When Menchú's autobiography was first published in 1984, it catapulted her and her story, describing the exploitation and mistreatment of her people, to the forefront of international attention. The book imbued her work in organizing the Guatemalan peasantry with added authority and credibility. The voice of the Guatemalan peasants, which had been heretofore silenced by government oppression, illiteracy, and linguistic barriers, was now available to the global public, and Menchú's narrative encompassed the story of oppressed people everywhere. Critics alleged that parts of Menchú's story were exaggerated or untrue, some even pursuing years of fieldwork to prove their allegations. Supporters have insisted that the verisimilitude of her story extends from the commonality of her experience with that of other Guatemalan peasants, in fact, most Guatemalan peasants. Menchú eloquently delineates the conflicts between ladinos and Indians, landowners and peasants, the government and the resistance, men and women, and change and tradition.
In this autobiography, Rigoberta Menchú details the two stages of her life: before political organizing, and after. Because she was born into a life of varied suffering and extreme poverty, and because hunger and crippling labor were constants, she was always conscious of the repercussions of Guatemalan politics in her personal life.
Every year of her childhood was divided between her home in the Altiplano, where Indians cultivated their own land and made every attempt to live as their ancestors had, and the coast, where the fincas were located. For most of each year, her family would leave the Altiplano and go down to the fincas, or plantations, on the coast, and endure inhumane work and living conditions picking cotton or coffee. Many children accompanied their families to the fincas, and many of the younger ones died of malnutrition or disease.
It is when Menchú becomes a worker in the finca at the age of eight that she experiences the true magnitude of the exploitation by the landowners. Indian workers always incurred debt at the plantation's cantina, pharmacy, and general store, so Menchú's family would sometimes leave the finca at the end of eight months with little or no money to show for their work. Simultaneously, what little land the Indians had managed to cultivate successfully in the mountains was constantly being seized by the government, or by landowners with government ties....
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From the time she begins working on the finca at age eight, Menchú sees that the position of Indian workers is beyond grim. Workers make the long journey to the plantation by truck; because they are covered with a tarp, and not permitted to get out during any stops, the smell of human and animal excrement is unbearable. A large lean-to made of branches with one crude outdoor toilet is meant to serve four hundred or more workers. The landowners find various ways to cheat the workers, by changing quotas or charging exorbitant prices at the plantation cantina, where many workers would go to drink away their suffering. Landowners spray pesticides on the fields while workers are present; one of Menchú's friends dies as a result, one of many who is killed by pesticide poisoning.
One year, on the finca, her youngest brother dies, and her mother is faced with going into debt to bury him on plantation grounds, or waiting until they return to the Altiplano; she elects to go into debt and bury him right away, as Indian custom demands, and the other workers provide what they can to help Menchú's family. Menchú recalls,''Those fifteen days working on the finca was one of my earliest experiences and I remember it with enormous hatred. That hatred has stayed with me until today.’’ When the family, who had been scattered among various fincas, reunites at their home in the Altiplano, the news of her brother's death is the greeting Menchú and her mother bring.
When she is almost thirteen, Menchú becomes a maid in Guatemala City, the capital. She works with another maid, Candelaria, an Indian who has become "ladinized," that is, she has learned Spanish and abandoned some of her Indian ways. Nonetheless, Cande, as she is called, is kind to Menchú and helps her learn her duties, and also shows Menchú how to stand up to the mistress, who is a petty, demanding woman. During her time as a maid, Menchú witnesses the full force and cruelty of ladino discrimination against Indians; Menchú sees that the dog is fed better than she, that Cande is given a bed while she must sleep on the floor. Fearful of losing her ties with her family, and unable to contain her anger at the way she is treated, Menchú leaves. When she returns home, she learns that her father has been imprisoned for resisting the government's takeover of Indian land. Given that illiterate Indians have virtually no recourse in the justice system, it takes a combination of superhuman effort and luck to get him out.
In 1967, Menchú's village in the Altiplano is ''repressed'' by the army for the first time. When land cultivated for years by Indians finally began to produce, landowners appeared, ransacked the village, and forced the Indians out. Government authorities, in collusion with the landowners, took advantage of the Indian's illiteracy by coaxing them to sign documents which the authorities claimed gave Indians the deed to the land. In reality, the documents stated that the Indians would be allowed to remain on the land for two years, after which they must move to another area. It is during these early conflicts with the landowners and the government that...
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