Rigoberta Menchú

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Nicci Gerrard (review date 6 July 1984)

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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 Burgos-Debray calls her the ‘privileged witness’ who ‘refuses to let us forget.’

Rigoberta Menchú has dedicated her life to a cause, so that her personal story simultaneously unfolds the experiences of the 22 other tribes in Guatemala. In her culture, where deep religious faith and social revolt are indivisible, where ‘everything that is done today is done in the memory of those that have passed on,’ and where the individual and community are balanced in a system of generous, ordered interchange, the subjective ‘I’ can efface itself and speak in the name of the inarticulate thousands.

I … Rigoberta Menchú is a cry to all those who focus their attention on El Salvador and Nicaragua and neglect the fierce racism, injustice and murder in Guatemala.

Rigoberta Menchú was born into an Indian village in the mountains 23 years ago. She describes how ancestral values are reverently handed down and children are immediately initiated into their history of suffering but at the same time are taught ‘to love everything that exists.’ This gentleness can slide into submission. At the age of eight Rigoberta is already a full-time worker (‘we have no adolescence’) when she sees her brother slowly die of malnutrition. Her angry response contrasts with her tenth birthday message: ‘I would have my ambitions but … My life wouldn't change, it would go on the same—work, poverty, suffering.’

By 12 Rigoberta is a catechist, but one ‘who walks upon this earth, not one who thinks only of the Kingdom of God.’ Her growing anger is charted by tragedy: the deaths of family and friends and the degradation of working as a maid in the capital erodes inherited fatalism. She learns Spanish, the language of repression, as a weapon to turn against her enemies. The increasing maturity of her political vision accompanies the growth of the organised Indian resistance, and Rigoberta's achievement is that she translates complex social and political struggles into emotional, almost naive, statements. When she reports destructions of entire villages her childlike interjections force the reader to confront the basic human cruelty lying behind political injustice: ‘We love our land very much. Since those people tried to take our land away, we have grieved very much … in the past, no one person owned the land. The land belonged to everyone.’

With the coming to power of the Garcia Lucas regime in 1978 the savagery against the Indians increased. Rigoberta's own experiences bear witness to this: her younger brother is kidnapped, horrifically mangled and slaughtered in front of his family. With its deadpan description of the torture, where for 16 days stones are thrust into his eyes, his testicles are tightly tied, his flesh cut from his face and body and he is thrown into a well full of corpses, this book comes closest to a vision of hell on earth. Rigoberta's beloved father dies in the occupation of the Spanish Embassy, an event which calls forth from his daughter an appeal heartrending for how little it asks: ‘we must give our lives, I know—but not altogether. Let it be one at a time so that someone is left.’ Finally her mother is repeatedly raped, terribly tortured and left to die covered in flies and urinated on by soldiers. Rigoberta's restrained elegy for the victims, who simply refused to give up their rightful land—‘We have to keep this grief as a testimony to them’—is also a pledge of action: ‘no crying; fighting's what we want.’

Since these incidents Rigoberta has renounced marriage and motherhood and devoted herself to the struggle against injustice and exploitation. She has also renounced fatalism. In spite of a deep religious commitment, she criticises priests ‘for they have taught us to accept many things, to be passive, to be a dormant people.’ As an ‘Indianist,’ a Christian and a young vital woman, she names her struggle as one of ‘faith.’ Her cause, ‘born out of wretchedness and bitterness,’ rests on the belief that ‘happiness belongs to everyone, but that happiness has been stolen by a few.’ The basic simplicity of the message lying beneath layers of fact and ideology informs also Rigoberta's undramatic voice, wisely left by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray to speak for itself. It is a voice that in spite of past and present horrors can state, ‘Today I can say it is a struggle which cannot be stopped.’

Claudia Salazar (review date fall 1990)

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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 reading of one of these texts in an attempt to analyze the ways in which, from a feminist standpoint, it directly and indirectly addresses and transgresses Western imposed dualism such as the relationships between text/context, personal/political, public/private, knower/known, morality/literacy, and high/low culture.

I … Rigoberta Menchú (edited by Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, translated by Ann Wright) can be broadly characterized as the testimony of a Guatemalan Indian organizer fighting for her people's civil rights. However, defying literary conventions of this genre, Rigoberta's testimony is not the recounting of the personal itinerary of an illiterate peasant woman living in a particular historical context. Rather, as the opening lines of the text reveal, this woman's story is her people's history of oppression:

My name is Rigoberta Menchú. I am twenty three years old. This is my testimony, I didn't learn it from a book and I didn't learn it alone. I like to stress that it's not my life, it's also the testimony of my people. It's hard for me to remember everything that's happened to me in my life since there have been many very bad times but, yes, moments of joy as we 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.

As Barbara Harlow (1987) points out, Third World women's autobiographies or oral histories of resistance tend to allocate the private and domestic experiences of the narrator in the historical and public context of their peoples' struggle. Rigoberta's introduction of herself can be read as a rhetorical attempt to restructure the relationship between the personal and political through a subversion of autobiographical individualism. The ‘I’ that initially positions Rigoberta as the author of the text or the subject of meaning in the book's title is soon undermined by her own recognition that her life-story contains the life-histories of all poor, oppressed Guatemalans. This effacement of Rigoberta's self, together with her denial that her experiences are somehow unique or extraordinary, remains, throughout the text, her strongest political statement. The private/public Western-imposed dichotomy becomes blurred in a textual move that is politically motivated and, we might add, specifically feminist.

The claim that the political is also personal, which constitutes one of the original insights of Western feminist discourse, finds its expression in this Quiché woman's ‘discovery’ that her self cannot be defined in individual terms but only as a collective self engaged in a common struggle. In fact, as the Spanish title to Rigoberta's testimony suggests (My name is Rigoberta Menchú and This Is the Way My Consciousness Was Born), her story documents the awakening in her of a political consciousness followed by redefinitions of her gender, ethnic, and linguistic identities. In rethinking and reframing the question of the relationship between the personal and the political, the individual and the authoritarian State, Rigoberta's autobiographical testimony, as the above passage reveals, also brings to the foreground the relationship of the text to its context. According to Rosenblatt (1980) and Harlow (1986, 1987), autobiography has become “a genre especially appropriate to those groups which have been historically denied access to the literary pantheon” (Harlow, 1987, p. 121). As a response to specific material, intellectual, and social circumstances in many Third World countries—such as brutal repression and censorship—Rigoberta's and other women's autobiographies come to play an important role in intervening and inscribing in the historical record the political-cultural trajectories and collective memories of raped/silenced/erased ethnic minorities.1

A new practice of listening and telling is sometimes called oral history. Sometimes it's called testimony, or testimonial journalism. Some people refer to it more simply as in-depth interviewing. Whatever the label, it has created a body of voice and image, a new resource literature—much of it from the so-called Third World and much of it from and about women—which provides a whole other way of listening to and looking at life in places like Latin America (Margaret Randall, 1988).

This new practice of journalism, however, is not free from contradictions and critical tensions. The relationship between the intellectual who listens and scribes and the illiterate who speaks is an inherently unequal one. Traditionally, cultural products and activities have been used to propagate internal colonialism and military domination of ethnic groups. Peasants' and Indians' uneasiness toward and suspicion of scriptural authority can be seen in Rigoberta's text when she claims that her testimony was not learned from a book, nor was it learned alone. Rigoberta's awareness of the power relationship between intellectuals and lay people and her indictment of the former's oppressive theoretical discourses (expressed in her rejection of books) is just one instance of the many transgressions that her narrative enacts:

There is something else we are discovering in Guatemala to do with intellectuals and illiterate people. We've learned that we haven't all the ability of an intellectual: an intellectual is perhaps quicker and able to make finer syntheses. But nevertheless, others of us have perhaps the same ability for other things. Before, everyone used to think that a leader had to be someone who knew how to read, write, and prepare documents. And our leaders fell into that trap for a time, and said: ‘I am a leader, it is my job to lead and yours to fight.’ Well, in every process there are certain exchanges which have to be made. That is not unusual. I think that every movement has gone through the process whereby an opportunist arrives, feels that he is worth more than the others and abuses their confidence. At one time, many of our leaders would come from the capital to see us in the fields and say: ‘You peasants are stupid, you don't read or study.’ And the peasants told them: ‘You can go to Hell with your books. We know you don't make a revolution with books, you make it through struggle.

(p. 223)

In The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, Stallybrass and White (1986) explore the ways in which bourgeois Western intellectual discourse has constructed the social terrain in terms of the symbolic polarities of the exalted and the base, with the peasantry, the urban poor, subcultures, and marginals—that is, the powerless—being displaced and confined to the low end of the hierarchy. The low, in Rigoberta's account, is characterized as ‘stupid,’ ‘dirty,’ ‘promiscuous’ or, at best, ‘picturesque.’ (An excellent illustration of the latter is found in Elisabeth Burgos-Debray's introduction to I … Rigoberta Menchú, where she writes that her decision to correct Rigoberta's gender mistakes in Spanish was motivated by the editor's fear that they would make Rigoberta look ‘picturesque’). One of the ways of effecting political transformation, Stallybrass and White argue, is for the ‘low/debased’ to challenge the hierarchy of discourses. By revaluing her peoples' experiences as a legitimate source of knowledge, Rigoberta inverts the polarities between morality/literacy, theory/practice, expert knowledge/common knowledge. The role of the sympathetic anthropologist who listens, in turn, can be twofold: first, she can open up the space for the ‘subaltern’ to speak; secondly, she can also make visible the connections and the reciprocal productions between high and low cultures. In a way, Burgos-Debray's task in editing Rigoberta's testimony is to articulate the antagonistic and complex process of the formation of the “cultural imaginary”—or ethnic unconscious—of the ladinos (descendents of the Spanish colonizers). That is, in the very struggle to differentiate/exclude themselves from both the indigenous populations and the European colonizers, features of pro-Colombian cultures became incorporated in the ladinos' “imaginary unconscious.”

Rigoberta's testimony is part of a counter-hegemonic ideological production and, according to Harlow (1987), in the Third World context it is also inseparable from armed struggle.

As such, Rigoberta's autobiography—together with her use of Spanish—remains a political strategy. As a resistance strategist and a member of the oppressed, Rigoberta concludes her narrative by warning us that ‘I'm still keeping my Indian identity a secret. I'm still keeping secret what I think no one should know. Not even anthropologists or intellectuals, no matter how many books they have, can find out all our secrets.’

The shift in the structure of address (from “I” to “our”) in the last lines of the text reenacts Rigoberta's initial self-effacement and disrupts, once again, autobiographical authority. After 247 pages of testimony, the inside/outside opposition has not been dismantled but reinforced. To the quest for Truth of the scientific disciplines, Rigoberta counterposes the secrets of the Indians.

In a world of enduring and changing inequalities, knowledge can no longer be conceptualized in neutral terms but must be seen as inherently enmeshed in power relations. Resistance narratives such as Rigoberta's emerge as a way of rewriting the historical record. These autobiographies, as de Certeau (1986) would put it, are testimonies of a peasant and Indian revolution “taking shape in the fact and consciousness” and which is already “stirring the silent depths of Latin America.”


  1. It should be observed that it is somewhat ironic to call the Indians in Guatemala ‘minorities’ when they amount to approximately 80 percent of the total population.


de Certeau, Michel (1986). Heterologies: Discourses on the Other. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Harlow, Barbara (1987). Resistance Literature. New York: Methuen.

Harlow, Barbara (1986). “From the Women's Prison: Third World Women's Narratives of Prison.” Feminist Studies, 12 (3).

Randall, Margaret (1988). “Reclaiming voices: Notes on a New Female Practice in Journalism.” Women and Language, Fall/Winter 88.

Rosenblatt, Roger (1980). “Black Autobiography: Life as the Death Weapon.” In James Olney (Ed.) Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Stallybrass, Peter & White, Allon (1986). The Politics & Poetics of Transgression. New York: Cornell University Press.

Doris Sommer (essay date summer 1991)

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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 would logically have no reason to refuse answers. From the introduction to Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú (1983), we know that the testimonial is being mediated at several levels by Burgos, who records, edits and arranges the information, so that knowledge in this text announces its partiality. The book, in other words, does not presume any immediacy between the narrating “I” and the readerly “you.” Yet some readers have the illusion of immediacy, deriving perhaps from certain (autobiographical?) habits of reading in which we prefer to project onto the persona we are hearing a present and knowable self, despite being told that the voice is second or third hand. Some of us are therefore reluctant to doubt a writer's sincerity or the possibility that a text can offer inviolable truth, even though we are aware that this is a textual construct. I suggest that these projections of presence and truth are hardly generous. Instead, they allow for an unproblematized appropriation which closes off the distance between writer and reader, disregarding the text's insistence on the political value of keeping us at a distance.

What I find noteworthy here is that Rigoberta's refusal to tell secrets remains on the page after the editing is done. Either the informant, the scribe, or both were determined to keep a series of admonitions (which may be typical and evidently have their tradition during these anthropological interrogations) in the published text. The refusals say, in effect, that this document is a screen, in the double sense that Henri Lefebvre (1988: 78) uses the term: something that shows and that also covers up. From the beginning, the narrator tells us ever so clearly that she is not going to tell some things, saying: “Indians have been very careful not to disclose any details of their communities”1 (Menchú, 1984: 9; 1983: 42). They are largely “public” secrets, known to the Quichés and kept from us in a gesture of self-preservation. “They are told that the Spaniards dishonoured our ancestors' finest sons. … And it is to honour these humble people that we must keep our secrets. And no-one except we Indians must know” (Menchú, 1984: 13; 1983: 50. See also 1984: 17, 20, 59, 67, 69, 84, 125, 170, 188; in Spanish, 1983: 55, 60, 118, 131, 133, 155, 212, 275, 299). By some editorial or joint decision, the very last words of the testimonial are, “I'm still keeping secret what I think no-one should know. Not even anthropologists or intellectuals, no matter how many books they have, can find out all our secrets” (Menchú, 1984: 247, 1983: 377). Even the most sympathetic reader cannot know the whole truth. Nevertheless, the almost 400-page original book is full of information about Rigoberta herself, her community, traditional practices, the armed struggle, strategic decisions.

Therefore, a reader may wonder what “cannot know” secrets means, and why so much attention is being called to our insufficiency as readers. Does it mean that the knowledge is impossible or that it is forbidden? Is she saying that we are incapable of knowing, or that we ought not to know? My line of questioning is not entirely original, of course. It echoes the quandary that Nietzsche posed in a now famous posthumous work about the nature of language. If I repeat his dilemma here it is to highlight a particular textual strategy in Rigoberta's testimonial, to notice it and to respect its results.

Nietzsche begins his consideration of the possible truth value of language, including philosophical language that makes claims to truth, by wondering what our general criteria for validity are. The first, he says, is the identity principle. “We are unable to affirm and to deny one and the same thing,” but adds immediately, “this is a subjective empirical law, not the expression of any ‘necessity’ but only an inability. … The proposition therefore contains no criterion of truth, but an imperative concerning that which should count as true” (quoted in de Man, 1979: 119–120). In other words, the identity principle, which at least from Aristotle on has been the ground for logical claims to truth, merely presupposes that A equals A as an ethical restriction; it is a necessary beginning, a fiction that constructs a ground for systematic philosophical thinking. If the claims of philosophy are based on a fiction, there can evidently be no categorical difference between one kind of writing and another, between logic and literature. It is rather a difference of degree in self-consciousness. In literature, tropes are obviously constructed and fictional, while nonliterary texts presume their tropes to be true. Yet language, Nietzsche argues, cannot absolutely affirm anything without acknowledging that any affirmation is based on a collective lie. He concludes from this exposition that the difference between truth and fiction, philosophy and literature, constatives and performatives, philosophical persuasion and literary troping is finally undecidable.

How then are we to take Rigoberta's protestations of silence as she continues to talk? Are there really many secrets that she is not divulging, in which case her restraint would be true and real? Or is she performing a kind of rhetorical, fictional, seduction in which she lets the fringe of a hidden text show in order to tease us into thinking that the fabric must be extraordinarily complicated and beautiful, even though there may not be much more than fringe to show? If we happen not to be anthropologists, how passionately interested does she imagine the reader to be in her ancestral secrets? Yet her narrative makes the assumption that we are (or, in the case of secrets, would be) interested, and therefore piques a curiosity that may not have preexisted her resistance. That is why it may be useful to notice that the refusal is performative; it constructs metaleptically the apparent cause of the refusal: our craving to know. Before she denies us the satisfaction of learning her secrets, we may not be aware of any desire to grasp them. Another way of posing the alternatives is to ask whether she is withholding her secrets because we are so different and would understand them only imperfectly; or whether we should not know them for ethical reasons, because our knowledge would lead to power over her community. As in the case of Nietzsche's meditation on the nature of rhetoric in general, the choice between ethics and epistemology is undecidable. Because even if her own explicit rationale is the nonempirical, ethical rationale (claiming that we should not know the secrets because of the particular power attached to the stories we tell about ourselves) she suggests another reason. It is the degree of our foreignness, our cultural difference that would make her secrets incomprehensible to the outsider. We could never know them as she does, because we would inevitably force her secrets into our framework. “Theologians have come and observed us,” for example, “and have drawn a false impression of the Indian world” (Menchú, 1984: 9 translation adjusted; 1983: 42).

Guatemalan Indians have a long history of being read that way by outsiders who speak European languages. From the sixteenth century to the present, the Maya have been “surviving conquest,” as a recent demographic analysis puts it. If some readers perceive a certain ahistorical inflection in Rigoberta's sense that the Spanish conquest is an event of the recent past, George Lovell might corroborate her sense of continuity in this new period of cultural genocide. “Viewed in historical perspective, it is disconcerting to think how much the twentieth century resembles the sixteenth, for the parallels between cycles of conquest hundreds of years apart are striking. Model villages are designed to serve similar purposes as colonial congregaciones—to function as the institutional means by which one culture seeks to reshape the ways and conventions of another, to operate as authoritarian mechanisms of resettlement, indoctrination, and control” (Lovell, 1988: 47, see also Manz, 1988). The less comprehension in/by Spanish, the better; it is the language that the enemy uses to conquer differences. For an Indian, to learn Spanish can amount to passing over to the other side, to the ladinos, which simply means “Latin” or Spanish speakers. “My father used to call them ‘ladinized Indians,’ … because they act like ladinos, bad ladinos” (Menchú, 1984: 24; 1983: 66).

One paradox that Rigoberta has to negotiate in her politics of cultural preservation is the possibility of becoming the enemy because she needs Spanish as the national lingua franca in a country of 22 ethnic groups. It is the only language that can make her an effective leader of the Comité de Unidad Campesina (CUC), a heterogeneous coalition of peasants and workers. Her father warns that with a formal education, “you'll forget about our common heritage” (Menchú, 1984: 89; 1983: 162). That is one reason he and other community elders so resisted learning Spanish. They recognize that Indian identity is a fragile cultural-linguistic construction, not an indelibly “racial” given. It is no wonder, for example, that the Quiché marriage ceremony includes the couple's promise to raise children as Indians. “After that they ask forgiveness from their parents and for help with bringing up their children as Indians, remembering their traditions, and throughout trouble, sadness and hunger remaining Indians” (Menchú, 1984: 67, translation altered; 1983: 131). The danger, in other words, is as much assimilation as it is aggression. Whether the ladinos are welcoming or murderous, they bring cultural extinction. And that fear of mixing racial and linguistic categories is either the cause, or the effect, of a general prohibition against stirring up differences in Quiché ritual life:

Bread is very meaningful for the Indian, because of the fact that it was mixed with egg, flour with egg. In the past, our ancestors grew wheat. Then the Spaniards came and mixed it with egg. It was a mixture, no longer what our ancestors ate. It was White Man's food, and white men are like their bread, they are not wholesome. … We must not mix our customs with those of the whites.

(Menchú, 1984: 71; 1983: 137)

From this we can sense how perfectly possible it is, and (personally) tragic for Rigoberta, to stop being an “Indian,” because her political work depends on mixing and transgressing categories, on violating the ethnic boundaries that safeguard secrets. In the CUC, and at forums such as the United Nations, she constructs herself in Spanish; that is, she reads herself in a homogenizing code. Rigoberta attributes her political doubts, for example, to the fact that she has strayed from the community. “I was very ashamed at being so confused, when so many of my village understood so much better than I. But their ideas were very pure because they had never been outside their community” (Menchú, 1984: 121; 1983: 207). The third-person possessive that I italicize here is one measure of her alienation. Nevertheless, we can note here a hint of Rigoberta's “deconstructed” practice, in which the traditional categorical rigidity is simultaneously revered and sacrificed. For the price of the destabilizing distance from her community she earns some political clarity. “Indianist to my fingertips, I defended everything to do with my ancestors. But I understood this incorrectly, because we only understand ourselves in conversation with others … ladinos … with us, the Indians” (Menchú, 1984: 166, translation adjusted; 1983: 269).

My reason for posing the question of rhetorical strategy, about whether Rigoberta is persuading or troping, is to be able to read appropriately and responsibly this text which ceaselessly calls attention to its difference and to the danger of overstepping cultural barriers. Personally, I prefer to think that her secrets are more “literary” than “real.” Let me explain why. Reading her refusal of absolute intimacy as a deliberate textual strategy, whether or not much data come between the producer and consumer of this text, makes the gesture more self-conscious and repeatable than it would be if she merely remained silent on particular issues. The gesture precisely is not silence but a rather flamboyant refusal of information. Calling attention to an unknowable subtext is a profound lesson, because it hopes to secure Rigoberta's cultural identity, of course, but also because it is an imitable trope. Not that a reader should want to compete with Rigoberta's text, but that a reader might well want to learn from it how to coordinate intense political engagement, even at national and international levels, with a defense of difference. The calculated result of Rigoberta's gesture for sympathetic readers is, paradoxically, to exclude us from her circle of intimates. In fact, any way we read her, we are either intellectually or ethically unfit for Rigoberta's secrets, so that our interpretation does not vary the effect of reading. Either way, it produces a particular kind of distance akin to respect. So simple a lesson and so fundamental; it is to modestly acknowledge that difference exists. This defends us from any illusion of complete or stable knowledge, and therefore from the desire to replace one apparently limited speaker for another more totalizing one.

Finally, the undecidability of how to read Rigoberta is rather academic, because in both cases she is evidently performing a defensive move in the midst of her seduction. Her testimonial is an invitation to a tête à tête, not to a heart to heart. This should not necessarily be a disappointment; putting heads together is precisely what members of her community do every time they meet to discuss plans for a wedding or tactics for confronting the government. The respectful distance that we learn from Rigoberta's textual seduction is an extension of the same kind of respect for secrets learned repeatedly inside her own community. “The thing is that Indians have secrets and it's not always a good thing for children to know them. Or not so much that it's not a good thing but because it's not necessary. … We respect the different levels in the community” (Menchú, 1984: 84; 1983: 155). Perhaps, then, our difference from that community is one of degree; maybe we are not so much outsiders as marginals, allies in a possible coalition rather than members. We are not excluded from her world, but kept at arm's length.

Still, this is surprising in a first-person autobiographical narrative, because we expect self-writing to be personally revealing, more intimate and confessional than coy. Now, clearly, I can register surprise only because I am presupposing (the first step in any deduction, as Nietzsche reminds us) that I am reading an autobiography. What is even more mechanical, perhaps, is my assumption that autobiography is a genre that blushes with a confessional glow. Sylvia Molloy (1984: 3) points out that this is a relatively recent expectation, “supported by the introspective streak found in certain autobiographical writings since the nineteenth century.”

To suggest how Rigoberta's text may not quite fit the genre in either its early or late forms, perhaps it will help to historicize the desire for writing the self. Since Georges Gusdorf first published “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography” in 1956, and especially since James Olney's translation ([1956] 1980), students of autobiography have had to consider its originally parochial and then imperializing nature. “It would seem that autobiography is not to be found outside of our cultural area; one would say that it expresses a concern peculiar to Western man, a concern that has been of good use in his systematic conquest of the universe and that he has communicated to men of other cultures” (Gusdorf, [1956] 1980: 29, my italics to show his complicity in the exclusion). Not surprisingly, the autobiography is a latecomer to Western literature, associated with humanism's focus on “the singularity of each individual life.” “Throughout most of human history, the individual does not oppose himself to all others; he does not feel himself to exist outside of others, and still less against others, but very much with others in an interdependent existence that asserts its rhythms everywhere in the community.” Even if the genre began with Saint Augustine “at the moment when the Christian contribution was grafted onto classical traditions” (Gusdorf, [1956] 1980: 29), autobiographies became really popular during the Renaissance and Reformation, when self-made men became the rage.

