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Rigoberta Menchú Tum's Nobel Lecture

Rigoberta Menchú Tum's Nobel Lecture

Speech

By: Rigoberta Menchú Tum

Date: December 10, 1992

Source: Nobelprize.org. "Rigoberta Menchú Tum—Nobel Lecture." December 10,1992. 〈http://nobelprize.org/peace/laureates/1992/tum-lecture.html〉 (accessed April 29, 2006).

About the Author: Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a native of Guatemala, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. Menchú fought for greater rights for women and peasants in Guatemala through such organizations as the Committee for Peasant Unity and the 31st of January Popular Front. She helped to create the United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition and received the Nobel Prize for her efforts to aid indigenous peoples in Guatemala in their struggle against military oppression.

INTRODUCTION

In 1992, the Nobel committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Rigoberta Menchú, a thirty-three-year-old Guatemalan-Mayan woman who fought for indigenous rights. A few days after the 500th anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus and his crew in the New World, the Nobel committee's choice of Menchú, the first indigenous person to win a Nobel prize, was timely.

Menchú published her autobiography in English in 1983; I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala was a publishing success. It told the story of Menchú's struggle against the Guatemalan government as she fought for greater rights for indigenous peoples. In her book, Menchú chronicles her early life as a poor peasant's daughter, moving to the coast each year for the harvest, during which time children and adults worked on plantations seasonally. Menchú describes her inability to receive a formal education and her efforts to teach herself to read with the help of several nuns while working as a maid in a convent school. Her decision to learn Spanish, at the age of seventeen, facilitated her work as an organizer and revolutionary in fighting against the Guatemalan military government in the 1980s.

From the early 1960s until 1996, the Guatemalan government was engaged in an ongoing conflict with a revolutionary group, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). During the conflict, more than 200,000 people were killed and indigenous people of Mayan descent were targeted specifically between 1978 and 1983 during a period of increased violence and repression on the part of the Guatemalan military.

According to Menchú, her father, Victor, helped to form the Committee for Peasant Unity, an organization she later joined in 1979. Menchú describes intense conflicts between her father and wealthy European and government interests, and details the killings of her mother, father, brother, and other family members. Her brother, Petrocinio, was burned alive in public, and her family was forced by authorities to watch.

By the early 1980s, Menchú had joined the 31st of January Popular Front, a radical anti-government group, to fight for indigenous rights, freedom from violence, and to help protect Mayan villages from military attacks as the government fought to destroy perceived leftist strongholds. During the early 1980s, more than 400 villages were completely destroyed by the Guatemalan government during the most violent period of the thirty-six-year war. This increase in violent activity coincided with Menchú's popularity worldwide as her book gained a wide audience.

Menchú was forced into exile in Mexico in 1981; she worked from Mexico as an organizer, and, in 1991, assisted the United Nations in crafting a declaration of rights for indigenous peoples. In 1992, she received the Nobel Peace Prize.

PRIMARY SOURCE

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

SIGNIFICANCE

Menchú drew worldwide attention to human rights abuses and the needs of the indigenous people in Guatemala. In 1996, after the end of the war, a truth commission was formed to study the Guatemalan conflict. The commission found widespread abuse of indigenous peoples had occurred, ranging from forced displacement and exile to rape, torture, and summary executions in violation of international human rights conventions. In 2000, Menchú filed suit in a Spanish court against Guatemalan military commanders for human rights abuses against Spaniards during the war, while a separate group of Mayans filed a suit against two military officers for the crime of genocide.

In the years after Menchú's received the Nobel Peace Prize, anthropology professor David Stoll investigated her life, interviewing family members and villagers to compare her autobiography against his scholarly research. Stoll's book, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, describes several inconsistencies between his research and Menchú's account of her family life and early years. According to Stoll's research, Menchú's father was prosperous enough that the family did not have to work on coastal plantations. In addition, school records indicate that Rigoberta Menchú attended Catholic and public schools through the eighth grade. Menchú's brother Petrocinio was shot, not burned, and the family was not present at his death. Stoll was careful in his 1999 book to point out that none of the inconsistencies affected Menchú's actual work for indigenous rights. In setting the record straight, Stoll wished to portray a more accurate picture of Mayan life, Menchú's background, and her family's financial condition. According to Stoll's portrait, Menchú was more literate and more able to organize resistance to the government than the average Guatemalan peasant.

Stoll's book received a great deal of attention and publicity, taking attention away from Menchú's work for indigenous rights and focusing it instead on the alleged factual discrepancies in her story. Menchú initially stood behind her account, but later admitted to having blended her experience with that of other Guatemalan villagers to bring attention to the violence in Guatemala and to gain sympathy for the revolutionary cause.

In the aftermath of Stoll's revelations, questions about Menchú's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize led to calls for the Nobel Committee to withdraw the prize. The Nobel Committee later stated that giving the prize to Menchú "was not based exclusively or primarily on the autobiography." Menchú was allowed to keep her prize.

In 2001, a Guatemalan court declared that two former Guatemalan presidents—Romeo Lucas Garcia and Efrain Rios Montt—would be investigated on genocide charges. This court decision along with the court cases brought by Menchú and other Mayan Guatemalans have been part of a slow but steady campaign to hold the Guatemalan government accountable for the deaths and torture of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people. Rigoberta Menchú's autobiography, work for justice, and even the controversy surrounding her book helped draw attention to the plight of the indigenous Mayan people of Guatemala and their efforts to recover from thirty-six years of conflict.

FURTHER RESOURCES

Books

Grandin, Greg. The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

Menchú, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. New York: Verso, 1987.

Stoll, David. Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Websites

BBC News. "Spain May Judge Guatemala Abuses." October 5, 2005. 〈http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4313664.stm〉 (accessed April 29, 2006).

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