Rigoberta Menchú Essay - Critical Essays

Menchú, Rigoberta


Rigoberta Menchú 1959-

Guatemalan autobiographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Menchú's career through 1999.

Menchú is well known for her captivating and inspirational autobiographical writings, known as testimonios, and for her work as an avid international spokeswoman for indigenous rights and human rights in Central America. Menchú's reputation for representing struggling indigenous groups has approached icon status due to her extensive and consistent efforts. Her writing has been translated into many languages and is required reading in many political science and literature courses.

Biographical Information

Menchú was born to the Mayan Quiché Indian tribe in Chimel, a village in the mountains of northeastern Guatemala. At the age of eight, she began working, picking coffee to help support herself and her family. She frequently witnessed violent conflicts between the Guatemalan army and guerrilla forces, and observed several notorious “disappearances” that plagued Central American countries during the 1970s and 1980s. She was active in the Comité de Unidad Campesina (Peasant Unity Committee), a political organization founded in 1978 to protect Mayan Indian land, rights, and the pursuit of peace. The regime of General Romeo Lucas García achieved power the same year, and the already brutal exploitation of poorer Indian populations intensified. This exploitation involved terrorization through death squads, seizure of power through electoral fraud, seizure of land, sexual violation of women by military and labor bosses, exile of indigenous peoples, and genocide, among other practices. Menchú's mother and father participated in what was perceived as rebellious activity and were killed as punishment for their actions. Some of Menchú's siblings were brutally murdered, while others chose to join the guerrillas. In 1981 Menchú fled Guatemala for Mexico as a result of death threats and lived in exile for fourteen years. There, she fought for Indian land rights and for better wages for farm laborers, subsequently traveling to Europe to publicize her cause. In France, Menchú met Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, who edited her first and most influential work, Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú: Y así me nació la conciencia (1983; I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala). For this work and her efforts as a human rights activist, Menchú was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. The prize money, totaling $1.2 million, greatly aided Menchú's already vocal presence in political circles and allowed her to create a foundation in her father's name. In 1995 Menchú returned to her home country, where peace accords were finally signed the following year. Menchú led her village in waging a legal battle to hold accountable the perpetrators of the Guatemalan civil war atrocities, which left two hundred thousand Mayans dead or missing. In addition, she heads the Rigoberta Menchú-Túm Foundation located in Guatemala City.

Major Works

Menchú's writing is as much an act of catharsis as it is a literary and political endeavor. Having devoted her life to human rights activism, specifically in Central America and Guatemala, Menchú uses her autobiographical writings as a tool to draw international support and attention to the plight of indigenous people. I, Rigoberta Menchú is a Central American testimonio—a type of writing that conveys complex social problems, such as racism or poverty, through a single, central “story.” The work traces Menchú's difficult life in Guatemala, a country that experienced state-sponsored economic and cultural repression over the course of several decades. With the help of Elisabeth Burgos-Debray who transcribed interviews, Menchú, just twenty-three at the time, provides her early recollections—including the torturous death of close family members—and intermingles her memories with descriptions of Mayan cultural practices. The combination gives the narrative a power and immediacy unequaled in many other testimonios of the time. Rigoberta: La nieta de los Mayas (1998; Crossing Borders), recounts her experiences in Mexico and Europe during her many years of travel and exile. In this work, she collaborated with Gianni Miná and Dante Liano, an Italian author and literature professor. The book, reflecting a politically mature Menchú, is a collection of essays on various topics such as her political life and struggles, her winning of the Nobel Prize, her specific experiences working with and at the United Nations, her efforts to connect with other exploited peoples, and community and diversity. At times academic, at others poetic, the book picks up where the deliberately secretive I, Rigoberta Menchú concluded.

