Rigoberta Menchú has been a passionate spokesperson for the rights of indigenous peoples—people who belong to an ethnic group that is native to a region, such as the Mayan peoples of Central America. She won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work on behalf of the indigenous groups of Guatamela, her native country. However, her work has made her a leading voice for the rights of indigenous peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere.
A hard childhood
Rigoberta Menchú was born on January 9, 1959, in Chimel, a village in the Quiché province (political unit or region) in the mountainous northwest region of Guatemala. Her mother was a midwife (a person who assists women in giving birth) and traditional healer. Her father, Vicente, was a day laborer (someone who is hired and paid to work on a daily basis) and community leader. Both her parents belonged to one of the many indigenous groups of Guatemala, the Quiché Maya. They spoke little Spanish, the language of those in power of Guatemala since its conquest by Spain in the sixteenth century. Instead, they spoke Quiché. Young Menchú herself spoke only Quiché until she was nineteen.
Menchú's difficult childhood is an example of how hundreds of thousands of Indian (indigenous) children grow up in Guatemala. Every year she followed her parents to the southern coastal plantations (large farms), where they spent months as laborers picking cotton and coffee. Two of her brothers died on the plantations, one after being poisoned by insecticides (chemicals used by farmers to kill insects) and the other because of malnutrition (poor diet). Menchú started working on the plantations when she was only eight, and at age thirteen she experienced her first close contact with people of Spanish culture when she worked as a maid for a wealthy family in Guatemala City. At this time, Menchú also experienced discrimination against Indians practiced by Latinos (people of Spanish culture). Her employers made her sleep on the floor on a mat next to the family dog—which, she later recalled, was treated better than her.
Menchú's political beliefs were shaped by Guatemala's troubled history. In 1954, a left-wing civilian president was removed from power by a coup d'état (the overthrow of a government by a small group of people who have held positions of power) that was supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. After this coup, the country was ruled by military officers. They ruled the country harshly, tolerating little protest or disagreement. When a guerrilla movement (a movement in which small groups use surprise tactics and attacks to harass or overthrow those in power) opposed to the military rulers began in 1962, the government responded violently. They arrested and killed not only the guerrillas, but also those who supported them or were believed to support them, especially in the countryside.
Political violence began again in the 1970s, when government pressure was applied so widely and harshly that U.S. president Jimmy Carter (1924–) halted economic aid to Guatemala after repeated warnings to the government to stop human rights (basic rights and freedoms to which all people are entitled) violations. Guatemala's Indians, who made up 60 percent of the population, were forced to move into "model villages" and to serve in the military. In this environment, movements to benefit the conditions of Indians were viewed as part of a communist plot by the government.
Menchú became politically active, inspired in part by her religious beliefs. Like many others in Central America, she was influenced by Liberation Theology, a movement that believes the Bible should be read through the eyes of the poor and that Jesus Christ had a special message of freedom for poor people.
Another important influence was Menchú's father, Vicente, who was active in the Peasant Unity Committee, a group that fought to obtain land for peasants and to protect the land they held from being seized by wealthy landowners. Rigoberta Menchú joined the committee in 1979, and was asked to organize the country's twenty-two Indian groups against exploitation (being treated unfairly by those in power). Later that year her teenage brother was tortured and then killed by the army. The following year she lost her father when Vicente Menchú, along with other representatives of indigenous groups, occupied the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City as part of a protest activity. The army attacked the embassy and burned it, killing thirty-nine people, including Menchú's father.
International campaign for rights
The next year Menchú's mother was kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the Guatemalan army, and two of her sisters joined the guerrillas. Life in Guatemala had become too dangerous, and Menchú fled to Mexico in 1981. There she began an international crusade to represent the hardships of the Guatemalan Indians and joined the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations.
In 1983, while Menchú was in Paris to promote her cause, she dictated (spoke out loud to be copied down) her life story to Elizabeth Burgos. The result was the widely read book I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, which was translated into more than a dozen languages. It brought her worldwide attention and helped her to become the foremost spokesperson for indigenous peoples.
Peace in Guatemala
In 1988, Menchú's first attempt to return to Guatemala ended badly when she was threatened and put in jail. However, she later visited her country again for short periods of time. It was during one such visit in October of 1992 that she learned she would be given the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of the rights of indigenous peoples. She was only thirty-three.