Part of their charm for the reader, no doubt, is their contagious self-aggrandizement. Autobiographers write about themselves precisely because they are convinced of their singularity, a conviction that spills over the page, so that readers of a relentless “I” can fantasize that the pronoun refers to them. We become the Cellini or Franklin figure who is conquering the world by dint of sheer talent and hard work. This is how Domingo Faustino Sarmiento ([1850] 1931: 161, my translation) read his Franklin. “I felt that I was Franklin; And why not? I was very poor, like he was, studious like him, and trying as hard as I could to follow his footsteps, I could one day be as accomplished as he … making a place for myself in American letters and politics.” If the text resists identification with the reader, insisting that the heights or depths of his/her experience are beyond us, we are free and maybe even fuelled by the insistence on individuality to conjure up our own particular “I” (as Sylvia Molloy suggested to me) to be the subject of a new autobiography. A particular kind of textual resistance is the claim that women autobiographers typically make about their difference from other women (readers) in order to speak through what they consider to be more differentiated, male, personae, as Nancy Miller (1988) has shown for France. Or, as Elaine Marks (1975: 1) puts it, women's autobiographies proclaim that “I am my own heroine.” Of course, some autobiographers assume that they represent others, and that the reader is ideally among them (see Leduc, 1964, who begins, “mon cas n'est pas unique”; and Leiris, 1948, 1955, 1967, 1976).

Perhaps the most salient rhetorical difference between autobiography and the women's testimonials that concerns me here is the implied and often explicitly “plural subject” of testimony. Instead of an inimitable person, Rigoberta is a representative, not different from her community but different from us. She opens by disclaiming her particularity; “The important thing is that what has happened to me has happened to many other people too” (Menchú, 1984: 1; 1983: 30). This sounds almost like a quote from another testimonial, written six years earlier by a representative of the Comité de Amas de Casa in a Bolivian mining town. Domitila Barrios begins Si me permiten hablar (1977) like this: “I don't want anyone at any moment to interpret the story I'm about to tell as something that is only personal. … What happened to me could have happened to hundreds of people in my country” (Barrios, 1978: 15). And Claribel Alegría's testimonial montage of the already-martyred heroine in No me agarran viva (They Won't Get Me Alive, 1983: 9, my translation) starts with this prologue: “Eugenia, exemplary model of self-denial, sacrifice and revolutionary heroism, is a typical case rather than an exception of so many Salvadoran women who have dedicated their efforts and even their lives to the struggle for their people's liberation.” Alegría experiments with a multiple mirror image that constructs her testimonial subject; instead of one narrator who assembles her community by extension, here a community of narrators reconstructs the life of a single revolutionary.

The testimonial “I” in these books neither presumes nor even invites us to identify with it. We are too foreign, and there is no pretense here of universal or essential human experience. That is why, at the end of a long narrative in which Rigoberta has told us so much, she reminds us that she has set limits which we must respect. The claim that she is representative helps to explain why, like autobiographers, she uses a singular pronoun, “I,” not “we.” That is, at the same time that she refuses intimacy with the reader—because intimacy invites identification and perhaps our imperializing substitution of her as the protagonist of the story—she also takes care not to substitute her community in a totalizing gesture. Instead, her singularity achieves its identity as an extension of the collective. The singular represents the plural, not because it replaces or subsumes the group, but because the speaker is a distinguishable part of the whole. In rhetorical terms, whose political consequences should be evident in what follows, there is a fundamental difference here between the metaphor of autobiography and heroic narrative in general, which assumes an identity-by-substituting one (superior) signifier for another (I for we, leader for follower, Christ for the faithful), and metonymy, a lateral move of identification-through-relationship, which acknowledges the possible differences among “us” as components of a centerless whole. This is where we can come in as readers, invited to be (estar) with the speaker rather than to be (ser) her.

The phenomenon of a collective subject of the testimonial is, then, hardly the result of personal style on the part of the writer who testifies. It is a translation of a hegemonic autobiographical prose into a colonized language that does not equate identity with individuality. It is thus a reminder that life continues at the margins of Western discourse, and continues to disturb and to challenge it. But this relative autonomy may be on the eve of capitulation because, as Gusdorf ([1956] 1980: 29) continues, the very fact that a first-person singular is marshalled to narrate a plural history is a symptom of Western penetration. “When Gandhi tells his own story, he is using Western means to defend the East …” At the same time, though, testimonials also point beyond the dialectic of resistance and capitulation. They are models of experimental syncretism that represent a “return of the repressed” (Rosenblatt, 1980: 169) in both traditional and Westernizing discourses. What has been generally “repressed” in standard autobiographical writing is the degree to which the singular “I” depends on a complicated pronominal system. It nurtures an illusion of singularity, assuming it can stand in for others whereas testimonies stand up among them.

Arguably, the tradition of Latin American autobiography had anticipated Rigoberta and Domitila's identification with a cultural group outside of which the text would be misread. The tradition assumes that the autobiographer is continuous with his/her community, as opposed to assuming the radical individualism that we associate with, say, some European writers of the genre. Sarmiento, as Molloy (1984: 3) points out, creates intimacy and complicity with the Argentine, ideal reader, as a result of excluding others. “The Spanish American ‘I’ (if one dare generalize in this fashion) seems to rely more than other ‘I's—to rely in a nearly ontological manner—on a sort of national recognition. Representativeness and identity are closely linked in Spanish American self-writing. Sarmiento dedicates the book [Recuerdos de provincia] that will show him as the true son of the new republic ‘to my compatriots only’—those who will truly understand him and give him being.” Even Victoria Ocampo, who knows she is especially privileged, understands her specialness in terms of her family's prominence in national history, that is, in a context she has in common with her readers (Molloy, 1984: 3–5). From them, Sarmiento and Ocampo claim to have no secrets.

But for Rigoberta there are literally no ideal readers. The notion is a contradiction here. Those who ideally understand Rigoberta, members of her own Quiché community, are not readers at all, either in Spanish or in English. Instead, their communal life depends on resisting Spanish language education, because it invariably substituted particular cultural practices associated with survival for an equalizing, annihilating, modernity. Her father's warnings haunt her and us. “I remember my father telling us: ‘My children, don't aspire to go to school, because schools take our customs away from us’” (Menchú, 1984: 169; 1983: 274) and “If I put you in a school, they'll make you forget your class, they'll turn you into a ladino” (Menchú, 1984: 190; 1983: 301). In other words, Rigoberta resists identification with other women in a very different way from Miller's French autobiographers. She resists us, her European(ized) readers, and claims at the same time that her individuality is irrelevant. If we are to be readers at all, we enter into a peculiar kind of pact, not the “autobiographical pact” of sincerity between writer and reader that Philippe Lejeune (1971, 1973, 1975) used to believe in, but one in which we agree to respect Rigoberta's terms. This means agreeing to forfeit the rush of metaphoric identification, described by Paul de Man (1984) as a moment in tension with the initial metonymic relationship between the reader and the autobiography.

Nevertheless, and despite the interesting variations that this testimonial presents, it and others are undeniably autobiographical. Are they not? They are life histories narrated in a first-person voice that stress development and continuity. In fact, the full title of Rigoberta's book is Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú: Y así me nació la consciencia. A regular nonfictional Bildungsroman! I say this in order to register a doubt about the genre of this text, as well as my impression that generic labels are meaningful here. I can simultaneously try to frame testimonials inside the perhaps more general category of autobiography and emphasize its departure. I should confess that I chose particular books to raise this issue; they fit somewhere at the seam of testimonials themselves, related, as it were, metonymically but not as typical or substitutable exemplars of the heroic genre (see Yúdice, this issue). When women in Latin America enter politics as an extension of the domestic realm and narrate their life stories to journalists or anthropologists (who have sought out these sometimes illiterate informants as representatives of particular historical struggles) we need not consider the results to fall into the familiar category of autobiography, or even the heroic testimonial norm of male informants.

My second quandary, therefore, is about what kind of text I have in hand. Do I continue to think about testimonials as a subgenre of the autobiography, and so to take their strategic coyness as a permissible departure from the familiar genre; or does the departure constitutes a generic and political difference? Evidently this presents another moment of tension between can and should. At what political and esthetic price might I favor one generic category over highlighting the nagging lack of fit? Does the difference boil down to an ethical imperative? Should I defend the difference as an extension of Rigoberta's own cultural self-defense, even in the face of apparent overlapping with a familiar form? Again, the question may finally be undecidable outside of tactical concerns. Some readers will prefer to project themselves in familiarly heroic autobiographical terms through this apparently available text; and others will take note of the warnings against appropriation.

One feature that continually reminds us of Rigoberta's guarded distance is her peculiar Spanish, studied for only three years before she gives this testimony. The minor errors keep stopping the narrative flow, while the flavor of translation consistently refreshes her use of the language. Just to give one stunning feature, the figural assumptions embedded in Spanish seem to be lost on her. This allows her own Quiché associations to disturb what would otherwise be a rather closed and less promising code. In Spanish as in many Western languages, the word earth is regularly metaphorized as woman; that is, woman is substituted by the Land which is the prize of struggle between men as well as their material for (re)production. On the other hand, man is metonymized as her husband; his agency and power are extended through the figure. From this follows a scheme of associations including the passive and irrational female contrasted by the active, reasoning male. This opposition has generated a populist rhetoric in Spanish America that functions to the left, the right, and the center of the political spectrum. The most bitter enemies will agree that the people's goal is to preserve or repossess the beloved land from a usurper (Sommer, 1983). Rigoberta would surely sympathize, but first she would know who the people are and how they relate to the land; her gender lines are quite different.

The earth gives food and the woman gives life. Because of this closeness the woman must keep this respect for the earth as a secret of her own. The relationship between the mother and the earth is like the relationship between husband and wife. There is a constant dialogue between the earth and the woman. This feeling is born in women because of the responsibilities they have, which men do not have.

(1984: 220; 1983: 342)

Paradoxically, in this rhetorical tug-of-war, pulling backwards from the “modernizing” Western codes to the indigenous ones may be going forward. The daughters' subversion sometimes brings back the forgotten egalitarian assumptions of the community's “Law” and promises to replace the phallocentric European “Law of the Father” with that of Indian parents. I am thinking specifically about Rigoberta Menchú's use of the Popol Vuh, the cosmogony and “paideia” of the Guatemalan Indians. It is not exactly an epic, according to translator Munro S. Edmonson. “Although it belongs to a heroic (or near-heroic) type of literature, it is not the story of a hero: it is (and says it is) the story of a people, and the text is bracketed by the opening and closing lines declaring and affirming that intent” (Edmonson, 1971: xiv). Rigoberta's frequent references to this sacred pre-Hispanic tradition is probably typical. To read early Spanish translations of the Book of Counsel one would think that patriarchy was at least as fundamental to the ancient Guatemalans as it is in the West. In fact Edmonson seems to miss his own point about the nonhierarchical and communal nature of this tradition when he reports that, “traditional Quiché life revolves around a patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal family” (Edmonson, 1971: xv–xvi). His translation, nonetheless, gives a clue to the opportunities for lateral moves the book offered Rigoberta; because along with the “somber” or sacred feeling of responsibility, it describes an egalitarianism in gender that Western monotheism finds heretical. That equality was lost in older translations in which the term “father” achieved the broad meaning of parent through a synecdochal evaporation of the whole. This recuperation of the female into the male may have been prepared by the Spanish language, in which the plural of father means parents, padres. Or it may be a more general habit in the West because the monotheistic editors of the Old Testament tipped the balance of the first version of human creation, “male and female created he them,” to the myth of Adam's original loneliness which made him help to engender Eve. Whatever his interpretation, Edmonson's translation of the Quiché cosmogony provides the term “engenderers,” male and female, to replace the “fathers” of earlier translators: “it was told, / By the Former / And Shaper, / The Mother / and Father / Of Life / And Mankind / … Children of the Mother of Light / Sons of the Father of Light” (Popol Vuh, 1971: 8). With insistent repetition, the females precede the males in the cosmogony; “They produced daughters; / They produced sons” (1971: 24).

The gender equality extends to communal organization, as Rigoberta tells us in her recently acquired Spanish, a hierarchical language whose insistence on gender and number concordance means that it can barely accommodate the system she describes.

In our community there is an elected representative, someone who is highly respected. He's not a king but someone whom the community looks up to like a father. In our village, my father and mother were the representatives. Well, then the whole community becomes the children of the woman who's elected. So, a mother, on her first day of pregnancy goes with her husband to tell these elected leaders that she's going to have a child, because the child will not only belong to them but to the whole community, and must follow as far as he can our ancestors' traditions.”

(Menchú, 1984: 7; 1983: 39)

Evidently Rigoberta loses power from having to use a language borrowed from the oppressive ladinos. The loss is common to all colonized peoples, as María Lugones reminds us when she defines the racial and class exclusivity of existing feminist theory. “We and you do not talk the same language. When we talk to you we use your language. … We try to use it to communicate our world of experience. But since your language and your theories are inadequate in expressing our experiences, we only succeed in communicating our experience of exclusion” (Lugones and Spelman, 1983). Without minimizing the importance of this complaint, I think there is another equally valid if less apparent consequence of borrowing the politically dominant language; it is the transformative process of borrowing. Rigoberta's Spanish is qualitatively different from that of the ladinos who taught it to her. Her testimony makes the peculiar nonstandard Spanish into a public medium of change that (makes) appeals to us.

Beyond revealing the traces and scars of translation, as well as the liberating tropes that come from code switching, the book retains an unmistakable oral quality through the edited and polished version that reaches us. As a device, the orality helps to account for the testimonial's construction of a collective self. For, unlike the private and even lonely moment of autobiographical writing, testimonies are public events. To make a stylistic distinction, we might say that the autobiography strains to produce a personal and distinctive style as part of the individuation process and the testimonial strives to preserve or to renew an interpersonal rhetoric (see Jameson, 1976). That rhetoric does not need to postulate an interchangeable “I” of the ideal reader, as the autobiography does. Instead, it addresses a flesh-and-blood person, the interviewer, who asks questions and avidly records answers. The narrative voice, therefore, sometimes shifts into a second person. The interlocutor and by extension each reader is addressed by the narrator's immediate appeal to “you.” This appeal is not only consistent with existing cultural assumptions about the community being the fundamental social unit; but it has political implications that go beyond, perhaps to corrupt, the cultural coherence that the narrators seek to defend. When the narrator talks about herself to you, she implies both the existing relationship to other representative selves in the community, and potential relationships that extend her community through the text. She calls us in, interpellates us as readers who identify with the narrator's project and, by extension, with the political community to which she belongs. The appeal does not produce only admiration for the ego-ideal, of the type we might feel for an autobiographer who impresses us precisely with her difference from other women, nor the consequent yearning to be (like) her and so to deny her and our distinctiveness. Rather, the testimonial produces complicity. Even if, perhaps because, the reader cannot identify with the writer enough to image taking her place, the map of possible identifications through the text spreads out laterally. Once the subject of the testimonial is understood as the community made up of a variety of roles, the reader is called in to fill one of them. A lesson to be learned from reading these narratives may be that our habit of identifying with a single subject of the narration (implicitly substituting her) simply repeats a Western, logocentric limitation, a vicious circle in which only one center can exist. If we find it difficult to entertain the idea of several simultaneous points of activity, several simultaneous and valid roles, the testimonials help to remind us that politics is not necessarily a top-down heroic venture (see Laclau and Mouffe, 1985).

Conscious of working in a translated, borrowed language, testimonials do not have to be reminded of the arbitrary nature of the sign. They live the irony of those linguistic disencounters. From their marginal position vis-à-vis existing discourses, they may typically adopt features of several, not because they are unaware of the contradictions between being a mother, a worker, a Catholic, a communist, an indigenist and a nationalist, but precisely because they understand that none of the codes implied by these categories is sufficient to their revolutionary situation. Rigoberta Menchú's community, for example, will adapt the story of Moses by shifting the focus of heroism and leadership from one to many: “We compared the Moses of those days with ourselves, the Moseses of today” (1984: 131, translation adjusted; 1983: 221). As for feminism, it is not an independent goal, but the by-product of class or ethnic struggles which some might consider inimical to women's issues. Her priorities remind the reader of Domitila Barrios' reluctant feminism. This Bolivian miner's wife resists identifying herself with gender struggles. “Our position is not like the feminists' position. We think our liberation consists primarily in our country being freed forever from the yoke of imperialism and we want a worker like us to be in power” (Barrios, 1978: 41). But her political practice, as a woman who should have left politics to men, was necessarily and aggressively feminist. Because the first struggle, for this woman who identifies herself primarily as a housewife, was to get out of the house, gender relations are her first target (Barrios, 1978: 36). The trick is not to identify the correct discourse (Marxism, or feminism, or nationalism, or ethnic survival) and to defend it with dogmatic heroism, but to combine, recombine and continue to adjust the constellation of discourses in ways that will respond to a changeable reality. This flexibility or eclecticism is doubtless why, despite Havana's initial promotion, women's testimonials outside Cuba tend to be written just beyond the constraints of party lines, or any lines. “I want to emphasize that, because it seems there are people who say that they made me, their party made me. I don't owe my consciousness and my preparation to anything but the cries, the suffering, and the experiences of the people. I want to say that we have a lot to learn from the parties, but we shouldn't expect everything from them. Our development must come from our own clarity and awareness” (Barrios, 1978: 163).

Rigoberta's community is equally cautious about being limited by rigid institutions. Instead, it tends to be syncretic, as in the worker-peasant alliance of the CUC, and to be selective, as for example with its adoption of Catholicism. “In this way we adjusted the Catholic religion, … As I said, it's just another way of expressing ourselves. It's not the only, immutable way, but one way of keeping our ancestors' lore alive” (1984: 81, translation adjusted; 1983: 150). Not surprisingly, the conservative nuns and priests of Acción Católica were sure this was heresy. “They say, ‘You have too much trust in your elected leaders.’” Why, Rigoberta muses, do they fail to get the point? “But the village elects them because they trust them, don't they?” (1984: 9; 1983: 42). “Nevertheless,” she adds, careful to keep opportunities open, for some missionaries who came to the area as anticommunists had learned a new political language: “they understood that the people weren't communists but hungry. … And they joined our people's struggle too” (1984: 134; 1983: 225). The codes are always plural, in varying alliances. “The whole truth is not found in the Bible, but neither is the whole truth in Marxism. … We have to defend ourselves against our enemy but, as Christians, we must also defend our faith within the revolutionary process” (Menchú, 1984: 246; 1983: 376). Her multiple unorthodoxies constitute what poststructuralists might call an exercise in decentering language, sending the apparently stable structures of Western thought into an endless flux in which signifiers are simply destabilized, not abandoned. Unfortunately, some academic readers of testimonials have fixed on only part of their language lesson, the part that insists on the reality of reference. Therefore, they tend easily to agree that the signified determines the signifier. To worry about the instability of the signifier and the need to reinvent language as part of political struggle would seem treacherous to them; it would tend, so the argument goes, to reinforce the system of oppression by doubting the efficacy of that or any other system. The response is consequently to affirm the power of the existing order, in order to affirm the efficaciousness of struggle against it. What is lost here, evidently, is first, the irony that can help to wither the apparent stability of the ruling structure, and second, the testimonials' playful—in the most serious sense of that term—distance from any preestablished coherence. That distance creates the space for what Mikhail Bakhtin (1980) called heteroglossia, the (battle)field of discourse where revolutions are forged from conflict, not dictated. In terms of contemporary, neo-Gramscian, political theory, what is lost is a strategy for establishing a socialist hegemony based on coalitions as opposed to the insistence on a Leninist party-centered politics.

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe theorize about this promise of socialist hegemony in a thoughtful post-Marxian analysis (1985). The book is fundamentally a critique of the essentializing habits of Marxism, especially in its orthodox, Leninist varieties. Political complexity and the opportunities for change, they point out, cannot be addressed if the terms of the discourse are rigid. Logically, the result of conceptual rigidity is the perpetuation of a repressive political language rather than the promotion of change. In a fixed system, particular words (such as, the working class) can be substituted for others (such as, the proletariat, the people, masses, the vanguard), or in the least case considered to be “equivalent” for others and so describe a very limited scope of operative differences and interactivity. “We, thus, see that the logic of equivalence is a logic of the simplification of political space, while the logic of difference is a logic of its expansion and increasing complexity” (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985: 130). Along with their critique of words such as “class” and “contradiction” Laclau and Mouffe also dislodge the political “subject” from a vocabulary of essences. The subject, like other signs, is internally fissured, available simultaneously to different contexts, including workers' groups, feminist movements, and ecology. They go so far, in their appropriation of the rhetorical moves learned from deconstruction, as to contrast the unproductive habits of metaphoric substitution in party politics with the more promising metonymic or lateral moves of coalitional politics. “[A]ll discourse of fixation becomes metaphorical: literality is, in actual fact, the first of metaphors” (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985: 111). By contrast, “we could say that hegemony is basically metonymical: its effects always emerge from a surplus of meaning which results from an operation of displacement. (For example, a trade union or a religious organization may take on organizational functions in a community, which go beyond the traditional practices ascribed to them, and which are combated and resisted by opposing forces)” (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985: 141).

Curiously disappointing, though, is the way reified categories smuggle themselves in as soon as their analysis is decentered from the industrialized West. When Laclau and Mouffe refer to the “periphery,” well after the middle of the book, an aporia is evident between their theoretical sophistication and their political sympathies. For some reason, after class and subject are withered away as stable signs, equally “fictional” terms such as the Third World or the people remain:

It would appear that an important differential characteristic may be established between advanced industrial societies and the periphery of the capitalist world: in the former, the proliferation of points of antagonism permits the multiplication of democratic struggles, but these struggles, given their diversity, do not tend to constitute a ‘people,’ that is, to enter into equivalence with one another and to divide the political space into two antagonistic fields. On the contrary, in the countries of the Third World, imperialist exploitation and the predominance of brutal and centralized forms of domination tend from the beginning to endow the popular struggle with a centre, with a single and clearly defined enemy. Here the division of the political space into two fields is more reduced. We shall use the term popular subject position to refer to the position that is constituted on the basis of dividing the political space into two antagonistic camps; and democratic subject position to refer to the locus of a clearly delimited antagonism which does not divide society in that way.

(Laclau and Mouffe, 1985: 131)

This double standard is just as baffling as it is disturbing. (On 148, note 40, Laclau retracts one point from his 1980 article, about contradiction necessarily leading to antagonism. But he still defends his more controversial and uncritical support of populism in this book.) Why, we may wonder, is not Rigoberta's peasant organization or Domitila's housewives committee as constructive of “democratic” subject positions as are the examples given here? Why are they not as valuable in theorizing a fissured political sign available for metonymic, or hegemonic politics? Certainly a trade union or a religious organization can be as humble and local as are the Latin American movements. If the popular Catholic Church, with its theology of liberation and base communities, is brought to bear, the Latin American space seems far more promising indeed. Why, then, are its struggles imagined as unitary, as if they were a matter of replacing one masterful signifier for another? In fact, we learn from first-person testimonies that those struggles are as multiple and flexible as any in the so called First World, often combining feminist, class, ethnic, and national desiderata. One advantage of reading the “First” from the “Third” world is to notice that what Laclau and Mouffe call “contradictions” (1985: 124) become glaringly visible without necessarily becoming antagonisms, just as the authors point out. No one ideological code is assumed to be sufficient or ultimately defensible for either Rigoberta or Domitila; instead they inherit a plurality of codes that intersect and produce a flexible and fissured political subject. If Laclau and Mouffe miss the point, it may be because their skepticism about narrative, which they assume to be necessarily teleological, has steered them clear of these testimonials. The result is a reifying distance from the Latin American subject, a distance that seems more patronizing than respectful; it liberally allows for theoretical permissiveness rather than exciting any curiosity to learn from subjects they can consider as others.

But to read women's testimonials, curiously, is to mitigate the tension between First World self and Third World other. I do not mean this as a license to deny the differences, but as a suggestion that the testimonial subject may be model for respectful, nontotalizing, politics. There is no good reason for filling in the distance that testimonials safeguard through secrets with either veiled theoretical disdain or uncritical hero-worship. Instead, that distance can be read as a lesson in the condition of possibility for coalitional politics. It is similar to learning that respect is the condition of possibility for the kind of love that takes care not to simply appropriate its object.


  1. All quotations designated “Menchú, 1984” are reprinted with permission from I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala by Rigoberta Menchú, Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, ed. Copyright 1984 by Verso.


Alegría, Claribel and D. J. Flakoll

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Bakhtin, Mikhail M.

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Barrios de Chungara, Domitila with Moema Viezzer

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1978 Let Me Speak! Testimony of Domitila, A Woman of the Bolivian Mines. Edited by Moema Viezzer; translated by Victoria Ortiz. New York: Monthly Review.

de Man, Paul

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1984 “Autobiography as de-facement,” pp. 67–82 in The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Edmonson, Munro S.

1971 “Introduction” to The Book of Counsel: The Popol Vuh of the Quiché Maya of Guatemala. New Orleans: Tulane University Press.

Gusdorf, George

[1956] 1980 “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography,” pp. 28–48, reprinted in James Olney (ed.), Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jameson, Fredric

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Laclau, Ernesto

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Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe

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Leduc, Violette

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Lefebvre, Henri

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Leiris, Michel

1948 “Biffures.” Vol. 1 of La règle du jeu. Paris: Gallimard.

1955 “Fourbis.” Vol. 2 of La règle du jeu. Paris: Gallimard.

1967 “Febrilles.” Vol. 3 of La règle du jeu. Paris: Gallimard.

1976 “Frêles Breuit.” Vol. 4 of La règle du jeu. Paris: Gallimard.