Critical Reception

Menchú's work, especially I, Rigoberta Menchú, has been generally well-received, although conflicting opinions about the veracity of her accounts do exist. Many critics have noted Menchú's passion, courage, and gift for storytelling and poetry. Other reviewers have staunchly proclaimed that I, Rigoberta Menchú was actually thinly disguised propaganda for the radical left in what were known as Third World countries. The sharp divide in critical opinion widened in January 1999, when an anthropologist claimed to possess evidence proving that important details and events in Menchú's book were either fraudulent or fictional. The assertion has spawned a rigorous debate about Menchú, her writing, her political status, and her receipt of the Nobel Prize. Her award was not revoked, in part because it was given not only for I, Rigoberta Menchú, but for Menchú's many tangible efforts toward achieving world peace, and in part because all autobiographical works “embellish” facts. The debate over the extent to which embellishment should be allowed or accepted in a testimonio has structured many of the critical responses to I, Rigoberta Menchú, which include analysis of scholarly inquiry; analysis of leftist movements and the inability of First World academics to honestly evaluate the efficacy of armed rebellion; and whether the work was perhaps wrongly categorized. In spite of the debate, Menchú's spirit, her ability to bring her personal stories to life, both vocally and in writing, and her political acumen have been lauded by many critics who feel she has profoundly affected the way the international community responds to problems and tragedies in Latin America.

Principal Works

Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú: Y así me nació la conciencia [I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala] (autobiography) 1983

Rigoberta: La nieta de los Mayas [published in English as Crossing Borders: An Autobiography] (autobiography) 1998


Nicci Gerrard (review date 6 July 1984)

SOURCE: Gerrard, Nicci. “No Crying.” New Statesman 108, no. 2781 (6 July 1984): 24.

[In the following review, Gerrard summarizes the major thematic messages in I, Rigoberta Menchú.]

We are daily faced with testimonies of appalling oppression and statistics of human rights' violations which perhaps desensitize our human and political reactions. The simple voice of Rigoberta Menchú, a young Quiché-Indian peasant who is the national leader of the Revolutionary Christian Group in her country, cuts through the distance we place between ourselves and the chorus of suffering. In her introduction to the interviews with her that make up this autobiography, Elisabeth...

(The entire section is 818 words.)

Claudia Salazar (review date fall 1990)

SOURCE: Salazar, Claudia. “Rigoberta's Narrative and the New Practice of Oral History.” Women and Language 13, no. 1 (fall 1990): 7–8.

[In the following review of I, Rigoberta Menchú, Salazar argues that the autobiography's language both disrupts and challenges typical political dichotomies.]

In the context of the Third World, women's autobiographical texts have become an integral part of the intellectual, ideological, political (and even armed) struggle waged by illiterate and silenced people against the powers of repressive states and elitist groups such as the landowning aristocracy and the industrialist bourgeoisie. In what follows I will make a close...

(The entire section is 1702 words.)

Doris Sommer (essay date summer 1991)

SOURCE: Sommer, Doris. “Rigoberta's Secrets.” Latin American Perspectives 18, no. 1 (summer 1991): 32–50.

[In the following essay on I, Rigoberta Menchú, Sommer examines the “secrets” Menchú refers to in her autobiography, studying the role that language plays in forming and preserving an ethnic and cultural identity.]

It is surprising, I think, to come continually to passages in Rigoberta Menchú's testimonial where she purposely withholds information. Of course the audible protests of silence may well be responses to anthropologist Elizabeth Burgos-Debray's line of questioning. If she were not asking particular questions, the Quiché informant...

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Rigoberta Menchú and Mary Jo McConahay (interview date January 1993)

SOURCE: Menchú, Rigoberta, and Mary Jo McConahay. “Interview with Rigoberta Menchú.” Progressive (January 1993): 28–31.

[In the following interview, Menchú discusses her role in international politics and her opinions on the Guatemalan civil war.]

Rigoberta Menchú received the Nobel Peace Prize in December, at age thirty-three, for promoting the rights of indigenous peoples. A Quiché Maya Indian from Chimel, Guatemala, she grew up watching her people brutalized by the Guatemalan military during that country's civil war, the longest-running leftist insurgency in the Americas. In her 1983 book, I, Rigoberta Menchú, she describes her life in poverty,...

(The entire section is 3514 words.)

Hector Tobar (essay date 23 January 1994)

SOURCE: Tobar, Hector. “Rigoberta Menchú's Mayan Vision.” Los Angeles Times Magazine (23 January 1994): 16–21, 29–30.

[In the following essay, Tobar examines the events in Guatemala that lead to Menchú publishing I, Rigoberta Menchú and her eventual winning of the Nobel Peace Prize.]

