I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1308

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...

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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 Menchú discovers the power of language, and the multiple ways that Indians are cheated, divided, and abused because of their illiteracy. She vows to learn Spanish, which she knows is, in many ways, a break with her community, since in learning Spanish, she will learn many other ways of ladinos. It is also at this time that the CUC is created—the Comité Unidad de Campesina, or the United Peasants Committee. Both Menchú and her family are active leaders of the CUC at different points in its history.

The government's next step is to disrupt the communal structure of Indian village life by giving each Indian family a parcel of land, too small to cultivate efficiently. The Indians resist, and combine their parcels into a common area, divided into cultivated land and living areas for all. Since Menchú's parents had long been the leaders of their community, they are elected to live in the center, with others surrounding them. The government's response to this resistance is to send in soldiers to break up the villages by force; the soldiers, some of them recruited Indians, engage in mass looting, murders, rape, and torture. Menchú's community decides to defend itself by placing booby-traps all around the village, and they are successful, even managing to capture one of the soldiers. In accordance with their respect for human life, they do not kill the solider, but impress upon him how wrong his actions are, and beseech him to tell his comrades the same. After this success, Menchú travels to nearby villages and organizes them in a similar way.

One of Menchú's earliest experiences with organizing was facilitating Bible study meetings in her community, which was largely Christian, thanks to the influence of Catholic Action, a religious organization started in 1945 to spread Catholic doctrine among the Indians. Menchú explains that Indians took to Catholicism readily because the Bible and Indian culture had many elements in common, such as veneration of ancestors, expression of thanks to a God, and the promise of a better afterlife for suffering endured on earth. Once she decides to learn Spanish in order to better organize the peasant population, Menchú receives most of her tutelage from sympathetic priests. She does recognize, however, that there are two Catholic churches in Guatemala: the church of hierarchy, which turns a blind eye to the Indians' plight, teaching Indians to be passive and accept ‘‘God's will,’’ and the church of the poor, which actively joins the struggle, with priests and nuns risking their lives in the same way, for the same cause.

As Menchú and her family become more active in the CUC's resistance activities, they become wanted by the government. Menchú's younger brother is kidnapped and brutally tortured by the military, and her family is called to watch him and other prisoners be burned alive. If they refuse, they would be arrested as accomplices. After the death of her brother, Menchú's father, as part of a mass protest, occupies the Spanish embassy, where they are killed when troops set fire to the building. Menchú's mother is captured, raped, tortured, and left to die of exposure on a hilltop, her open wounds infected and suppurating. Her body is guarded by soldiers, to ensure that no one comes to save her or claim the body; they guard the corpse until it completely disintegrates.

Ultimately, Menchú renounces marriage and motherhood, for several reasons. Although she acknowledges that having children is natural, and that family planning is another abomination placed on Indians by the ladino society, she cannot bear the thought of bringing children into the world who will suffer as she has. Also, she knows that her work will be limited by having children, and while many men in the organizing movement are very enlightened about their common plight, that many are also trapped in the chauvinist ways of thinking which place men above women.

Forced to go into hiding after the death of her mother, Menchú barely avoids capture while hiding in a church. She works briefly for a group of nuns at a convent, until she learns that they are often visited by a member of the secret police. She escapes to Mexico with the help of non-peasant members of the resistance movement, and is reunited with her four sisters. She rejects the offer of European supporters to go to Europe, and returns to Guatemala, where she begins to work as an organizer for the Vincente Menchú Revolutionary Christians, a group formed in memory of her father, an unceasing activist and devout Christian.

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