed to the indigenous Maya professor to help him heal the country and
build a new administration.
"I am not a politician, as everyone knows," Montejo said, "I am a writer. I
wrote a testimony of military brutality that I hoped would help relieve my
people's suffering. I love my culture and history and create from that
point of view. Politics never seemed even remotely for me."
But for that very reason and for his well-known resolve and integrity, the
village teacher turned witness to massacre, and by turn novelist and
professor, is the one person a great many people have trusted with the not
so enviable task of running a national secretariat set up to face the many
and looming problems of the long-suffering Maya peoples.
"We Maya are a big part of Guatemala - six to eight million people - and we
are a capable people at production in many fields," Montejo said to a group
of visiting North American Indians last week. While Guatemala was left
broke by the corruption of the previous administration, he analyzed, the
new government was a breath of fresh air.
(The North American Indian group was in the country to explore mutual
projects with Maya communities and enterprises. It included Oneida Nation
Men's Council member, Chuck Fougnier, who left a Two Row Wampum Belt with
the Guatemalan government and a Friendship Belt with the Secretariat of
Peace and the elders of the Maya people.)
The Guatemalan government is in deep financial crisis. The outgoing
administration and party of Alfonso Portillo, which left office in January,
practically sacked the country. The top echelon, including the president,
vice-president, in-laws, heads of various departments, is largely in hiding
or already behind bars. Initial declarations of a U.S. Special Task Force
investigating the ex-president have linked the severe corruption to
money-laundering for narco-traffic in Miami. Even for a country long inured
to public perfidy, the level of outright theft of public funds this last
round has astounded Guatemalans, who face serious decreases in essential
services and damage to their fledging civilian institutions. The forced
austerity could threaten the government entirely, which certainly would
bring even more severe misery to grass-roots communities.
Although it has curtailed the high level of aggressive repression of
political opposition, and while massacres directed at village populations
have subsided, Guatemala remains a very tense country. Violence by force of
arms is common still, with delinquency and criminal gangs on the rise.
Social tensions worsen as powerful international economic forces take over,
while local jurisdictions, agricultural villages and urban poor --
particularly the majority indigenous people -- face serious scarcity,
hunger and outright discrimination.
Montejo, who lost an internationally coveted Fulbright research scholarship
and risks his personal career, perhaps his safety, because of entering the
political fray, accepts that such a choice is always hard, "particularly as
it affects my family." But, he added, his children are grown and his wife
proved equally committed to improving the lot of indigenous communities.
"If not now, when, we feel. It is a fresh moment, the first in 30 years."
For the moment at least, a luminary intellectual and person of proven
integrity holds a piece of the potential creation of better conditions for
Montejo acknowledged the role as well of people like Rigoberta Menchu Tun,
Nobel Peace Prize recipient (1992) and now appointed Ambassador of Peace by
President Berger. That day, he had also hosted over a dozen Maya elders who
represent the "traditional authority" of Maya religions and spiritual
practices. A newly reinvigorated Academy of Maya Languages has actually
taken over the former Naval College in the most high-end business area of
the capital. Many other Maya have also been elected at municipal levels.
The good thing is, Montejo said: "we are all coordinating different works.
We are looking for peaceful solutions. Respect for our culture, our
languages. This is happening, slowly. Respect for our sacred sites, this
too we are working on." But he emphasized that their biggest challenge and
focus is to improve their economic options. "Our Maya people and the other
ethnicities of Guatemala as well, from Ladino to Garifuna - we are a
sleeping economic giant," he said.
Montejo, who has traveled widely in North American Indian country, appealed
to the Northern American nations and tribes to consider investment,
business and community development projects in Guatemala. With deliberate
and constant hope, the quickly evolving indigenous intellectual turned
politician, emphasized: "We are at a crucial moment. With a little help
here and there, in educational technology and in business development, we
can yet change and make flourish the country of the Mayas."