A society of Indian holy men meets regularly in a Guatemala City apartment to study the Mayan calendar, a 2,500-year-old timekeeping system that is at the center of their religion. In recent years, their reading of the calendar has told them that an ancient prophecy is about to come true: “The time of darkness” is coming to an end. The Mayan people, exploited for five...

(The entire section is 5162 words.)

Linda Larson (review date December 1994)

SOURCE: Larson, Linda. “A Culture Fights for Survival.” English Journal (December 1994): 105–06.

[In the following positive review of I, Rigoberta Menchú, Larson argues that the autobiography is successful because of Menchú's deep connection with her country and the land.]

Rigoberta Menchú's story [in I, Rigoberta Menchú] strikes the reader as significant on several levels: It is a social and political comment narrated by a 23-year-old Guatemalan woman whose Indian heritage, while it places her in the numerical majority, condemns her to the status of expendable political minority. It is a candid story told by a speaker who was forced to learn...

(The entire section is 826 words.)

Alice Brittin (review date fall 1995)

SOURCE: Brittin, Alice. “Close Encounters of the Third World Kind: Rigoberta Menchú and Elisabeth Burgos's Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú.Latin American Perspectives 22, no. 4 (fall 1995): 100–114.

[In the following review, Brittin examines the dynamic that Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú—which is considered to be a Central American testimonio—creates between the subject and reader.]

Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú: Y así me nació la conciencia is generally regarded as a paradigmatic example of Central American testimonio. In this first-person narrative of novel length, Rigoberta Menchú, a semiliterate Maya Quiché from the...

(The entire section is 6383 words.)

Mary Jane Treacy (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Treacy, Mary Jane. “Rigoberta Menchú: The Art of Rebellion.” In A Dream of Light and Shadow, edited by Marjorie Agosín, pp. 207–220, 322–23. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Treacy explores the politicization of Menchú and her autobiography I, Rigoberta Menchú.]

I'd like to stress that it's not only my life, it's also the testimony of my people. The important thing is that what has happened to me has happened to many other people too: My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.


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Pamela Constable (review date 26 July 1998)

SOURCE: Constable, Pamela. “Memories of the Struggle.” Washington Post Book World (26 July 1998): 9.

[In the following positive review, Constable compliments Menchú's critiques of international politics in Crossing Borders.]

“I am like a drop of water on a rock. After drip, drip, dripping in the same place, I begin to leave a mark, and I leave my mark in many people's hearts.” This is how Rigoberta Menchú, the Mayan activist from Guatemala who won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1992, describes herself in her new book, Crossing Borders. Reading it, one appreciates the enormous patience that is required to prick the world's conscience about human...

(The entire section is 876 words.)

Margaret Randall (review date September 1998)

SOURCE: Randall, Margaret. “Eyes on the Prizewinner.” Women's Review of Books 15, no. 12 (September 1998): 22–24.

[In the following review of Crossing Borders, which traces Menchú's role as an activist beginning with the publication of I, Rigoberta Menchú in 1983, Randall praises the work's subtle insights and readability.]

I … Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala was first published in 1984, edited and introduced by the Venezuelan ethnographer Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. Its author began her story of resistance with the words: “My name is Rigoberta Menchú. I am twenty three years old.”

Menchú is a Quiché...

(The entire section is 1963 words.)

Deidre McFayden (review date October 1998)

SOURCE: McFayden, Deidre. Review of Crossing Borders, by Rigoberta Menchú. Progressive 62, no. 10 (October 1998): 42–43.

[In the following review, McFayden argues that Menchú's second autobiography, Crossing Borders, is stale and disappointing in comparison to I, Rigoberta Menchú.]

Noble Prize–winner Rigoberta Menchú first gained prominence in the United States with the publication of I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (1983), her riveting account of the destruction of her family and community during the darkest years of the Guatemalan dictatorship.

The product of a week-long marathon of interviews with...

(The entire section is 772 words.)

Georg M. Gugelberger (review date November 1998)

SOURCE: Gugelberger, Georg M. “Remembering: The Post-Testimonio Memoirs of Rigoberta Menchú Tum.” Latin American Perspectives 25, no. 6 (November 1998): 62–68.