Lejeune, Philippe

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1973 “Le pacte autobiographique.” Poétique 14: 137–162; especially 160–162.

1975 Le Pacte autobiographique. Paris: Seuil.

Lovell, W. George

1988 “Surviving Conquest: The Maya of Guatemala in Historical Perspective,” Latin American Research Review 23 (2): 25–57.

Lugones, María and Elizabeth Spelman

1983 “Have We Got a Theory For You!: Feminist Theory, Cultural Imperialism and the Demand for ‘The Woman's Voice,’” Women's Studies International Forum 6: 573–581.

Manz, Beatriz

1988 Refugees of a Hidden War: The Aftermath of Counterinsurgency in Guatemala. Albany: SUNY series in Anthropological Studies of Contemporary Issues.

Marks, Elaine

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Menchú, Rigoberta

1983 Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú. Havana: Casa de las Américas.

1984 I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Edited and introduced by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, translated by Ann Wright. London: Verso.

Miller, Nancy

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Molloy, Sylvia

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Popol Vuh

1971 The Book of Counsel: The Popol Vuh of the Quiché Maya of Guatemala. New Orleans, LA: Tulane University. (see also Edmonson)

Rosenblatt, Roger

1980 “Black Autobiography: Life as the Death Weapon,” pp. 166–175 in James Olney (ed.), Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino

[1850] 1931 Recuerdos de provincia. Barcelona: Ramón Sopena.

Sommer, Doris

1983 One Master for Another: Populism as Patriarchal Rhetoric in Dominican Novels. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

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

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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, her work as a catechist, and her growing understanding of injustice and resistance as she watched family members die: her sixteen-year-old brother flayed and executed with other suspected “subversives” in the plaza of a small town, her mother raped and tortured for days by soldiers, her Catholic activist father immolated with other protesting campesinos while occupying the Spanish embassy.

Menchú fled into exile in the early 1980s. When she returned in 1988 she was threatened with death, arrested, and then released. She left again, but still makes brief visits. She was in Guatemala, at a gathering of indigenous people in the western city of Quetzaltenango, when the prize was announced in October.

Menchú began her activist work as a child, traveling with her father to Guatemala's Indian communities. She became a catechist, and later got involved in organizing peasants to stand up for land rights. Although she says she was never a member of Guatemala's guerrilla groups. Menchú supported her two sisters' decision to join the guerrillas after her parents' death, and her open criticism of the Guatemalan government makes her Nobel Prize controversial. Guatemala's foreign minister. Gonzalo Menéndez Park, issued a statement saying that Menchú has “endangered Guatemala” and that she should not have won the prize. Chief military spokesman Captain Julio Yon Rivera reacted to news of Menchú's prize by saying “she has only defamed the fatherland.”

Today, Menchú is working with her father's group, the Committee of Peasant Unity, to focus international attention on the Guatemalan military's human-rights abuses. During her exile, she became an advocate for indigenous peoples throughout the Americas.

Menchú's Nobel Prize comes at a delicate moment inside her own country. Two-year-old peace talks in the thirty-three-year-old war feel moribund. The mass killings of the early 1980s appear to be over, but human-rights violations—an average of two “extrajudicial executions” or forced disappearances every day—continue to be logged by monitors. The war is still percolating in the countryside, which “justifies” the killing of academics and unionists, as one diplomat explained, because “as long as there is a war, activism is subversion, so that there's no possibility for change.”

Yet in recent months, cautious anticipation has been in the air. Promise comes with challenges to the justice system, the extraordinary accords bringing peace to El Salvador next door, wider freedom of the press, and not least, Menchú's prize itself, which animates and creates a space—even if just for a moment—where debate begins to flower as if death squads and thought police never existed.

We meet in Guatemala City at the headquarters building of the National Committee of Widows of the Violence, but can't find an empty room because so many well-wishers have arrived. The visitors—men, women, and children—are dressed in the woven designs of their home villages. In a quiet celebratory mood, they chat, sleep, or eat, occupying every spare inch of floor space. Finally, we find a corner where chairs have been placed on the flat roof.

Rigoberta Menchú wears a typical skirt, called a corte, an embroidered blouse, her hair plaited with bright blue ribbon. Somebody brings a beer, which she sips gratefully in the heat. Beyond her is the crooked skyline of the fast-growing capital, centuries-old church domes among tall new buildings, and Pacaya volcano, sending up a plume of white smoke in the blue distance.

[McConahay:] What will you do better, or differently, with the Nobel Peace Prize?

[Menchú:] I have aspirations that will never be fulfilled if they are only mine. The widows of those who died in the violence, the displaced, the popular movements in general, and the refugees have begun to open spaces, to undertake initiatives that would not be possible if they were mine alone.

In your book you said that the “just war” was the only path open to you. Now what do you feel is the place of violence and arms?

I always go to antecedents. Of what I know of conflicts the world over, but especially in Central America, no war has surged forth all by itself. Internal conflicts erupt from very deep causes. It is important to work so that armed conflict never exists. But armed internal conflict is the culmination of processes that incubate over long years of history. That is what happened here in Guatemala. If the origins of conflict are not resolved, parties may sign a peace accord, but how much time will that accord last?

The conflict in Guatemala is a very delicate thing, because if it is declared over without results for civil society, without inaugurating real mainstays of peace, it could erupt strongly again. And it may not necessarily be the kind of fight that exists now, but much more sophisticated, much more complicated. And it could include the participation of the indigenous. I am afraid of the conflicts.

There is a political attitude here that is very denigrating toward the people. When the people feel that attitude, they react by forming a certain kind of conviction about what they are doing. It is a strong and firm conviction, like faith.

In Guatemala, then, is it your point that taking up arms might feel justified?

I believe there is a conflict which must be resolved. I do not like to justify, or invalidate, a conflict that already exists because that puts one in an intransigent position instead of providing hopes for dialogue and a negotiated way out. If there is a future solution, our greatest task will be to prevent the conflict from returning again.

Did the indigenous people suffer and die because of the rebels' lack of preparation, or because rebels could not protect them? One hears peasants say, “We felt abandoned. We were with the guerrillas, we believed in them, but we felt abandoned by them.”

Possibly. But the truth is that here is Guatemala it has been very difficult to know the real base of the guerrilla throughout the thirty-three years of war. An enormous mystification surrounds them. It is not always known where they reach, with whom they relate, what their structure is, how they work, where they don't reach. A watchword of [the former dictator, General Efraín] Ríos Montt has been used by army and security forces: “Well, since we don't know if this bunch of fifty people are Indians or guerrillas, we need to kill all fifty.” If among the fifty, ten guerrillas die, the operation is a success. Who is really going to say here that he sympathizes with the guerrilla? Because he thinks he will die if he does. …

So the people in the highlands are lying now?

In a way, yes. Much of what you are hearing was the doctrine urged upon those captured and kept in the “model villages.” There are many others [with different things to say] in the Communities of Population in Resistance. Also, I have recorded the testimony of refugees who lived through those early times.

Look, methods have been very sophisticated. People are cautious, no one suddenly confesses his life story. To know the true lives of people here will take many more years.

What has been your relationship with the guerrillas?

I joined the Committee of Peasant Unity [known by its Spanish initials, CUC] above all because of the work of my father, who was a founding member. I always had great sympathy for his struggle. The struggle was difficult given the excited atmosphere of the time. In 1979 there was practically an insurrection in Guatemala, before the scorched earth, before the massacres. The country was on the verge of a popular uprising.

An immense number of people sought out a relationship with the guerrillas. They sought sympathy, they sought strength, because they saw no other way out. It was a very intense moment, but even in the midst of it, after father's death, we founded what we called “Revolutionary Christians Vicente Menchú” named after him.

Was that group armed?

I believe that in no country of the world has there existed a Christian guerrilla force. At least it has not happened so far on this continent. I have never understood that priests, nuns, catechists, and others might make a Christian armed movement. It doesn't fit in my head.

There are different theories about that, right?

Ah, but theirs is a different mother. When we founded Revolutionary Christians Vicente Menchú, there were many religious brothers, nuns, ex-nuns, and priests among us, and above all catechists—lay persons who preached the Bible. We felt everything the Bible said was coming to pass, with Christ crucified, Christ attacked with stones, Christ dragged along the ground. One felt the pain of that Christ, and identified with it.

We understand “revolutionary” in the real meaning of the word: transformation. If I had chosen the armed struggle, I would be in the mountains now.

Instead, we started the struggle at the United Nations. [The Unitary Representation of the Guatemala Opposition, known by its Spanish initials RUOG, of which Rigoberta Menchú is a member, has pushed for U.N. support for peace talks and condemnation of Guatemala for human-rights abuse.] Before, the government and the military never cast a glance our way, and the URNG [the Spanish acronym of the guerrilla movement Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity] never came to the U.N. But lately the Guatemalan embassy has sought us out there, and so have the military's advisers. So do the representatives of the URNG.

You criticize the government, but not the URNG. Why?

Because 440 villages here were razed to the ground by the government army. And about 200 clandestine cemeteries are thought to exist in Guatemala. We are investigating this now. An immense number of people know who was responsible for them. It was not necessarily always the military high command, although in some cases that was true. Some say the massacres were over land disputes, others that the army was responsible—but there is testimony about that. At the same time a great deal of repression came from mid-level and regional authorities. Some were extorting the people who did not speak Spanish. There is a tremendous amount of abuse of those who do not speak Spanish, an impressive amount. Perhaps the next goal will be the establishment of a neutral commission of verification.

Before peace accords?

To facilitate the peace process. Why not say this or that was the fault of the army, or of the guerrillas? An absolutely neutral mechanism is necessary to investigate, to be a white space in the conflict; if we here took part, we might be swayed to one side or another by our sadness, by the pains we have lived through. A neutral commission to determine who is violating human rights would push the possibilities for ending the conflict. Could guerrillas put down their arms and come back into the population with total confidence, after they have been fighting the army? Could the army change its attitude, and retire from certain functions it exercises which are not normally assigned to an army? There simply needs to be a trust established, just trust.

An enormous number of people here applaud the Nobel Prize, but it does not create the confidence for a new process. Nothing has happened in Guatemala, simply a Nobel Prize which gives one perhaps the possibility of pushing along some of the work of the civilian society.

You speak of the long history of oppression of Indians by Ladinos, or persons of mixed blood. Why then join forces with them?

In no country of America today can we have a nation that is solely indigenous. It would be a dream totally outside reality. We would have to erase frontiers; we would have to wage a racist fight to be able to divide indigenous from Ladinos. Also, no one can now assume the right to say who is indigenous, who is not indigenous.

I believe that in Guatemala the solution is not confrontation between indigenous and Ladinos. Rather, we need a country where we can live together with mutual respect. Until now, the Ladino has dictated everything. Not a single indigenous person participated in the elaboration of the constitution, for instance, or of national institutions, even though the Maya are 65 to 70 per cent of the population. What indigenous populations understand as education has never been taken into account. If we had been able to implement a mixed history of Guatemala, Ladinos would be very proud of their Maya roots.

It is not necessary to dispossess Ladinos to urge a politics of national unity. We must make Guatemala a plural nation, multiethnic and multicultural, a nation that does not have to eradicate peoples who have their own identity in order to have development. People can use science and technology and obtain the goods of society without stripping themselves of their culture to do it.

Is there genuine danger of extermination of indigenous peoples?

Definitely. But not in Guatemala, and that is the hope of Guatemala. I think the Guatemalan process is going to unfold in a giant way, with no danger of extermination, because here the indigenous people are the majority, conscious of their situation, and they have organization. Here indigenous people hold local and regional office in some places alongside Ladinos.

Among other countries of the Americas the one that worries me most is the United States. Canada concerns me less, because in the struggle there the indigenous have obtained some concessions; they have some force in society and are economically active. But in the United States there are areas where I believe the indigenous suffer great agony. I have been in various places, for instance in Dakota, where people live in terrible conditions. Yet there are other regions, for example Oklahoma, which for me is a place of interchange of cultures, and pride in the indigenous culture is strong.

Argentina concerns me. Part of the indigenous population exists at the level of bare survival; I hope they do not exterminate them by the end of the twentieth century. Recently I was in various zones of Argentina, where the indigenous culture is incredibly ruined, where a high percentage of those who died of cholera were indigenous. The epidemics are massive. In Brazil, Costa Rica, and El Salvador there are very difficult areas for the indigenous.

Some Miskito Indians from Nicaragua's Atlantic coast say you supported the Sandinista government against them in the 1980s. Is your support for the indigenous consistent?

I have always been against the fact that it is only the Miskito who are spoken of, when on the Atlantic Coast there are also Sumo and Rama Indians, and criollos and mestizos with impressive histories. [Miskito contra leaders] Brooklyn Rivera and Steadman Fagoth, and Armstrong Wiggins [of the Washington-based Indian Law Resource Center] did not care for my opinions. I supported [Nicaragua's] struggle for national unity. Above all, I said this should not be a political game. I said autonomy was necessary, but that autonomy did not mean independence. It was a very different thing to support a struggle which was for national unity, and one which was not.

The importance of your book, especially among indigenous people, is that they can read it or hear it and say, “I could not have written it myself but yes, this happened to me.” What has changed in your life since those days?

Before, I didn't know this capital, didn't know even my own home region of the country. Now I do, and these understandings give me an idea of what Guatemala is. About twelve years ago I began to discover Spanish, to speak and to read the language. Now I have read many histories. I read to understand world politics and the problems of peoples, two or three hours a day. This I did not do in Chimel.

Now I know many people who struggle, such as groups of women. Before, I never knew what it meant to be “feminist,” as people say. I never knew the complexity of the demands of women from other parts of the world. At first one is surprised at certain demands, but later understands the reasons.

And then there is the Ladino. I was born in a completely indigenous town, and there we did not have many relationships with Ladinos. Today, yes, I know the subject.

I no longer work in the fields. I do not have a house. I have wandered ten years of my life. As a young girl at home, the only thing one thinks is that one is going to marry, to have a home and a family. Now I don't think that way; it is a dream far in the future, not an immediate prospect.

What I have not lost, I believe, is a certain sensibility which is impossible to quantify or explain. When I dream, it is still of my home village in Chimel. I have as my references the people there; it's terrible, because most of them are dead. I remember our small house—I could paint it exactly, even to where the fire was—but surely that house no longer exists. And I feel my poems too, as if I were confessing something that hurts. Sometimes I cannot read them because they start me crying. For many they don't mean much, but they do for me.

What is your favorite poem?

“Patria Abnegada,” of those that are published.

I crossed the border carrying dignity …
I carry the huipil of colors for the fiesta when I return …
I will return tomorrow. …

But I wrote a poem which is called, “A Day for My Mother.” That poem is for my pillow; I have not been able to read it in front of others. It is dedicated to the memory of my mother and I have it here [she touches her head and heart], protected.

A Maya priest called you “the Queen of the Maya.” When do you return to your country out of exile? Do you consider a political role?

It is too soon to say. First certain processes must be completed: for dignity, for the return of the refugees. If they return successfully to society and above all to the adequate reception of Guatemalan authorities, I believe it would mark an important step, and a step for the Communities of Population in Resistance, for the displaced. There should be new projects to call the people to return to their land, to become part of regional and local commercial projects.

Let us forget Guatemala for a moment. My Navajo brothers want me to become involved a bit in their affairs, as do others in other countries, in other places. But I am going to dedicate more time to Guatemala, because it is to me an historical obligation. A Maya priest told me. “The signs of your time are very good. Perhaps this is a gift from our gods, but if so, you must maintain the purity.”

What do you understand by “the purity”?

I think it means fidelity to the command to love. He told me more. He said I was born in Uspantan, but really called utz patan in Maya, which means good work of a mediating kind. “You were born in the land of utz patan and we are ending right now on the calendar a very long 500 years.”

So all this is something like your destiny?

Yes. For our people such an understanding is something important. I think this is all facing toward the year 2000; what we do today is going to mean much then. I am not putting a time limit of only eight years on the effort, but we have an opportunity eight years long to see what our grandparents are going to say about us in the year 2000, and whether our children are going to say, “In the last century our fathers were bad, or they were good.” Look at the resurgence in defense of our languages, and the Maya religion, which is in resurgence here in Guatemala, with its priests and priestesses.

Yes, but that Maya religious resurgence carries a sense of separatism with it. Doesn't that impede the kind of unity you talk about?

No. The indigenous cosmic vision has never combined itself with the official history. Therefore, it is the greatest symbol of the existence of the indigenous at the end of the twentieth century.

It signifies a process of coming to understand ourselves, and it must be a real process. That is why I say we cannot frustrate its hopes.

Hector Tobar (essay date 23 January 1994)

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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 centuries, second-class citizens in their own land, will soon enter an age of “clarity and brightness.” A new dawn is approaching. El nuevo amanecer.

Slowly, inevitably, the priests say, the prophecy is coming true. Ask them for proof and they will tell you about the new organizations that fight for Indian rights and the increasing number of Mayan men and women graduating from Guatemala's universities. They will mention the growing ethnic pride among Mayan youth, the girls who are not afraid to wear their traditional garments at school despite the taunts of the ladinos, the European-descended minority that has ruled Guatemala since 1524.

But the most dramatic example of the new dawn's arrival, the priests say, can be found in the life story of a 35-year-old Quiché Mayan woman, a former house servant and farm worker named Rigoberta Menchú. Illiterate until the age of 20, she is now Guatemala's most-famous citizen, a woman who regularly meets with heads of state and who is recognized as an international leader in the movement for indigenous peoples' rights. In 1992, just days after the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas, she became the first indigenous leader ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Rigoberta winning the Nobel Prize is just the first step, the first sign that the Mayan people must burst into history once again,” says Juan León, leader of Majawil K'ij (“New Dawn” in the Mam Mayan language), a coalition of Mayan cultural and political organizations. “One day, the Mayan people will govern Guatemala. I don't know when it will happen, but that is our hope. That is the new dawn we speak of.”

Like the Mayan priests whose counsel she occasionally seeks, Menchú also believes in a Mayan “new dawn.” She describes it while sitting for an interview in a Guatemala City office. A short woman with a round face that often breaks into a grin, she is dressed, as always, in the traditional clothing of Guatemalan Indian women—the huipil (an embroidered blouse) and corte (a multicolored skirt made from handwoven cloth).

“The priests say the new dawn will be like the rain that fertilizes the soil before we begin to plant our corn,” Menchú says. “It will renew the natural cycle of life. The Mayan people will once again flourish. I believe in this very strongly. The holy men say we are entering a period of clarity. We are rediscovering our Mayan values.”

Since winning the Nobel Prize, Menchú has worked to spread this vision far beyond the reach of the Mayans. In October, she convened the second Summit of Indigenous Peoples, a conference that assembled leaders of native tribes and ethnic groups from five continents. In a speech opening the conference, she told the delegates to persevere in their struggle to force the international community to recognize their rights: Menchú wants the United Nations to adopt a global charter to protect the lands and cultural practices of all indigenous peoples.

“Our struggle is for peace, harmony and mutual respect between peoples and cultures,” Menchú said, looking out at an audience that included Maoris from New Zealand, Inuits from the Arctic Circle, Samis from Scandinavia and Amazon Indians from Brazil and Peru. “But we cannot accept a peace that forces indigenous peoples to renounce their languages, their cultures, their rights, [that forces them] to assimilate into non-indigenous society. We say no to the peace that keeps us on our knees, no to the peace that keeps us in chains, no to the false peace that denies the values and contributions of our peoples.”

It was the kind of speech—proud, angry and defiant—that has made Menchú famous. These qualities have also made her one of the most controversial figures in Central American politics. Although she is widely praised abroad as an eloquent spokeswoman, at home she is often the object of scorn and abuse. Most of the Guatemalan media and politicians attack her as a left-wing militant and an underground supporter of the Marxist guerrillas who have waged a 30-year war against the government. Rather than giving her the Nobel Peace Prize, it seems they should have given her the “Nobel War Prize,” the editors of the influential Guatemala City daily Siglo Veintiuno wrote last year.

Menchú has been criticized for, among other things, the hard-line stance she has taken during the country's continuing political instability. Although she is not the center of a cohesive political movement, or the leader of any political organization, Menchú has given voice in the international arena to the aspirations of a long-silenced sector of Guatemalan society—not just the Mayans, but also poor ladinos and others who call for sweeping social reform and a quick end to military domination of the government. She has called for a purge of the executive branch and army and has attacked recently installed President Ramiro de León Carpio, who supports a more gradual reform of the government.

But most of all, Menchú's defiant Mayan pride doesn't sit well with the elite of a country where Indians are a de facto lower caste, an army of dark-skinned servants and impoverished peasants. Since she received the Nobel Prize, an unease has spread through ladino Guatemala. Some ladinos fear that Menchú's rise to prominence is an inkling of Guatemala's future, a country turned upside-down where Mayans, who make up 60٪ to 70٪ of the population, rule over whites. Many Guatemalans are asking themselves: What do the Mayans want?

A new nationalism has emerged among some members of the small minority of educated and middle-class Mayans. There is talk of one day re-establishing “Mayan law,” erasing the borders and unifying the Mayan peoples scattered across Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and southern Mexico. This growing Mayan militancy found a violent expression this month when Indians in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas launched a guerrilla war, capturing several towns. Rebels from the “Zapatista National Liberation Army” said they were acting to preserve their language and way of life.

In Guatemala, the new Mayan pride shows its face even at the public market, the place where ladinos and Mayans most often come into contact with one another—Indian peasants bring baskets of produce from the countryside to sell to ladino city dwellers. “Ever since Rigoberta won the Nobel Prize, these Indians have become unbearable,” says a middle-class Guatemala City resident. “You go to the market and you try to barter with them and they get angry with you. They say, ‘I won't go any lower. Take it or leave it.’ They have too much pride now. You call them indito [little Indian], and they get mad. They weren't like that before.”

Menchú rose to international prominence after the publication of her 1983 autobiography, I … Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Interviewed by Venezuelan anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, Menchú tells of her humble origins in a small village in the highlands of El Quiché. Desperately poor, members of her family are forced to migrate every year to coastal cotton plantations, where they work in slavelike conditions. She herself begins picking coffee when she is 8. The book reaches a climax as Menchú grows into womanhood and members of her family become founders of the Committee for Peasant Unity. The organization grows quickly but encounters violent opposition from wealthy landowners and the army.

Translated into a dozen languages, the book is considered a key text in the study of Third World women. It transformed Menchú from a little-known exiled Mayan activist into an international figure. It has also become a favorite punching bag for conservative critics in the United States. In his book “Illiberal Education,” Dinesh D'Souza sees Menchú's book as a Marxist-feminist tract epitomizing the ultra-radical views held by Burgos-Debray. Others cite it as proof of Menchú's support for armed insurrection. They point to a key passage in which Menchú learns her village is about to come under attack by the army. (Army officials have admitted destroying about 440 highland villages during a scorched-earth campaign in the early 1980s). Rather than run away or passively resist the invasion, the villagers opt for armed self-defense.

“We knew how to throw stones, we knew how to throw salt in someone's face—how to do it effectively,” Menchú writes. “We've often used lime. Lime is very fine and … we practiced taking aim and watching where the enemy is. You can blind a policeman by throwing lime in his face.” Stephen Schwartz, author of a book on Nicaraguan Violeta Barrios de Chamorro's 1990 election, cited such passages as proof that Menchú was not deserving of the peace prize. “Menchú, to emphasize, does not support peace; she supports leftist violence,” Schwartz wrote in the American Spectator magazine. “She does not even accept nonviolence as a means of protest. … Menchú's cause is not that of peace and reconciliation, but of murder and subversion.”

Schwartz and others also charge that, even as a Nobel winner, Menchú has worked to support Guatemala's Marxist guerrillas in their peace negotiations with the government. (Guatemala's guerrilla insurgency is the last remaining one in Central America.) During the past year, Menchú has blamed government intransigence for breakdowns in the talks.

William Ratliff, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, says her actions before winning the prize lacked “moral authority.” He questions, for example, how she can be seen as a symbol for the rights of Indian people when she supported the Sandinista government's repression of Miskito Indians during the 1980s. “I have no doubt she has ties to the guerrillas,” he adds. “Throwing lime in policemen's eyes, that's not exactly the kind of thing one expects from a peace laureate.”

Even though one of her sisters joined the guerrilla movement, Menchú maintains that she has no contact with the Marxist rebels. Still, she does not hide the fact that she is uncomfortable with the role of peaceful mediator. When more than 2,000 refugees—nearly all of them Mayan Indians—returned to Guatemala from Mexico last January, Menchú chose to ignore the advice of those who told her to avoid the event. The Guatemalan army had opposed the return, saying the refugees were active supporters of the guerrilla movement.

“A lot of people said that this wasn't my role, to be wasting my time on these things,” she says. “But I said no. The popular movement gave me life. The struggle gave me life. The people gave me life. So I owe them something in return, even if I am wasting the Nobel Prize.”

