Menchú, Rigoberta (1959—)

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Menchú, Rigoberta (1959—)

Mayan indigenous-rights activist who won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. Name variations: Rigoberta Menchu; Rigoberta Menchú Tum or Menchú-Tum. Pronunciation: Ree-go-BER-ta Men-CHU. Born on January 9, 1959, in Chimel, Guatemala; daughter of Vicente Menchú (a peasant and political organizer) and Juana Tum (a peasant midwife and healer); married Ángel Canil also seen as Angel Camile, in January 1998; children: Mash Nahual J'a.

Overthrow of Arbenz government (1954); birth of Rigoberta Menchú (1959); great earthquake (February 1976); organization of CUC (1976–78); Panzós massacre (May 1978); torture and murder of Petrocinio Menchú Tum (September 1979); massacre at the Spanish embassy and death of Vicente Menchú (January 1980); torture and murder of Juana Tum (April 1980); Menchú's escape to Mexico (1980); first publication of Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú (I, Rigoberta Menchú, 1983); brief arrest of Menchú on her return to Guatemala (1988); Menchú awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (October 16, 1992); Peace Prize conferred (December 10, 1992); Menchú heads United Nations' Decade of Indigenous Peoples (1993—).

Born on January 9, 1959, in Chimel near San Miguel Uspantán, El Quiché province, Guatemala, Rigoberta Menchú survived poverty and violent oppression to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. Her parents, Vicente Menchú and Juana Tum , were Mayan peasants. Most of the information about her childhood comes from Rigoberta's reminiscences, compiled and organized by Venezuelan anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray and published in 1983 as I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Although widely read and admired, the memoir also provoked controversy after the 1999 publication of a book by anthropologist David Stoll which asserted that Menchú exaggerated and even fabricated certain events.

Her obscure birth occurred five years after one of the most traumatic events in Guatemalan history, the 1954 coup that overthrew the left-leaning government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. Arbenz's populist policies included agrarian reform and higher agricultural wages for the peasantry. Such changes threatened the Guatemalan elite and foreign corporations such as the U.S.owned United Fruit Company, which had vast land holdings in the country. Pressure from United Fruit and fear that communist influence was spreading among Arbenz supporters led the Eisenhower administration to intervene. In May 1954, a C.I.A.-backed force invaded from Honduras and by late June had forced Arbenz from power. Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, a longtime Arbenz adversary and leader of the invasion, became president of Guatemala and quickly set about to undo the Arbenz reforms. This clearly harmed peasants like Menchú's parents because Castillo Armas eliminated the agrarian reform program, outlawed peasant organizations, and took the vote away from illiterates, including most of the country's indigenous population. The army arrested and briefly held her father Vicente after the 1954 coup, as it waged a campaign of intimidation against everyone suspected of being a peasant activist.

Thus Rigoberta, who had five older brothers and sisters, was born at a time when peasant conditions had worsened and social tensions within Guatemala intensified. Along with other members of the community, her parents tried to clear and farm land in the mountains of western Guatemala. They grew corn and beans, raised pigs and chickens, and supplemented their diet with foods they gathered from the tropical forest. They took their beans down the mountain trail to San Miguel Uspantán to market so they could buy soap, salt, and chiles. According to Menchú, her parents had no legal title to the lands and lived under constant fear that through the corrupt courts or by outright violence, mining corporations and cattle ranchers would dispossess them. Yet the Mayas considered the land sacred, an essential link to nature, making them even more determined to resist such attacks. Rigoberta's father also waged a long legal battle with a relative over land, a fact missing from her account.

Menchú's life in the mountains was geographically, culturally, and ethnically isolated. No roads or public transportation linked her home to the outside world. Only a difficult trail, traveled by people on foot and by pack animals, gave access to her community. All members of the community were Quiché Mayas, who found it difficult to communicate with those who spoke any of the other 20 or so Mayan dialects. Almost no one knew Spanish or how to read and write, which separated them from the Guatemalan elite and middle class. So did their Mayan culture. When Rigoberta was born, her community promised to teach her, as it did with all children, "to keep the secrets of our people, so that our culture and customs will be preserved." She learned to keep the community's traditional religious rituals secret, especially from the Catholic missionaries. Menchú related that her father opposed her desire to learn to read. He reportedly believed that education destroyed Mayan communities because those who became literate moved off to the cities. In their desire to better themselves, they abandoned their culture and became ladinos, aping the Western, capitalist urban culture. Nonetheless, she studied with distinction for several years at schools operated by Belgian nuns from the Order of the Sacred Family.

