I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala

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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.

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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.

Menchú's community had always impressed upon her the importance of maintaining the ways of their ancestors, and they saw the encroachment of ladino as a direct threat to their way of life. Menchú saw, quite readily, the discrimination suffered by her people, and the divisive measures employed by the ladino society to keep the different Indian groups separate, so that the Indians, who were the majority population in Guatemala, could not unite and resist the discrimination and exploitation. Her growing awareness about this dire situation sparked her entry into activism, and she risked her life to organize the peasants against this abuse.

Menchú's father, Vincente Menchú, a leader in their Indian community, was also well aware of this exploitation, and worked most of his life to improve working and living conditions; he, his wife, and his son were brutally killed by the government for their activism. Menchú left Guatemala for a short period, when her own life was most in danger, but she ultimately returned to continue her resistance work. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. She used some of the money accompanying the prize to establish a foundation in honor of her father, and continues to travel and write extensively, speaking out against social injustice. In 1998 she published a sequel to her autobiography, titled Crossing Borders.

(The entire section contains 1914 words.)

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