In a recent communique, the clandestine “Romeo Lorenzana Anti-Communist Movement” called her a “guerrilla” and declared “an open war on this group of communist traitors to the fatherland.” She does not take such threats lightly. Her father, Vicente Menchú, was killed during a 1980 peaceful takeover of the Spanish Embassy, when the Guatemalan army stormed and set fire to the compound. That same year, her mother was kidnaped, raped and tortured for days before being tied to a tree and left to die. Her 16-year-old brother was tortured and burned alive in a Mayan village in 1979, as soldiers forced villagers to watch.

In all, an estimated 120,000 people have been killed since the 1970s in Guatemala's political violence. According to Amnesty International and other human-rights groups, the military has been responsible for the majority of these killings. Only a handful of low-ranking army officers have been prosecuted in connection with these deaths. Menchú has lived in a self-imposed exile in Mexico since 1981, and when she visits her homeland, she travels in a gray, armor-plated Jeep Cherokee with green-tinted, bulletproof glass. The Jeep offers a measure of protection against roadside ambushes.

“So many people have died here,” Menchú says from the front of her Jeep during a recent six-day visit to Guatemala, “many unknown people, great men and people whom history erases. As long as impunity exists [for the killers], those people will stay buried and forgotten.”

But the threat of violence has diminished somewhat since de León took power, and Menchú seems relaxed as her Jeep winds through the potholed streets of Guatemala City. She pulls out a compact and applies a few dabs of makeup. Her small entourage is headed for a refugee camp on the outskirts of the city, to visit 250 Mayans displaced by the army's counterinsurgency campaign. Outside, it is a typical day in the country known as “the land of eternal spring”—tropical clouds, verdant hills and volcanoes are fanned across the crystal-blue horizon.

When the Jeep pulls into the dusty plot of land, the refugees set off firecrackers in celebration. She steps out and is almost immediately surrounded by children. To honor Menchú, the refugees have decorated their wood-scrap and dirt-floor shelters with flowers and colorful paper streamers.

Girls in their indigenous dresses circle Menchú and begin to dance. For a moment, she joins in, playfully teasing the girls, saying they should dance a little faster, with more energy, con más ganas. Old women move forward to touch her, approaching her with deep reverence, whispering words to her in Quiché, one of 22 Mayan languages. A man places his newborn son in her arms and asks her to be the child's godmother, a comadre. Poems are presented in her honor.

“Rigoberta, I will tell you how they treat me in school,” reads a 10-year-old girl. “They call me india because I can't speak Spanish well. They forbid me to wear my traje típico [traditional Mayan clothes]. When I play with the other children, they don't treat me the same as everyone else. There is discrimination against me. But inside of me, there is a hope.” Such emotional outpourings are not uncommon. When Menchú won the Nobel, 20,000 Guatemalans marched in the capital in celebration, many of them poor Mayans who left their work as housekeepers and street vendors to be there.

“The poor and the illiterate in Guatemala have never had a leader they could recognize as their own,” says Demetrio Cojti, a Cakchiquel Indian who left his village to earn a doctorate in Belgium and is now a UNICEF official in Guatemala City. “Rigoberta fills that vacuum with her charisma and all the things she symbolizes. It's the joy of their lives.” Among other things, Menchú symbolizes to her fellow Mayans the attainment of respect and success in the non-indigenous world. Like many of them, Menchú once spoke only Quiché, but now she speaks fluent Spanish. Once, she was illiterate, but now she is a distinguished author. Most Mayans can only dream of such achievements: Cojti points out that despite recent advances, Mayans still make up only 25٪ of Guatemala's elementary school students, and 1٪ of college graduates.

It is understandable, then, that when Menchú takes the microphone at the refugee camp to address the crowd, the first thing she tells them is to start a school. “We might have financial limitations, we might be poor, but we can hope for education,” she says, “and we can dream that tomorrow these children will have a chance to build their own nation.”

Just before she is to leave, the refugees gather in a circle while four Mayan priests perform a ceremony. They arrange pine needles and flowers in a circle and burn incense. Menchú joins the refugees in kneeling to pray to the four corners of the earth. The priests call on the spirits of their ancestors to aid them in the fight against Xibalbá, the Mayan underworld. Unlike the Christian hell, Xibalbá exists on earth—army soldiers, police officers and informers all work for the underworld, the priests say. “It's like a government,” a priest explains.

When the ceremony is complete, Menchú climbs into the armor-plated Jeep that protects her against Xibalbá and drives away.

Menchú once again found her actions at the center of debate during a failed government coup in May and June, when then-President Jorge Serrano dissolved Congress and suspended constitutional guarantees, including the right to assembly. As luck would have it, Menchú was making a rare visit to Guatemala at the time, hosting the first Summit of Indigenous Peoples. More than 200 delegates had gathered in the town of Chimaltenango, roughly 40 miles west of Guatemala City. With martial law suddenly in force and the potential for violence rapidly escalating, canceling the summit and sending the delegates home seemed the prudent thing to do. But Menchú announced that the summit would go on as an act of “civil disobedience” against the coup.

“It would have been the most terrible thing in the history of indigenous peoples if we had legitimized the coup by dissolving our summit,” she explained at the time. “I said that anyone who left the summit would never again be recognized as a delegate. A lot of people said this was an intransigent thing to do, that I was putting people's lives in danger. But these were very hard political decisions.”

As the delegates withdrew into closed session, Menchú drove to Guatemala City and helped direct a growing movement against the coup. After attending a Mass for peace, she led 1,000 people on a march from the 18th-century cathedral to the ornate, lime-green Palacio Nacional, the seat of national government. With two dozen stunned soldiers and the international press corps watching, she delivered a letter to the president demanding the restoration of civil liberties by slipping it under the closed gates when the guards refused to accept it.

Faced with growing defiance of his martial law decrees, Serrano resigned and fled the country. Then, in one of those strange turn of events that are so common in Central American politics, Congress named Ramiro de León Carpio, the nation's progressive human-rights prosecutor, as the new president. Just days earlier, Serrano had ordered de León's arrest, and the president-to-be had eluded police by climbing to the roof of his house and jumping into a neighbor's back yard.

De León promised to strengthen democracy and enact some badly needed reforms, including an end to rampant corruption in Congress. But Menchú demanded more. She called for the immediate resignation of the entire Congress, which she labeled as corrupt, and the formation of an assembly to draft a new constitution. At one point during the crisis, she called for a general strike to force Serrano from power—but few workers heeded the call.

To her detractors, it seemed that Menchú was trying to start a popular insurrection. “We believe Rigoberta's actions showed little concern for the reality of the situation,” wrote the editors at the daily Siglo Veintiuno. They accused her of “political immaturity” and said she viewed the crisis as “an opportunity for a revolution that would ruin our political system.”

Before the coup, Menchú never claimed to lead anyone, just to speak for her people. And when the coup gave her an opportunity to play a role in Guatemalan politics, Menchú did what she had always done—she used her influential voice in the public forums available to her. Without any organized constituency in Guatemala, she could act only as an individual, “a moral witness” to the process.

The same tactics had worked well for her in the international stage, where, by recounting her compelling life story again and again, she helped ostracize a series of military regimes. In the process, she also won a Nobel Prize. But after a decade in exile, could she still be an effective leader in Guatemala?

When asked this question, Nineth Montenegro, leader of Guatemala's most tenacious human-rights organization, the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo, buries her head in her hands. She is about to say something critical about a natural ally, something she'd rather not do. Clearly, Montenegro says, Menchú's work abroad has helped the human-rights movement. But remaining in exile—even when most other exiles have already returned—has stolen much of her thunder in Guatemala. “Those of us who have stayed here [in Guatemala] have a certain moral authority” in the movement, Montenegro says. “We've stayed here despite all the killings. If we had gone into exile, we would have lost that authority. That can't be denied.”

Still, Menchú's statements during the coup affirmed the desire of many Guatemalans for profound change. For years, presidents have come and gone in Guatemala without any reform in the secretive structures of power (especially in the military) that have given birth to so much terror and repression. Without a purge of army officers linked to death squads, for example, De León's appointment as president might be little more than a new, democratic facade for the same murderous regime.

To a certain degree, Menchú's position has been borne out during the past few months. De León has proven to be a less-than-effective leader, apparently unwilling to challenge the military leadership he routinely criticized while he was human-rights prosecutor. He dramatically reversed an earlier position by enthusiastically supporting the army's Civilian Self-Defense Patrols, which have been accused by international groups, including the Organization of American States, of gross human-rights violations.

Not surprisingly, Menchú has grown increasingly critical of the president. When De León presented a new peace plan in October, Menchú said it was designed to force the guerrilla movement away from the negotiating table and insinuated that he was being manipulated by the military. She called a news conference in Mexico to announce that she was “withdrawing my vote of confidence” for him.

A week later in Washington, D.C., Menchú renewed her attacks on De León. For her critics back home, it was just another example of Menchú using her access to the media outside Guatemala to prejudice international opinion against the country's struggling democracy. “I think the people of Guatemala would be more pleased with her if she would help us, with her influence and leadership, to build peace,” says presidential press secretary Félix Loarca. “When she says, for example, that she is withdrawing her vote of confidence for the president, I don't think that's the right way. Instead of having these confrontations that never lead to anything constructive, we beg her to use her influence to help us.”

Still, Loarca says neither he nor the president bear Menchú any ill will. “I myself asked her once if she would do me the honor of autographing her book for me,” he says with a smile. Like Loarca, many Guatemalans feel ambivalent toward Menchú. Loarca might be distressed by Menchú's political posturing, but she is, after all, a Nobel Prize winner. And in a poor country permeated by a collective sense of low self-esteem, such triumphs mean a great deal.

To dedicate herself to the revolution, Menchú long ago renounced marriage and motherhood, parting company with a fiancé with “much sadness and a heavy heart.” In private, she can speak harshly of her opponents, using mild swear words like cabrón, bastard. She is known for her toughness, yet she wept openly when it was announced that she had won the Nobel Prize, remembering the deaths of her family members. And she is not above a little self-effacing humor. When her Jeep develops a flat tire on a bumpy Guatemala City road, she jokes about her being fat. “Well, no wonder the tire popped,” she says, standing on the flattened tire her driver has just removed. “Look, it can't even hold my weight.” Everyone laughs.

There is a feeling among some ladino commentators that, as a self-educated Mayan woman, Menchú doesn't possess the intellectual capacity to be a power player in Guatemalan politics. So tainted is the racial atmosphere in Guatemala that people have few qualms about expressing such thoughts publicly. Consider the published comments of Carlos Manuel Pellecer, a columnist for the country's largest daily, La Prensá Libre. He called Menchú “an ingenuous and poorly counseled muchacha.Muchacha (girl) is what Guatemalans call their servants. The Nobel Prize, Pellecer said, “is obviously too grand for her.”

In private, the racial hostility can be expressed more brazenly. Menchú's growing notoriety has led to an endless stream of Rigoberta jokes, many of which cast her in the role of country bumpkin: A simple peasant thrust into a high-class society she does not understand. One joke reminds Guatemalans that even in death, she will always be a member of the servant class: “Rigoberta died and went to heaven,” the story goes. “But she showed up at the pearly gates wearing her huipil and her corte. So St. Peter takes one look at her and says: ‘Hey, Jesus, the tortillas are here!’”

Menchú has endured such racist jokes and comments all her life. She speaks with quiet, restrained anger as she remembers what people said when she first spoke on Guatemalan television in 1988, when she returned openly to the country for the first time since going into exile. Having been arrested, thrown in jail, and then released from custody, she denounced the authorities, breezing through her interviews in erudite and eloquent Spanish. Many Guatemalans were amazed.

“People said, ‘Rigoberta Menchú speaks better than a ladino,’” Menchú remembers. “‘Her Spanish is perfect. It's incredible that she's so intelligent.’ As if intelligence belonged to only one sector of the population. There were aberrant assertions that I must have been trained to speak by East German [Communists] agents because I couldn't have learned all this on my own.”

Even as she was being disparaged at home, her recognition was growing abroad. In the weeks before the Nobel committee announced the recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, Indian activists all over the world were busy organizing protests to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas. It appeared that the committee would acknowledge the quincentenary by awarding the prize to an indigenous leader. Still, the ideal candidate was not immediately obvious. There was no Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr. whose moral and personal authority granted them unquestioned leadership of the movement.

Menchú, who had been struggling for more than a decade to pressure the international community to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples, “was one of a number of people who might have been chosen,” says Howard R. Berman, professor of international law at the California Western School of Law in San Diego. “The movement is very diverse and there's not one central leader.” But, Berman adds, “Rigoberta was an excellent choice. She's very highly regarded and a person of great integrity.”

Indigenous activists agree that the prize has granted new visibility and legitimacy to their struggle. Since accepting the $1.2-million award, Menchú has found herself thrust into a new role as the leading spokeswoman for the international movement. With more moral than financial support from the U.N. bureaucracy (Menchú complains that the U.N. provided her with a measly $47,000), she used her one-year goodwill ambassadorship to convene two international summits. At Menchú's invitation, and with part of her Nobel award paying some of the costs, more than 100 leaders from five continents attended.

The delegates agreed to ask the U.N. to declare the period between 1994 and 2004 the international decade of indigenous peoples, and last December, the U.N. General Assembly approved the decade, which will begin this Dec. 10.

Under Menchú's leadership, the summit delegates also developed a plan to push the U.N. to approve the draft declaration on indigenous peoples' rights. The declaration must still work its way through a labyrinth of U.N. committees before being presented to the General Assembly for final consideration. The document declares that indigenous peoples have the right to protect their lands, cultural practices and natural resources. Although the declaration would not have the force of international law, it could be the first step toward the adoption of an international convention on indigenous peoples' rights, similar to the Geneva Convention on the protection of prisoners and medical personnel in war-time.

“She was supposed to take the position as goodwill ambassador and pose for posters and show up for tea in Vienna and Geneva,” says Mililani B. Trask, a summit delegate representing the indigenous peoples of Hawaii. “She's gone way beyond anything they [the U.N.] ever expected. They wanted her to be a symbol but she had the integrity to not do that.”

Mayan calendar priests have kept a continuous count of the days over a period of 25 centuries. On the day that Quiché priest Nicolás Lucas is interviewed, the Mayan calendar reads “12 Ix” (pronounced eesh). The coming of the “new dawn,” Lucas says, was foretold by Mayan priests three years before the arrival of the first European, conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, who defeated the army of Quiché warriors led by Tecún Umán. The priests predicted a long period of darkness would follow the conquest. But one day the sun would return.

“The new dawn is about to rescue our culture,” Lucas says. “Our ancestors said the moment would arrive in which their children and grandchildren would wake up again and see this light. We've been lost for 500 years but it's not possible to continue the same way. We have to take action.” But asked why the Mayan calendar says the new dawn is coming now, Lucas is a little less forthcoming. He says he has been studying the calendar for 30 years and “to explain all that, I would need a year. Maybe two.”

Most Mayans don't need to have mastered the complexities of their calendar to know change is long overdue. Since founding the “New Dawn” coalition in 1991, Juan León has seen a remarkable growth in Mayan political and cultural organizations.

But he believes that the day of Mayan dominance is still a long way off. Nor is it the goal of his movement. “Some people think what we want to do is to throw all the ladinos out of Guatemala and send them back to Spain,” León says. “That's not our intention.” The Mayans, he says, only want to live in a country where ladinos and Mayans treat each other with respect.

Menchú expressed similar thoughts in her speech in Oslo when she accepted the Nobel Prize: “Combining all the shades of ladinos, Africans and indigenous peoples that make up the ethnic mosaic of Guatemala, we should interlace a variety of colors, making them shine, weaving as our artisans do.” The result, Menchú believes, will be a huipil, an intricate, rainbow-colored garment that will be Guatemala's gift to humanity.

Linda Larson (review date December 1994)

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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 Spanish in order to break out of the isolation her native Indian language imposed on her. It is also a chance for the rest of the world to glimpse a culture struggling to keep its rituals and identity from systematic extermination.

Menchú derives the courage to speak directly from her family and her community. Every chapter reveals some aspect of her upbringing in El Quiché, a province in Guatemala. From the beginning when the reader finds out that Menchú is from only one group of 22 indigenous Guatemalan Indian tribes, to her exile from her beloved community, Menchú's role in her people's fight to maintain cultural identity serves as a backdrop for her testimony to a beautiful country and a spiritual people seared by political persecution.

Despite the civic brutality, Menchú maintains her optimism. In Chapter 1 she describes her birthplace as “practically a paradise, the country is so beautiful. There are no big roads and no cars. Only people can reach it. Everything is taken down the mountainside on horseback or else we carry it ourselves. So, you can see, I live right up in the mountains” (2). To understand Menchú's clarity of vision and her unflagging devotion to El Quiché, the reader need only contrast this paradise with a scene from Chapter 24: “My mother went closer to the lorry to see if she could recognize her son. Each of the tortured had different wounds on the face. I mean their faces all looked different. … Some of them were very nearly half dead, or they were in their last agony. … All the tortured had no nails and they had cut off part of the soles of their feet” (176).

The reader feels a sense of wonder, then awe, that Menchú can feel the same innocent devotion to her country at the end of the book as she does at the beginning. But that's why the book works. It is a testimony to culture tightly woven through its oral traditions, its customs, its rituals, its spiritual beliefs, and its resistance to wholesale murder. The children of such a culture are drenched in their own traditions so thoroughly that they run little danger of being confused. So consistently are the children included in various ceremonies, and so consistently are they made responsible for maintaining their cultural identity, that they run little risk of being assimilated into the outside ladino world. (Ladino refers to a Guatemalan who rejects Mayan origins and traditional Indian values; the term may imply mixed blood.)

Menchú explains that as children grow, they fulfill a series of obligations that parents commit them to at birth. These areas of responsibility ensure that tribal secrets are passed on. Parents promise that their children will do everything in exactly the manner as their ancestors. As the modern reader can readily understand, this often leads the ladino world to describe the Indian cultures as antediluvian. This lack of political identity further perpetuates the stereotypes that typically characterize the disenfranchised as the Indians themselves speak 22 distinct languages and, therefore, have no means of uniting. Even common employment at the lowland fincas, or coffee plantations, provides little common denominator when people cannot communicate. This division is magnified by the Spanish-speaking world in its perception of the Indians as people without power or institutions. Thus, ultimately Menchú is compelled to study Spanish so that she might urge communities to unite in their plight to maintain their ways of life.

The irony is that, without Spanish, Menchú remains mute and powerless. Only with the ladino's words can she tell the story of her people's fight for their cultural identity. Thus, the reader hears her third-hand. But the unwavering picture of a culture threatened by violent extinction is without distortion. The picture of a brutal government lusting after even the tiniest, most inaccessible plot of mountainous altiplano Indian land is startlingly clear. So, too, is the story of the human spirit's ability to rise above degradation and systematic oppression. The ability to bridge a cultural gap so profound that it took two languages, an editor, and a translator to bring us the story, is also a triumph.

This is a must-read for anyone interested in feminist politics; women's cultural roles; the status of the Indian community in Guatemala today; and the incredible power of language to separate people—or to bring them together.

Alice Brittin (review date fall 1995)

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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 Guatemalan highlands, tells her life story to Elisabeth Burgos, a professionally trained ethnographer who, rendering Rigoberta's oral history in written form, acts as both mediator to the reading public and conduit to the publishing industry. Though the significant cultural differences between the two women in ethnic origin, native tongue, nationality, and socioeconomic status suggest that Rigoberta's voice was subject to distortion, I will argue that she speaks not only for herself but also, by metonymic function,1 for the communities to which she belongs—the indigenous population of Guatemala and the Comité de Unidad Campesina (Peasant Unity Committee—CUC) of which she has been an active representative since 1979.2


Questions of mediation and authenticity are central to critical debates about testimonio. Scholars who herald this narrative genre as a vehicle for expressing the voices of peoples traditionally silenced by their oppressors are routinely contradicted by those who see in testimonio a reenactment of the exploitative relationship of master and slave or colonizer and colonized. In view of such contradictory understandings of the power-laden dynamics of the collaborative and dialogical process by means of which testimonios are produced, we must ask two important questions: “Who speaks for whom?” and “Who authors these texts?”

In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Spivak (1988) asserts that First World intellectuals (inside the circuit of the international division of labor and thus unable to grasp the consciousness of the subject of exploitation who remains outside this circuit) continually construct the Third World subaltern subject. According to Spivak, the First World intellectual's attempts to “represent” and “re-present” the Third World subaltern subject are consistently inauthentic. Since the inauthentic subaltern subject cannot speak for the truly subaltern and the truly subaltern have no means by which to speak, Spivak (1988: 287) concludes that, “in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak.” Though the deconstructionist analysis of “Intellectuals and Power: A Conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze” that leads her to this conclusion seems somewhat tautological, her observations are by no means unfounded. In attempts to tame the “savage,” ethnocentric intellectuals have indeed constructed literary representations of the Other that have little if anything in common with the flesh-and-blood human beings they claim to portray. In reference to Spanish American literature, John Beverley (1993: 88) labels the indigenous translators for the conquistadores (La Malinche and others), the “good slave” of the Cuban antislavery novel, the peasant of Costumbrismo, and the literary representation of women in general as examples of Spivak's intellectually constructed subaltern subject. One could add to this list the indio of the novela indigenista, the gaucho of the novela gauchesca, and, in some cases, the narrator of testimonio.3

Although Spivak (1988: 292) is not speaking of testimonio per se, one might assume that her conclusion about the representation of the subaltern subject is equally applicable to this narrative genre, for she warns of the danger of the “First World intellectual masquerading as the absent nonrepresenter who lets the oppressed speak for themselves.” Furthermore, she observes (1988: 295),

Reporting on, or better still, participating in antisexist work among women of color or women in class oppression in the First World or the Third World is undeniably on the agenda. We should also welcome all the information retrieval in these silenced areas that is taking place in anthropology, political science, history and sociology. Yet the assumption and construction of a consciousness or subject sustains such work and will, in the long run, cohere with the work of imperialist subject-construction, mingling epistemic violence with the advancement of learning and civilization. And the subaltern woman will be as mute as ever.

Similar to Spivak in her mistrust of First World intellectuals “masquerading as absent nonrepresenters,” Stephen Tyler (1986: 128) questions the authenticity of ethnographic writing that purports to let native informants speak for themselves: “Some ethnographers have tamed the savage, not with the pen, but with the tape recorder, reducing him to a ‘straight man,’ as in the script of some obscure comic routine, for even as they think to have returned to ‘oral performance’ or ‘dialogue,’ in order that the native have a place in the text, they exercise total control over her discourse and steal the only thing she has left—her voice.” This may very well be true in situations where ethnographers seek out native informants whose stories they wish to tell. In this sense, the ethnographer assumes an active role in the selection of the informant, the questions asked, and the overall shaping of the ethnographic text while the role of the native informant is relatively passive. (Perhaps this is why Tyler genders the native informant as female.) Can the same be said, however, when these roles are reversed? If, for example, a native informant whose very survival depended on the telling of a story were to seek out a sympathetic ethnographer, journalist, or otherwise professional writer, would Spivak's observations regarding the inevitability of imperialist subject-construction or Tyler's “taming of the savage” theory hold true? Perhaps the case of Rigoberta Menchú and Elisabeth Burgos will shed some light on the subject.

In 1981, when she was only 23 years old, Rigoberta Menchú was forced into exile for having participated in the antiestablishment activities of the CUC and the Frente Popular 31 de Enero (January 31 Popular Front). Upon leaving Guatemala, Rigoberta, who had been speaking Spanish for only three years and whose knowledge of the world beyond the borders of her homeland was minimal, traveled to Mexico, where she spoke at a gathering of Catholic bishops, thus bearing witness to the atrocities that she and her people had experienced and continued to experience at the hands of the Guatemalan military. At the invitation of several organizations involved in the Solidarity Movement, she then traveled to Paris, and there she was introduced to Elisabeth Burgos, originally of Venezuela, whose collaboration in the writing of her testimony had been solicited by friends sympathetic to the plight of the Guatemalan indigenous population. Acutely aware of the politically complex and emotionally sensitive nature of the ethnographer/native informant relationship, Elisabeth Burgos was at first reluctant to interview Rigoberta.4 Eventually, however, she agreed to do so—a decision that would forever change the course of both their lives. Henceforth, Rigoberta would be recognized as the “voice” of the poor and disenfranchised peoples of Latin America, while Elisabeth Burgos would be applauded by some and derided by others as the person who gave the world this voice.

In the prologue to Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú, Elisabeth Burgos provides very little information as to how she became involved in the writing of Rigoberta's testimony. She states that Rigoberta traveled to Europe in 1982 as a representative of the Frente Popular 31 de Enero and that the idea of the book originated with a Canadian friend who had met Rigoberta in Mexico, but she gives no indication as to the circumstances surrounding her decision to collaborate in this literary project. Perhaps she avoids the issue to protect the parties involved; perhaps she does not consider it important or interesting. Her reticence is, however, intriguing, and leads us to ask how Elizabeth Burgos became involved with Rigoberta Menchú, who was relatively unknown beyond the borders of Guatemala in 1982. Considering the fact that she was not particularly interested in Maya Quiché culture and had never done fieldwork in Guatemala,5 and given the openly propagandistic nature of Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú, it seems likely that her involvement in the writing of Rigoberta's testimony was orchestrated by an individual or a group of individuals desirous of promoting a specific political agenda. Though Elisabeth Burgos is obviously sympathetic to this agenda, it is not evident in either the introduction to Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú or in the body of the text that she embraces it as her own.