In June 1993, during a political crisis in Guatemala, Menchú played a key role in the events that brought to power a new president, Ramiro de León Carpio, a human rights advocate. International pressure also helped force the government to ease up on military violence and violation of people's rights, and in 1995 many refugees who had fled from Guatemala to Mexico began to return.
The following year, the Guatemalan government and rebel leaders signed a cease-fire agreement to end their forty-two-year conflict, Latin America's longest civil war. It was a war that Menchú and her family had fought hard to end.
Menchú's actions and statements have been considered controversial. Conservatives have accused her of being associated with communist groups, and the story of her life in I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala was questioned by journalist David Stoll in 1998. In his own book, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, Stoll argued that Menchú had distorted key facts in her autobiography.
Nevertheless, Menchú remains an active voice for those who lack representation. In 2000 she filed charges in a Spanish court against several officials in Guatemala's former military governments, accusing them of genocide (mass murder), torture, and state terrorism against some two hundred thousand people who had been killed in her country during the 1980s. Menchú has also been a vocal opponent of the effects of globalization, or the increasing dominance of multinational corporations in the world's economy. In early 2002 she was among the most celebrated speakers at the World Social Forum, a gathering of antiglobalization protesters in Brazil that was timed to coincide with the World Economic Forum, a meeting of politicians and corporate officers that was held at the same time in New York, New York.
For More Information
Brill, Marlene Targ. Journey for Peace: The Story of Rigoberta Menchú. New York: Dutton, 1996.
Menchú, Rigoberta. Crossing Borders. Edited by Ann Wright. London: Verso, 1998.
Menchú, Rigoberta, and Elizabeth Burgos. I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. London: Verso, 1984.
Stoll, David. Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.
"Menchú, Rigoberta." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 13, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/menchu-rigoberta
"Menchú, Rigoberta." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved January 13, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/menchu-rigoberta
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Rigoberta Menchú(born 1959) was a Guatemalan human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. Despite her youth she became an eloquent spokesperson for the rights of the indigenous peoples of the entire Western Hemisphere.
Rigoberta Menchúwas born on January 9, 1959, in Chimel, a village in the Quichéprovince in the northwest highlands of Guatemala. Her mother, whose surname was Tum, was a midwife and traditional healer, and her father, Vicente, was a day laborer, catechist, and community leader. Both her parents belonged to one of the many indigenous groups of Guatemala, the Quiché Maya, and spoke little Spanish. Young Menchúherself spoke only Quiché(one of over twenty different languages spoken in her country) until she was 19.
Her difficult childhood is an example of how hundreds of thousands of Indian children grow up in Guatemala. Every year she followed her parents to the southern coastal plantations, fincas, where they spent months picking cotton and coffee. During the rest of the year the family, back in the highlands, collected wicker in the mountains and grew maize, beans, and potatoes to supplement their diet. Menchústarted working when she was only eight; two of her brothers died on the plantations, one was poisoned by insecticides and the other—only two years old—from malnutrition. At age 13 she had her first prolonged direct experience with people of Spanish culture (and with discrimination), when she worked as a maid for a wealthy family in Guatemala City. Soon thereafter, her father was imprisoned for his efforts to save land from seizure by large landowners.
Social and Political Unrest
Menchú's political awakening was shaped by Guatemala's turbulent history. After a coup d'état backed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency toppled a left-wing president in 1954, a series of military governments ruled the country with an iron hand. A guerrilla movement that began in 1962 triggered a violent government response directed not only at the guerrillas, but also at their supporters, real and alleged, often located in the countryside. Political violence was renewed in the 1970s, when government repression was applied in such an indiscriminate fashion that U.S. President Jimmy Carter, after repeated warnings against human rights violations, suspended economic aid in 1977. Guatemala's Indians, composing 60 percent of the population, suffered the indignities of forced relocation and military service. In this environment of political turmoil, indigenous vindication movements were considered by the government to be part of a communist conspiracy.
An Activist is Born
Menchúbecame politically active, inspired by her family's involvement and by her religious beliefs. Like many others in Central America, she was influenced by Liberation Theology, a movement that believes that the Bible should be read through the eyes of the poor and that Jesus Christ had a special message of liberation for poor people. In an interview she described how peasants "felt everything the Bible said was coming to pass, with Christ crucified, Christ attacked with stones, Christ dragged along the ground. One felt the pain of that Christ, and identified with it."