[In the following review of Rigoberta: La nieta de los Mayas, Gugelberger asserts that the autobiography is tightly structured and reflects Menchú's political maturity.]

El futuro lo podemos mejorar. Lo caminando fue lo caminando.

—Menchú (1998, p. 188)

Since its inception in 1974, the year of the publication of Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America and of Pablo Neruda's memoirs Confieso que he vivido, the focus of LAP has been on political, economic, and social issues, but its editors soon recognized the importance of studying Latin American cultural productions. There was a special issue on culture in the age of mass media in 1978 (edited by Julianne Burton and Jean Franco), one on cultural production and the struggle for hegemony in 1989, and two on testimonial literature under the title “Voices of the Voiceless” in 1992 (edited by Georg M. Gugelberger and Michael Kearney). At the center of the discussion of testimonio was Rigoberta Menchú, and since then, the journal has published her writings and those of others about her. It is fitting that the anniversary of LAP coincides with the republication of Galeano's book and the publication of the second book of Rigoberta Menchú. Her first book, Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú: Y así me nació la conciencia (1983), changed the direction of the field of Latin American studies; her second consists of reflections on this success.

The inflammatory remarks made in Simojovel, Chiapas, on July 1, 1998, by the president of the Mexican Republic (see La Nación, July 2, 1998) during one of his increasingly frequent and increasingly perturbing visits to this southern state—always followed by additional bloodletting by the military or the paramilitary forces—have been almost unanimously repudiated by intellectuals and other observers. Many considered them little short of a declaration of war. After the unjustifiable killings at Acteal and El Bosque, the impression prevails among many Mexicans that if this intransigence and this impunity continue, the pain of Guatemala may indeed be repeated (see Garrido, 1998; Gilly, 1998; Olmos, 1998). The president chided “liderazgos mesiánicos,” blamed the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation—EZLN) for the financial crisis of 1994, and spoke of “apóstoles de la hipocresía” in what must be only a slightly veiled allusion to and intended to intimidate the bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Samuel Ruiz García, mentor and protector of Rigoberta Menchú Tum.

There has been much speculation since Rigoberta Menchú received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 as to the future of the Guatemalan fighter for human rights. Would she write/dictate another book? How would she go on with her life after having suddenly become so famous? What would she do with all her money? Had she sold out to the system? With her numerous honorary doctoral degrees, would she teach in a Latin American studies program at some U.S. university? How would all this affect the noble innocence she so strongly expressed in her first testimonio? Would she go back to Guatemala? Could she go back to Guatemala? Would the gaps to which some critics had pointed (see Gugelberger, 1996) ever be filled? How would this relate to the peace process in Chiapas, where Rigoberta had spent some ten years in exile? Would she reveal the secrets regarding the production of her first book and the infamous and problematical coauthorship with Elisabeth Burgos-Debray? All these questions and many more are finally answered in Rigoberta: La nieta de los Mayas (1998), this time written by Rigoberta Menchú herself. As if she were not entirely certain about claiming authorship, however, collaboration has again been sought, this time with Gianni Miná, coauthor of Marcos e Línsurrezione Zapatsto, and Dante Liano, a Guatemaltan professor of literature in Italy who received the famous Premio Nacional de Literatura Miguel Angel Asturias in 1991 and is known for such works as El hombre de Monserrat (1994), El misterio de San Andrés (1996), and Literatura y sociedad en Guatemala (1984).

The anonymity and intensity that characterized the first book have given way to the tone of the memoir of a person of some fame. The new book is much more reflective, mediated, and focused on certain key topics. Our speaker is obviously more informed and experienced, and she has traveled to and through numerous countries and worked extensively and intensively for the UN. It may not be easy to visualize the author of the famous testimonio armed with a computer, a secretary, and a car and driver but still wearing the characteristic huipil.