Generally speaking, the narrators of Central American testimonio (leaders of popular movements, guerrilla fighters, politically compromised intellectuals, and refugees from war-torn countries) have their own political agendas to promote, and they tend to be well aware of the potential power of their accounts of incarceration, torture, and persecution at the hands of right-wing military governments.6 The case of Rigoberta Menchú is no exception. In a conversation with me and my colleague Kenya Dworkin,7 Rigoberta spoke of how the Guatemalan activist Arturo Taracena (head of Solidarity operations in Paris when she arrived there) and members of the CUC persuaded her of the need to collaborate with Elisabeth Burgos (Brittin and Dworkin, 1993: 217):

It was difficult, but thanks especially to Arturo, who pushed me a little, he told me that it needed to be done. And since he was a fellow Guatemalan, he could have some influence. And Arturo, well, he pushed hard for doing the book. And later my comrades in the CUC always said that having given this testimony—having told it in other circles, especially at the bishops' conference in Mexico, before writing the book—was very important and that it had to be done. So, if it had not been for the CUC and various comrades and friends, it would have been very difficult.

That Rigoberta had to be persuaded to collaborate with Elisabeth Burgos is not surprising considering the fact that bearing witness is not simply a linguistic act involving the recounting of past events but an existential “stance” tied up with survival that necessitates reliving traumatic experiences (Felman and Laub, 1992: 117). As Rigoberta herself observes, “The recording was the most difficult part for me, because it meant that I had to identify with my life, my experience, even though many things are not in the book” (Brittin and Dworkin, 1993: 217). Notwithstanding the emotional pain of telling her life story, Rigoberta and her colleagues in the CUC recognized the potential power of this testimony and were determined to use it as a weapon in their struggle for freedom and justice in Guatemala.

Not only was the CUC instrumental in Rigoberta's decision to bear witness to Elisabeth Burgos but, as Rigoberta indicates, she and her “compañeros” also had a hand in the editing of the final transcription of her testimony: “And from Mexico we reviewed the transcript. And my reading ability was limited at that time, so I had to work with other people, who read me practically the whole book. I took out some things, and I also censored many parts. In the first part, for example, only because there were things that I shouldn't have said, and it was necessary to take them out.”

Elisabeth Burgos gives her version of the compilation of Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú in the text's prologue, where she admits to having arranged the narrative in chapters according to themes (family, ceremonial rituals, childhood, etc.). She also says that she omitted excessive repetition and improved upon Rigoberta's faulty grammar. However, she makes no mention of either Rigoberta's or the CUC's participation in the editing process. Consequently, the reader assumes that Elisabeth Burgos exercised total control over Rigoberta's discourse and, as Stephen Tyler would have it, stole her voice. In view of Rigoberta's statements, however, we must conclude that Rigoberta and the CUC maintained control of what was said in the finished product if not how it was said. Consequently, though Rigoberta's discourse was definitely mediated by Elisabeth Burgos, it would be misleading to say that it was either manipulated, exploited, or controlled by her.

The fact that Arturo Taracena was instrumental in persuading Rigoberta to collaborate with Elisabeth Burgos is admittedly problematic, for it suggests the possibility of Spivak's intellectually constructed subaltern subject. Theoretically, one could argue, as does Dinesh D'Souza (1991:72), that Rigoberta is simply “a mouthpiece for a sophisticated left-wing critique of Western society, all the more devastating because it issues not from a French scholar-activist but from a seemingly authentic Third World source.” In other words, Rigoberta, apparently speaking for herself while really speaking at the direction of international political activists, is nothing more than a ventriloquist's dummy of sorts. All the more devastating because it issues from a Third World source (D'Souza was born in India of Indian parents but received his education in the United States), this argument smacks of racism, sexism, and imperialism as well, for D'Souza denies Rigoberta not only the authorship of her own words and actions but also the ability to construct herself as an intellectual and politically astute subaltern subject.8 Does D'Souza intend to suggest that in order to maintain her authenticity as a Third World source of information concerning the subaltern, Rigoberta must remain forever subordinate to the powers that be and ignorant of the world and the international political machines that run it? Or, because she is indigenous and female, is it simply unthinkable that Rigoberta, herself the victim of severe racial and class discrimination, recognized the urgency of the situation in Guatemala and made a conscious decision to do something about it? Questions such as these merit discussion beyond the limited scope of this essay. For the moment, however, suffice it to say that even though she was admittedly pressured into bearing witness, Rigoberta at no time gives the impression that she was forced to do so. To the contrary, she observes (Brittin and Dworkin, 1993: 217),

It was very hard for me to make the decision, and that's what determined the way in which the book was done. It's that it was going to make me enormously sad if that life ended up like any other pamphlet from Latin America, the way the lives of children, mothers, and old folks in Latin America have ended up. No one paid any attention to them. For me, it was very important to give this as a memory, and this idea was what most compelled me to do it, and I threw myself into the project with a lot of strong emotion. It was a moving experience, and, yes, there was consciousness because it was a difficult undertaking.

The intervention of Solidarity organizations, Arturo Taracena, and the CUC in the compilation of Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú confirms the obvious political bias of this testimonio and partly explains the politically charged discourse prevalent throughout the text. Rigoberta had, of course, embraced the life of a political activist before she met Elisabeth Burgos. However, as Rigoberta admits, what most inspired her to make public her story was the opportunity to share the “memory” of her life in the hope that it would not be forgotten like so many others.

The notion of memory is fundamental to a clear understanding of the dynamics of testimonio. Not only does testimonio preserve for future generations the memory of events lived or witnessed by a specific individual, the narrator, but also it makes possible through metonymic function the transmission and preservation of the collective memory of the larger community of which the narrator sees himself or herself as spokesperson. As Rigoberta states in the opening lines of Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú (1984: 1; 1983: 21):

My name is Rigoberta Menchú. I am twenty-three years old. This is my testimony. I didn't learn it from a book and I didn't learn it alone. I'd like to stress that it's not only my life, it's also the testimony of my people. It's hard for me to remember everything that's happened to me in my life since there have been many very bad times but, yes, moments of joy as well. 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.

Similarly, Rigoberta's use of the deictic “that” (“that life”) in the preceding citation refers not only to her own personal life and experience but also, in a more general sense, to the way of life of her people—their customs and practices and, more important, their daily struggle to survive, physically and culturally, in an oppressive society.9 In this sense, Rigoberta spoke in 1982 and continues to speak today for a large part of the indigenous population of Guatemala. However, it would be misleading to say that Rigoberta's political beliefs, as expressed in Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú, were ever wholly representative of “all poor Guatemalans.” Indeed, as Marc Zimmerman (1992: 238, my translation) reveals in his “El otro de Rigoberta: Los testimonios de Ignacio Bizarro Ujpán y la resistencia indígena en Guatemala,” the political consciousness of the acculturated Indian who has renounced multiple ties to the indigenous community is likely to differ radically from that of someone like Rigoberta, who strives for political and economic change coupled with cultural survival: “Rigoberta may represent the ‘potential consciousness’ of the Guatemalan indigenes, but Ignacio may represent their ‘real consciousness.’” Nevertheless, it would be equally misleading to say that Rigoberta speaks for no one but herself, for she obviously voices the concerns of the CUC, which, in turn, voices the concerns of many poor Guatemalans, both indigenous and ladino.

Notwithstanding the possible differences between Rigoberta's politics and those of other Guatemalan Indians, I will maintain that Rigoberta speaks in Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú for a large part of the indigenous population of Guatemala in terms of the 500 years of institutionalized violence and oppression that this community has suffered at the hands of a powerful ruling class. This is to say that Rigoberta's disturbing stories of dire poverty, racial discrimination, inhuman working conditions, death due to malnutrition, rape, torture, etc., are indicative of a collective way of life that she knows only too well. Thus, having had the importance of bearing witness impressed upon her by activist friends and members of the CUC, Rigoberta assumed in 1982 the painful responsibility of making the truth of this way of life known in an international context and, with the help of Elisabeth Burgos, preserved it for future generations. The fact that Rigoberta shared this truth through collaborative means does not change the fact that it was her memory and her people's collective memory from and of which she spoke.

Considering that the claim to fact rather than fiction is of ultimate importance to the reader's reception of testimonio, the notion of narrative truth is also fundamental to a clear understanding of the dynamics of this literary genre. As Felman and Laub (1992: 204) explain, the act of bearing witness is a linguistic gesture or speech act by means of which the witness takes responsibility for truth:

To testify is always, metaphorically, to take the witness stand, or to take the position of the witness insofar as the narrative account of the witness is at once engaged in an appeal and bound by an oath. To testify is thus not merely to narrate but to commit oneself, and to commit the narrative, to others: to take responsibility—in speech—for history or for the truth of an occurrence, for something which, by definition, goes beyond the personal, in having general (nonpersonal) validity and consequences.

Though an appeal is made to readers of testimonio to accept the witness's narrative account as truthful historical documentation, whether they do so depends on the degree to which they identify with the narrator on symbolic and ideological levels. Obviously, if they share the narrator's political/ideological orientation, they will more readily accept the testimonio as truthful documentation than readers with an opposing political/ideological orientation. Likewise, their degree of familiarity with the events remembered and recorded is instrumental in a final assessment of the testimonio as truthful or not. However, it may be the case that readers know nothing whatsoever about the life or politics of a given narrator. In this case, the aim of testimonio is to convey experience in addition to an attitude toward that experience. Consequently, identification of readers with the narrator is not an end in itself but a stratagem by means of which testimonio, like any other literary work, stimulates attitudes in readers.

According to reception theorist Hans Robert Jauss (cited in Holub, 1984: 78–81), such attitudes or “interactional patterns of aesthetic identification with the hero” include (1) associative identification, which entails “assuming a role in the closed, imaginary world of a play action”; (2) admiring identification, which involves “a perfect hero whose actions are exemplary for a community or a segment of the community”; (3) sympathetic identification, by means of which “the audience places itself in the position of the hero and thus expresses a kind of solidarity with a usually suffering figure”; (4) cathartic identification, which is characterized by its “emancipatory function for the spectator”; (5) and, finally, ironic identification, which entails “disappointing, breaking, or denying an expected identification.” In reference to the reactions that the narrators and editors of testimonio hope to stimulate in readers, identification modalities 2 (admiring) and 3 (sympathetic) seem most appropriate to the testimonial project. However, in accordance with modality 5 (ironic), readers may very well reject the narrator's story on experiential or purely ideological grounds, thus precluding any possibility of positive identification.

Proceeding with the legal metaphor offered by Felman, in addition to being viewed as witness to a given crime or injustice, the narrator might also be seen as an “expert witness” whose firsthand knowledge of and experience with the situation in question lends credibility to the testimony. Acting as the witness's lawyer, the editor of testimonio employs this expert's testimony as the evidence or discovery used by the prosecution or defense in attempts to persuade the reader/judge to accept the narrator's claims to truth. This observation concerning the editor's function as lawyer once again raises the red flag, signaling possible distortion of the witness's voice, for, as we all know, some lawyers are not above manipulating the “facts” to their client's benefit. However, witnesses are also known to manipulate the facts or commit perjury.

Anthropologist David Stoll (1990: 6) has suggested that Rigoberta's retelling of her younger brother Petrocinio's death at the hands of the Guatemalan military is “a literary invention.” As Rigoberta describes it, Petrocinio was captured by the army on September 9, 1979, tortured for 16 days, and then burned alive in the plaza of Chajul while the whole town was forced to watch (Menchú, 1984: 172–182; 1983: 198–207). Part of Rigoberta's account of his capture and subsequent death is based on the reports of eyewitnesses, but she also indicates that she was physically present when her brother and 20 other political prisoners were burned alive. According to Stoll (1990: 7), who in 1988–1989 interviewed the residents of Chajul, “No one was burned alive; there weren't twenty victims; and the families weren't there to see it, least of all Rigoberta.” Stoll (1990: 6) bases this statement on the fact that “no one in Chajul recalls what she describes” and “what people in Chajul do recall about Rigoberta's brother is what appeared in human rights reports soon after he died.” Apparently, the majority of human rights reports concerning Petrocinio's death concur that 7 captives were shot down on the edge of Chajul. Their bodies were then dragged into town, where one was burned in the main square. Stoll does mention, however, that Rigoberta's account can be found in the Comité Guatemalteco de Unidad Patrióica (Guatemalan Committee of Patriotic Unity) collection of testimonies and in a December 1982 Guatemalan Church in Exile account, although, according to this account, Petrocinio's death takes place later and in a different place.

The question of narrative truth in reference to this episode is perhaps irresolvable, for, as is generally accepted by most objective thinkers, truth is relative to the experience, perception, imagination, and underlying motives of the person or persons claiming it. Stoll's view that Rigoberta's account of Petrocinio's death is essentially a figment of her imagination is based on other testimonies, which, after almost ten years, could themselves be faulty. Also, considering the fact that public acknowledgment of atrocities attributed to the Guatemalan military could cost Stoll's respondents their lives, it is certainly understandable that no one in Chajul seems to recall what Rigoberta describes. In fact, Stoll's assumption that the indigenous inhabitants of Guatemala's western highlands (who continue to suffer the ill effects of government-sponsored violence) would willingly speak of past atrocities to such an obvious outsider—a white North American academic (as opposed to a missionary or human rights advocate) who does not speak their language, who (from their point of view) has nothing better to do than observe their culture, and whom they have no real reason to trust—clearly demonstrates a lack of cross-cultural understanding on the part of the anthropologist. Indeed, does Stoll mean to suggest that if the subaltern subject does not speak to him, he or she must have nothing to say?

Whatever the “truth” concerning the circumstances surrounding Petrocinio Menchú's death, to this day Rigoberta speaks of her little brother as “quemado vivo” (burned alive). What, then, are readers of Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú to make of this? As is suggested in my previous discussion of testimonio and the notion of truth, readers' ultimate acceptance or rejection of a given testimonio's claim to narrative truth is a highly personal matter involving their predisposition to believe what is written and the narrator's ability to persuade them to accept what is written as fact. Of course, readers' responses will be as varied as the readers themselves and will necessarily reflect predetermined value judgments and prejudices. However, as in a court of law, what ultimately sways the judge's or jury's final decision is not so much the “facts” but how they are presented. As one lawyer currently advertising his services on national television claims, “It's not the case you have but the case you put on that gets the best results.”

Returning to the question of Petrocinio Menchú's death, I personally do not see the possibility of fabrication or exaggeration on Rigoberta's part as compromising either her or her testimonio's overall credibility. I must admit that my previous knowledge of the unthinkable atrocities committed against the indigenous peoples of Guatemala in the late 1970s and early 1980s predisposes me to believe Rigoberta's side of the story. Anyone knowledgeable of human rights abuses in Guatemala will admit the possibility of such an occurrence. Furthermore, even if she did not witness her brother's death and he was killed in a more “humane” fashion, the fact remains that he was tortured and murdered by the army. More important, like the judge who seriously questions a specific portion of a plaintiff's testimony but ultimately rules in the plaintiff's favor, I disregard the possibility of fabrication or exaggeration on Rigoberta's part as relatively unimportant because she and those collaborating with her put on such a convincing case. In other words, the important point for readers of Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú is not whether Petrocinio was burned alive or died by other means but that Rigoberta deemed it necessary to describe in such vivid detail what she claims to have seen with her own two eyes (1984; 179; 1983: 204):

Anyway, they lined up the tortured and poured petrol on them; and then the soldiers set fire to each one of them. Many of them begged for mercy. They looked half dead when they were lined up there, but when the bodies began to burn they began to plead for mercy. Some of them screamed, many of them leapt but uttered no sound—of course, that was because their breathing was cut off.

If indeed the intent of her testimonio is to stimulate attitudes in her interlocutors/readers such as admiring or sympathetic identification, then her account of Petrocinio's death does just that, and, like the author of any other text—factual or fictional—Rigoberta manipulates her readers to elicit sympathy and solidarity with her cause. Consequently, I see her emphasis on the horrible details of Petrocinio's death as a sort of poetic license by which her case is strengthened.


The preceding observations as to Rigoberta's active role in the compilation and political/ideological biasing of her testimonio bring us to the question of the authorship of Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú. In an interesting contrast, while the Spanish version of Rigoberta's testimonio designates Elisabeth Burgos as author of the text (“por Elisabeth Burgos”), the English version, I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (1984), makes no mention of an author. Though in this version Elisabeth Burgos is designated as editor of the text and author of the introduction, except in the title Rigoberta's name is nowhere to be found on the book's title page. Since Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú is essentially a transcription of her memories, it seems hardly fair to deny her a place on the title page simply because her contribution to the literary project was oral rather than written. The unfairness of this situation has certainly not eluded Rigoberta (Brittin and Dworkin, 1993: 218):

What is effectively a gap in the book is the question of royalties, right? Because the authorship of the book really should be more precise, shared, right? To say such-and-such and no author of the book … ? But, in fact, this is now a mutual problem. It's also the result of not knowing how to do a book. An author was needed, and she's an author. It wasn't even considered, because the truth is that, at the time, it was my first trip out of Guatemala. I wasn't familiar with the international world, much less with how to do a book, and that's even mentioned. It's also part of the testimonio, no?

In an essay entitled “Authors and Writers,” Roland Barthes (1982: 190) makes the following distinction between authors and writers with reference to their use of language: “The author participates in the priest's role, the writer in the clerk's, the author's language is an intransitive act (hence, in a sense, a gesture), the writer's an activity.” A similar distinction between the linguistic activity of Rigoberta and that of Elisabeth Burgos is certainly appropriate in determining the true author of Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú. Like a priestess, Rigoberta uses language as a gesture, engaging her interlocutors/readers in a dialogue between consciousness and history; like a scribe, Elisabeth Burgos faithfully transcribes this “Gospel according to Rigoberta.”10 In addition, considering Elisabeth Burgos's self-designation as “the instrument that would bring about the transition from the spoken to the written word” (Menchú, 1983: 18, my translation) and categorical denial of having changed Rigoberta's testimony in the least (except for grammatical errors and the ordering of specific themes into cohesive chapters), I am of the opinion that Rigoberta authors her testimonio while Elisabeth Burgos engages in the “clerical” activity of writing it. In designating Rigoberta as “author” and Elisabeth Burgos as “scribe,” I do not intend to minimize in any way the editor's contribution to the production of Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú. Clearly, Elisabeth Burgos's professional expertise accounts for the text's readability and overall coherence, while her sensitivity to Rigoberta's situation facilitated the retrieval of deeply disturbing and painful memories. However, I concur with James Clifford (1983: 140): “Anthropologists will increasingly have to share their texts, and sometimes their title pages, with those indigenous collaborators for whom the term ‘informants’ is no longer adequate if it ever was.”


It would be foolish on my part to attempt an all-inclusive theory of testimonio, since approaches to writing such texts vary greatly and there are indeed examples in which well-intentioned editors appropriate subaltern narrators' voices in attempts to legitimate a personal political/ideological position. However, to deny the authenticity of the subaltern narrator's voice simply because inauthentic representations of this voice exist would be a grave injustice to many individuals who, in displays of solidarity and commitment to a common cause, have risked their lives and livelihoods to make public stories of individual and class oppression. Rather than sweeping generalizations asserting the First World intellectual's utter inability to break the pernicious habit of imperialist subject-construction and denying the Third World subaltern subject the ability to speak, what is needed in literary analyses of postcolonial discourse is knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the production of each text that claims to represent the subaltern's voice. Likewise, a clearer understanding of such texts can be gained through knowledge of the political, personal, ethical, and economic motives that compel First World intellectuals and Third World subaltern subjects to participate in projects of information retrieval from society's “silenced” sectors.


  1. Metonymy is a linguistic trope that consists of designating one entity with the name of another in virtue of a relationship (causal, spatial, or spatiotemporal) between the two. Although metonymy has primarily a referential function, it also serves the function of providing understanding. For example, if we accept as valid the metonymy Rigoberta/Guatemalan Mayan community, which designates Rigoberta as representative of the larger indigenous community to which she belongs, it is only logical that her testimonio should make it possible for us as readers to achieve a more thorough understanding of the experiences shared by members of this community. (For a more detailed discussion of metonymy, see Lakoff and Johnson, 1980: 35–40.)

  2. In her analysis of Guatemalan society and politics, Susanne Jonas (1991: 127) describes the CUC as “a national peasant organization, including both peasants and agricultural workers, both Indians and poor ladinos, but led primarily by Indians—almost by definition a ‘subversive’ organization, from the viewpoint of the ruling coalition.” According to Jonas, the CUC emerged between 1976 and 1978 in response to massacres of Indian communities.

  3. For examples of critical analyses of testimonial texts that support Spivak's theory of the intellectually constructed subaltern subject, see González-Echevarría (1980), Foster (1984), and Sklodowska (1982).

  4. She writes, “Never having met Rigoberta, I was at first somewhat reluctant, as I realized that such projects depend to a large extent on the quality of the relationship between interviewer and interviewee. Such work has far-reaching psychological implications, and the revival of the past can resuscitate affects and zones of the memory which had apparently been forgotten forever and can lead to anxiety and stress situations” (Menchú, 1984: xiv; 1983: 11–12).

  5. She writes, “I must warn the reader that, although I did train as an ethnographer, I have never studied Maya Quiché culture and have never done fieldwork in Guatemala” (Menchú, 1984: xviii–xix; 1983: 16).

  6. For example, see Claribel Alegría and D. J. Flakoll's No me agarran viva: La mujer salvadoreña en lucha (1983), Elvia Alvarado's Don't Be Afraid Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart (1987), Sergio Ramírez Mercado's La marca del Zorro (1989), and A Dream Compels Us: Voices of Salvadoran Women (1989), edited by Brenda Carter et al.

  7. I am very grateful to Rigoberta Menchú for granting us this interview (on November 18, 1991), in which she revealed several facts previously unknown to the public concerning the compilation of her testimonio.

  8. As John Beverley (1993: 89–90) observes, “In spite of that textual metonymy in the testimonio that equates individual life history with the history of a group or people, testimonial narrators like Rigoberta Menchú are not exactly subaltern as such—Spivak is correct that the subaltern cannot speak in this sense; they are rather something more like ‘organic intellectuals’ of the subaltern who can speak to the hegemony by means of this metonymy of self in the name and in place of it.”

  9. Deixis is the location of utterance in relation to a speaker's viewpoint, whether in space (e.g., these/those), time (e.g., now/then), or interpersonal relations (e.g., we/you). The words that do this are called “deictics.”

  10. Tyler (1986: 127) writes, “The hermeneutic process is not restricted to the reader's relationship to the text, but includes as well the interpretive practices of the parties to the original dialogue. In this respect, the model of post-modern ethnography is not the newspaper but that original ethnography—the Bible.”


Alegría, Claribel and D. J. Flakoll

1983 No me agarran viva: La mujer salvadoreña en lucha. Mexico: Ediciones Era.

Alvarado, Elvia

1987 Don't Be Afraid Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart. Edited by Medea Benjamin. San Francisco: Institute for Food and Development Policy.

Barthes, Roland

1982 “Authors and Writers,” pp. 185–93 in Susan Sontag (ed.), A Barthes Reader. New York: Hill and Wang.

Beverley, John

1993 Against Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Brittin, Alice and Kenya Dworkin

1993 “Entrevista con Rigoberta Menchú.” Nuevo Texto Crítico 6 (11): 207–220.

Carter, Brenda et al. (eds.)

1989 A Dream Compels Us: Voices of Salvadoran Women. Boston: South End Press.

Clifford, James

1983 “On Ethnographic Authority.” Representations 1, 2 (Spring): 118–146.

D'Souza, Dinesh

1991 Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. New York: Free Press.

Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub

1992 Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History. New York and London: Routledge.

Foster, David William

1984 “Latin American Documentary Narrative.” PMLA 99(1): 41–55.

González-Echevarría, Roberto

1980 “Biografía de un cimarrón and the novel of the Cuban Revolution.” Novel 13: 249–263. (Reprinted in The Voice of the Masters: Writing and Authority in Modern Latin American Literature. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.)

Holub, Robert C.

1984 Reception Theory: A Critical Introduction. London and New York: Methuen.

Jonas, Susanne

1991 The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and U.S. Power. Boulder: Westview Press.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson

1980 Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Menchú, Rigoberta

1983 Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú. Edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. Havana: Casa de las Américas.

1984 I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Edited and introduced by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray; translated by Ann Wright. London: Verso.

Ramírez Mercado, Sergio

1989 La marca del Zorro: Hazañas del comandante Francisco Rivera Quintero contadas á Sergio Ramírez. Managua: Editorial Nueva Nicaragua.

Sklodowska, Elzbieta

1982 “La forma testimonial y la novelística de Miguel Barnet.” Revista/Review Interamericana 12(3): 375–384.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty

1988 “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” pp. 271–313 in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Cultures. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Stoll, David

1990 “I, Rigoberta Menchú and Human Rights Reporting on Guatemala.” Paper presented at the Conference “‘Political Correctness’ and Cultural Studies,” Berkeley, CA, October.