Another important influence was her father, Vicente, who was active in the Peasant Unity Committee, a group that fought for peasant land rights. She joined the committee in 1979, and was asked to organize the country's 22 Indian groups, each with its own culture and language, against exploitation. A few months later her 16-year-old brother, Petrocinio, was tortured and then killed by the army. The following year she lost her father in an event that received widespread coverage in the international press. Vicente Menchú, along with other representatives of indigenous groups, occupied the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City to press their demands. The army attacked the embassy and burned it, killing 39 people, including Menchú's father, who burned to death.
International Campaign Begins in Exile
The next year her mother was kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the army, and two of her sisters joined the guerrillas. Life in Guatemala was too dangerous for her, and Menchúfled to Mexico in 1981. In exile, she began an international crusade to explain the plight of the Guatemalan Indians, and joined the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations.
In 1983, during a trip to Paris to promote her cause, she dictated her autobiography to a Venezuelan anthropologist, Elizabeth Burgos. The result of their collaboration was the widely read book, I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, which was translated into more than a dozen languages. It brought her to the attention of the rest of the world and helped her to become the foremost spokesperson for indigenous peoples.
Efforts Bring Acclaim
Although her first attempt to return to Guatemala in 1988 ended badly (she was threatened and put in jail), she later visited her country for short periods of time. It was during one such visit in October of 1992 that she learned the Nobel Peace Prize would be given to her "in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples." She was only 33.
With the $1.2 million from the prize she set up a foundation named after her father. She was active in the continent's Five Hundred Years of Resistance Campaign and in the United Nations International Indian Treaty Council. In June of 1993, during a political crisis in Guatemala, Menchúplayed an instrumental role in the events that brought to power a new president, Ramiro de León Carpio, a human rights advocate. Growing international pressure also helped force the government to ease up on military repression, and in 1995 many refugees who fled to Mexico to escape torture began to return.
Menchúremained an advocate for indigenous peoples, and in June, 1996 was named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for a Culture of Peace by the Director-General of UNESCO. Later the same year she went to Norway to watch Guatemalan government and rebel leaders sign a cease-fire agreement for the 42-year conflict—Latin America's longest civil war—that she and her family fought so hard to end.
Her activism was controversial. Conservative commentators accused her of being associated with communist guerrillas, but she defended herself by saying that if she were a revolutionary she would be fighting in the mountains. She summarized her views in an interview published in 1993: "I believe that in Guatemala the solution is not confrontation between indigenous people and latinos [people of Spanish culture]. Rather, we need a country where we can live together with mutual respect."
Rigoberta Menchú's autobiography, written in collaboration with Elizabeth Burgos, was translated into English with the title I Rigoberta Menchú (1984). More information appears in interviews published in World Press Review (December 1992), in the Progressive (January 1993 and December 1995), various issues of the UNESCO Courier (1996). and articles in the Los Angeles Times (October 17, 1992; May 7, 1993), the New York Times (October 17, 1992; October 19, 1992; December 11, 1992; June 10, 1993; September 15, 1993; May 8, 1994; November 17, 1995), and in Time (October 26, 1992). □
"Rigoberta Menchú." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 13, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/rigoberta-menchu
"Rigoberta Menchú." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved January 13, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/rigoberta-menchu
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
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Rigoberta Menchú (rē´gōbĕr´tä mĕnchōō´), 1959–, Guatemalan social reformer. Of Mayan descent, she and her family were caught in Guatemala's bloody civil war. Protesters against human-rights abuses, her father, mother, and younger brother were killed by Guatamalan soldiers, and in 1981 Menchú fled the country and settled in Mexico. At home and abroad, she has worked to secure and protect the rights of indigenous peoples in her country and to promote intercultural peace. For her efforts, Menchú was awarded the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. In 1998 her autobiographical I, Rigoberta Menchú (1983) was attacked as partly fabricated, provoking international controversy. She was a candidate for the Guatemalan presidency in 2007 and 2011, but won only 3% of the vote both times.
"Menchú, Rigoberta." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 13, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/menchu-rigoberta
"Menchú, Rigoberta." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved January 13, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/menchu-rigoberta