Menchú, Rigoberta: 1959—

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Rigoberta Menchú: 1959: Activist, author

Rigoberta Menchú soared to international fame in 1992 when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of native Guatemalans. I, Rigoberta Menchú, her 1983 memoir detailing the abuses her people suffered under Guatemala's vicious military dictatorship, had already brought her international acclaim in human rights and academic circles, but the Peace Prize made her a full-fledged hero for oppressed people everywhere, as well as an inspiration to the world. However, in 1999 David Stoll, an anthropologist from Connecticut, challenged the accuracy of I, Rigoberta Menchú raising questions as to whether many of the events that were described in the book were exaggerated or even real. This sparked a great deal of controversy in both the realms of academia and human rights activism, forcing not only the issue of fake-reality in non-fiction, but also the need for world attention to certain situations no matter how that attention is gained. While many people feel that Menchú abused the position of non-fiction writer, debasing her work as a whole by printing fiction as fact, many more have purported that the purpose of Menchú's story was mainly to capture the feeling of oppression and tyranny on civilians, and that the real world reaction to the work was the most important thing.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum was born on January 9, 1959, to Vicente Menchú and Juana Tum, in the tiny village of Chimel in the northwestern mountains of Guatemala. Her father was a laborer and sometime preacher. Her mother was a midwife and practiced traditional healing. The family were Quiché Indians, descendents of the Mayan Indians who had ruled the region long before the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century, and Chimel was located in the Quiché province of the country. At the time of Menchú's birth, Guatemala was led by a right-wing military dictatorship. Under this rule the Quiché, like the 21 other indigenous groups native to the country, had no rights. All powereconomic, social, and politicalwas concentrated in the hands of the minority Spanish-speaking Ladino population, descendants of the Spanish settlers. At just about the time of Menchú's birth, the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR) was formed. An outlaw group of guerrilla fighters, FAR sought to overthrow the military dictatorship, thus launching the Guatemalan civil war. The rebels hid in the mountains and rural areas of the countrythe same areas where most of the indigenous population resided. As a result, the government unleashed a wave of oppression and terror against the Indians in an attempt to oust the rebels. The military regime practiced a "scorched earth" policy, burning and destroying villages in their entirety to get at the rebels or, quite often, to promote their own financial interests.

At a Glance . . .

Born on January 9, 1959, in Chimel, El Quiché, Guatemala, daughter of Vincente Menchú (a laborer and activist), and Juana Tum (a midwife and healer); married Angel Camile, 1998; children: Max. Politics: Liberation theology; Marxist revolutionary. Religion: Roman Catholic.

Career: Human rights activist, 1979; author, 1983.

Memberships: Guatemalan Opposition in Exile, National Committee for Reconciliation, founder, 1987; American Continent's 500 Years of Resistance Campaign Against 500th Anniversary of Arrival of Columbus in Americas, coordinator, 1992; UNESCO, Goodwill Ambassador, 1993; United Nations International Indian Treaty Council; Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation, founder.

Awards: Nobel Peace Prize, 1992; Freedom Award, National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, TN, 2002.

Addresses: Office Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation, 8 W. 40th St., Suite 1610, New York, NY, 10018-3902. Website www.rigobertaMenchú.org.

Early Life Consumed by Poverty and War

Like the rest of the indigenous population, the Quiché were very poor and the Menchús were no exception. Their tiny home had no indoor plumbing and no electricity. Whatever they needed, they had to make. Women wove fabric and made clay pots, while the men worked the land, producing corn, beans, and potatoes. However it was never enough and the family had to travel each year to the coastal areas to work on coffee and cotton plantations. Life on the plantationsor fincaswas very difficult. They worked all day in the hot sun, while harsh chemical pesticides were dropped on the fields from above. When she was as young as eight, Menchú recalled picking close to 35 pounds of coffee a day. At night some 500 people would be crammed into filthy open-air sheds where many succumbed to disease and death. Menchú said in I, Rigoberta Menchú, "We'd been in the Finca for fifteen days, when one of my brothers died from malnutrition." Her mother was later fired for taking the day off to bury her child.

