Menchu, Rigoberta 1959-
MENCHU, Rigoberta 1959-
PERSONAL: Born in 1959, in Guatemala; daughter of Vincente (a human-rights activist) and Juana (a human-rights activist and healer) Menchu. Ethnicity: "Native American (Quiche)."
ADDRESSES: Offıce—Vicente Menchu Foundation, P.O. Box 5274, Berkeley, CA 94705.
CAREER: Human-rights activist and writer. Began campaigning for Indian rights as a teenager; founder, Guatemalan Opposition in Exile, National Committee for Reconciliation, 1987; coordinator, American Continent's 500 Years of Resistance Campaign against 500th anniversary of arrival of Columbus in Americas, 1992; member, U.N. International Indian Treaty Council; International Goodwill Ambassador for Culture and Peace, UNESCO, 1996.
AWARDS, HONORS: Nobel Peace Prize, 1992; Freedom Award, National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, TN, 2002.
Crossing Borders: An Autobiography, translated by Ann Wright, Verso (New York, NY), 1998.
(With Gianni Mina and Dante Liano) Rigoberta, la nieta de los Mayas (title means "Rigoberta, Granddaughter of the Mayas"), El Pais-Aguilar (Madrid, Spain), 1998.
SIDELIGHTS: Rigoberta Menchu is an international spokeswoman and activist for the rights of indigenous people and world peace. Her writings have been translated into as many as twelve languages. The publication of Menchu's autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, brought international attention to the plight of indigenous people under the repressive Guatemalan government and led to her receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. The award was given in part for her autobiography and for her life-long work as an activist.
Menchu was born in 1959 in Chimel, a poor village in the northern highlands of Guatemala. Her family were of the Mayan Quiche Tribe, a people who lived with no legal rights or protections since under Guatemalan law, the Indian tribes—who comprised sixty percent of the population—were not recognized as citizens. Menchu's parents farmed a small plot of land; this land did not produce enough to feed everyone in the family, so for eight months of the year, they traveled to the coast to work fifteen hours a day on large coffee or cotton plantations. Menchu began working on the plantation when she was eight years old. Living conditions there were harsh; if children did not work, they were not fed, and there were no toilets or clean water in the workers' quarters. Children did not go to school, and two of Menchu's brothers died, one from exposure to pesticides, and the other from malnutrition at age two. When this young child died, the family was not allowed to bury him, and her family was evicted from the plantation without being paid for the past two weeks of work.
When they were not working on the plantations, Menchu's family returned to the mountains, where they collected wicker in the forest and grew corn, beans, and potatoes to live on. When she was twelve, she was first exposed to people of Spanish descent when she worked as a maid for a wealthy family. She slept on a mat on the floor next to the family dog, which received better treatment than she did. The Guatemalan government during this time was a military force that ruled the country with an iron fist and was quick to stamp out any possible opposition; its human rights record is still considered the worst in the Western hemisphere. Since 1954, 150,000 indigenous people have been killed in Guatemala, 1 million have been displaced from their homes, and 50,000 have "disappeared." A U.N.-sponsored truth commission found that the majority of the people killed, some 200,000, were Mayans. In the late 1970s, the repression grew especially severe. The government, led by the military, and with the cooperation of local landowners, began taking land from the Indians by force. Armed men burned their houses, killed their dogs, destroyed their possessions, raped the women, and drove them out. In response to this persecution, Menchu's father Vicente became an activist, leading a movement against the government force. First with petitions, then with protests, then with guerrilla force, he worked to establish the indigenous peoples' right to their land. Because of this, he was often arrested and imprisoned, and at least once was tortured and left for dead.
Vicente often told Menchu that she was his favorite among his children. She traveled with him, was involved in all his activities, and he told her that when he was dead, she would continue with his work. Menchu's entire family became active in the movement, and were punished for their involvement. In 1979, soldiers kidnaped, tortured and burned alive Menchu's sixteen-year-old brother, Petrocino. His entire family, including Menchu, was forced to watch. In 1980, Vicente and 38 other Indian leaders were burned alive when the Guatemalan police threw hand grenades into the Spanish embassy, where the men had sought sanctuary during a protest against human rights abuses. Menchu's mother, an activist and healer, was kidnaped, raped, tortured, and killed a year later. Her two sisters joined the guerrillas who were fighting against the government.
Menchu was sought by the Guatemalan government in connection with her involvement in her father's movement, the United Peasant Committee, so after her mother was killed, she fled to Mexico, where she began international movement for indigenous peoples' rights. In 1983 she traveled to Paris to promote this cause, and while she was there, dictated her autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchu, to Venezuelan anthropologist Elizabeth Burgos-Debray. The book brought international notice to the abuses of indigenous people by the Guatemalan military government. "The important thing," Menchu says in her autobiography I, Rigoberta Menchu,"is that what happened to me has happened to many other people too. My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people." "This unadorned personal testament," writes Times Literary Supplement contributor Colin Henfrey, "conveys the dilemma of Central America more closely than any political or academic analysis could do."
In 1992 Menchu received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work, along with $1.2 million in cash. Menchu used the money to set up the Vicente Menchu Foundation to continue her father's work for the indigenous people. The next year, 1993, was declared the International Year for Indigenous Populations by the United Nations as a result of Menchu's work. "Now I can go into the U.N. through the front door," she told 2,000 supporters at a lecture in New York, according to Charles Knight of the Workers World Service in Nativenet. "Before I had to enter through the back door and work my way through the hallways to try and persuade the delegates to care about human rights for indigenous people. That's why this prize is a victory for us."
Menchu has since published a second book, Crossing Borders. Described as "part memoir, part political manifesto" by a Publishers Weekly reviewer, this is a collection of narratives and essays on topics including winning the Nobel Peace Prize, working for the United Nations, the experience of exile, the fight for indigenous peoples' rights, her parents' and community's legacy, and cultural diversity. Margaret Randall, in the Women's Review of Books, wrote, "Crossing Borders moves back and forth between Guatemala's current political situation, Menchu's and others' efforts to demand that the world pay attention, the sheer poetry of her identification with the natural world, and her acute perceptions of others, including her mother, who was taken from her too young but remains her teacher. She is generous and profound, consistently kind to all but those who murder and maim, and lucid and insightful even about them. . . . This is a book that speaks deeply and with genuine power."
Menchu has continued her activism, despite accusations that she works with communist guerrillas, She denies any such connections. In an interview quoted in the Encyclopedia of World Biography, Menchu said, "I believe that in Guatemala the solution is not confrontation between indigenous people and latinos. Rather, we need a country where we can live together with mutual respect."
In 1999, American anthropologist David Stoll challenged the truth of specific incidents described in Menchu's autobiography, the work that brought her to the attention of the Nobel prize committee. Stoll published his assertions in a book titled Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. When asked about Stoll's assertions in an interview for NACLA Report on the Americas, Menchu responded: "I think that the intention is to divert the question of collective memory by bringing the discussion to a personal level." She voiced concerns that "this controversy might negatively affect the process of establishing collective truth of the victims of this war," and stated that "It is obvious that Mr. Stoll is obsessed with his own conclusion." While the validity of Stoll's claims has been debated, popular opinion suggests that Menchu's work is, regardless, an historically important document highlighting tyranny and oppression.
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