Traits of Decolonizing the Maya Experience
Colonialism, defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another. In this case, the focus is on Colonial practices impressed upon Mayans in Guatemala who have been subject to five hundred plus years of colonial rule and capitalist exploitation. In Voices from Exile, Victor Montejo creates an autobiographic ethnography piece where he sets out to “decolonize” his Mayan people’s refugee status by concentrating on the revitalization of culture, the overcoming of hardships suffered, and proper depiction of the consequences of exile for the thousands of Mayas who fled their country in the 1980s. 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 prove, critically, that the actions of the refugees and the manner in which he reiterates these atrocities is in fact a defiance against the subjugation and colonization of his people.
To begin, in order to accomplish the decolonization of his people Montejo argues that a new form of Anthropology was used separating him from standard anthropological works. Focusing largely on the relationship between the anthropologist and the group of people being studied (the “other”); Montejo argues that usually the anthropologist is from a dominant Western culture or former colonial power which often produces a dichotomy between the status of the subject and the work produced. In turn, this provides for poor reiteration of the events that occur and misrepresentation of the subjugated peoples intentions allowing colonial trends to maintain. For example, Montejo explains how said dichotomy is not relevant in his case, “I am a Maya, I was a refugee, I lived in exile and as an anthropologist I returned to the refugee camps to investigate the situation of those remaining there” (p.11). In his fieldwork and observations Montejo provides anthropological framework from refugee camps in Chiapas. This fieldwork, enriched with personal testimony and personal anecdotes contributes immensely to his goal of decolonizing the Maya experience of exile through legitimate depictions of the people’s survival as refugees and preservation of their Mayan culture. The difference being that a standard operating western anthropologist would have little to no luck in obtaining these insights and testimonials.
In relation, Montejo makes the contribution in terms of his ability to escape the dichotomy between the anthropologist and the "other” by referencing his western education. In a sense, he is using the colonial’s very own weapon of a higher westernized education against them to liberate his people from the atrocities of the 1980s. Montejo, who teaches in the Department of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis, carefully presents a picture of a different kind of anthropologist and a different kind of Guatemalan Maya. For instance, he says "I grew up speaking Popb’al Ti’" (p. 5), this use of native Mayan tongue allows him looks and perspective only a true Mayan could obtain. A few pages earlier he summarizes his education by noting "I graduated from SUNY in the spring of 1989 and moved to the University of Connecticut to work on my doctorate" (p. 11). This information appears in an autobiographical sketch in the first chapter to call attention to the fact that the author lived the experiences he narrates. Furthermore, the autobiographical content of this book suggests that the question of who speaks is just as important as what that speaker takes as his subject matter, a great tool in his battle to decolonize the Mayan refugees and their situation during the conflicts and exile....
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