The testimonio is usually a one-time affair, a coup in the world of letters. Rigoberta Menchú most certainly had achieved this coup with Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú. She virtually became the icon of this peculiar genre, and the discussion inspired numerous theories, one of them being Doris Sommers's plausible suggestion that the testimonio reveals while not telling all. In the numerous definitional debates (see, e.g., Latin American Perspectives, Issue 18, 1991; Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana 36 [1992]; Gugelberger, 1996), the testimonio has been contrasted with the autobiography and the memoir. It was something unheard of before in the larger context of autobiographical writing: the voice of the people, the voice of the voiceless, almost the refutation of Spivak's (1988) theory that the subaltern cannot speak. Whatever the testimonio was, it most certainly was other than the elite memoir. How do we fit Rigoberta Menchú's “memoirs” (and remembering is a key word in her vocabulary) among such works as Memoirs of Elisha Oscar Crosby: Reminiscences of California and Guatemala, 1849 to 1864, Memoirs of Ed Fletcher, David Brinkley: A Memoir, or the most famous of them all, Casanova's Histoire de ma vie? What do we say when the author/nonauthor of the testimonio writes a follow-up that is clearly a memoir? Where does this put the first publication, and where does this put the critic who drew the boundaries between the genres? How do we handle the autobiography by one of the inventors of the antiautobiography?

While these theoretical debates have their relevance within academia, outside of academia, a book such as this latest publication by Rigoberta Menchú was eagerly awaited. Christina Pacheco (1998), speaking at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, describes it as follows:

The lady with the three names who once, in the pages of a book, told us simply “My name is Rigoberta Menchú” has once again taken up the word. But this time, replacing her surname with her history, she multiplies her “I” in the many echoes of her people: “Rigoberta: Granddaughter of the Mayas.”

From this phrase we can gather her history, understand it, and live it as if it were our own. This is only natural; after all, between her land and ours there is only a very fine line, a line that grows greener right where she begins to write her fourth name, M'in, which is Rigoberta and Lupita but also, from now on and forever, Guatemala.

Pacheco titled her speech “The Daughter of the Mayas,” but Rigoberta Menchú prefers to call herself their granddaughter because it suggests a much larger family picture, so much more history: “I am no philosopher. I am quite simply a granddaughter of the Mayas—not a daughter, because a daughter is too close in family terms. Being a granddaughter means having grandparents, a history, a past” (Menchú, 1998: 130). As to the reference to the many names, Rigoberta Menchú is explicit that the name Rigoberta was chosen when she left Guatemala for exile in Chiapas, and it was in fact with Chiapas and with the new name that her concientization began: “My name is Rigoberta Menchú Tum only since 1979. In reality my true name, and that of my grandmother, is M'ín” (1998: 114).

In 1979, the 20-year-old Rigoberta saw her home in Laj Chimel, Guatemala, for the last time. Her brother Patrocinio was killed, the horrors of the “tierra arrasada” began, and she left for Chiapas, where Samuel Ruiz saved her life. Chiapas and her hometown Laj Chimel in Guatemala are the formative places of this woman's resistance to the 36 years of Guatemala's civil war: “Chiapas gave me my life back. All my life! Chiapas also made me conscious of the necessity for change. The poverty, the hunger, the injustice in which its people lived reminded me of my own Guatemala” (1998: 237). When she arrived in Chiapas, she dressed like a Tzeltal woman and called herself Lupita. The close connection between Chiapas and Guatemala makes us read the book not only as a text about Guatemala but also as a symbolic text about Chiapas. And the structure of the book, with its verticality, its strong and convincing movement to a solution—something we do not yet see in her first book—makes us hopeful for a potential solution even for Chiapas, even though such a solution is becoming more and more unlikely from day to day. The inclusion of the peace treaty between the Guatemalan government and the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union—URNG) in an appendix allows us to see Rigoberta as a strong protagonist in this peace process and also seems to imply a role for her in the pursuit of peace in Chiapas.

Rigoberta has always wanted to write a follow-up to her first testimonio. She felt that certain things could not be revealed at the time of its publication; she felt that she focused too much on her father and too little on her mother; she had not been able to mention names or reveal many secrets. All this has been corrected in the new book. In the acknowledgments, she says that she had long dreamed of writing another book and that friends and coworkers had encouraged her to do so—singling out Gianni Minà, Dante Liano, and Gunti, the Italian publisher of Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú (1984). La nieta de los Mayas has more than one preface. The first, very brief one is by Eduardo Galeano, who makes the point that Rigoberta is speaking not about Mayas but from among them. The second is by the director of the Spanish section of Amnesty International, Esteban Beltrán, who describes how the horrors of Guatemala's civil war had led to the peace treaty of December 29, 1996. This, then, is basically the itinerary of Rigoberta Menchú's narrative. Beltrán's statements are followed by a prologue by Gianni Minà, who writes of his efforts, with Liano and the Italian publisher, to persuade Rigoberta to tell the world what had happened since she left Guatemala for exile in Mexico and describes the book as follows (Menchú, 1998, 15):

