Menchú Tum, Rigoberta (1959–)

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Menchú Tum, Rigoberta (1959–)

Rigoberta Menchú Tum (b. 9 January 1959) is the recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. Menchú is a Maya-Quiché Indian woman from Guatemala and the first indigenous Latin American so honored. She is a member of the Coordinating Commission of the Committee of Peasant Unity (CUC) and a founding member of the United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition (RUOG). She was born in Chimel, near San Miguel de Uspantán, to Vicente Menchú and Juana Tum, Maya peasants and Catholic lay leaders. Self-educated, from the age of eight she accompanied her parents to harvest export crops on south coast plantations, and later worked for two years as a domestic in Guatemala City. She participated with her parents in local pastoral activities.

In the 1970s, expropriation of Indian land in El Quiché threatened Maya subsistence and prompted her family's political activism and involvement with the CUC. In the late 1970s, Menchú organized local self-defense groups, armed with rocks and machetes, in response to the government's escalated counterinsurgency war in the highlands. In January 1980, her father was burned to death in the occupation of the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City by campesinos with the support of trade unionists and students. Menchú continued organizing efforts in local Maya communities until forced to flee in 1981; since then she has lived in Mexico City.

A powerful speaker, Menchú has continued to work for peace and the rights of indigenous people in Guatemala in international forums. She has participated in the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations, the U.N. Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection for Minorities, and the U.N. Conference on the Decade of Women. She is a credentialed observer of the U.N. Human Rights Commission and the General Assembly. She serves on the board of the International Indian Treaty Council and was a member of honor at the Second Continental Gathering of the "500 Years of Resistance" Conference. Among other awards, she has received the 1988 Nonino Prize special award, the 1990 Monseñor Proaño Human Rights Prize, the 1990 UNESCO Education for Peace Prize, and the 1991 French Committee for the Defense of Freedoms and Human Rights Prize.

Since the end of the Guatemalan civil war in 1996, Menchú has continued her involvement with politics. In 1999 she pressured the Spanish government to prosecute former Guatemalan government and military figures for the atrocities they committed or ordered. (Such charges cannot be brought in Guatemalan courts.) In December 2006, Spain called for the extradition of two of the main military leaders who had been involved. The Spanish government also declared that genocide committed abroad could be brought to trial in Spain, even if no Spanish citizens had been involved. Menchú is also involved with Mexican government efforts to bring low-cost generic medicines to the public. She ran in the September 2007 Guatemalan presidential election but was eliminated in the first round.

Menchú was also at the center of a heated controversy when anthropologist David Stoll researched her story and claims for his 1999 book, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. He maintained that in fact she altered many details of her life story in order to make it more compelling. Based on these falsifications, some called for her prize to be revoked, but the Nobel Committee has refused to do so.

See alsoHuman Rights .


Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, ed., I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, translated by Ann Wright (1983).

Additional Bibliography

Arias, Arturo, ed. The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Morales, Mario Roberto, and Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. Stoll-Menchú: La invención de la memoria. Guatemala: Consucultura, 2001.

Sánchez, David de Frutos. Rigoberta Menchú. Madrid: Edimat Libros, 2005.

Stoll, David. Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

                                   Marilyn M. Moors