Tyler, Stephen A.

1986 “Post-modern Ethnography: From Document of the Occult to Occult Document,” pp. 122–140 in James Clifford and George E. Marcus (eds.), Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Zimmerman, Marc

1992 “El otro de Rigoberta: Los testimonios de Ignacio Bizarro Ujpán y la resistencia indígena en Guatemala.” Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana 36: 229–243.

Mary Jane Treacy (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4913

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.

—Rigoberta Menchú, I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala

Rigoberta Menchú might not approve of this effort to put together a brief biography for this volume. It is not that the winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize does not have an important or compelling life story to tell. To the contrary, this young woman from the highlands of Guatemala has organized for Indian rights and social justice throughout the turbulent 1970s and 1980s and has seen her own family members die, one by one, as victims of the poverty and repression that characterize the recent history of her country. In part because she is a Quiché Indian and her people value community over individuality, and perhaps also due to the terrible tragedies that she has witnessed and described in I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (1984), Rigoberta chooses to present herself as a person whose life story is important because it encapsulates the experiences of her people.

Because she does not care to focus on her own life as unique, Rigoberta does not provide the same kind of biographical information that we have come to expect in conventional autobiography. We learn that she was born in 1959, in a hamlet near San Miguel de Uspantán in the northwest, primarily Indian, province of El Quiché. She had five older siblings and three younger. As a young girl, she was immersed in the Mayan culture of her ancestors through the Quiché language and teachings of village elders, who urged her to respect mother earth, to cultivate the land, and to care for its animals. Like the women before her, Rigoberta was trained to grind corn and make the dough for tortillas, to grow the beans that are the staple diet of her people, and to weave the clothing that mark her identity as a member of one of twenty-two Indian groups in Guatemala today.

It is unlikely that the child Rigoberta paid much attention to the nation whose citizenship she bears. She did not speak or understand Spanish, did not go to school, and therefore did not learn to read or write in any language, and she did not socialize with any non-Indian children in her racially segregated society. But she did learn how difficult it was for Indians to survive in a country where a mestizo minority (called Ladinos in Guatemala) control all national institutions and create their wealth from Indian labor. She and her family spent approximately four months of every year in their highland home growing subsistence crops of corn and beans, and the rest of the year—together or apart—working in coastal coffee, cotton, and sugar plantations. Rigoberta worked beside her mother in the fields from a very early age, either gathering crops or tending to her younger siblings, and she got her first paying job picking coffee when she was only eight years old. Plantation life was extremely hard for young and old alike: Indians were transported there in covered trucks, stacked up in barracks with few sanitary conditions, forced to work long hours for very little pay, and treated with contempt by their Ladino overseers and landowners.

It was on the plantations that Rigoberta came into contact with Indians from other groups and realized that they suffered the same exploitation. It was there, too, that one older brother died of pesticide poisoning, and she watched as another brother died of malnutrition. And it was there that the plantation owner's henchmen exacted work under threat of violence. As a teenager, Rigoberta began to see that she was destined to the same bestial work, poverty, and suffering as her mother, and, although lacking a clear direction, she began to get angry and look for ways to escape what seemed like an ominous fate. A short and humiliating period as a maid in Guatemala City convinced Rigoberta that Ladino women exploited Indians in the home just as Ladino men did in the fields. The girl was living out the cruel statistics of her country: 85 percent of the population survive in poverty, some 60 percent in utter misery; 63 percent are illiterate, and female Indians have a life expectancy of only forty-seven years, compared to forty-nine for their male counterparts.

Yet there were avenues to possible social change. During Rigoberta's childhood, a national religious movement, Acción Católica, was sending catechists to work with the Indians. Originally a conservative group whose goal was to assure doctrinal orthodoxy and social assimilation of the Indian, Acción Católica sent many clergy and lay workers who genuinely sympathized with the economic plight of the Indians and initiated religious study among them that had potential for raising consciousness about social conditions. By bringing people together for prayer, Acción Católica established a means of organizing. Its Bible study, perhaps intended to lull Indian participants into resignation to the status quo, in fact allowed the faithful to relate religious teachings—not surprisingly, David and Goliath was a favorite—to their Guatemalan reality.1 Rigoberta's mother and father became catechists. This gave them an opportunity to travel to other villages in the region, not only bringing prayer but also the conversations necessary to fight for a modern-day exodus of their people.

Rigoberta tells us that she too was a catechist since she was “a girl,” and that her current political activities are those of a revolutionary Christian. She tells us that Indians are profoundly religious, seeing the sacred in all aspects of life. Accordingly, she does not make a distinction between the religious aspect of her activism and the political nature of her faith:

Well, my work is just like being a catechist, except that I'm one who walks on the Earth, not one who thinks that the Kingdom of God only comes after death. Through all my experiences, through everything I'd seen, through so much pain and suffering, I learned what the role of a Christian in the struggle is, and what the role of a Christian on this Earth is. We all came to important conclusions by studying the Bible. All our compañeros did. We discovered that the Bible has been used as a way of making us accept our situation, and not to bring enlightenment to the poor. The work of revolutionary Christians is above all to condemn and denounce the injustices committed against the people.2

Unfortunately, Rigoberta and her compañeros found much to denounce. Since the Spanish conquest, Guatemala has been a country of profound social inequalities supported and maintained by weak and often corrupt governments. In the twentieth century the power of the United Fruit Company as the country's largest land-owner, the development of a national oligarchy whose wealth was based on export crops, and the use of the military to support such a social system has only aggravated existing injustices. When 1960s and 1970s saw a rise in guerrilla insurgency, the state unleashed the terror of counterinsurgency campaigns—informal death squads, militarization of the countryside, massacres of entire towns, and scorched earth policies—that made mere survival a central concern for most grass roots organizers and their sympathizers. It is said that Guatemala gave Spanish America the infamous and frightening verb “to be disappeared,” coined after so many were taken away from their home, never to be seen again. Stories of Guatemala's repression, tortures, and cruelty abound, and the Indians, feared to be and to harbor guerrilla fighters, received the brunt of this violence. Rigoberta's brother was disappeared, tortured, and then burned alive with other unfortunates in front of the townsfolk who were forced to watch the army's display of power. Later, her father was killed during a protest in the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City. Later still, her mother was raped, tortured, left to die, and refused burial as an example to others who aspired to social change.

Indians had few options during these dangerous decades. Some became informers, others guerrilla fighters, and still others joined political organizations. As did her father before his death, Rigoberta started to work with the Committee for Peasant Unity (Comité de Unidad Campesina, or CUC), founded in 1978 to protect peasants from the appropriation of their land and exploitation of their labor. Still strong today, the CUC fights for just wages, decent working conditions, and fair prices for crops. It also demands the right to organize peasants, to keep Indian lands, and to maintain cultural identity and dignity for Indian peoples as well as the right to live and be free from repression.

Even Rigoberta's nonviolent work for peasant and Indian rights made her a target for disappearance and political assassination. One day soldiers spotted her in the street, and she had a narrow escape by hiding in a local church. Realizing that she was in danger and that her presence also would endanger others, she managed to find temporary quarters working, yet again as a servant, in a convent until her compañeros could get her on a plane to Mexico. She left in 1981. Rigoberta now lives in exile and has become well known worldwide for her activist work on behalf of Indian people and all of Guatemala's poor. She has been able, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, to return to Guatemala on short visits, and her writings are now available in her country. But Guatemala's passion is not over, and she still cannot go home.

U.S. readers first heard of Rigoberta Menchú when her life story was translated and published in English by the London-based Verso Press in 1984. By this time, Latin Americanists and literary scholars had become interested in what seemed to be a new genre of literature, the testimonio, or witnessing act, which gave voice to the silenced majority of people in Central and South America. Like several other politicized women in the region, Menchú recounted her experiences to an intellectual, the Venezuelan anthropologist Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, who in turn structured the oral material and fashioned it into what appears to be a first-person account.3 Critics have been examining just how the intellectual, who does not speak in the testimonial text itself, really stands behind the scene asking the questions, ordering the narration, and giving the tone or political direction that best suits her or his interests. Indeed, there is an irony that the very act of “giving voice” (that is, providing a vehicle for the disenfranchised to reach a public forum) to the marginalized may also involve appropriation of their lives. For instance, the first editions of I, Rigoberta Menchú, which were published simultaneously in Spanish and French in 1983, present Elizabeth Burgos as the author and view Rigoberta as the object of her study. Examples such as this ask First World readers, and perhaps Third World elites as well, to consider how we look at the marginalized whose stories we read and how we represent these “others” in our thinking, literature, and art.

We are perhaps most comfortable viewing the experiences of Third World peoples as exotic and quite different from ourselves. We tend to see through an idealized “tourist” lens that provides a Rigoberta colorfully dressed in Indian garb, a vision that appears on the cover of every edition of her work and is described in almost all the newspaper and magazine articles written about her. We also focus on her suffering, which permits us to feel compassion while entertaining a certain frisson of horror at the violence detailed in this testimonial story. Responses such as these do not point only to the individual reader's appropriation of the life story for our own interests but also to the existence of hegemonic modes of seeing or reading that, unchecked, reinscribe colonialism and the social dominance inherent in it. The Third World comes to our awareness for our pleasure or need. Thus, even as we read about Rigoberta Menchú, we may very well be seeing only what is important to us. Rigoberta, the twenty-three-year-old Quiché woman, becomes a mirror reflecting our own dreams or nightmares.

Some North Americans look to Rigoberta's story as means to transform the way we understand the world around us. They claim that we usually do not hear the opinions of those who hold little or no social power. We tend to exclude all but a few exceptional women, poor, racial, and ethnic minorities and other outcasts from our thinking; if they can write, they are not published, if they are published, they are not widely read. As a result, we see only the views and debates of those with some claim to power. Although seemingly self-evident, this notion has far-reaching implications: it suggests that what we have come to think of as knowledge is not truth but rather an interpretation constructed in the context of hierarchical social relations and passed on as objective fact. And if we begin to interrogate knowledge, we come to ask how it was developed over time, who participated in its development and who was excluded from this process, and what these silent observers might have added or questioned.

Rigoberta, who is triply marginalized as a Central American, an Indian, and a woman, not only has different opinions than do most Ladinos or North Americans on such pertinent issues as the place of the Indian in modern society, but also reveals a distinct framework for understanding the world that challenges our own. Her concepts of what it means to be an individual, a woman, or what social justice entails do not fit easily into the paradigms we generally hold. Thus, she is in a position to reorient and to enrich our ways of thinking, or at least this is the hope of those who support the current multicultural movement to introduce ethnic, racial, and international perspectives in our U.S.-European world view.

Of course, new paradigms are also disturbing and not everyone supports opening up traditional Western thought to include the perspectives of the non-elite. Indeed, when Dinesh D'Souza singled out Rigoberta Menchú as the epitome of all that is wrong in contemporary American education, the Quiché woman—most probably unbeknown to her—became a rallying cry of both the Right and the Left in the “culture wars” of the 1980s and early 1990s. Whereas research on Rigoberta and her text now proliferates on our campuses, D'Souza sees the inclusion of I, Rigoberta Menchú into university curricula as the symbol of a multiculturalism that not only removes any notion of hierarchy in cultural values but also legitimizes radical feminist and Marxist views as it establishes a sort of victim studies to appease minority interests. His third chapter, “Travels with Rigoberta: Multiculturalism at Stanford,” rails at academics' idealization of the Third World and use of what he would consider to be second-rate materials to sustain a simplistic critique of Western culture:

Rigoberta's victim status may be unfortunate for her personal happiness, but is indispensable for her academic reputation. Rigoberta is a modern Saint Sebastian, pierced by the arrows of North American white male cruelty; thus her life story becomes an explicit indictment of the historical role of the West and Western institutions.4

D'Souza and other conservative thinkers are correct to suspect that inclusion of Rigoberta and other Third World voices into the curricula can do more than just give equal time to “others.” If culture is a site where power relations are maintained or enhanced, then a policy of decentering a Western world view reduces the importance of traditional works and perhaps calls the values they embody into question. Latin American testimonial literature, narrated as it is by the disenfranchised, often calls for profound social change if not outright revolution. Rigoberta's testimony can be used, and maybe even is intended to be used, to encourage political action against the Guatemalan government, to gain support for progressive parties and organizations, and to bring to light the plight of the Indian in a discriminatory society. It is undoubtedly a political text. Moreover, its focus on social injustice and organization of mass resistance may well spill over to advance a left-wing or progressive agenda in other countries as well.

For this reason, some view Rigoberta Menchú as a political threat. Certainly the Guatemalan military saw her as a “subversive,” intent upon undermining the authority of the state. Her critics in the United States also perceive Rigoberta as a revolutionary and an ally of the guerrillas. Both groups are partially correct, for those who wish to see Rigoberta only as a symbol of a harmonious multiculturalism fail to acknowledge that she is calling for social revolution, often but not exclusively in Marxist terms. Her CUC analyzes Guatemala's situation in terms of economic exploitation by foreign capital and native elites and has as its primary agenda the development of a popular revolutionary war. Rigoberta considers the masses to be the only group capable of social change and therefore has dedicated her life to the politicization of the people. Indeed, her testimony is not the autobiography that the English title might suggest but rather a story of her own ideological transformation, which is stated explicitly in the Spanish title of her book: My Name Is Rigoberta Menchú and This Is the Way My Consciousness Was Born.5 Its purpose is to inform as well as guide our interpretation of contemporary Guatemalan social conditions.

Rigoberta's Christianity leads her to value sacrifice, even of one's own life, for the benefit of others and the eventual triumph of her political ideals. But she does not speak only of martyrdom. Bible study has also led Rigoberta to espouse the possibility of a just war against an oppressor and violence against the state is one of the strategies to be used in this war. Even as a girl Rigoberta took part in her village's defenses against possible army intrusion. She learned to lay traps for and to ambush soldiers; to throw lime, chili, salt, and hot water into their faces; and to throw stones with deadly intent. Later, as an adult, Rigoberta does not make a clear distinction between herself and other members of a nonmilitary organization like the CUC and the guerrillas: all are the friends/comrades who are referred to as compañeros. The only difference seems to be geographical: the guerrillas are the compañeros in the mountains, the others work elsewhere. She mentions that her mother had contact with the guerrilla and that two of her sisters took up arms. A conversation with one of her guerrilla sisters that Rigoberta reports shows how both women employ the language of love and sacrifice to articulate their political commitments. The sister tells Rigoberta: “I'm happy. Don't worry about me. Even if I suffer hunger, pain and long marches in the mountains. I'm doing it with love and I'm doing it for you.”6 The two then hear mass and take communion. Catholicism, Indian values, and guerrilla warfare are inextricably blended together to form one multifaceted movement for social justice. Thus Rigoberta shows no signs of horror at the existence of a guerrilla movement or its left-wing philosophies; she has merely decided to work elsewhere toward the same goals.

If news and magazine accounts are any indication, North American supporters of Rigoberta are rather squeamish about her links to guerrillas and try to distance her from them by emphasizing her work for human rights. Although her personal suffering during the repression as well as her public condemnation of atrocities helped focus world outrage at Guatemala's genocidal practices, attempts to ignore or downplay her revolutionary social agenda only serve to make Rigoberta more palatable to North American liberal audiences. They also force her into a U.S. political framework that divides reform from revolution and politicians from insurgents. Indeed, this is one area where Rigoberta may ask us to rethink our paradigms and to imagine what work for social justice and human rights in a Guatemalan context may actually entail. She may remind us that Guatemala during the repression of the 1970s and 1980s was a world “so evil, so bloodthirsty that the only road open is our struggle, the just war.”7

If reading Rigoberta asks us to examine our cultural values and political assumptions, it also poses questions about how one can live in multicultural societies. Guatemala has a Ladino minority with power and a majority Indian population, divided into twenty-two groups that are separated by geography, language, and history. Rigoberta tells us some of the customs and traditions of her village that pass on a Quiché ethnicity to a younger generation. After the birth of a child, for instance, parents make a public commitment to teach their newborn to honor the ancestors, to maintain a traditional way of life, and to keep the secrets of the Indian people. Children learn that the Spaniards dishonored their ancestors and that Ladinos are not to be trusted. Rigoberta's grandfather used to tell her that “the caxlans [Ladinos] are thieves. Have nothing to do with them. You keep all our ancestors' things,”8 and her father refused to send her to school in order to keep her from Ladino influences. What Rigoberta does not tell us, however, is that traditional Indian societies were breaking down during the time of her childhood. Conscription of Indian men into the army, public schools, as well as modern media such as the radio brought more contact with Ladino society, while proselytizing evangelicals and the Acción Católica directly undercut the authority of village elders and institutions. As victims of racist oppression and genocidal attacks, many Indians sought to counter a possible ethnic eradication with the development of a pan-Mayan identity.9 The descriptions of Quiché customs that Rigoberta gives in her testimony are, therefore, more than an offering of ethnographic curios surrounding the primary tale of ideological development. They are one half of a dialogue with the dominant Ladino culture which asserts resistance to it, either showing how the Quiché hold on to ancient rites as a mark of identity or create new “traditions” to develop a Mayan sense of self worth for the present day.

It appears that Rigoberta grew up in an ethnically “pure” environment. She learned the traditions and wore the Indian clothing of her region, refusing makeup and other coquetries characteristic of the Ladino girl. But as soon as she left her highland village to work on the plantations, she came into contact with other Indians and soon recognized that the cultural isolation of each group actually fragmented and disempowered them all. She therefore set out to learn several Indian languages as well as the language of power in Guatemala, the one language that consistently had been used against the Indian, Spanish. Now Rigoberta turned the “master's” language against him; with it she could communicate with others within Guatemala and also bring her country's plight to world public opinion. Moreover, while working, presumably in Spanish, with the Committee for Peasant Unity, Rigoberta began to realize that there were poor Ladinos as well as rich ones and that these poor were as exploited as the Indians. She began to see how unanalyzed racism divided and weakened them all: poor Ladinos still found dignity in their contempt for the Indian, Indians rejected other Indians who lost their traditions or who interacted with Ladinos, even Rigoberta recognized the “thorn in her own heart” that led her to dismiss all Ladinos as unable to understand or work with her. Rigoberta decided to keep her commitment to the CUC and to continue contact with Ladino peasants and sympathetic intellectuals. In so doing, she broke with the isolationist tradition of her people as well as the more recent Mayan separatism.

Rigoberta Menchú did not lose her Indian heritage, nor did she become, as some say, a mouthpiece for left-wing class analysis. She remains as fervent in her support of Mayan identity and Indian rights as in her hope for a Christian social revolution. But she is a skilled organizer who knows that progressive Guatemalans need to work in coalitions to build a new society and a savvy politician who uses foreign intellectuals and presses to help this cause. So although her interlocutor and editor Elizabeth Burgos could fall into reveries of a Venezuelan childhood as she watched Rigoberta make tortillas in her Paris home, we can bet that Rigoberta knew exactly why she was in France telling her life story to a woman with excellent international connections.

Academics and intellectuals have often demanded that Rigoberta represent something: either an idealized indigenist past or absolute resistance to the West (she points to anthropologists and sociologists as the most common offenders). But she rejects these interpretations of her role as much as she dismisses the notion that Indians cannot and should not participate in Western culture. To the contrary, in her latest work Rigoberta asserts:

This separatist agenda is not very intelligent and does very little to help indigenous peoples. I, for instance, use the fax quite a bit, I like the fax. Do they expect us to protest by mule? The Mayans discovered the concept of zero, so we have the right to advance in the sciences, to understand the world in all its complexity, to have opinions on things besides our own ethnic problem.10

Thus, she sees no contradiction between maintenance of an Indian identity and modernization of Indian life. Rigoberta envisions a Guatemala that is committed to human development as well as to human rights, where Ladinos and Indians can work together, and where Indians can maintain their heritages as they become involved with world affairs. She will wear her Quiché clothing and send her fax.

On October 16, 1992, the Norwegian Noble Committee recognized Rigoberta's work for social justice and ethnic reconciliation by awarding her that year's Peace Prize. In her acceptance speech, Rigoberta urged her public to “fight for a better world, without poverty, without racism, with peace.”11 At the beginning of a new decade and five hundred years after the European conquest of America, it was fitting to honor an Indian woman who wishes to stand for the existence and well-being of the indigenous peoples who lost their lands and autonomy to European settlers and who urges us all to transcend our differences in order to work together toward a common goal of social justice and peace. What her activism, her testimony with the collaboration of Elizabeth Burgos, and the positive and negative reception to her work throughout the world reveal is just how difficult it is to go beyond one's world view and to hear what another is saying. This is perhaps Rigoberta's greatest challenge to us all.

The Mayans have a saying that “every mind is a world,” that is, that any one person is as rich in complexity and change as the universe. So even if Rigoberta did not tell us explicitly that she was not going to reveal all her Quiché secrets, we would still understand that we can never grasp this woman in her entirety. Rigoberta escapes our desire to know her and even hints that our attempts to gain this knowledge is a desire for possession. Even though she gives us only what she wants to know about Rigoberta the public figure, she tells us enough about her values and dreams to confound attempts to reduce her to a merge symbol to fulfil someone's need for a left-wing menace, the downfall of Western culture, the salvation of a multicultural America, or the essence of the eternal Mayan. Rigoberta's life story represents her vision of a better Guatemala: she embodies her Quiché heritage yet is open to the world beyond it, she makes public the extremely painful deaths of family members to speak out for human rights, and she maintains an ideal of social justice after many years of struggle and sacrifice. Rigoberta Menchú is a woman of courage who still has much to teach us.


  1. Kay B. Warren, “Transforming Memories and Histories: The Meanings of Ethnic Resurgence for Mayan Indians,” in Americas: New Interpretive Essays, ed. Alfred Stephan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 197–201; and Kay B. Warren, ed. The Violence Within: Cultural and Political Opposition in Divided Nations (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993).

  2. Rigoberta Menchú, I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, ed. Elisabeth Burgos-Debray (London: Verso Press, 1984), 245.

  3. Others include Domitila Barrios de Chungara with Moema Viezzer, Let Me Speak! Testimony of Domitila, A Woman of the Bolivian Mines (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978); and Elvia Alvarado, Don't Be Afraid Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart, trans. and ed. Medea Benjamin (New York: Harper and Row, 1987).

  4. Dinesh D'Souza, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: Free Press, 1991), 72.

  5. Rigoberta Menchú, Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú: Y así me nació la conciencia (Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1985).

  6. Menchú, I, Rigoberta, 244.

  7. Ibid., 246.

  8. Ibid., 189.

  9. Warren, “Transforming Memories,” 190–93.

  10. Rigoberta Menchú y Comité de Unidad Campesina, Trenzando el futuro: luchas campesinas en la historia reciente de Guatemala (Donostia, Spain: Tercera Prensa, 1992), n.p. Translation mine.

  11. “Guatemalan Indian Accepts a Nobel,” New York Times International, 11 December 1992.

Pamela Constable (review date 26 July 1998)

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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 rights—and that is also a principal virtue of the indigenous people Menchú represents.

For nearly 20 years, this small woman has waged an implacable protest campaign against repressive, racist practices in the Guatemalan highlands—practices that led to a vicious guerrilla war, the decimation of indigenous society, and the murders of Menchú's mother, father and brothers. Much of this she described, simply and shockingly, in her 1983 autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú.

Now, as a worldly, 38-year-old activist of international stature, she recounts her struggles against indifference and prejudice beyond Guatemala's borders, during years of travel and exile. Once again her story is told plainly, with a tone of serene determination. But this time there are flashes of sarcasm, undercurrents of bitterness, and a sense of retreat from the frustrations of modern politics to the ancient wisdom and rhythms of her tribal past.

At times Menchú has seemed almost like a caricature, insisting on wearing her traditional huipil blouse and perraje shawl at diplomatic meetings, spouting leftist jargon and pestering anyone within earshot about death and injustice. Indeed, after the Guatemalan peace accords were signed in 1996, formally ending two decades of armed civil conflict, attention drifted from Menchú's cause.

But on April 26 of this year, it gained gruesome new relevance. Juan Jose Gerardi, the bishop of Guatemala City, was bludgeoned to death just two days after releasing a massive report on human rights violations during the civil war. The crime instantly revived the darkest specters of Guatemala's dictatorial past, and reminded the world that institutionalized evil is not so quickly extinguished.

In the wake of this new shock, Crossing Borders bears thoughtful reading. It is not a perfectly argued work; Menchú often undercuts herself by lapsing into polemical hyperbole (condemning capitalism as corrupt and development experts as arrogant racists) or romanticizing indigenous life (asserting that highland villagers would never pollute the earth or enjoy trash TV). Ann Wright, who translated the book from Spanish, acknowledges its uneven tone in an introductory note.

But Menchú's critiques of the modern bureaucrats and systems she discovered abroad are nakedly devastating. At the United Nations, where she wandered many a corridor in search of support, she found a “cold, cold place” whose inhabitants brushed her aside like an annoying “pet” and cared more about “softening clauses” in diplomatic documents than about the destruction of 400 villages in Guatemala.

