She Stands for All Indigenous Peoples

Article excerpt

THE name Rigoberta Menchu is unfamiliar to most North Americans, other than Latin American specialists and the students in multicultural undergraduate literature courses, where Ms. Menchs powerful autobiography has become a staple. But the recent awarding of this year's Nobel Peace Prize to Menchu, a Guatemalan Quiche Indian, the same week all Americans, North and South, observed the 500th anniversary of the meeting of the old and new worlds should resonate throughout the hemisphere.

The Peace Prize - one of Western culture's highest accolades - went this year to a poor Indian woman whose resume, by itself, hardly merits such an award. She has not led a revolution or a social movement; she has brought about no peace accord.

Menchs achievement is her determination. She symbolizes the resolve of marginalized and brutalized peoples throughout the world. Living in self-imposed exile in Mexico for 11 years, she taught herself Spanish, learning how to read and write at age 19.

Her significance is that there are so many like her. As Menchu says in her autobiography: "The important thing is that what has happened to me has happened to many other people too ... my personal experience is the reality of a whole people."

In her international public appearances, Menchu dresses in traditional Maya traje, the vibrantly colored and patterned costume worn by women of her Indian community. She thus serves as a visual reminder that, in various, often remote pockets of the continent, centuries-old cultures indigenous to this hemisphere continue to exist and evolve.

Over half the Guatemalan population is Mayan. The country's Indian communities, once largely autonomous, have resisted pressure to bow to government dictate and assimilate into Guatemalan society. The result has been a cycle of violence.

Though the tiny armed insurgency in Guatemala has always been separate from the Maya's larger political resistance, the military's counterinsurgency policy seeks to relocate and sometimes physically liquidate Indian communities in order to deprive the guerrillas of possible support. This also suits the larger political strategy of breaking up the stubbornly autonomous community units in order to incorporate the Maya into Guatemalan society.

Upon Menchs nomination for the Nobel Prize, the Guatemalan government denounced her as a communist guerrilla - a charge she denies. …