This is the testimonial book of an indigenous Maya woman of the Quiché region of Guatemala who, having received the Nobel Peace Prize, reflects on the values of her civilization and of ours. This is an act of compensation for Rigoberta Menchú, who in the early 1980s rent the veil of hypocrisy of the West, which talked about human rights while refusing—out of sheer opportunism—to recognize them as the military dictatorship of Guatemala inflicted genocide on its people.

Minà's prologue is followed by a brief introduction by the Quiché poet Humberto Ak'abal, who also refers to the book as a testimonio, calling it Rigoberta Menchú: Cruzando fronteras (which must have been its original title but is now the title of its fifth chapter). The fact that this book has so many prefaces is a clear indication that Rigoberta Menchú once again wants her narrative to be understood as part of a collective effort.

Rigoberta's narrative proper begins with the first person plural as did the first testimonio: “We indigenous families, Maya families, would be unhappy living without people, without children” (Menchú, 1998: 29). The familiar insistence on the community, however, is immediately shattered in the first chapter by an event that could have had no place in the first testimonio. After emphasizing the characteristics of Maya life, family, and community, Rigoberta is forced to describe the attempt by a member of her extended family to kidnap her for ransom. The dialectical setting of this first chapter is a stroke of genius. It reveals Rigoberta's strong and idealistic communal ethic while showing that not even Maya society is the way she would like it to be, and it helps to dispel the reader's first impression that this is just one more idealist text. It is significant that Rigoberta Menchú emphasizes the necessity of dreams. The first word of her acknowledgments is “dream,” and the narrative proper ends with the reaffirmation—often very poetic (and Rigoberta Menchú frequently mentions writing poetry)—of a dream of Laj Chimel. In between is a considerably more structured text which—in contrast to the first testimonio—moves in a clear direction: toward the Nobel Peace Prize and the peace agreement in Guatemala.

This text, which sometimes seems academic, gives us the history of Rigoberta's exile, her involvement with the UN, her views of minorities and indigenous nations, documentary photographs, and so on. In contrast to her first book, which is exclusively Maya-centered, this more structured narrative, while undoubtedly preserving the Mayan touch, sees the necessity of connections with other exploited people struggling for their rights, notably the North American Indians.

References to the first testimonio are few, but they are very significant. Rigoberta says that her dream was to retrieve and supplement her first book (Menchú 1998: 254). The importance of her coauthor, Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, diminishes, since Menchú stresses the influence of a Guatemalan friend in Paris who persuaded her to dictate her testimonio to Burgos-Debray: “I want to say that Arturo Taracena played an important part in the book” (Menchú, 1998: 253). It was the same Taracena who would later convince Rigoberta Menchú shortly before she received the Nobel Prize that if she indeed received it, she should start a foundation. This forms an entire chapter of the new book, with remarks on newly won privilege and questions why this could not also happen to other Guatemalans. Taracena's recommendation was in fact followed by Rigoberta Menchú, who established the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation.1 The Nobel Prize obviously opened many doors, but Rigoberta Menchú has not forgotten her humble origins and continues fighting for human rights issues: as she puts it, “A Nobel Prize winner has to work every day; he has to sacrifice and give the best he can to his job.”2 Even those skeptical of such a book will be impressed by its impossible adherence to a dream of community as the basis of development and its advocacy of the value of and need for “la tierra.” Against all odds, this “mujer sencilla de un pueblo millenaria” clings to the statement with which Galeano has concluded his short preface: “A mi, la vida me maravilla.”


  1. A readily accessible statement on the ten-point program of the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation can be found on the web.

  2. “An Interview with Rigoberta Menchú Tum in Guatemala City, Guatemala, July 6, 1995”


Garrido, Luis Javier

1998 “El hooligan.” La Jornada, July 3.

Gilly, Adolfo

1998 “Zona de peligro.” La Jornada, July 3.

