Rigoberta Menchu, Activist and Indigenous Leader:
Rigoberta Menchú Tum is a Guatemalan activist for native rights and winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize
. She rose to fame in 1982 when she was the subject of a ghost-written autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú
. At the time, she was an activist living in France because Guatemala was very dangerous for outspoken critics of the government. The book propelled her to international fame, in spite of later allegations that much of it was exaggerated, inaccurate or even fabricated. She has kept a very high profile, continuing to work for native rights around the globe.
Early Life in Rural Guatemala:
Rigoberta Menchú was born January 9, 1959 in Chimel, a small town in the north-central Guatemalan province of Quiché. The region is home to the Quiché people, who have lived there since before the Spanish conquest, maintaining their culture and language. At the time, rural peasants like the Menchú family were at the mercy of ruthless landowners. Many Quiché families were forced to migrate to the coast for several months every year to cut sugarcane for extra money.
Rigoberta Menchu Joins Rebel Group:
Because the Menchú family was active in the land reform movement and grass-roots activities such as women's groups, they were suspected of being subversives by the local government. At the time, suspicion and fear were rampant: the civil war, which had simmered since the 1950’s, was in full swing in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, and atrocities such as the razing of entire villages were commonplace. After her father was arrested and tortured, most of the family, including 20 year old Rigoberta, joined the local rebel organization, the CUC (Committee of the Peasant Union).
The Fate of Menchu's Family:
The civil war would decimate her family. Her brother was captured and killed: according to Rigoberta, she was forced to watch as he was burned alive in a village square. Her father Vicente was a leader of a small band of rebels who captured the Spanish Embassy in protest of government policies: security forces were sent in and most of the rebels, including Vicente, were killed. Her mother was likewise arrested, raped, and killed. By 1981 Rigoberta was a marked woman: she fled Guatemala for Mexico, and from there to France.
I, Rigoberta Menchu:
It was in France in 1982 that Rigoberta met Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, a Venezuelan-French anthropologist and activist. Burgos-Debray convinced Rigoberta to tell her compelling story and made a series of taped interviews. These interviews became the basis for I, Rigoberta Menchú, a ghost-written autobiography which alternates pastoral scenes of Quiché culture with harrowing accounts of war and death in modern Guatemala. The book was immediately translated into several languages and was a huge success as people around the world were transfixed and moved by Menchú’s story.
Rise to International Fame:
Menchú used her newfound fame to good effect: she became an international figure in the field of native rights, organizing protests, conferences and speeches around the world. It was this work as much as the famous book that earned her the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, and it is no accident that the prize was awarded on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ famous voyage
David Stoll and Controversy:
In 1999, anthropologist David Stoll published Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans
, in which he pokes several holes in Menchú’s autobiography. For example, extensive interviews with local townsfolk revealed that the emotional scene in which Menchú was forced to watch her brother burned to death was inaccurate on two key points: first of all, Rigoberta Menchú was elsewhere and could not have been a witness, and second, no rebels were ever burned to death in that particular town (it is true, however, that her brother was executed for being a suspected rebel).
The reactions to Stoll’s book were immediate and intense. Figures on the left accused him of doing a right-wing hatchet job on poor Rigoberta, while conservatives clamored for the Nobel Foundation to revoke her award. Stoll himself hastened to point out that even if the details were incorrect or exaggerated, the human rights abuses by the Guatemalan government were very real, and the executions happened whether Rigoberta actually witnessed them or not. As for Menchú herself, she initially denied that she had fabricated anything, but later relented and said she may have exaggerated certain aspects of her life story.
Rigoberta Menchú’s Continuing Legacy:
There is no question that Rigoberta Menchú’s credibility took a serious hit with Stoll’s book and a subsequent investigation by the New York Times that turned up even more inaccuracies. Nevertheless, she has remained very active in native rights movements and is a hero to millions of impoverished Guatemalans and oppressed natives all over the globe.
She continues to make news and create controversy. In September 2007, Menchú was a presidential candidate in her native Guatemala, running with the support of the Encounter for Guatemala party. Gathering only about three percent of the vote (sixth place out of fourteen candidates) in the first round of elections, she failed to qualify for the run-off, which was eventually won by Alvaro Colom. She also recently made news in August of 2007 when she was forcibly removed from a five-star hotel in Cancún, Mexico, where she was giving an interview: apparently Menchú, who always wears traditional Quiché clothing in public, was mistaken for a street vendor.
Rigoberta Menchú will likely always be a controversial figure, as long as prominent international liberals see her as the authentic voice of the oppressed and international conservatives see her as a liar, subversive and communist falsely elevated to fame by modern political correctness.