Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans

Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans

Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans

Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans

Synopsis

This work is about a living legend, a young Guatemalan orphaned by government death squads who said that her odyssey from a Mayan Indian village to revolutionary exile was 'the story of all poor Guatemalans'.

Excerpt

In 1992 a Guatemalan peasant won the Nobel Peace Prize. Except for people interested in Latin America or indigenous rights, the usual reaction was, "Rigoberta who?" Even for some acquainted with her name, Rigoberta Menchú was an unlikely peace laureate. Neither she nor anyone else had been able to end the civil war afflicting Guatemala since she was a child. Her public career had begun only a decade before, when she told an anthropologist in Paris the story of her life to the age of twenty-three. Bom in a K'iche' Maya village, Rigoberta never went to school and had learned to speak Spanish only recently. She told of working on plantations as a child, being evicted by landlords, and learning how to organize. Then she told what soldiers and police had done to her family, terrible stories of death by torture and fire. the book created from the tape-recorded interviews, I, Rigoberta Menchú (1983), propelled her into a position of astonishing prominence for a person of her background. She became the best-known representative of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, a figure who could call on the pope, presidents of important countries, and the un secretary-general.

What if much of Rigoberta's story is not true? This is an awkward question, especially for someone like myself who thinks the Nobel award was a good idea. Still, I decided that it must be asked. While interviewing survivors of political violence in the late 1980s, I began to come across significant problems in the life story she told at the start of her career. There is no doubt about the most important points: that a dictatorship massacred thousands of indigenous peasants, that the victims included half of Rigoberta's immediate family, that she fled to Mexico to save her life, and that she joined a revolutionary movement to liberate her country. On these points, Rigoberta's account is beyond challenge and deserves the attention it receives. But in other respects, such as the situation of her family and village before the war, other survivors gave me a rather different picture, which is borne out by the available records.

If part of the laureate's famous story is not true, does it matter? Perhaps not. Rigoberta won the peace prize on the five hundredth anniversary of . . .

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