Menchú also claims she went with her family to work on the coastal cotton and coffee fincas (plantations). Ladino labor recruiters hauled them, crammed into the back of a big, tarpaulin-covered truck. Compared to the relatively free life in the mountains, finca work was awful, something peasants endured only out of desperation for the meager wages. One of the tragedies of Mayan peasant life was the fact that even when they managed to carve a small farm out of marginal mountainous land, such agriculture rarely provided enough food and income to support the family. Nor was the farm big enough to employ the whole family on a year-round basis. To survive, they had to go to the fincas. The plantation owners profited from migrant workers such as Menchú. Because the peasants supported themselves part of the year in the mountains, the owners only had to provide food and a small wage for the time Rigoberta and her family were at the finca. And the finca owner and his overseers tried to hold the wages to a minimum.

As an adult, Menchú recalled that when she was eight years old, she began working full days picking coffee and cotton. One of her older brothers, Felipe, died from pesticide poisoning when the foreman put the workers back into the coffee field shortly after it had been sprayed. Another season working on the fincas brought the death of her little brother Nicolas, weak from disease and malnutrition (an allegation apparently not borne out by the facts); at the time Rigoberta's father was working on another finca. Menchú claims that her mother Juana had no money to pay for a funeral for the small child, and the overseer refused to let them take time off work to bury him. When the family defied him and had a traditional funeral anyway, he sent them packing without any wages. They had to borrow money to get back to the mountains. Of the experience, Menchú commented, "I remember it with enormous hatred. That hatred has stayed with me until today."

Despite Mayan attempts to preserve their culture, work on the fincas was socially disruptive. At the plantations, Rigoberta and her family usually found themselves housed in large sheds with workers who spoke other dialects and with whom they felt little cultural affinity. Sometimes her father went to another plantation to work, leaving her mother to do finca labor and take care of the children at the same time. This left them with little protection against unattached young males, many of whom had been drafted for a stint in the Guatemalan army and, at the end of their service, returned to life among the Mayas, bringing with them vices and violence learned in the military. Although Menchú apparently did not personally suffer such abuse, ex-soldiers sexually abused girls on the fincas, and prostitution was also a problem. Some workers succumbed to alcohol. Rigoberta's father sometimes drank up the family's scanty earnings at the cantina on the plantation.

When she turned ten years old, Rigoberta passed through the Mayan rituals that symbolized her passage into adulthood. Two years later, her parents gave her some animals to care for: a lamb, a pig, and two chickens. A Catholic priest who occasionally visited the village selected her as a catechist. She helped teach the villagers and organize them as part of Catholic Action, a social assistance program designed by left-leaning clergy to organize the peasantry. (Her success at school belies her assertion that at the time she spoke only Quiché, could not read or write, and had little knowledge of the world outside her community and the fincas.) As she assumed additional responsibilities, she also became increasingly conscious of the social and political tensions that weighed down on her community in the early 1970s. The main conflict was over land, although according to critics, Menchú's published recollections are misleading. She reported that large landholders in the region tried to claim the community's lands and that her father Vicente led village efforts to secure legal title to them and fend off the landholders. He allegedly gathered scarce funds from the community to pay fees required by the National Institute for Agrarian Transformation and secured official documents. Unfortunately neither he nor the other villagers knew Spanish or could read the papers they had signed. In reality, however, most of the family's legal troubles sprang from a long-festering land dispute with some of her mother's relatives.

On one of his trips to Guatemala City, Vicente Menchú took Rigoberta with him, giving her her first glimpse of the alien world of the capital. She returned to Guatemala City as a 13-year-old, this time to work as a maid. Menchú recounted the experience a decade later when she was more politically and socially aware, and thus it is impossible to know how she felt and understood at the time. Nonetheless, her description of those months is a poignant story of what countless Mayan girls have endured in the homes of the upper and middle class. Her employer despised the new servant girl, whom she considered dirty, stupid, and lazy. Menchú hated her in turn. Rigoberta, of course, had little experience in cooking, washing, and cleaning in urban conditions, and was fortunate that the family had another maid who trained her. The family fed its dog better than the two Mayan girls, however, and most of Menchú's wages went to buy clothing and shoes since her employer refused to let her dress as she would have in the mountains. When the woman fired the other servant following an argument, Rigoberta lost her confidant and felt increasingly isolated and unhappy. Eventually Menchú quit, despite the family's pleas to stay on.