And at one U.S. immigration checkpoint, she encountered a blustering, uniformed bully bent on intimidating her. By now, however, she had grown to relish such combat. “I told him I love coming up against people who abuse their authority,” she said. “If he wanted to show me how it was done, I had all the time in the world.”

To her credit, Menchú is equally critical, though more gentle in her scolding, of the jealousies and infighting among the “brothers and sisters” in her own movement. And her account of one harrowing incident, in which her own relatives were pressured into “kidnapping” her great-nephew—apparently in a plot to intimidate her—reveals how very close to home the politics of terror can come.

Her most revealing look, though, is at herself—a short, dark indigenous woman who would be dismissed as a nobody without her Nobel status. The farther Menchú journeys from Guatemala, a place she once thought the epitome of racism, the more she realizes how universal a problem it is, and the more defiantly proud she becomes.

“Some people still see me as that illiterate indigenous woman, that subversive born in squalor,” she writes. Prize or no prize, “I have always had the same face, the face of a poor indigenous woman, and there is no way in which I can change that.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Menchú's disappointing experiences abroad draw her back ever more deeply into her Mayan roots, and into an ancient culture based on seasonal rhythms, simple values and a mystical vision of harmony. Her most eloquent passages describe her childhood memories—of cold wet nights and worms in the belly but also of kindness, courage and respect for all of Nature.

Menchú's innocence was destroyed very young—her father killed, her mother raped and murdered by soldiers, one brother tortured to death, another burned alive, two sisters joining the guerrillas. By the end of the book, when Menchú describes journeying back to her native village after many years' absence, it is clear that her ultimate quest is to re-create a highland paradise where no one is greedy or corrupt, time is meaningless and patience is inexhaustible. Even if such a pristine world never really existed, who can blame her?

Margaret Randall (review date September 1998)

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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 Indian woman, member of one of the largest of Guatemala's 22 ethnic groups. From the mountain village of Laj Chimel, she had learned Spanish—the language of her oppressors—in order to be able to tell her story. Hers was a family, like so many, that barely survived off land owned by others. Devoutly Catholic—she taught catechism for a while—she was also trained in and conserved her people's traditional beliefs.

As the Guatemalan oligarchy began repressing and murdering those who demanded minimal justice, Rigoberta's father, Vicente Menchú, became involved with the indigenous peasant movement. In January 1980, he and some forty others, hoping to draw attention to the plight of the long-oppressed Indians, occupied the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City. Government forces didn't hesitate to burn them alive. Later Rigoberta's little brother was also burned, with their village as witness. Her mother was tortured to death and her body left for the dogs.

Most North American readers of I … Rigoberta Menchú knew nothing about Guatemala. Could we make our way through layers of difference and read this book as something more than the merely exotic? Although it was a difficult, often painful way to present “the other” to college students, I began to teach I … Rigoberta Menchú. It made a tremendous impression. More than one young woman told me the book changed her profoundly.

At the same time, the oral history community began voicing concerns. What exactly had Elizabeth Burgos-Debray's role been? How much of Menchú's story was filtered through her more sophisticated lens? And Ann Wright's translation seemed awkward or faulty throughout. It was rumored that Menchú herself felt uneasy about the text.

The impact that I … Rigoberta Menchú would have on an ever larger audience, the discussion the book provoked within the oral history community, Menchú's tireless work as a spokesperson for her people, and now the publication of Crossing Borders, all combine to teach us valuable lessons in the management of memory—how it may be preserved, mishandled, abused, or offered as a touchstone to the understanding of history. It is in her second book that Menchú becomes an active participant in the discussion of how memory may best be used and preserved.

After I … Rigoberta Menchú was published, its author started touring speaking first to small solidarity groups and then to mainstream audiences about the prolonged situation of terror in her country. The small, compact woman, dressed in her characteristic huipíl and corte, became a presence in international forums. She began to lobby in the United Nations, working in tenacious opposition to Guatemala's official representatives in that international arena. “One of the hardest things,” she tells us in Crossing Borders, “is to make a speech for the first time in the presence of a senior army officer.”

Despite the blatant racism of government representatives and even UN staff, Menchú was persistent in bringing attention to the tragedy of Guatemala—and the United States government's role in underwriting and sustaining that tragedy. In 1992, she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Now Rigoberta Menchú has published a second book, this one written on her own. Crossing Borders is a collection of narratives and essays on subjects that range from winning the Peace Prize back through the experiences of working at the United Nations, prolonged exile, fighting for indigenous peoples' rights, the legacy of her parents and community, and understanding and accepting diversity.

Reading this new volume is a tremendously satisfying experience; Menchú speaks of what was important in I … Rigoberta Menchú and what dismayed her about some of the ways in which it was presented. After years of contact with US and European feminists and other political people, she anticipates our questions and is able to touch on topics not present in her original story.

In “Into Exile and Back, 1980, 1981, 1982,” she describes the genesis of her first book. Another Guatemalan activist, Arturo Taracena, persuaded her to take the project on and introduced her to Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. Taracena felt that without an ethnographer or well-known writer, “it would seem like a sort of family pamphlet. He said we needed someone with a reputation and an entrée into the academic and publishing world,” Menchú explains. “After the text was compiled,” she adds, “I spent about two months trying to understand it.” Seeing her story on paper was very different from talking into a tape recorder.

Menchú recalls how shy she was at the time, how innocent and naïve: “When I wrote that book, I simply did not know the commercial rules. I was just happy to be alive to tell my story. … I had to ask compañeros in Mexico to help me understand the text, and it was painful to relive …” Without accusing Elisabeth Burgos-Debray of mishandling her testimony—Menchú is consistently dignified even reticent in her criticisms—she writes that “My dream is to recover the rights to I, Rigoberta Menchú and to expand it. I want to give it back to Guatemala and the coming generations as part of their history.”

Throughout Crossing Borders, Menchú addresses issues absent from her first book. In “The Quincentenary and the Earth Summit” she writes: “I couldn't understand how a woman could be with another woman. I had never heard of homosexuality. … I found lesbianism very strange because it had nothing to do with the way I was brought up. Yet in the end I don't have to understand it to respect it.” Later she adds: “The indigenous community absorbs differences, be they sexual, mental or physical.”

In the same essay, she talks about women and reproductive rights:

How would I feel if I were a Muslim woman [who had been raped]? How could I even bear the touch of my own skin? We have to put ourselves in their place. … [W]orld leaders … tell them that abortion is a sin. … If a woman has been raped, she and she alone knows what this act of cruelty means, and she alone must decide how to deal with it.

(pp. 180–181)

Menchú consistently avoids approaching complex cultural issues in formulaic or partisan ways. She counters the isolationism expressed by certain sectors of the indigenous movement when she addresses the subject of ethnic purity: “Culture isn't pure, it is dynamic, it is a kind of dialectic, it is something that progresses and evolves. As for purity, who can determine what that means?” She is equally thoughtful on the subject of religion: “Our experience, as indigenous peoples, is that religion was used as a powerful shotgun, a powerful machine gun, a powerful arrow, to try to dismantle our cultures. … I want to distinguish, however, between religion as a doctrine and as the beliefs of a people.”

By the time of the second continental conference on Five Hundred Years of Indigenous, Black and Popular Resistance, held in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, in 1991, people were actively campaigning for Menchú to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But she is candid about the fact that even among indigenous peoples there were those who questioned her: “They said, ‘Who does she represent? Who made her a leader? Who elected her?’” Her description of this mixed response focuses on “personality clashes, leadership battles and petty jealousies. Attitudes reminiscent of the Cold War still abound,” she says; “Who is aligned and who isn't?”

Her description of the process leading up to the awarding of the Prize, how people rallied around her, the reactions inside her country and throughout the world, is particularly interesting. Some of the indigenous people saw the Prize as a significant symbol, and believed that if it were awarded to one of their own it could help their struggle for justice. Others were against the idea; still others had no opinion. Some questioned what Menchú would do with the money. This would be a tense time for her. The usually articulate woman lost her voice for a week. “I felt ashamed and sad,” she writes. “It tore me apart.” And then, with her characteristic ability to extrapolate to the collective she adds: “This often happens to oppressed peoples when they make a little space for themselves. Everybody wants to occupy it, though they do not always succeed.”

In “Coming Home to Guatemala, 1988 and 1994” Menchú describes her several experiences of return. She talks about the pain of exile, its effects on people's lives:

All refugees know the immense solitude you feel. … Not physical … but spiritual and cultural solitude. Being Mayan in Guatemala is the norm, it is in your home, on the corner, every day. Being Mayan in other countries is being an exception, you don't fit in. When I was in exile, I felt I was a nomad because I could never put down roots.

(p. 55)

In 1988 then-President Vinicio Cerezo ordered more than four hundred police to the Guatemala City airport to arrest Menchú, Rolando Castillo Montalvo (former Dean of Medicine at the University of San Carlos) and other United Nations personnel. Menchú remembers how hard it was to find a lawyer courageous enough to represent her, and how the judge who handled her case turned out to be the same one who had ordered the burning of her father years before. She and her comrades were accused of being “subversives, communists, feminists or indigenistas … rebels who, by some mistake, were still alive.” She in particular ended up with three formal charges: public disorder, organizing peasants to rebel against the government and being a national security risk. Knowing what the Guatemalan government had done to her parents, her brother and tens of thousands of others, she faced her interrogation with dignity and calm. “I made it clear that I held the government responsible for my physical well-being wherever I was, inside Guatemala or outside Guatemala.”

Enormous pressure was brought to bear upon the Guatemalan administration, and Menchú and her comrades were released. She describes the return to her native Laj Chimel: how the village and its surroundings had changed, been burned, been encroached upon by “development” and war, and how much poorer the people were now than in her memory.

Menchú pays special attention to the problems of the indigenous peoples and of women. In “The Legacy of My Parents and My Village” she writes:

The liberation movements took a different approach [from development schemes], but they had no real understanding of the struggles of women and indigenous peoples either. They understood that privation and poverty were unjust, and they knew that they had to fight for social equality. No one can deny that this profound social awareness marked a big breakthrough towards democratisation. Yet it did not affect the position of women and indigenous peoples.

(p. 88)

Crossing Borders moves back and forth between Guatemala's current political situation, Menchú's and others' efforts to demand that the world pay attention, the sheer poetry of her identification with the natural world, and her acute perceptions of others, including her own mother who was taken from her too young but remains her teacher. She is generous and profound, consistently kind to all but those who murder and maim, and lucid and insightful even about them. Despite Ann Wright's translation, which is once again a poor rendition of the original, this is a book that speaks deeply and with genuine power.

Deidre McFayden (review date October 1998)

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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 anthropologist Elizabeth Burgos-Debray in Paris, that book is equal parts ethnography and autobiography. Menchú starts with her earliest memories of riding with her parents in a crowded, foul-smelling truck to the coffee plantations on the coast. She tells how both parents and a brother were savagely murdered by the Guatemalan military. And she explains how, at the age of twenty-three, she became a national leader of the Committee of Peasant Unity, a union in the forefront of the popular struggle.

The sequel, Crossing Borders, pales in comparison. Menchú talks some more about her parents. She fills in the odd detail in her earlier portrait of Mayan life. And she mentions a few additional repercussions of the civil war on her family. But her more placid and cosmopolitan adult experiences are not as inherently absorbing, and she doesn't manage to make the less dramatic personal events compelling to read.

In the fifteen years since the first book, Menchú has spent most of her time lobbying at the United Nations, where she “grew up politically,” she says. She has some caustic criticisms about the U.N. She says status-conscious officials routinely snub human-rights activists. And she notes that U.N. officials are more interested in playing political games than in alleviating human suffering.

But she nevertheless sees value in what the U.N. does. “All in all, I still have a high regard for the work of the United Nations,” she writes. When she finally succeeds in winning passage of a U.N. resolution critical of human rights in Guatemala, she keeps things in perspective: “We did not think the Guatemalan government or the armed forces would take notice of a U.N. resolution; nor did we think that fewer of our compatriots would die. I never believed that. Yet every little thing is significant.”

In 1992, Menchú was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. With the prize money, she established an independent foundation to lead a campaign for peace and indigenous rights in Guatemala. In 1995, she decided to return to Guatemala from her exile in Mexico. In recent years, she has focused on helping her village and leading the legal battle to hold accountable the perpetrators of the 1995 massacre of eleven refugees who had resettled in Xaman.

How can Guatemala emerge from its suffering?

“The solution may lie in educating people differently, or in strengthening the judicial system—giving heavy sentences so that people who commit crimes do not get away with them,” she writes. “It may lie in creating a culture of peace, a lasting peace that stems from a system of values, not one that is simply the aftermath of war.”

Unfortunately, she doesn't provide specific proposals for concrete action. Someone of Menchú's moral stature and political acuity surely has valuable things to say about the challenges facing Guatemala today. She doesn't hesitate to inveigh against obvious targets: the army, the self-serving politicians who provide democratic window-dressing, cold-hearted U.N. officials, and Western environmentalists, writers, and celebrities who “have stolen concepts from us and not given us credit.” But she avoids nettlesome issues where the moral high ground is less obvious.

For instance, she says hardly a word about the Guatemalan peace process or the role of the United Nations in monitoring it. She doesn't comment on the significance of the recent upsurge of indigenous participation in local politics. She doesn't hazard an opinion of the indigenista movement led by Mayan intellectuals who are often divorced from their communities of origin and interested primarily in cultural representation, not economic justice or political rights.

Nor do we know precisely what Menchú thinks of her erstwhile allies on the Guatemalan left. She took a lot of flak from them for supporting a nonpartisan voter-registration drive in the months leading up to the 1995 national election.

“Siding with one party—however much I shared its beliefs, and even if we had fought common battles—was always going to be a sad role for a Nobel Prize-winner,” she explains.

But by staying above the political fray in this book, she often ends up in an arid zone of platitudes.

Georg M. Gugelberger (review date November 1998)

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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)

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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 allegations that Menchú exaggerated and embellished her 1983 autobiography—a potent weapon in her fight for Indian rights and a compelling argument for the Nobel Peace Prize committee—with fabrications that made an already horrendous life story appear to be even more shocking.

Today, the 39-year-old Menchú issued her first public response, charging that her critics are politically motivated in their efforts to undercut her credibility. She said she stands by “my truth” of her life story in the autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú.

The dispute over Menchú's book, a riveting account of her life as a poor peasant girl in the 1970s and '80s in the midst of one of Latin America's longest-running civil wars, has stirred acrimony in political and human rights circles, as well as among literary and academic types.

For nearly two decades, Menchú has been an icon of the indigenous movement in Latin America and a crusader for the rights of poor and oppressed people worldwide. Always clad in the colorful embroidered native dress of her Indian community, she has become a familiar figure on the global human rights stage.

During the height of Guatemala's civil war, her father was burned alive, her mother and brother were tortured and killed, and dozens of her neighbors and friends were murdered and kidnapped in a war between leftist guerrillas and government troops that claimed an estimated 100,000 lives and left an additional 40,000 people unaccounted for. Her autobiography, written at a time when most victims were fearful of revealing details of the carnage, helped turn an international spotlight on the atrocities committed against indigenous populations in Guatemala and throughout Latin America.

Because of her status, “Rigoberta Menchú has had less scrutiny than comparable figures would have gotten,” said anthropologist David Stoll, whose new book, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, first raised questions about her life story. “Her version attracted so much attention and acquired so much authority to the point of being enshrined.”

While researching a magazine article in Guatemala, Stoll said he discovered discrepancies in Menchú's story: Although she claimed to be an uneducated Indian who could speak no Spanish, a nun at prestigious convent school in Guatemala City described her as a star pupil; and a brother whom she said the family watched being burned alive by Guatemalan troops died at the hands of the army in a different manner.

Stoll also wrote in his book—which has been available since November and received worldwide press attention after an article last month in the New York Times—that a family land dispute Menchú said represented numerous Latin American battles between rich European descendants and poor peasants was actually a feud between warring members of Menchú's own Mayan clan. Menchú, during an interview and in a press conference held inside a museum in Mexico's historic center on the site of an Aztec temple that was destroyed by Spanish conquistadors, said her book was a first-person account of her memories of her life rather than a scientific study of the period. But she defended its accuracy. “My truth is that my brother was burned alive in Chajul,” she said. “My truth, because my mother saw it,” and subsequently related the story to Menchú.

Stoll, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, said in a telephone interview that witnesses told him the brother was indeed kidnapped and presumed killed by the army, but did not die in the place nor the way described by Menchú.

The activist also said she worked as a maid at the Catholic convent school, where she received some schooling in return, but did not mention the nuns in the book in order to protect them. At the time of her book's publication, Menchú noted, Guatemalans who spoke out against the government—including nuns and priests—were often executed or disappeared without a trace and were presumed killed.

Menchú's autobiography was reconstructed from hours of taped interviews she conducted with a writer in Paris during a tour Menchú had taken to publicize the atrocities of Guatemala's civil war. She said her account was intended to be personal perceptions of the treatment of the Maya in Guatemala as filtered through her own family's experiences.

Stoll said numerous publishers rejected his manuscript because, in his opinion, they “didn't want to publish a critique of a Latin American hero,” and that some of his own colleagues advised that the book “might set back the indigenous rights movement.”

Menchú, sitting in a room near the exhibit case that holds her 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, said the allegations could undermine her work, but insisted that her book is “a window on the truth for all victims” of oppression in Guatemala.

Robin Wilson (essay date 15 January 1999)

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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 become a virtual icon on American campuses.

But in the last month, new research has emerged suggesting that major portions of the book, I, Rigoberta Menchú (Verso, 1983), are untrue. A Middlebury College anthropology professor's new book, based on more than 120 interviews in Ms. Menchú's hometown, reports that key events detailed in the autobiography could not have taken place, and that the author's description of herself and her family conflicts with historical records.

The New York Times sent a reporter to Guatemala and published a story last month confirming the Middlebury professor's claims.

So what will the hundreds of faculty members who teach the autobiography do this semester? Most of them plan to go right on teaching it, although many will add material on the controversy. They say it doesn't matter if the facts in the book are wrong, because they believe Ms. Menchú's story speaks to a greater truth about the oppression of poor people in Central America.

“I think Rigoberta Menchú has been used by the right to negate the very important space that multiculturalism is providing in academia,” says Marjorie Agosin, head of the Spanish department at Wellesley College. “Whether her book is true or not, I don't care. We should teach our students about the brutality of the Guatemalan military and the U.S. financing of it.”

David Stoll, the Middlebury anthropologist, sits in the eye of the intellectual storm. He and other critics of Ms. Menchú's book contend that scholars have been quick to embrace it because of its leftist message.

In his book, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (Westview Press, 1999), Mr. Stoll writes: “Books like I, Rigoberta Menchú will be exalted because they tell many academics what they want to hear. Such works provide rebels in far-off places, into whom careerists can project their fantasies of rebellion.”

After years of research, Mr. Stoll concluded that the autobiography “cannot be the eyewitness account it purports to be.” In chapter after chapter, he claims, Ms. Menchú describes “experiences she never had herself.”

Ms. Menchú did grow up within one of the most oppressed groups in Guatemala, writes Mr. Stoll. She was a Maya Indian peasant, whose family farmed in a small village. But her book paints a life much more dismal than was the reality. Her brother was killed by Guatemala's right-wing military, but he wasn't burned to death before her eyes as she claims, writes Mr. Stoll. And a land battle that Ms. Menchú says her father waged against rich Guatemalans of European descent was actually a dispute between her father and his in-laws, charges Mr. Stoll. He believes she embellished her story to gain sympathy in the West for a Communist guerrilla movement she backed that aimed to topple Guatemala's government.

The release of Mr. Stoll's book, and publication of the New York Times article, have hit the scholarly community like a bomb. The criticisms are particularly damning because even Ms. Menchú's advocates don't regard her book as a literary masterpiece; its value has been its claim to authenticity.

Professors in a variety of disciplines have used Ms. Menchú's autobiography in their courses, written articles and books based on it, and even encouraged graduate students to make it the subject of their dissertations.

“This has become the book one reads when one wants to learn about the problems of Indians in Latin America,” says Gene Bell-Villada, a professor of Latin American literature at Williams College. “Students are always impressed and very moved by it.”

Many scholars have accused Mr. Stoll of conducting a “Kenneth Starr-style” investigation of a memoir that never claimed to offer a strictly factual account. Even if some events didn't happen exactly as Ms. Menchú describes, professors contend, her book is important because tens of thousands of people were killed or brutalized by Guatemalan soldiers during the country's 36-year war.

Ms. Menchú, who is now 39 and runs the Rigoberta Menchú-Túm Foundation in Guatemala City, has been transformed from an unknown peasant into an international celebrity since her book was first published. She has campaigned for human rights and lectured widely in Europe and the United States, including on numerous campuses. Last month she was quoted in Guatemalan newspapers as saying she will defend her autobiography “to the death.” Criticism of it, she said, amounted to “political provocations by academics to try to discredit me.” (Ms. Menchú did not respond to attempts to contact her for this story.)

Robin Blackburn, an editor for Verso, says the publisher has sold 150,000 copies of the autobiography and stands behind it. “We think that it is a very accurate and eloquent statement of how things appeared to this young woman,” Mr. Blackburn said in an interview from the publisher's London office. Last fall, Verso released a second book by Ms. Menchú—Crossing Borders—which the publisher calls “part memoir, part political manifesto.”

Ms. Menchú told her life story to an ethnologist in Paris in 1982, after she had fled Guatemala to escape the country's raging civil war. She was 23 years old. In her book, she writes: “I'd like to stress that it's not only my life, it's also the testimony of my people.” First published in Spanish and translated into English a year later, the book tells how she and her family were forced to live in squalid conditions while working on coffee and cotton plantations.

Ms. Menchú recounts how the Guatemalan army attacked her village, and tortured and killed her mother and brother. The police killed her father. The atrocities, she says, raised her political consciousness, leading her to join efforts by Guatemalan guerrillas to overthrow the government.

Although Ms. Menchú's story has been popular on American campuses, it has been criticized before. The book caught the attention of Dinesh D'Souza after it was included in a new humanities course created at Stanford University in 1988 to replace its Western-civilization requirement.

In his 1991 book, Illiberal Education, Mr. D'Souza, now a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, bashed the autobiography and Stanford's use of it. “Rigoberta's victim status may be unfortunate for her personal happiness,” Mr. D'Souza wrote, “but is indispensable for her academic reputation.”

David Stoll was a doctoral student in anthropology at Stanford when the humanities requirement was being debated, but that isn't what spurred his interest in Ms. Menchú, he says. Before he enrolled at Stanford, he spent nearly a decade as an independent scholar, studying and writing about Protestant missionaries and their work in Latin America.

At Stanford, Mr. Stoll's dissertation focused on Guatemala. He wanted to learn how its people coped with long-term political violence during the country's civil war, which was still in progress when Mr. Stoll made a 1989 trip there.

It was during his travels that year that Mr. Stoll happened upon the town plaza of Chajul, which is near Ms. Menchú's village of Chimel. In passing, he mentioned a key passage in Ms. Menchú's autobiography to a villager. Wasn't this plaza the place where the army burned prisoners, including Ms. Menchú's brother, asked Mr. Stoll. The elderly villager looked puzzled, recalls Mr. Stoll, and told him that the army had never burned prisoners alive in the plaza. Six other townsmen told Mr. Stoll the same thing, yet Ms. Menchú's book claimed she was an eyewitness to the torture and burning of her younger brother, Petrocinio, in that very place.

Mr. Stoll's findings began to leak out even before he earned his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1992, and they did not make him popular in academic circles. “Whenever you're told that you shouldn't look into something,” says Mr. Stoll, now an assistant professor at Middlebury, “for some people, that is a very clear directive that you ought to keep looking.”

Mr. Stoll does not dispute that the Guatemalan army committed atrocities. But he questions why Ms. Menchú's story should be considered beyond reproach by U.S. academics. He says they have ignored stories told by less-militant Mayans who did not side with the guerrilla movement but simply wanted the fighting in their country to end.

In his 336-page book, Mr. Stoll painstakingly details what he says are inaccuracies in Ms. Menchú's account. While she claims she was never formally educated, Mr. Stoll says she was, in fact, quite privileged, compared with other peasants. Vicente Menchú, writes Mr. Stoll, sent his daughter to a Catholic boarding school in Guatemala, where she was educated by nuns, receiving the equivalent of an eighth-grade education.

Ms. Menchú's book offers up horrible stories of life on Guatemala's plantations, where she says that as a child she was forced to work for up to eight months a year, and where she claims to have seen her two older brothers die of malnutrition. But Mr. Stoll writes that Ms. Menchú was away at school while her family worked on the plantations. Not only did she not witness her brothers' deaths, he writes, she never set foot on the plantations as a child.

Central to Ms. Menchú's tale is a 30-year-long struggle for land she says her family and their indigenous neighbors waged against ladinos or light-skinned Guatemalans of European descent. The ladinos subjugated her family, she says, depriving them of land to live on and farm. Mr. Stoll, however, says the land struggle Ms. Menchú points to as the catalyst for her political involvement was remembered by other villagers as a battle between Ms. Menchú's father and his in-laws.

