Rigoberta Menchú’s powerful autobiography begins with these simple words: “This is my testimony... I’d like to stress that it’s not only my life, it’s also the testimony of my people... My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.”
Some of the facts that Rigoberta shares about her life have been questioned. But her story can still be read as a description of the common experiences of many Indians who led lives of exploitation, deep discrimination and fear of Guatemala’s brutal military dictatorships.
Rigoberta was born into a large peasant family. Her mother and father were both leaders in her community. Her father organized a peasant group, the United Peasant Committee (CUC), and worked to hold on to his land.
Many Indians, like Rigoberta’s family, had to spend half the year working on coastal plantations that typically exported coffee and cotton. The intense heat of the coast frequently made the highland Indians sick. Malnutrition and handling the fungicides used on the plantations frequently caused the workers to grow ill.
Although Rigoberta’s parents could not read or write, Rigoberta was lucky enough to receive education when some Belgian nuns found her to be bright and promising. In spite of the family’s money problems, she was kept by the nuns in their convent for a year, and attended school up through the first year of junior high.
To better herself, Rigoberta worked as a servant in an urban middle-class household. Misused and criticized for her Indian ways, she experienced the deep divide that exists between the Indians and the rest of Guatemalan society.
In her village, Rigoberta joined a revolutionary anti-government Christian movement. Observing the lives of the Indians, she came to the conclusion that their problems stemmed from the ownership of the land. The best land, which used to belong to Indians she says, was owned by big landowners who neither accepted Indians nor their ways. Wanting to take an equal part alongside her brothers in the struggle for justice, Rigoberta often faced male ridicule. Her mother gave her advice. “Analyze your position as a woman and demand a share,” she told her. “A child is only given food when he demands it.”
The government’s response to peasant organization was tremendous repression. The army occupied and even bombed Indian villages, believing that people who were fighting for their land were lending support to the rebels. The villagers fled to the mountains, without blankets or clothes. Rigoberta organized the women, getting them to build encampments and learn how to defend themselves. In this period, many who survived left their traditional land, becoming refugees.
Political leaders were a special target of the military governments who periodically killed them in public punishments as examples to others. Because of such demonstrations, Rigoberta decided not to marry nor have children, something almost unheard of in her culture. She could not endure it if something horrible happened to one of her children.
One of Rigoberta’s brothers, Petrocinio, was kidnapped and killed by the army. No one knows for sure how, but family members say that his body was dumped, along with those of several others, in a town square. Soon after her brother’s death, Rigoberta’s father was killed, her mother three months later. Another brother was also killed. The horror of these events reinforced Rigoberta’s will to fight. But with death threats against her life, she went into hiding. In 1981 she had to flee the country; she remained in exile for 10 years.
Outside Guatemala, Rigoberta’s opposition to repression took a new turn. She began speaking about the plight of her people at the United Nations as well as throughout the Americas. The Guatemalan authorities tried to stop her, calling her a Communist and leftist guerrilla. Several attempts were made on her life. With the publication of her autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú, in 1983, and its translation into more than 20 languages, she reached an even greater audience. Rigoberta’s words became her most effective weapon in the fight for survival of her people.
In her work during this time, Rigoberta helped to define the concept of “indigenous peoples,” differentiating it from the concept of ethnic or religious minorities. She says that indigenous peoples are original peoples, whose philosophies of life are rooted in their histories. They need to live communally, and recognize “Mother Earth ... (as) the source, the root, the origin of culture and existence. Human beings need the earth, and the earth needs human beings.” Although she distinguishes between indigenous peoples and other minorities, Rigoberta sees their struggle as one, saying that “women, indigenous peoples and minorities must join hands and fight for their common interests.”
In 1992, at the young age of 33, Rigoberta Menchú won the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first Latin American woman and Indian to do so. Rigoberta acknowledged the prize as an homage to the struggles of indigenous people everywhere, and of indigenous women in particular. “I consider this prize, not as an award to me personally, but rather as one of the greatest conquests in the struggle for peace, for human rights and for the rights of the indigenous people who, along all these 500 years, have been split, fragmented, as well as the victims of genocide, repression and discrimination.”
Rigoberta also saw the prize as an instrument with which to fight for peace and justice. The only way to “build up a real democracy” was to seek justice for those who suffer economic, social and cultural disparities. Rigoberta went on to explain, “It is not enough to speak out against war; the causes of war must be eliminated. That is, we must end unjust distribution of wealth. I blame the first world for having taken our riches for so many years.”
Rigoberta used the money she was granted to set up the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation to aid indigenous people. Among its goals are the defense and promotion of human rights. It speaks out against continuing human rights abuses in Guatemala and elsewhere. It has played a major role in creating summits of indigenous leaders, trying to seek peaceful solutions to conflicts. After the signing of Guatemala’s peace agreement, the foundation helped refugees return, finding them land and training them for jobs. Many projects are aimed at indigenous women, whom Rigoberta calls “the most exploited of the exploited ones...but still they are the ones that produce life and riches.”
As a result of her efforts, the United Nations declared 1993 the International Year for Indigenous Populations. In 1996 Rigoberta was appointed Goodwill Ambassador of UNESCO. At conferences and campuses throughout the world, a small brown figure appears, radiant in her traditional clothes. It is Rigoberta Menchú, still stirring the consciousness and activism of the world.
Time Line: Guatemala
1960 A failed revolt by junior military officers against one of Guatemala’s military dictatorships leads to armed insurrection against the government. Extreme right-wing groups of self-appointed vigilantes kidnap and torture anyone suspected of involvement in leftist activities.
1970s Grassroots groups, including peasant organizations, unions, the churches, intellectuals and others, begin to mount serious challenges for power. In attempts to crush the rebellion, the dictatorships commit great atrocities. Efraín R9íos Montt, a demagogic, right-wing general, is the country’s president during its most violent periods. Forms of repression include disappearances and mass killings.
1978–83 The military attacks Indian villages, destroying over 400 and killing hundreds of thousands of people. Thousands of children are orphaned, one million people uprooted to become refugees; many flee to southern Mexico to escape systematic military repression.
1982 The Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), an umbrella organization made up of four insurgency movements, is formed to lead the struggle against the government.
1985 An election relatively free of fraud is accomplished. Rounds of talks between URNG, the government and the army begin.
1992 Rigoberta Menchú wins Nobel Peace Prize.
1993 Ramiro De Leon Carpio, a popular human rights activist, moves the process forward, brokered now by the United Nations.
1996 The Government of Guatemala and representatives of URNG sign the last of a number of accords which bring to a close the 36-year-long internal conflict, the longest in Latin America. The agreements include the resettlement and economic integration of displaced people into Guatemalan society, the creation of a human rights commission, recognition of the country’s cultural diversity, and the right of indigenous people to live by their own cultural norms.
Today Thousands of refugees have returned and the army is supposed to be downsizing. Unresolved is the reality that in Guatemala more than half the population are descendants of Mayan Indians, most of whom live in poverty, two-thirds in extreme poverty. The wealthiest 10% of Guatemalans receive almost one-half of all the nation’s income; the top 20% receives two-thirds of all income. Only 4.28% of all landholders hold 61.8% of the arable land. Most rural households are landless, and many highlands peasants must migrate each year to the large southern coastal plantations to pick export crops. Here they work in subhuman conditions. Also, vigilante acts by right-wing military groups still occur.