Around the same time, she received word that her father had been arrested. Vicente had become ever more active in efforts to organize the Mayan peasantry to resist encroachments on community lands and indigenous culture. Some of the large landholders managed to have him incarcerated, and it took 14 months for his family and community to secure his release. Forced to deal with the Spanish-speaking bureaucracy, Menchú and the others found themselves at an awful disadvantage, and the cost of preparing depositions and other affidavits sorely taxed the community's resources. The experience, she noted afterward, led her to the decision that she must learn Spanish (a curious assertion in light of her earlier education); otherwise she could not defend herself and her people against their enemies. She also came to see Spanish as crucial to helping the various Mayan groups communicate with each other, as their dialects were not mutually intelligible. Thus, learning Spanish ironically became for Menchú a way of preserving Mayan culture: she understood that the indigenous groups needed to unite in order to protect their interests, and such cooperation would only be possible through the common language of Spanish.

Rigoberta and her family found themselves drawn ever more deeply into the turmoil and brutality that engulfed Guatemala and Central American during the 1970s. Leftist guerrillas fought to seize power in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, drawing support from popular discontent with the abuse of power by conservative elites and the military. The U.S. government supported the regimes in power, despite their sometimes brutal and oppressive records, as part of its Cold War strategy to check the spread of communist influence in the hemisphere. In Guatemala, however, the troubles also reflected a growing political awareness on the part of the urban lower class and the peasantry, who began to organize themselves. To make matters worse, the great earthquake of 1976 left hundreds of thousands of the poor homeless, swelling social distress and class and ethnic antagonism. In the mid-1970s, Vicente Menchú became an organizer for the Committee of Peasant Unity (Comité de Unidad Campesina or CUC), and in 1979 Rigoberta also joined it, partly because of her father's influence and partly because of the Committee's links to Catholic Action. With primarily Indian leadership, the CUC carried out a well-organized demonstration in the capital on May 1, 1978. For the first time, the Mayas had a political voice through CUC. The Guatemalan regime quickly branded the CUC as a subversive organization, especially when it began cooperating with the labor unions. The military and death squads targeted CUC activists for assassination. In May 1978, at Panzós, the army turned even more homicidal: it massacred over a hundred Kekchí Indians and wounded several hundred more who were protesting against forced removal from lands they had been farming. According to political observer Susanne Jonas , the Panzós killings marked "a clear manifestation of the army's view of the Indian population as 'subversive.'"

As the long-festering civil war grew bloodier, it brought tragedy for Rigoberta and her family. On September 9, 1979, the military snatched her 16-year-old brother Petrocinio from the village. This was likely in retaliation for the family's participation in the occupation of the Guatemalan congress building. At any rate, for two weeks they tortured him. Then they took his living but devastated body to Chajul, along with several other similarly tortured prisoners. In I, Rigoberta, Menchú tells of witnessing her brother's death on September 23, when the military poured gasoline on the captives and set them on fire. Some have questioned whether Rigoberta was really present at Chajul and whether her details about Petrocinio's murder are accurate, but whatever the case, Petrocinio's death did not intimidate the Menchús into passivity. Her father continued his work with CUC and, according to Menchú, he also joined the guerrillas. He was one of the demonstrators who, on January 31, 1980, peacefully occupied the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City. They petitioned the Spanish ambassador to press for an investigation into the atrocities the government was committing against the Mayas in the provinces of El Quiché, Huehuetenango, and San Marcos. Although the ambassador demanded that the Guatemalan government allow him to deal peacefully with the demonstration, police and military forces besieged the embassy, set the building on fire with incendiary devices, and killed all the protesters but one. The next day, Vicente Menchú was kidnapped from his hospital bed and murdered, a martyr to the indigenous cause like those who had died in the embassy flames.

While CUC organized a vast Indian and ladino strike that idled the coffee and cotton plantations in the spring of 1980, government security forces targeted Rigoberta and her mother Juana, a midwife and healer. They seized Juana on April 19 and raped and tortured her for days. Then they tied her to a tree and allowed her to die in great agony from the infected, putrefying wounds. Rigoberta and her brothers could do nothing. Certain death awaited them if they tried to rescue her. More politicized because of the murders of her family, Menchú became one of the leading figures in the January 31 Popular Front, which commemorated the massacre at the Spanish embassy. She was determined to continue the fight for indigenous rights, and the Front also commemorated her father's death. Of him, she said, "I'd say he was a complete man in human terms," a moving testament to his years of struggle against poverty and oppression.

With the murders of her brother, father, and mother and Rigoberta's own activism, her life was also at great risk. Security forces nearly seized her in Huehuetenango. Her health drained by anxiety and an ulcer, she found temporary refuge working at a convent in Guatemala City. Worried that the nuns might discover her identity, she soon decided to leave the country, although two of her sisters took up arms with the guerrillas. Supporters managed to fly Menchú out of Guatemala into exile in Mexico in 1980. "The pain never ceased," she said: "my mother, another of my brothers, a nephew, my sister-in-law, each time was a dramatic discovery. I could have gone to the fight with the guerrillas; however, I opted for exile, and in Mexico I decided to give everything for peace."

