Rigoberta Menchú 1959-
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.
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.
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.
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.