Gugelberger, Georg M. (ed.)

1996 The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Menchú, Rigoberta

1983 Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú: Y así me nació la conciencia. Mexico City: Siglo XXI.

1998 Rigoberta: La nieta de los Mayas. Mexico City: Aguilar.

Olmos, José Gil

1998 “El mundo juzgará cómo México y Zedillo actúan en Chiapas.” La Jornada, July 3.

Pacheco, Christina

1998 “La hija de los mayas.” La Jornada, April 25.

Peña, Rodolfo F.

1989 “Qué pasa en Chiapas.” La Jornada, July 2.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty

1988 “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Molly Moore (essay date 21 January 1999)

SOURCE: Moore, Molly. “Nobel Winner's Work Disputed; Scholar Claims Guatemalan Exaggerated Her Horrifying Story.” Washington Post (21 January 1999): C01.

[In the following essay, Moore discusses Menchú's first public statements regarding the allegations of falsehoods in her autobiography I, Rigoberta Menchú.]

Rigoberta Menchú, the Guatemalan Indian who suffered through the savage wartime assassinations of both parents, government persecution for championing the cause of indigenous peasants, and death threats that prevented her from returning to her home town to celebrate her 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, is now facing a new inquisition.

It involves...

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Robin Wilson (essay date 15 January 1999)

SOURCE: Wilson, Robin. “A Challenge to the Veracity of a Multicultural Icon.” Chronicle of Higher Education 45, no. 19 (15 January 1999): A14–A16.

[In the following essay, Wilson explores the controversy surrounding the alleged fabrications in I, Rigoberta Menchú.]

The autobiography of a poor Guatemalan woman whose family was oppressed by light-skinned landowners and brutalized by right-wing soldiers has become a cornerstone of the multicultural canon over the last 15 years. So far-reaching is its popularity—it is read in courses ranging from history to literature to anthropology—that its author, Rigoberta Menchú, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, has...

(The entire section is 2901 words.)

Greg Grandin and Francisco Goldman (review date 8 February 1999)

SOURCE: Grandin, Greg, and Francisco Goldman. Review of I, Rigoberta Menchú, by Rigoberta Menchú. Nation 268, no. 5 (8 February 1999): 25–27.

[In the following review, Grandin faults David Stoll's criticisms of Menchú and her autobiography I, Rigoberta Menchú.]

In the early eighties, I, Rigoberta Menchú became an international bestseller. A moving account of gruesome repression, gut-wrenching poverty and vicious racism, the book made Menchú a human rights celebrity, eventually winning her a Nobel Peace Prize and focusing worldwide attention on the plight of Guatemalan Indians. Menchú was unsparing in her criticism of the Guatemalan Army, charging...

(The entire section is 1477 words.)

Charles Lane (review date 8 March 1999)

SOURCE: Lane, Charles. “Deceiving is Believing.” New Republic (8 March 1999): 38.

[In the following review, Lane discusses the accusations of deception that David Stoll brought against Menchú in his book Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans.]

In the emblematic year of the Columbus quincentennial, Menchú struck the Nobel Committee in Norway as the perfect embodiment of the downside of the Discovery. In the intervening years, not surprisingly, the tiny, earnest figure of Menchú has become a forceful political presence in her native country and elsewhere. She has traveled the world as a United Nations-sponsored advocate for the indigenous peoples...

(The entire section is 4261 words.)

Calvin Reid (essay date 8 March 1999)

SOURCE: Reid, Calvin. “Nobel Winner Rejects ‘Unjust’ Allegations That She Lied.” Publishers Weekly 246, no. 10 (8 March 1999): 20–21.

[In the following essay, Reid summarizes David Stoll's various allegations against Menchú and I, Rigoberta Menchú.]

Speaking through an interpreter at a press conference in New York City on February 11, Rigoberta Menchú, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, rejected charges that she lied about her background in I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, the 1982 book that focused international attention on the country's bloody civil war. Forced to address the mounting controversy about the veracity of her...

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Rigoberta Menchú, Jo-Marie Burt, and Fred Rosen (interview date March–April 1999)

SOURCE: Menchú, Rigoberta, Jo-Marie Burt, and Fred Rosen. “Truth-Telling and Memory in Postwar Guatemala: An Interview with Rigoberta Menchú.” NACLA Report on the Americas 32, no. 5 (March–April 1999): 6–10.