In Mexico, Bishop Samuel Ruiz helped her travel to San Cristobal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas, where two of Rigoberta's sisters were living in the refugee camps of Guatemalans who had fled for their lives across the border. Working hard to improve her Spanish, she became a spokesperson in exile for the January 31 Popular Front and a representative of CUC. Soon she attracted the attention of human-rights organizations, European leftists, and others trying to support the opponents of the Guatemalan regime. In January 1982, she flew to Paris to meet with European groups opposed to the military dictatorship. A Canadian supporter introduced her to anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, and Arturo Taracena, a CUC activist, encouraged the two to compile an account of Menchú's life. She was only 23 at the time, yet Burgos-Debray recalled, "Her youthful air soon faded when she had to talk about the dramatic events that had overtaken her family. When she talked about that, you could see the suffering in her eyes, they lost their youthful sparkle and became the eyes of a mature woman who has known what it means to suffer." Even so, Menchú could not bring herself to discuss some episodes, such as the emotionally devastating months following her mother's murder.

The publication of I, Rigoberta Menchú made her an international figure. It increased her visibility as a spokesperson for the oppressed of Guatemala and indigenous peoples. Writes Alice Brittin , "henceforth, Rigoberta would be recognized as the 'voice' of the poor and disenfranchised peoples of Latin America." In 1983, the United Nations invited her to participate in its activities related to human rights, especially its conferences that dealt with the protection of ethnic minorities. A Spanish director made a documentary about her. Meanwhile, some U.S. conservatives criticized her narrative as propaganda manipulated by international leftists. And the violence in Guatemala continued. By 1985, 30 years of civil war had claimed, by some estimates, 100,000 lives, plus another 40,000 who had simply disappeared and were presumed dead.

Menchú's international stature made her an ever more inconvenient and embarrassing foe for the Guatemalan regime. Rigoberta returned to Guatemala for a short visit in 1986 and again in 1988. On the latter occasion, security forces arrested her and refused to release her until she requested amnesty under a peace program offered to the guerrillas. The government tried to undercut her nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize by advancing its own candidate, Elisa Molina de Stahl , a wealthy ladina. By that time, however, Menchú enjoyed broad popular support within Guatemala, and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Bishop Desmond Tutu, both Peace Prize winners, pushed her nomination. She survived three attempts on her life while in Guatemala awaiting the Nobel decision. On October 16, 1992, the Nobel committee awarded her the Peace Prize "in recognition of her work for social justice and ethnocultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples." It also commended her decision to seek peaceful solutions despite the violence inflicted upon her family and her people. News of the award brought jubilation to the Mayan majority in Guatemala and grudging congratulations from President Jorge Serrano.

With funds from the prize and financial support from international organizations, Menchú established the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation, purposely headquartering it in Guatemala as a symbol of her peaceful campaign for ethnic reconciliation. One of her chief goals has been the return of Mayan refugees from southern Mexico to their homelands in Guatemala. She successfully campaigned for the United Nations to designate 1993 the Year of the Indigenous Peoples, and the U.N. named her its Good Will Ambassador. Intelligent but largely self-taught, she has received a number of honorary doctorates, and indigenous peoples throughout the hemisphere seek her advice and support for their causes. She is married to Ángel Canil and has a son, Mash Nahual J'a. In Guatemala, guerrilla and government representatives signed an agreement on December 29, 1996, to end the civil war. Meanwhile, Menchú's struggle for peace and ethnic understanding has continued, a fight that, she says, "purifies and shapes the future."


Black, George. Garrison Guatemala. London: Zed Books, 1984.

Brittin, Alice A. "Close Encounters of the Third World Kind: Rigoberta Menchú and Elisabeth Burgos' Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú," in Latin American Perspectives. Vol. 22, no. 4. Fall 1995, pp. 100–114.

Jonas, Susanne. The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and U.S. Power. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991.

Menchú, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. NY: Verso, 1984.

Minà, Gianni. Un continente desaparecido. Mexico City: Editorial Diana, 1996.

Rohter, Larry. "Noble Winner Accused of Stretching Truth in Her Autobiography," in The New York Times. December 15, 1998.

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

suggested reading:

Menchú, Rigoberta. Crossing Borders: An Autobiography. NY: Verso, 1998.

Kendall W. Brown , Professor of History, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah