I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala
I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala
by Rigoberta Menchú
THE LITERARY WORK
An autobiography set in Guatemala between 1959 and 1981; published in Spanish in 1983 (as Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia), in English in 1984,
A Quiché Indian woman recounts the difficult and often tragic experiences that led to her becoming an activist for Indian rights.
Born in Chimel, a hamlet in northwestern Guatemala, Rigoberta Menchú was the sixth child of laborers who became Indian rights activists. Her father, Vicente, a founding member of the influential Peasant Unity Committee (Comité Unidad Campesina; CUC), died during a protest at the Spanish embassy in 1980. Menchú’s mother and younger brother were tortured and killed by the Guatemalan army in separate incidents. Despite these violent deaths, Menchú carried on her family’s work, becoming a leader of the CUC in 1979. In 1981 she was forced to flee to Mexico the following year, she traveled to Europe to speak on behalf of the Quiche Indians. During that period, she met Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, to whom she related her story in a week-long series of interviews that would become the autobiography I, Rigoberta Menchú. Menchú received the Nobel Peace Price in 1992.
Indians vs. ladinos: an overview
The bitter conflict between Indians—the indigenous people of Guatemala—and ladinos—whose ancestors include Spaniards and Europeans—is one of the main themes in the autobiography. Descended from Mayans, Guatemalan Indians comprised more than 60 percent of the country’s population in 1996. There are 22 different groups of Guatemalan Indians, including the Quiche, Cak-chiquel, Kekchi, and Mam, all of which speak their own languages. Despite their differences, the Indians are united in their distrust of their ladino oppressors, who control most of Guatemala’s land and wealth.
As Ann Wright points out in her translation of I, Rigoberta Menchú, English offers no exact equivalent for the term ladino. Wright herself interprets it as meaning “a person of mixed race or a Spanish-speaking Indian,” or, in more general terms, “someone who represents a system which oppresses the Indian” (Wright in Menchú, p. viii). The translator’s alternatives highlight the unfixed nature of the term. Others have similar difficulties defining “ladino”—Richard Wilson considers it a synonym for mestizo (Wilson, p. 7), while Jean-Marie Simon uses it to refer to “people of mixed Indian and Spanish or European ancestry” (Simon, p. 19). John Hawkins argues that the terms indígena (Indian) and ladino “exist as a structural set of oppositions” for “groups of people who play out their lives in social institutions derived from the colonial past” (Hawkins, pp. 173-74). After interviewing several groups of Guatemalan high school students, Hawkins concluded that, “Within the general notion of origins, ‘Ladino’ is associated with Europe, foreign lands, and the nonlocal context, as opposed to ‘Indian,’ which is associated with particular towns and the local context” (Hawkins, p. 182). The two groups were distinguished not only by different ethnicities but by different languages, occupations, surroundings, and clothing. Literally speaking, ladino is a linguistic category meaning “Latin speaker”; an Indian can, therefore, become a ladino. Menchú’s community defines a ladino as “any Guatemalan—whatever his economic position—who rejects, either individually or through his cultural heritage, Indian values of Mayan origin” (Menchú, í, Rigoberta Menchú, p. 249).
MARRIAGE IN THE QUICHE COMMUNITY
The Quiché observe four marriage customs, in the first—“the open door”—the suitor, his parents, and the village representative approach the family of the girl he wishes to court and request a meeting. Usually several encounters take place before the door is opened for them to enter the girl’s house. The couple are given the chance to get to know each other better, while chaperoned by at least one of her parents. If the girl accepts the boy’s suit, he kneels to her parents and names the date on which he will come with his parents. During this second ritual, the bride’s family holds a fiesta. Both families and the village elders discuss the importance of preserving Indian traditions. The couple joins in the discussion, promising to remain Indian. During the third ritual, the bride and groom make their vows to each other in front of the elders, reaffirming their commitment to their union, the community, and the ways of their people, and rejecting the world of the ladinos. The fourth ceremony is the wedding itself—the despedida—during which the bride, after a civil or Catholic Church marriage ceremony, receives her gifts and says goodbye to the community. She then departs with her new husband, and may not visit her parents’ house for 15 days.