In Chimel, the Quiché faced constant encroachment on their land by wealthy Ladinos and government-supported businesses. By the 1970s the government was pushing families out of their homes and imprisoning those who resisted. This coincided with the creation of "death squads," military groups that exacted lethal force. Gang rape and slaughter were their hallmarks. Menchú's father, who was well-respected in the community as a religious speaker, soon turned to activism. He was one of the founding members of a group called the Peasant Union Committee, organized to resist the appropriation of their land. As a result, the Menchús were labeled subversives and worse, supporters of the guerrillas. This subjected the family to horrific harassment. In I, Rigoberta Menchú Menchú recalled one incident in which her father had been arrested and tortured: "They had torn off the hair on his head on one side. His skin was cut all over and they'd broken so many of his bones that he couldn't walk." Miraculously he survived and went on to continue his activism. Her brother Petrocinio was not so lucky. He was kidnapped in September of 1979 and endured two weeks of intense torture. "He didn't look like a person anymore," Menchú recalled in her memoir. "His whole face was disfigured with beating." Menchú claimed that he and other torture victims were paraded in front of the village and then doused with gasoline and burned alive. Stoll refutes that claim in his book. He is adamant that though Petrocinio was captured and most likely tortured and killed by the military, he was not set on fire in front of his grieving family.

Menchú joined the Peasant Union Committee in 1979. Like her father, she began actively working to undermine the government. "Rigoberta at this time was heavily involved in resistance activities," noted the Odyssey website: "She and her colleagues would shut down streets with barricades for brief moments and then retreat before the military arrived. They would make bomb threats to factories so the workers had to be let off for a day. They would boycott anything they could, or destroy a coffee estate or a cotton estate, or tamper with machines in factories to economically weaken the society killing them." Their activities resulted in increased suppression by the government. In 1980 Menchú's father went to Guatemala City to participate in a protest in front of the Spanish embassy. The military police intervened and fighting broke out. A fire started that claimed 39 lives, including that of Menchú's father. Less than three months later, Menchú's mother was kidnapped by a death squad, repeatedly raped, viciously tortured, and finally hanged.

Spoke On Behalf of Her People

By 1981 the situation in Guatemala had become too dangerous for Menchú and, like many of her countrymen before her, she went into exile. Eventually more than 200,000 people, mostly Indian peasants, lost their lives in the fighting. Another million lost their homes. Menchú, meanwhile, found her voice. The Nobel Foundation website noted that her exile "marked the beginning of a new phase in her life: as the organizer abroad of resistance to oppression in Guatemala and the struggle for Indian peasant peoples' rights." She began speaking out against the atrocities in Guatemala. People Weekly wrote, "Menchú traveled to the United Nations to lobby for Indian rightsand became a familiar figure there, walking the halls in traditional Quiché garb and bare feet, even in winter." In 1982 she met Venezuelan anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray on a speaking engagement in Paris. In 26 hours of taped interviews, Menchú relayed the story that would become I, Rigoberta Menchú. Its subsequent publication in 1983 captivated audiences worldwide and made Guatemala synonymous with human rights abuse. The military government threatened Menchú with arrest if she returned home.

I, Rigoberta Menchú was eventually translated into more than a dozen languages and became required reading at universities worldwide. Meanwhile Menchú continued to work on behalf of her people. She was active in the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations and the International Indian Treaty Council, and soon proved herself to be a persuasive public speaker and efficient organizer. In 1992, despite death threats, Menchú returned to Guatemala to help organize protests on the anniversary of Columbus's conquest of America. It was there that she received the news that she had won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. The political significance of the award's timing did not go unnoticed. "On the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyage to America, the winner was a woman who fought for the rights of an indigenous people ruled by a group composed mostly of descendants of European settlers," wrote the Bergen County Record. Though still an exile, she flew to Guatemala city that day and, according to Scholastic Update, "Thousands of supportersIndians who had long kept quietly to themselveslined the streets from the airport, cheering and shouting, 'Viva Rigoberta!'"

With the $1.2 million cash prize from the award, Menchú founded the Rigoberta Menchú Tum foundation with its main offices in Mexico City, where she resided in exile. The organization actively worked for indigenous peoples' rights and promoted peace. She also used her newfound celebrity to pressure political leaders to intervene in Guatemala. In June of 1983 she used her influence to help install Ramiro de León Carpio, a human rights advocate, as president of Guatemala. He and Menchú became deeply involved in the United Nations negotiations that led to the 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accord, which put an end to the 30-year-old civil war. The accord recognized the rights, languages, and cultures of the country's indigenous groups. It also called for disarmament of the guerrillas and a reduction of the military. Leftist parties were allowed to participate in politics again. The accord also called for a commission to investigate human rights violations. The report issued by the commission in 1999 revealed that the military government had long enjoyed the financial backing of the United States government. President Clinton made a public apology to the people of Guatemala.

Remained Peace Advocate Through Controversy

In 1999 David Stoll, an anthropologist from Connecticut, wrote an academic book entitled, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, which claimed that many of the atrocities Menchú described in her book either did not happen or did not happen the way she said they did. The resulting controversy once again propelled Menchú to the fore-front of international consciousness. She acknowledged that she had elaborated on some points, but staunchly reiterated that the greater picture was indeed true. As she wrote in I, Rigoberta Menchú, "My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans." Though academics and journalists have continued to argue over her book's authenticity, the Nobel Foundation, and more importantly the public, have chosen to accept Menchú's story as truth, whether literal or figurative. For in the end, Menchú's book has focused an international spotlight on human rights abuses in Guatemala, resulting in some measure of peace to her people. One Guatemalan who had lost two brothers to the civil war told the Bergen County, New Jersey, Record, "I think she's doing a really good job representing Guatemala, because people did not know what was happening there. At least now we have a little freedom to say what we feel."

Menchú has continued to travel widely, lecturing on human rights and peace. Her vigilance would seem to be necessary in historically troubled Central America. In 1999 former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who had ruled during the days of the death squads, was elected to the Guatemalan Congress. "There is a sense of fear," she told the Record in 2002. "Today, unfortunately, we are going backwards." In 2001 there were 70 threats against human rights activists and 20 politically motivated killings in Guatemala. In April of 2002, an employee at the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation offices in Guatemala was murdered. Though officially considered a botched robbery attempt, Menchú believed it was a political move, telling the Record, "It was an attack against Rigoberta Menchú. It was an attack on the Nobel Peace Prize. It was an attack on peace. It was an attack on the foundation." Because of Menchú's tireless work on behalf of human rights, no attack on Guatemala's people will again go unnoticed. With I, Rigoberta Menchú she put the world on alert. "This book broke the world's silence in regard to the armed conflict in Guatemala," she told Americas. "It is my life's testimony of which I will be forever proud."

Selected writings

I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, edited and introduced by Elisabeth BurgosDebray, New York and London, Verso, 1984.

Crossing Borders: An Autobiography, New York, Verso, 1998.



Americas, English edition, September 2000, p. 4.

Independent (London, England), December 16, 1998,
p. 13.

Los Angeles Times, November 20, 2000, p. B14.

People Weekly, December 21, 1992, p. 87.

Record (Bergen County, N.J.), May 12, 2002, p. A7.

Report on the Americas, North American Congress on Latin America, March-April 1999, pp. 6, 8.

Scholastic Update, December 3, 1993, p. 6.


"Latin America Trek: Rigoberta Menchu's Story," The Odyssey, (March 24, 2003).

"Rigoberta Menchu Biography," Nobel Foundation, (March 24, 2003).

Candace LaBalle

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Menchú, Rigoberta: 1959—

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