[In the following interview, Menchú responds to several of David Stoll's accusations against her autobiography I, Rigoberta Menchú.]

Rigoberta Menchú, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 and has been a tireless activist for indigenous and human rights, has become the subject of controversy. Last fall, anthropologist David Stoll, a professor at Middlebury College, published a book entitled Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor...

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Peter Canby (essay date 8 April 1999)

SOURCE: Canby, Peter. “The Truth about Rigoberta Menchú.” New York Review of Books 46, no. 6 (8 April 1999): 28–33.

[In the following essay, Canby summarizes Stoll's criticisms against Menchú and I, Rigoberta Menchú, and discusses the details surrounding the autobiography's editorial development.]


In 1983, Editions Gallimard in Paris brought out the original French edition of a book published the following year in English as I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. I, Rigoberta is the first-person story of Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a young Maya Indian woman whose family and village had been virtually...

(The entire section is 6804 words.)

Elizabeth Burgos (essay date November 1999)

SOURCE: Burgos, Elizabeth. “The Story of a Testimonio.Latin American Perspectives 26, no. 6 (November 1999): 53–63.

[In the following essay, Burgos, the editor of I, Rigoberta Menchú, describes how she came to know Menchú and how she handled the transcription and development of the material that appeared in the book.]

A zeal for transcendence was the sentiment Rigoberta Menchú transmitted to me at our first meeting in Paris one January afternoon in 1982. She was accompanied by Marie Tremblay, a Canadian doctor and collaborator of the guerrilla group Organización del Pueblo en Armas (Organization of the People in Arms—ORPA). To understand our...

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Gary H. Gossen (essay date November 1999)

SOURCE: Gossen, Gary H. “Rigoberta Menchú and Her Epic Narrative.” Latin American Perspectives 26, no. 6 (November 1999): 64–69.

[In the following essay, Gossen argues that I, Rigoberta Menchú should be categorized as a work of epic literature.]

I would like to address three themes that link Rigoberta Menchú's narrative [in I, Rigoberta Menchú] to the politics of ethnicity and cultural pluralism in modern Mesoamerica: (1) a contextual appreciation of the larger picture of the cultural and political transformation of the Maya communities of Mexico and Guatemala, of which Rigoberta Menchú's book is a key but far from most important part; (2) the...

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David Stoll (essay date November 1999)

SOURCE: Stoll, David. “Rigoberta Menchú and the Last-Resort Paradigm.” Latin American Perspectives 26, no. 6 (November 1999): 70–80.

[In the following essay, Stoll, author of Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, responds to his critics by analyzing the nature of insurrection and by differentiating between solidarity work and human rights activism.]

Many people have asked whether I am surprised by the furor over my book. The answer is no, not really—except for the reaction from some of my colleagues in Latin American studies. I am surprised that, 17 years after Rigoberta told her story and 2 years after the Guatemalan peace agreement...

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Elizabeth Burgos (essay date November 1999)

SOURCE: Burgos, Elizabeth. “Testimonio and Transmission.” Latin American Perspectives 26, no. 6 (November 1999): 86–88.

[In the following essay, Burgos discusses the negative repercussions that have resulted from classifying I, Rigoberta Menchú as a testimonio.]

I have preferred to keep out of the controversies that have arisen as a result of the publication of David Stoll's book, but I would like to add a couple of elements that might enrich the debate and clear up misunderstandings.

My first impression was that the debate was actually more revealing about a certain cultural discomfort at the center of North American society than...

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Further Reading


Beverly, John. “The Real Thing (Our Rigoberta).” Modern Language Quarterly 57, no. 2 (June 1996): 129–40.

Beverly uses Lacanian theory to analyze authorial representation and “truth” in testimonios, citing I, Rigoberta Menchú as a main example.

Chant, Sylvia. Review of Crossing Borders, by Rigoberta Menchú. Ethnic and Racial Studies 23, no. 6 (November 2000): 1120–121.

Chant acknowledges that she approached Crossing Borders with skepticism, but found the work to be inspirational and enlightening.

Handley, George B. “‘It's an Unbelievable...

(The entire section is 430 words.)