In her autobiography Menchú writes that her people are committed to preserving the “purity” of their culture, which entails rejecting ladino influences, even in the seemingly harmless guise of basic education and clothing. Menchú’s father, for example, refuses to support her when she tells him she wants to learn to read and write, fearing she will become discontented and abandon the community. During Quiche wedding ceremonies, the village elders and the wedded couple commonly discuss, then repudiate, ladino ways: “They say: These things may be modern but we mustn’t buy the rubbish they have, even if we have the money. We must keep our ways of making our own’” (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 71). Fostering understanding between Indians and ladinos without “mixing” cultures becomes an ongoing challenge for Menchú and her people once they begin to organize against their oppressors.
Repression in the Lucas Garcia years
In 1954 the United States sent Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) forces into Guatemala to oust President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, whose agrarian reform plan—calling for the expropriation and redistribution of idle lands—threatened the interests of the American-owned United Fruit Company, which had enjoyed tax-exempt export privileges since 1901. Arbenz was forced to resign in order to make way for his successor, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas (1954-57), who was hand-picked by the United States. Two months after the coup, CIA operatives and the “Committee Against Communism” compiled a blacklist of 70,000 political opponents to the new regime. Over the years many Guatemalans on the list were assassinated while others fled into exile.
The administrations that followed that of Castillo Armas took a similar hard-line stance against communism and those who were considered “enemies of the state.” During the 1960s large-scale killings began in response to a growing guerrilla movement led by disaffected young military officers and comprised mostly of university students: “While the Guatemalan guerrillas never numbered more than 500 in the 1960s, they provided the rationale for killing thousands of unarmed civilians” (Simon, p. 23). The 1970s saw an even more dramatic rise in violence during the presidencies of General Kjell Eugenio Laugerud Garcia (1974-78) and his hand-picked successor and defense minister, General Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia (1978-82). In the last year of Laugerud Garcia’s administration, selective assassinations increased and “large-scale army repression” in rural areas began (Simon, p. 29). Outspoken opponents of the Laugerud Garcia regime were abducted and murdered. Amnesty International recorded over 300 cases of “disappeared” Guatemalans between July 1977 and June 1978. Victims included students, labor leaders, priests, and Indian peasants. On May 29, 1978, a month before Lucas Garcia’s inauguration, Kekchi Indians protesting the expropriation of their land were machine-gunned by army soldiers in Panzós, Alta Verapaz. More than 100 men, women, and children died.
Surpassing the outrages of his predecessor’s regime, Lucas Garcia’s regime is considered one of the bloodiest and most corrupt in Guatemala’s history. His victory in the 1978 elections was widely considered to be fraudulent, but he took office on July 1, 1978, nonetheless. Within the first years of his presidency, repression, abductions, and mass killings increased. Rigoberta Menchú attests: “It was in 1978, when Lucas Garcia came to power with such a lust for killing, that the repression really began in [the province of] El Quiche. It was like a piece of rag in his hands. He set up military bases in many of the villages and there were rapes, tortures, kidnappings. And massacres” (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 161).
In 1979 two promising presidential hopefuls—Alberto Fuentes Mohr of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and Manuel Colom Argueta of the United Front of the Revolution (FUR)—were gunned down within months of each other. A year and a half after Lucas Garcia took office, Amnesty International documented 5,000 “disappearances” and extrajudicial killings. But while instances of urban repression were reported, the atrocities that occurred in the Guatemalan highlands—such as those suffered by Rigoberta Menchú’s community—took longer to come to light. Selective killings ballooned into massacres and sometimes into the elimination of entire villages by the Guatemalan army. “In a 1986 interview Interior Minister Juan Rodil Peralta told a foreign reporter that over 25,000 Guatemalans were killed during the four years of the Lucas regime” (Simon, p. 77). In her autobiography, Menchú describes the army massacre of political prisoners at Chajul that claimed her brother’s life, the Spanish embassy fire that killed her father, and the torture and killing of her mother—all of which took place under the Lucas Garcia administration.
