Accounts from Guatemala: Critical Reception of the Works of Rigoberta Menchu

By Ekstrom, Margaret V. | MACLAS Latin American Essays, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Accounts from Guatemala: Critical Reception of the Works of Rigoberta Menchu


Ekstrom, Margaret V., MACLAS Latin American Essays


First of all, there are some basic, rather well-known details of this initial account. The text I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala was published in English by Verso in 1984. It had appeared a year earlier in Spanish as Me llamo Rigoberta Menchu y asi me nacio la conciencia (My name is Rigoberta Menchu and thus my consciousness was born). It was edited and introduced by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, the Venezuelan anthropologist at whose Paris residence the interviews and transcriptions for the text were conducted. The English translation was done by Ann Wright, and the book has also been widely available in French and many other languages. As the testimonial of a Maya-Quiche woman, it presents her life story within the context of her people's situation in the late twentieth century. The variations in the title and the conditions of narrative authority make the diverse nature of the material immediately apparent.

The book won the 1983 Casa de las Americas Prize for testimonial literature. Menchu herself went on to focus international attention on the plight of indigenous peoples, particularly in Guatemala. She lived in exile in Mexico during the 1980's, after the killings of her parents and younger brother. She worked with the United Nations on the rights of the oppressed and was widely considered and praised as a catalyst for peace in the news media. (1) She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in the especially significant year of 1992, amidst the discussions about the Quincentenary of contact between Europe and the Americas. Some books for young readers were written about her; these texts stressed ethnic values and depicted her journey for peace as a champion of human rights. (2)

Initially, there was considerable positive critical reaction to the text, which came to be used in many classrooms as an authentic account of indigenous life in Guatemala. The book Teaching and Testimony: Rigoberta Menchu and the North American Classroom, edited by Allen Carey-Webb and Stephen Benz, offers 28 essays by numerous scholars on how to use the Menchu testimonio effectively in various courses in a wide range of disciplines including literature, history, politics, anthropology, women's studies and Latin American studies. These scholars emphasize the diversification of the canon effected through use of Menchu's testimony.

Of course, the use of Menchu's work did not go without adverse criticism. Such educational theorists as Dinesh D'Souza expressed concerns that Menchu was too feminist/socialist/Marxist and that her text would displace established classics of Western of European literature from the canon. (3) Menchu and her account became subjects for numerous academic and cultural discussions, debates and writings.

Critics Arturo Arias and Judith Thorn consider Rigoberta Menchu Tum as an emblem of her culture and her people, whom she empowers through creation of a public, collective voice. Thorn, in particular, analyzes various aspects of the testimonial through theories of space/time and comparisons with the novel. (4) The self becomes an actualizing, ethnic consciousness balancing modernity and tradition, absorbing change, utilizing political elements in the testimonial, internalizing memory, inviting the outsider to enter into an understanding of the life of the other and encouraging further discussion of indigenous issues. In reporting her personal experience, Menchu employed the privilege of Mayan and other indigenous narrators, who do not necessarily follow Western precepts and thus invite contemplation and re-assessment of events and/or issues. John Beverley and Marc Zimmerman have also contemplated Menchu's role in this process as a type of shaman (religious leader) with a nahual (spirit) representing her people. (5)

Arguments have arisen over the credibility of Menchu's knowing as much as she seems to claim, as Thorn acknowledges by writing:

   "The issue of authorial function is often fodder for academic debate in the
   context of the testimonial" (p. … 

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