Like Laugerud Garcia, Lucas Garcia hand-picked his successor, General Angel Aníbal Guevara Rodriguez, who “won” easily on March 7, 1982, with the aid of phantom voters and a warehouse of false ballots. But General Guevara never took office. On March 23, 1982, right-wing politicians and 900 dissident army officers staged a military coup, surrounding the National Palace in Guatemala City with tanks and artillery, while army helicopters circled overhead. President Lucas Garcia was forced to resign and General José Efraín Ríos Montt assumed power as the head of a military dictatorship. Although succeeding regimes were themselves marred by violence and corruption, the Lucas Garcia presidency became a collective byword for the worst abuses of power in Guatemalan government. By 1987 a popular adage was, “Well, at least it’s not like Lucas” (Simon, p. 81).
Religion, revolution, and the CUC (Peasant Unity Committee)
During the mid-1970s peasant organizations began to take shape in Guatemala. Two conservative factions—the Christian Democrat party, formed in 1955, and the Catholic Church hierarchy—contributed to this trend, eagerly supporting groups that “might discourage more radical social change” (Simon, p. 25). The Church was particularly successful, forming “catechist” movements in which rural leaders were trained to carry out community religious work, especially in remote and less accessible areas. In the autobiography Menchú reveals that her father was a catechist and that she herself became one when she was 12, teaching Catholic doctrine to the younger children in the community. The Catholic Action movement, started by Spanish priests in Guatemala, also served to increase social awareness. Based on the principles of Vatican II liberation theology—which promoted the Catholic Church’s increased identification with the social and economic needs of the poor—Catholic Action offered concrete as well as spiritual aid but not always on unconditional terms. As a former resident of Chajul recalled, “Catholic Action was a strong movement. They won over converts by offering them benefits. You could only get your cows vaccinated if you belonged to Catholic Action. Almost everyone who participated was younger than thirty-five because then they didn’t worry about becoming modernized” (Simon, p. 40).
In many instances programs like Catholic Action and the catechists’ movement provided the catalyst for political awakening: “In Marxist terminology, the catechists provided the subjective conditions in which a revolutionary situation could escalate” (Wilson, p. 213). Converts of both Catholic Action and the catechists’ movements began to consider not only the welfare of their souls but of their communities too, rejecting passive acceptance of their situation. Menchú writes, “When I first became a catechist, I thought that there was a God and that we had to serve him…. But we realized that it is not God’s will that we should live in suffering, that God did not give us that destiny, but that men on earth have imposed this suffering, poverty, misery and discrimination on us” (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 132). As a consequence of this realization, guerrilla groups and labor movements increased in number and activity, with many Indians taking part in both.
The Comité Unidad Campesina (Peasant Unity Committee) was considered the “largest and most important organization” to emerge from this combined religious/political movement (Perera, p. 67). Rigoberta Menchú attributes the CUC’s beginnings to a discussion that her father, Vicente, had with a political prisoner during his incarceration in 1977: “He was someone who defended the peasants and he told my father the peasants should unite and form a Peasants’ League to reclaim their lands…. [M]y father started to join up with other peasants and discussed the creation of the CUC with them” (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 115). Forced to work clandestinely at first, the CUC came out in the open to condemn the Guatemalan army’s massacre of the Kekchi Indians in Panzós in May 1978 and to declare its agenda for peasants’ rights. Rigoberta Menchú, who joined the CUC in 1979, explains, “Our objectives were: a fair wage from the landowners; respect for our communities; the decent treatment we deserve as people, not animals; respect for our religion, our customs and our culture” (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 160). The CUC continued to grow, despite the inevitable targeting of its leaders by the army and the loss of several members in the Spanish embassy fire (see below). In 1980 the CUC organized a series of strikes in the coffee, sugar, and cotton fincas (plantations), which paralyzed harvesting and led to the legislation of a minimum wage of 3.20 quetzals a day, the first minimum wage in Guatemala’s history.
Occupation of the Spanish embassy
One of the pivotal events in Menchú’s life is the occupation of the Spanish embassy on January 31, 1980, which claimed the life of her father. Along with other peasants, he had marched to Guatemala City to protest the expropriation of Indian lands and the widespread persecution of Indians and poor ladinos in El Quiche: “The objective was to tell the whole world what was happening in Guatemala and inform people inside the country as well” (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 185).
Hoping to attract international attention to their cause, students, laborers, and representatives of such organizations as the newly formed CUC entered the Spanish embassy. The Spanish ambassador, Máximo Cajal, who had seen the Guatemalan killing fields and was disturbed by the murders of several Spanish priests at the hands of the army, was sympathetic to the Indians and willing to discuss their problems. A noon press conference was scheduled at which the protesters would be permitted to air their grievances. A former vice-president of Guatemala, Eduardo Caceres Lehnhoff, arrived to speak with them. The Guatemalan government, however, issued a report that “delinquent subversives” had seized control of the embassy and were holding Cajal hostage. Despite the fact that, according to international law, embassies were considered to be on “foreign soil” and outside Guatemala’s jurisdiction, the national police surrounded the embassy compound and launched an attack. Although Cajal shouted from an upstairs window that they were not to enter, the police broke down the door and stormed the embassy. During the attack, the building caught fire and the protesters, trapped inside, were burned to death. Cajal survived by jumping from a window but 39 Guatemalans died in the conflagration, including Menchú’s father, Lehrnoff, and the entire embassy staff. One protester, Gregorio Yuja Xona, survived and was taken to a private hospital, supposedly under police protection, to be treated for serious burns. But that same night he was abducted from the hospital and tortured to death; his body was dumped on the grounds of the University of San Carlos the next morning. Spain immediately broke off diplomatic relations with Guatemala for five years.
Rigoberta Menchú begins her story several years before her birth, revealing details of her parents’ lives and how they came to settle in the mountains of northwestern Guatemala. Her father, Vicente Menchú, and his two younger brothers grew up in the town of Uspantán, also in northwestern Guatemala. Their own father died when they were young children and their mother became a servant to the only rich family in town. Her sons did household jobs for that same family, but eventually their employer said that he could no longer afford to feed them. Menchú’s grandmother gave away Vicente, her eldest son, to a ladino family, for whom he worked for nine years, running errands and laboring in the fields. He received no pay and the ladinos did not allow him in their house. When Vicente was 14 he left his situation and went to work in the fincas—plantations—on the south coast. He eventually earned enough money to send for his mother, who had become her employer’s mistress. She and her younger sons joined Vicente on the coast and soon all three brothers were working in the fincas. In time they earned enough money to settle in the Altiplano, a mountainous region in northwest Guatemala, and work the land there.
Vicente was the chief breadwinner of the family, but when he reached 18 the army recruited him for a year of military service. When he returned he found his mother ill with a fever, but there was no money to buy medicine or care for her. After her death the brothers separated and found work in different parts of the coast. In the Altiplano Vicente met Menchú’s mother, who also came from a poor family, and they got married. They applied for governmental permission to settle in the mountains, then scraped enough money together to pay the fee that would let them clear the land and build a house. After eight years—during which time their children, including Rigoberta, were born—the Menchús’ land began to produce. Meanwhile, more people had settled in the mountains and formed a community. At this point the work becomes autobiographical, as Menchú begins to write of her own memories and experiences.
Because their land does not yield much for many years, Menchú’s parents have to spend eight months working in the fincas, returning to the mountains only to sow and later harvest their crops of maize and beans. Many children accompany their parents to the fincas. Mothers often strap their infants to their backs as they work, and when the children are old enough they too become coffee and cotton pickers. Working conditions in the fincas are rigorous: a working day begins as early as 3 o’clock in the morning and ends as late as 7 or 8 o’clock at night. The workers themselves must deal with heat, flies, pesticide fumes, stale rations, and the absence of a lavatory: “In the mornings we’d take turns to go off into the scrub and do our business. There are no toilets in the finca. There was only this place up in the hills where everybody went. There were about 400 of us living there” (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 35).
At first Menchú’s responsibility is merely to watch her younger siblings while her mother works. But when she is eight she starts earning money in the fincas, setting herself to pick 35 pounds of coffee for 20 centavos (cents) a day. The overseers of the fincas often find ways to cheat their Indian laborers and avoid paying them their full daily earnings. Nor are the fincas safe for young children. Airplanes spray the crops with pesticide while the Indians labor in the fields; one of Menchú’s brothers dies after being exposed to these fumes. Another dies of malnutrition while the family is working in the finca. A fellow laborer helps the Menchús raise money for the tax to bury him in the finca. That night the overseer throws them off the finca for missing a day’s work and refuses to pay them for the 15 days they have spent there. Menchú’s mother and her surviving children return to the Altiplano for several months.
In her autobiography Menchú describes how her brother and later her friend die from pesticide poisoning. The practice of spraying crops while the workers were in the fields was an unfortunate reality in the fincas. DDT, now recognized as one of the most dangerous pesticides, was often used: “In the late seventies, cotton planters out for quick profits regularly sprayed three and four times the presumed ‘safe’ limit of DDT” (Perera, p. 68). Each year, hundreds of field workers died of liver and lung diseases brought on by exposure to the deadly pesticide.
When Menchú is ten her family has a special ceremony for her, which initiates her into adult life. She assumes more responsibilities, taking over some of her father’s duties in the Altiplano community. At the age of 12 she becomes a catechist, teaching Catholic doctrine—which has been brought to her community by the Catholic Action movement—to younger children in the Altiplano and in the fincas. She also takes on the responsibilities of rearing her own livestock and harvesting maize.
Working conditions in the fincas continue to be miserable. As an adolescent Menchú works in the cotton fields. One year a close friend, Maria, dies of poisoning while the planes spray the crops. The workers bury her in the finca and take two days off to mourn her. The overseer, whom Menchú describes as “less criminal than the others,” neither fires them nor docks their wages (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 89).
Angry and grief-stricken, Menchú searches for a way out of the life she has come to hate. She approaches her father about learning how to read and write but he refuses to support her plans because they would involve her leaving the community: “My father was very suspicious of schools. … He gave as an example the fact that many of my cousins had learned to read and write but they hadn’t been of any use to the community. They try to move away and feel different when they can read and write” (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 89).
During the family’s next trip down to the fincas, a landowner offers to hire Menchú as a maid in the capital but her father refuses to allow it. Her elder sister accepts a similar offer but eventually returns, disillusioned by her treatment at the hands of her rich employers. Still intent on gaining an education, 13-year-old Menchú defies her father and decides to try working as a maid.
In Guatemala City Menchú works for a wealthy ladino family, whose members look down on her because she is an Indian. The mistress of the house is abusive towards the servants and withholds their wages at the least excuse. Menchú befriends one of the maids, an Indian who speaks Spanish and has adopted some ladino ways. The other maid tries to persuade Menchú to participate in a resistance campaign against the mistress but Menchú is too afraid to disobey her employers. Just before Christmas the mistress fires the other maid, leaving the burden on Menchú to prepare all the food for the family’s holiday feast and to clean the entire house the next day. Menchú works for this family until she has 40 quetzals saved, then gives notice. Just as she announces her departure, one of her brothers arrives with the news that their father is in prison.
For several years Vicente Menchú had been his community’s elected representative, thwarting big landowners’ attempts to swindle the Indians out of their land or to throw them off their land altogether. He also started traveling to other communities, encouraging Indians to unite against their exploitation by the landowners and establishing contacts with labor unions. When the government became aware of his activities, he was arrested and threatened with a possible sentence of 18 years in the state prison in El Quiché.
Menchú and the rest of her family combine their earnings to hire lawyers and interpreters to help his case, finally obtaining his release 14 months later. Undeterred, Vicente resumes his fight for Indian rights, despite an abduction attempt three months later and a second imprisonment—this time, for 15 days—in 1977. After meeting another political prisoner, Vicente decides to form a peasants’ league, an idea enthusiastically accepted by Indian communities, and the CUC is formed. Wanting to protect his family, Vicente Menchú leaves their community and travels to different regions, gathering support for the new organization.
Menchú meanwhile becomes more aware of the exploitation of her race. Not only is her father now a hunted man, but a close female friend of hers is brutally killed for refusing the sexual advances of a wealthy landowner’s son. Other female friends are raped by government soldiers during raids on their villages. Menchú’s community begins to organize itself against army attacks, using the Bible as inspiration for building weapons of self-defense and traps:
We tried to relate [Biblical texts] to our Indian culture. We took the example of Moses for the men, and we have the example of Judith…. [S]he fought very hard for her people and made many attacks against the king they had then, until she finally had his head…. This is how we look for stories and psalms which teach us how to defend ourselves from our enemies…. We even got the idea of using our own everyday weapons, as the only solution left to us.
(Rigoberta Menchú, pp. 131-32)
Menchú helps construct the traps and works on learning Spanish from nuns in Guatemala City. She also studies additional Indian dialects to facilitate communication between villages. During one army raid, the Indians succeed in capturing and disarming a soldier. They bring him back to the village and explain their plight to him. The soldier, who is himself Indian, is affected by their words and agrees to take a message about their grievances back to the government. But when he returns to his unit, he is shot as a traitor.
After helping to organize their own village, Menchú and her siblings emulate their father, traveling to different communities to encourage them to unite against their oppressors. One of the villages captures another soldier and tries to inform him of the abuses the Indians have suffered. Like the first soldier, this man is Indian and likewise moved by what he hears. But he is also afraid of his commanding officers, telling the village of the harsh treatment he receives in the Guatemalan army. The Indians release him after he promises not to return to the army and continue killing. The soldier keeps his word and goes into hiding.
In 1979 Menchú’s brother, Petrocinio, is captured and tortured by the Guatemalan army. The Menchú family learns that they must come and witness his public punishment or suffer the same treatment. They and the families of other political prisoners travel to the village of Chajul on September 23. The next day the army exhibits their maimed prisoners, then sets fire to them in front of the horrified crowd. The soldiers retreat, holding the Indians off with their guns and shouting political slogans. The Indians try futilely to help the prisoners, who all burn to death. Devastated by their son’s death, Menchú’s parents increase their efforts in the Indian rights movement, despite the heightened dangers from the Lucas Garcia regime. Meanwhile, Menchú becomes a leader of the CUC and recognizes that poverty and exploitation form common bonds between Indian and ladino workers.
A BRUTAL TRAINING GROUND
Life in the Guatemalan army could be nightmarish, especially for the recruits. The second soldier captured by the Indians describes the abuse to which he was subjected in the barracks: “They gave me a pair of shoes which I found very hard to wear but they beat me into wearing them anyway, They hit me un• til I got used to them. Then they told me I had to kill the communists from Cuba and Russia . . .• and then they gave me a gun” (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 148). A young soldier interviewed by Jean-Marie Simon had a similar experience to report about his induction into the army: “[l]fs like going to hell, because you’re always hungry; they don’t give you much food and if you go out to the store, any soldier can grab you and hit you” (Simon, p. 87). Beatings and torture were commonplace; ‘’What makes recruits scream the most is when they tie your feet behind you with a stick and you have to kneel. They ask you questions like whether you’re able to withstand interrogation if you fall into the guerrillas’ hands, and whether you would give away the name of your superior, A lot of soldiers cry because the punishment is very harsh, especially those sticks” (Simon, p. 88). By the time basic training ended, many recruits had become as brutal as their commanding officers.
On January 31, 1980, Vicente Menchú participates in an occupation of the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City, which ends in a police attack and a deadly fire. Thirty-nine Guatemalans, including Vicente Menchú, die in the blaze. Four months later—on April 19, 1980—Menchú’s mother is abducted by the army and suffers rape, torture, and disfigurement. After the army fails to lure the rest of the faimly out of hiding, they let Menchú’s mother die of her injuries, then leave the body to be eaten by wild animals. The surviving Menchus are grieved by her death but relieved that her suffering is over.
Menchú’s life story is interspersed with detailed accounts of Quich é festivals and rituals. She meticulously describes ceremonies of birth, death, and marriage, as well as attempts by the ladinos to repress what they do not understand. While these chapters occasionally disrupt the flow of her narrative—a harrowing account of her brother’s death of malnutrition in the fincas, for example, is followed by a lengthy and placid discussion of farming rituals in the Altiplano—they nonetheless present a clear picture of the culture Menchú is committed to preserving. She herself declares, “I’m an îndian-ist, not just an Indian, I’m an Indianist to my fingertips and I defend everything to do with my ancestors” (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 166). Maintaining the rituals and customs of her people is as important to Menchú as securing their freedom from oppressors.
Meanwhile, Menchú continues her work with the CUC, helping to organize a peasants’ strike in February 1980. About 80,000 laborers on the sugar and cotton plantations stop work for 15 days, until the government agrees to raise their wages from 75 centavos to 3.20 quetzals per day and improve some of the working conditions. Encouraged, Menchú and her compatriots increase their organization efforts, helping to form the 31st of January Popular Front, in honor of those who died during the Spanish embassy protest. The new union organizes another strike on May 1, 1980—Labor Day in Guatemala—setting up barricades, distributing pamphlets, and closing down factories by phoning in bomb threats. The success of this latest action makes Menchú a hunted woman. After narrowly escaping capture by the army, she flees to Mexico in 1981, returning to Guatemala when the furious search for her subsides. She reunites briefly with her younger sisters, both of whom have joined the guerrillas, and decides to leave the CUC to work for the “Vicente Menchú Revolutionary Christians,” combining her Catholic teachings with those of Indian resistance. Renouncing marriage and motherhood, Menchú resolves to dedicate her life to her people’s cause.
Breaking down racial barriers
Menchú’s autobiography documents not only her political but also her spiritual awakening, especially regarding her attitudes toward Indians and ladinos. Her first visit to “the world of the ladinos” occurs when she is seven and accompanies her father on a visit to Guatemala City: “There were so many interesting things, but also things I didn’t want to see, that frightened me…. The city for me was a monster, something alien, different” (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 32). Although she becomes used to the capital on subsequent visits, she never forgets her first impression of it.
During much of her childhood Menchú accepts the judgments of her elders at face value—the term “ladino” becomes associated in her community with everything bad, cruel, and corrupt. And Indians who adopt ladino ways by discarding their traditional garments in favor of Western dress, speaking Spanish instead of their native dialect, or using machines to grind their maize instead of grinding it by hand—becoming, in Vicente Menchú’s words, “ladinized”—are regarded with contempt and disgust: “In the eyes of our community, the fact that anyone should even change the way they dress shows a lack of dignity. Anyone who doesn’t dress as our grandfathers, our ancestors, dressed, is on the road to ruin” (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 17). Menchú’s bitter experiences in the fincas, working for tyrannical overseers and greedy landowners, and her later stint as a maid for a wealthy family only reinforce her hatred of ladinos. Although Menchú sees poor ladino workers in the fincas, they rebuff her attempts to communicate or find common ground, revealing their disdain for Indians and belief in their own racial superiority:
I said to one one poor ladino: “You’re a poor ladino, aren’t you?” and he nearly hit me. He said: “What do you know about it, Indian?” I wondered: “Why is it that when I say poor ladinos are like us, I’m spurned?” I didn’t know then the same system which tries to isolate us Indians also puts up barriers between Indians and ladinos. I knew that all ladinos rejected us but I didn’t know why. I was more confused. I still thought all ladinos were bad.
(Rigoberta Menchú, p. 119)
Only after Menchú begins to travel to other communities does she begin to revise her judgments. She attributes much of her new perspective to a ladino who teaches her Spanish and works for the CUC: “[T]he example of my compañero ladino made me really understand the barrier that had been put up between the Indian and the ladino, and that because of this same system which tries to divide us, we haven’t understood that ladinos also live in terrible conditions, the same as we do” (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 165). Menchú also learns that the ladinos, as mestizos, are continually in the throes of identity crises: “The ladinos try to tear off this shell which imprisons them—being the children of Indians and Spaniards. They want to be something different, not a mixture” (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 167). Although the ladinos’ belief that they are superior to Indians angers Menchú, she discovers that her own views need adjusting as well: “I identified certain of my attitudes—very rigid ones. Discrimination had made me isolate myself completely from the world of our compañeros ladinos” (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 168). Increased discussion between the two groups eventually leads to an understanding of their common experiences—poverty, hardship, and exploitation—and their common cause: “To bring about change, we had to unite, Indians and ladinos” (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 168). At the same time the change in Menchú’s behavior also casts doubt on her ability to speak for her people. From this perspective, she experiences not just a gain, but also a loss.
Julio Cortázar writes in an epigraph to his novel, Rayuela (1963, Hopscotch), “Nothing destroys a man more than having to represent his country” (Cortázar in González Echevarría and Pupo-Walker, p. 462). An author’s inclination to represent himself or herself as the hero of his own life and to identify himself—perhaps too closely—with the concerns of his country is often denounced as self-serving. This was frequently the case in nineteenth-century autobiographies.
I, Rigoberta Menchú belongs to a slightly different tradition of first-person narratives. Menchú’s concerns are more national than literary, more collective than personal. Her account, transcribed from interviews with Elisabeth Bur-gos-Debray, the book’s editor, begins with the stark statement: “This is my testimony. I didn’t learn it from a book and I didn’t learn it alone. I’d like to stress that it’s not only my life, it’s also the testimony of my people” (Rigoberta Menchú, p. 1). Í, Rigoberta Menchú does, however, employ some literary devices, including the narrator’s withholding of details, her keeping secret what she thinks no one should know. As scholar Doris Sommer points out, Menchú’s testimonial, though full of information, consciously holds its readers at “arm’s length” (Sommer in Gugel-berger, p. 143). The ploy safeguards Menchú’s individuality. Finally, Menchú’s story fits into the genre of testimonial literature in Latin America, examples of which have been known to manipulate fact, and whose relation to biography has been a matter of debate.
Writing for Choice, L. B. Metzger praised I, Rigoberta Menchú for its depiction of life in the Quiche community: “The excitement of the work lies in its very profound first-person
THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER?
Controversy surrounds I, Rigoberta Menchú in respect to its accuracy. Critics charge that many episodes “have either been fabricated or seriously exaggerated,” as reported in a recent New York Times article (Rohter, p. A1). Points of contention include the following:
- The land dispute depicted as occurring between Indian peasants such as Menchú’s father and wealthy European landowners with government ties was actually a family feud between her father and his in-laws,
- The brother whom Menchú professes to have seen burned alive was murdered in different fashion out of her sight.
- In contrast to Menchu’s claim that she never had any schooling, she attended two boarding schools on scholarship and attained the equivalent of middle-school education.
The New York Times article reports that “local people confirm these discrepancies but point out also that Menchú’s father, mother, and two brothers were in fact killed by government forces within a few years of one another (1979-83), even if some of the details have been changed. In a recent book on the matter, David Stoll argues that Menchú drew on the experiences of others in Guatemala, a tactic that suited the revolutionary group On whose behalf she was touring Europe when she dictated her life story to Ms. Burgos’” (Rohter, p. A8).
story of childhood, family, and work within the Guatemalan peasant system” (Metzger, p. 734). Stephen Schlesinger, writing for the Nation, called the book “a fascinating portrait of the culture of the Quiche tribe” (Schlesinger, p. 538). The political implications of Menchú’s story were similarly lauded. Metzger contended that “it is through the descriptions and discussion of Ladinos and [Menchú’s] involvement in political organizing… that the reader is provided with the greatest perceptions of the Central American political and social scene” (Metzger, p. 734).
Some critics, however, objected to the structure of I, Rigoberta Menchú. Schlesinger found the narrative “marred in places by unnecessary repetitions, lapses in chronology, and a distracting lack of clarity, which could have been avoided by more systematic editing” (Schlesinger, p. 537). Colin Hendry, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, lodged a complaint about the content: “It was in Guatemala, after all, with the overthrow of Arbenz in 1954, that the U.S. began its modern wave of intervention against popular movements in Latin America. Menchú herself gives no hint of this history and only a very hazy one of the contemporary political setting” (Hendry, p. 966). This alleged flaw did not, however, stop Hendry from praising Í, Rigoberta Menchú as “a rare and genuine statement of popular experience ‘from below’” that “has the makings of a classic” (Hendry, p. 966).
—Pamela S. Loy
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