Mr. Stoll suggests that members of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, who advised Ms. Menchú, may have prodded her to “broaden her story, to make it more typical of the oppression of the Guatemalan peasants” so that it would have more appeal.

Mr. Stoll realizes he has jumped into a snake pit. Throughout his research, he writes in his book, he was told not to challenge Ms. Menchú because “that would violate the right of a native person to tell her story in her own way.” However, he says he felt compelled to continue his work after he realized that not all Mayans sided with the guerrillas, and yet those Mayans “were often discounted” by foreigners.

All of the professors who have taught Ms. Menchú's autobiography and who spoke to The Chronicle say Mr. Stoll has exaggerated the importance of the discrepancies he claims to have found. Some even doubt that Mr. Stoll's version of events is correct, given that the Maya villagers he interviewed probably would have been reluctant to tell the truth to a white, American academic whom they had never met before. But even if everything Mr. Stoll writes is true, say academics, it is important to remember that Ms. Menchú's book is a narrative, not a piece of legal testimony.

What matters, professors say, is that the kinds of crimes she wrote of were committed by the military, and indigenous people such as Ms. Menchú bore the brunt of the violence. “Even if she didn't watch her little brother being murdered, the military did murder people in Guatemala,” says Ms. Agosin of Wellesley.

Allen Carey-Webb, an associate professor of English at Western Michigan University, says readers must put Ms. Menchú's work in context. “We have a higher standard of truth for poor people like Rigoberta Menchú,” he says, adding: “If we find a flaw in her, it doesn't mean her whole argument goes down the drain.”

Mr. Webb coedited Teaching and Testimony: Rigoberta Menchú and the North American Classroom (State University of New York Press, 1996). It is a collection of articles on how professors and high-school teachers have used the text in such disciplines as political science, Spanish, and introductory composition. Although Mr. Webb says he will continue to use Ms. Menchú's book in his own courses, he will tell students about Mr. Stoll's critique and allow them “to see for themselves what seems to be the truth.” Other professors who spoke to The Chronicle say they will do the same.

John R. Beverley, a professor of Spanish and Latin American literature at the University of Pittsburgh, says he has never taught Ms. Menchú's book as if it were the absolute truth. A course he offered last semester called “Testimonial and Ethnographic Narrative” featured her text. He has also contributed to a book entitled The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America (Duke University Press, 1996), which explores Latin American testimonios and features Ms. Menchú's book as a model of the genre. A testimonio, says Mr. Beverley, is a personal story that also contains a message from a subordinated group involved in a political struggle.

“What I want students to try to get when they read Rigoberta Menchú is not only that she's this transparent reporter to us, and we're the receivers of this nice, P.C., third-world person's story,” says Mr. Beverley. “I would like to get students to see her as a person with an ideological agenda. Her book wants to create solidarity.”

In the course she offers on Mesoamerican civilizations at Harvard University, Kay B. Warren has wasted no time getting into the controversy over Ms. Menchú's book. She read the New York Times article at breakfast and went to class later that day armed with a copy to see how her students would react. Ms. Warren, a professor of anthropology, had already introduced students to her own book, Indigenous Movements and Their Critics: Pan-Maya Activism in Guatemala (Princeton University Press, 1998), so Mr. Stoll's charges were pertinent.

His book has reminded her, says Ms. Warren, that “this is really a new world for anthropologists, one in which our scholarship on ethnic politics is drawn into ongoing political debates here and abroad.” She is concerned that Mr. Stoll's book may negatively affect the continuing peace process in Guatemala. An United Nations-appointed truth commission is poised to issue its findings, documenting cases of violence against citizens by the Guatemalan army. “What I worry about is that this controversy may be used to undermine the findings of the truth commission and deflect attention away from attempts to reform the army,” she says.

Joanne Rappaport, president of the Society for Latin American Anthropology, has similar worries. Mr. Stoll's book, she says, is “an attempt to discredit one of the only spokespersons of Guatemala's indigenous movement.” A professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Georgetown University, Ms. Rappaport says that Mr. Stoll is going against the grain in cultural anthropology, which no longer advocates studying indigenous people as objects. “What I find is that I am increasingly engaged in a dialogue with people I used to study,” she says. Mr. Stoll, on the other hand, she says, risks cutting off “the possibilities of dialogue” between researchers and their subjects by discrediting Ms. Menchú and establishing himself as the ultimate authority on what happened to her.

Some scholars, however, find it hard to understand why their colleagues are criticizing Mr. Stoll, not Ms. Menchú.

“There's something wrong with scholars who say the facts don't matter,” says Daniel H. Levine, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan who wrote a paper with Mr. Stoll on grassroots religious movements. “People don't want to discuss this because Rigoberta Menchú is an icon.”

Says Daphne Patai, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst: “Rigoberta Menchú is not admired as a creative writer. She is admired as the embodiment of a certain struggle. For her to be compromised is not okay, anymore than if we found that the diary of Anne Frank was written by her father.”

Diane M. Nelson, an assistant professor of anthropology at Lewis and Clark College, feels conflicted by Mr. Stoll's charges. “I kind of wish she had done what we wish Clinton had done,” and told the truth when questions were raised, says Ms. Nelson. However, she also counts herself as a friend of Ms. Menchú. The two met when Ms. Nelson translated for Ms. Menchú at talks the author gave in the United States.

Ms. Nelson has just completed a book, A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala, to be published in March by the University of California Press. The title comes from an expression people in Guatemala use when discussing the Maya indigenous movement there. One chapter is about jokes people have told about Ms. Menchú since she won the Nobel prize. The jokes, say Ms. Nelson, reflect how difficult it is for Guatemalan culture to absorb the idea of a powerful woman.

Like other academics, Ms. Nelson believes I, Rigoberta Menchú is valuable, even if it isn't entirely true. While “hanging around” in Ms. Menchú's living room in Guatemala last summer, Ms. Nelson asked the author about the charges. The professor recalls: “She refused to address them.”

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

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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 it with the wholesale slaughter of thousands of Indians, including members of her own family.

As the New York Times recently reported, however, David Stoll, a professor of anthropology at Middlebury College, has called Menchú's story into question. In Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans Stoll alleges that Menchú exaggerated and otherwise distorted some of the events she chronicled in her autobiography.

No matter how absorbing this controversy may be—and it has been taken up gleefully by the right, with Dinesh D'Souza proclaiming in the Weekly Standard that “there were plenty of reasons to be suspicious from the outset of Rigoberta Menchú's credibility”—we should keep it in perspective. Menchú's book came out in 1983, just after the Guatemalan military had concluded the most brutal campaign of repression in this hemisphere. In 1982 alone, the army committed more than 400 massacres, destroyed hundreds of Indian communities, killed as many as 100,000 people and forced nearly 1 million from their homes. Until the publication of Menchú's book, the international community was largely silent about these atrocities, while the major news media in the United States paid hardly any attention to them at all.

Throughout the worst period of the violence, the Reagan Administration repeatedly attempted to discredit human rights organizations working to publicize the massacres. One State Department official went so far as to suggest that Amnesty International was waging a “calculated program of disinformation which originated from Managua, Nicaragua and [was] part of the worldwide communist conspiracy.”

Menchú's book cut through this veil of silence to reveal a hidden history of pain, death and terror. Her story was a call to conscience, a piece of wartime propaganda designed not to mislead but rather to capture our attention. It relied upon a classic Dickensian technique of pulling together different individual experiences into one character's heart-rending story. Such distortions were probably necessary to break through the wall of media indifference.

One of Stoll's principal charges is that Menchú lied about the death of her relatives. It seems that Menchú did not witness her younger brother die of hunger on a lowland plantation, nor was another brother burned alive by the army in the public square of her village, as she had claimed.

Whatever the truth of these allegations (interviews with other relatives, as quoted in the New York Times in mid-December, lend them significant weight), the undisputed facts of Menchú's story are horrible enough: She did have two brothers who died of malnutrition at an early age; her mother and brother were kidnapped and killed by the army; and her father was burned alive.

Stoll also reveals that Menchú was more educated and politically astute than she let on. It appears that rather than being an illiterate domestic servant and seasonal plantation laborer—a condition suffered by a great many Mayan women—Menchú had received an elementary school education.

Yet it is no great surprise that political leaders rearrange events in their lives for political reasons. In his presidential campaign, Abraham Lincoln presented himself as a backwoods hayseed even though he was an accomplished legislator and lawyer. Likewise, Betty Friedan portrayed herself as an alienated, apolitical housewife when in fact she was a longtime political activist. And what about the exaggerations in Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography? As the director of the Nobel Institute who awarded Menchú her prize reminds us, “All autobiographies embellish to a greater or lesser extent.” Perhaps Western readers expect only simplicity and naïveté from Indian women, and Menchú may have skillfully used this expectation to publicize the wholesale slaughter being conducted by the Guatemalan military.

While the publicity on the accusations thus far has focused on the historical accuracy of personal details, Stoll is interested in more than simply exposing Menchú (perhaps explaining why the Times gave the story page-one play). He wants to challenge the larger claim that the Guatemalan revolution had popular support. He argues that guerrilla movements, not just in Guatemala but throughout Latin America, preempted peaceful political and economic reform and therefore were responsible for provoking repression:

Some Central Americans believe that only armed struggle could have dislodged the dictatorships ruling their countries. … They could be right, but it also has to be asked: What gave rise to such ferocious regimes in the first place? … What reduced [the Guatemalan military] to the fanatical anticommunism that allowed it to slaughter so many men, women, and children?

While Stoll concedes that the United States bears some responsibility for the violence, he concludes that “it could not have happened without the specter of foreign communism.” “Insurgency,” he says, “bolster[ed] the rationales of the most homicidal wing of the officer corps in one country after another.”

This formulation reveals a deep ignorance of Guatemalan and Latin American history. In the century before the cold war, dictators throughout Latin America, like the nineteenth-century Argentine despot Juan Manuel de Rosas, used terror to hold on to power. If a democratic transition was under way in Guatemala prior to the left's decision to pick up arms, how does Stoll account for the violent 1954 overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz, Guatemala's best chance at democracy? Or the 1963 military coup aimed at preventing Juan José Arévalo, a former reformist president, from again running for president? If guerrillas are responsible for Latin American political violence, how does Stoll explain Pinochet's Chile, where military repression took place despite the absence of armed rebels? Or the systemic state violence directed at union activists and independent reporters in Mexico before the Zapatista uprising? Or the 1968 massacre in Tlatelolco plaza?

Just as he accuses Menchú of doing, Stoll arranges and suppresses events to support his claims. Stoll would have us believe that if not for the guerrillas, the Guatemalan military might not have become the most bloodthirsty killing machine in the hemisphere. Yet by reducing Guatemala's conflict to the back-and-forth sparring between the guerrillas and the military, Stoll willfully—or ignorantly—misrepresents the history of Guatemalan opposition and repression. In the seventies, trade unionists, Mayan activists, peasants, students and social democrats came together to push for social reform. No other country in Central America witnessed this level of political mobilization. But well before anyone had ever heard of the guerrillas, the military was going after this movement, murdering peasants in coastal plantations and politicians and unionists in the capital.

What is most offensive about Stoll's argument is his insistence on blaming the victims for the violence that the military visited upon them.

Stoll would counter this charge by separating Mayan communities from “outsiders”—those whom he baits as the urban “Marxist Left.” But this distinction is too neat. As Stoll himself demonstrated in his previous work, Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala, the Maya have a long history of alliances with non-Indians. In the seventies, the Catholic activists, peasant organizers, Christian Democrats and guerrilla leaders were themselves Mayan.

Taken to its logical conclusion, Stoll's argument holds Menchú, her father and her family responsible for “allowing” the military to slaughter them and their neighbors.

In Guatemala, these assertions have all too real consequences. Throughout Guatemalan history, Indians have been portrayed as either violent brutes or docile innocents easily led astray. Elites continue to use these stereotypes to legitimize the violence. They argue either that the war was necessary to stop the Indians from rising up and avenging centuries of exploitation or that outside agitators were responsible for stirring up the Indians.

It is unfortunate that at this moment, when truth commissions and exhumations are opening the secrets of the recent past to scrutiny, Stoll's work provides both these stereotypes with a scholarly patina. As a military officer responsible for the 1982 scorched-earth campaign recently said, “The poor Indians, they don't get involved in anything. They were between two armies.” He didn't even have to bother to footnote Stoll.

Next month, the United Nations Truth Commission (officially known as the Historical Clarification Commission) will release the results of its eighteen-month investigation of human rights violations in Guatemala. International human rights organizations expect that the report will confirm what they have been saying all along: The vast majority of Guatemala's political violence was committed by the Guatemalan military, with the support and knowledge of the US government. The controversy over Menchú should not be allowed to overshadow this truth.

Charles Lane (review date 8 March 1999)

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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 of the world, using her prestige to help advance peace talks between the Guatemalan government and the remnants of its Marxist guerrilla forces, and on behalf of such causes as the campaign in 1995 to urge Starbucks to support higher wages for Guatemalan coffee pickers. “Menchú herself worked in the coffee fields as a girl,” the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported. “It was a life,” she [said], “that left no time for dreams.”

Has any book in recent decades been more influential in shaping perceptions of Latin America than I, Rigoberta Menchú? Since its publication in English in 1984, this first person account of a young Mayan woman's experience of unspeakable cruelty at the hands of Guatemala's landowners and military bosses has become required reading in anthropology, women's studies, and Latin American history and politics courses at universities across the United States. At the University of Maine, it was selected as the “class book” for the class of 2000, meaning that nearly all students who matriculated in the fall of 1996 had to read it as a condition of graduation. According to Menchú herself, it has inspired some 15,000 scholarly papers. It has been translated into twelve languages.

The authority of Rigoberta Menchú and I, Rigoberta Menchú was owed, quite obviously, to the authenticity of the woman and the book. But that authenticity turns out to be an invention. I, Rigoberta Menchú is not, alas, a true story. As David Stoll shows in his riveting and masterfully researched book, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, Menchú embellished or fabricated some of the most horrific details—and some of the most mundane details—in her inflamed first-person account.

The book revolves around a land dispute, in which her humble father Vicente was purportedly cheated and ruined by rich ladinos (Spanish-speakers of European descent). The truth, as Stoll demonstrates, is that the dispute was a family feud between Vicente Menchú and his own Mayan in-laws. The younger brother that Menchú supposedly watched starve to death never existed. One of the most vivid moments in I, Rigoberta Menchú is the public burning of Rigoberta's younger brother Petrocinio and other prisoners by Guatemalan Army troops. “[T]hey lined up the tortured and poured petrol on them; and then the soldiers set fire to each one of them,” Menchú writes. “Many of them begged for mercy. They looked half dead when they were lined up there, but when the bodies began to burn they began to plead for mercy. Some of them screamed, many of them leapt but uttered no sound—of course, that was because their breathing was cut off.” This incident, too, never occurred.

There is much more. On the very first page of her memoir, for example, Menchú also offers the heart-rending information that she was denied an education: “I never went to school, and so I find speaking Spanish very difficult. I didn't have the chance to move outside my own world and only learned Spanish three years ago” (that is, 1979). Stoll shows that she actually spent time in the late 1970s as a scholarship student at prestigious boarding schools run by Belgian nuns. She spoke Spanish well from a young age. And this child of a relatively well-off farming family was never forced to do harsh, low-wage labor in the coffee fields, as her book also claims.

Perhaps the best measure of Stoll's devastating scholarship has been the lameness of the rebuttal from Menchú's supporters. The leftist British publisher that produced Menchú's book in English defended it this way: “Those who have worked in similar oral cultures tell [us] that the distinction between what has happened to oneself and what has happened to close relatives or friends can be easily lost.” (Indians lie, you see.) Marjorie Agosin, who chairs the Spanish department at Wellesley College, spoke for many in academia when she candidly told the Chronicle of Higher Education that “Rigoberta Menchú has been used by the right to negate the very important space that multiculturalism is providing in academia. Whether her book is true or not, I don't care. We should teach our students about the brutality of the Guatemalan military and the U.S. financing of it.” The Nobel Committee has also not been shaken by the news that it elevated a fraud: noting thoughtfully that “all autobiographies embellish to a greater or lesser extent,” it has made clear that a reconsideration of her award is out of the question. “[D]isagreeing with someone is one thing, seeking to ridicule that person is something else,” fumed Federico Mayor, the director-general of UNESCO, which has enlisted Menchú as a goodwill ambassador. “This year, when Christmas and Ramadan coincide, we should contribute generously to understanding among people instead of indulging in such insidious campaigns of denigration.”

For her part, Menchú has offered a series of contradictory explanations. At a defiant press conference in Mexico City on January 20, she dismissed Stoll's findings as minor discrepancies. “It makes no difference to me whether [Vicente Menchú, her father] was burned with paraffin or phosphorous. My father is dead,” she said. On February 11, however, at a press conference in New York, Menchú tried a different tack: “The book that is being questioned is a testimonial that mixes my personal testimony and the testimony of what happened in Guatemala,” she claimed. “The book that is being questioned is not my biography.” (We, Rigoberta Menchú.) But this is a baffling concession. How could other people have remembered things that did not happen?

Still, let us give Menchú her due. It is undeniably true that her family was decimated during Guatemala's conflict. As Stoll himself shows, her father was indeed killed during the fire that ended a left-wing protest at the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City in 1980. Her teenage brother was not burned alive in the public square, but he was abducted and shot to death by the army. Her mother also “disappeared” (though it is clearly impossible for Menchú to know whether she was left to be eaten by animals, as I, Rigoberta Menchú claims). Plainly, the Guatemalan Army's counter-insurgency campaign in the early '80s was fierce and murderous; and the brunt of it fell on Guatemala's Mayan population.

Menchú's celebrity, however she earned it, has not been without benefits for Guatemala. Her Nobel Prize was one of the factors—though not quite as important a factor as the end of the cold war—that weakened the political legitimacy of Guatemala's military-dominated political elite, facilitating the negotiated peace agreement that finally ended three decades of conflict and helping further to democratize the country. As a result, the long-disenfranchised indigenous two-fifths of Guatemala's population is currently experiencing something of a political awakening. So what difference does it make, really, if Menchú isn't perfectly accurate about the fate of her family members and countless other Indians? Where, really, is the scandal?

The answer is that David Stoll is not engaged in an “insidious campaign of denigration.” Though the press coverage of his book has focused overwhelmingly on its documentation of Menchú's fabrications, Stoll is too intellectually serious to have devoted so many years and so much effort—contrary to the UNESCO chief's idiotic demand that Stoll leave his “ivory tower” and go out to meet “the natives,” Stoll made long treks into the Guatemalan highlands to conduct interviews with Menchú's surviving family and fellow villagers—in a morbid game of gotcha with the Nobel Laureate. The purpose of Stoll's book is not so much to expose the lies in an agitprop memoir as to recover the truth about an entire developing society and its recent experience with guerrilla war and military repression. Stoll not only succeeds in making his case for a new and convincing view of the Guatemalan conflict; he also succeeds in challenging us to think afresh about why so many North Americans have for so long accepted a view of that war that is profoundly misleading.

These lessons emerge most powerfully from Stoll's extraordinary reconstruction of the events of January 31, 1980 in Guatemala City. On that day, a group that included Vicente Menchú staged an occupation of the Spanish Embassy, ostensibly to protest human rights violations by the Guatemalan Army. Ignoring the protests of Spain's ambassador, who was trapped with his diplomatic staff inside the building, Guatemalan police stormed the embassy, and a fire broke out in which twenty-six protesters and ten hostages were killed. This tragedy was portrayed in I, Rigoberta Menchú and in subsequent media accounts as not only a violation of the Spanish mission's diplomatic status, but also an act of official mass murder. On October 17, 1992, in a report about the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Menchú, The Washington Post summarized the story this way: “Menchú's father, Vicente, a peasant leader, was burned to death inside the Spanish Embassy along with 37 [sic] others in January 1980, when he participated in a peaceful takeover of the building to protest military repression. The army burned the building despite opposition from the Spanish ambassador.”

Few events in the Guatemalan conflict did more to brand the government as a band of thugs—and the left as an aggregation of martyrs—than the burning of the Spanish Embassy. It is fair to say that the subsequent narrative of Western academic and journalistic treatments of the Guatemalan war was largely established on that day. Yet Stoll, based on interviews with eyewitnesses, including the former Spanish ambassador, and expert evaluations of the surviving photographic and documentary evidence, debunks the conventional wisdom about this event. Indeed, just about every word of that excerpt from the Post story turns out to be false.

Vicente Menchú was not a peasant “leader.” He was a political neophyte manipulated into joining the takeover of the embassy by the Guatemalan guerrilla left's urban commanders. The takeover itself was anything but “peaceful.” The masked militants burst into the embassy armed with machetes, Molotov cocktails, and three or four pistols—weapons that they frequently employed to force their hostages, including the ambassador, to act as human shields against the police. The “army” did not burn the building. Plainclothesmen from the military-controlled national police were at the scene, but not army troops; and the deadly blaze started inside a barricaded room occupied by the leftists themselves, probably when one of the occupiers spread kerosene on the floor and deliberately ignited it.

Why would the occupiers have started the fire? A member of Menchú's left-wing guerrilla front organization who staged a similar occupation of the Brazilian Embassy in Guatemala City in 1982 told Stoll that they entered prepared to ignite their own Molotov cocktails inside a small space in the building rather than allow themselves to be arrested. This risky strategy was based on the quite rational expectation that occupiers would be tortured and forced to reveal the identities of their comrades if they were taken alive. (It also stood to reason that any militant who talked, even under torture, would be targeted for elimination by his own side if the army released him.) Whether all the participants in such escapades realized it or not, therefore, the organizers of embassy takeovers in those years knew that, barring an unlikely negotiated departure for a third country such as Cuba, the outcome for them was almost certainly going to be death—one way or another.

Thus, Stoll's verdict on the Spanish Embassy catastrophe is that, far from being a calculated act of barbarity by the regime (which carried out many other awful acts of calculated terror), the fire that consumed Rigoberta Menchú's father could well have been a “revolutionary suicide that included murdering hostages and fellow protesters.” Vicente Menchú was not the victim of a genocidal government. He was the victim of a self-perpetuating politics of violence. The very revolutionary left that would later claim him as a martyr—and with which Rigoberta Menchú would later affiliate herself—was an integral element of this politics.

Indeed, the Menchú family first seems to have run afoul of the army not because of some racially charged land dispute, but because of the family's somewhat friendly relationship with a guerrilla group that started the war in Menchú's native mountains in 1979, by executing two wealthy landowners in cold blood. It was the army's reprisals for this guerrilla murder that Vicente Menchú came to Guatemala City to protest. His wife and his son were apparently killed later, in reprisal for guerrilla terrorism and for the fact that Vicente had participated in the embassy takeover (which was, as we have seen, organized by a guerrilla front group).

Stoll's central contention, as articulated in this book and in Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala, which appeared in 1993, is that the war in that tormented country was a phenomenon of “dual violence.” Deliberate provocations by the guerrillas, and not merely the government's mindless hatred of Mayans, stimulated the conflict. None of this excuses the army's brutality, but all of it is necessary to understand the army's brutality. In Guatemala, the guerrillas attempted to exploit army atrocities that they provoked so as to win recruits domestically, and to blacken the government's image internationally. As Stoll argues, these Leninist tactics were far more effective abroad than at home. The vast majority of the indigenous people of Guatemala came to reject the guerrillas. (You would not know this from Menchú's book.) They did so not out of any affection for the army, but out of the feeling that the guerrillas had led them into a fight with the army that they could not win, and whose main victims would be the indigenous people themselves.

By dismantling Rigoberta Menchú's myths, Stoll hopes to focus attention on precisely these most tragic victims of the war: those who felt trapped in the middle but found themselves rendered “voiceless” by Western intellectuals who preferred to focus on Menchú and her less complicated narrative of oppression and revolt. It is thus even more outrageous that some “scholars” of the conflict seem intent on vilifying Stoll rather than frankly addressing the facts that he has unearthed. Those in academia or other elite institutions who “don't care” whether Menchú's book is true or false are complicit in the silencing of the politically inconvenient thoughts and feelings of the vast majority of Guatemala's long-ignored rural population. For the implications of Stoll's account of dual violence in Guatemala are profound, and, if they are not ignored, should affect our historical understanding of the bloody events in such places as El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, and Peru—as well as our understanding of the apocalypse that may be about to happen in Colombia.

The guerrillas' strategy of heightening the contradictions may not have worked with most Guatemalans, but it worked with Rigoberta Menchú. Indeed, the fact that she was ignorant of the full truth about the embassy massacre probably made her decision to affiliate with the armed left easier. Stoll is no doubt correct when he explains this affiliation as her understandable reaction to her family's destruction during the war. Moreover, the fact that Menchú was not an ill-educated peasant woman made the political theories of the left more accessible and attractive to her.

From there it was a short distance to actually participating in a guerrilla-sponsored propaganda project—which is what I, Rigoberta Menchú was, at least initially. The book began its life in January 1982, in Paris, where Menchú had been brought by the international political wing of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, or EGP (to use its Spanish initials). A radical branch of Guatemala's Cuban-supported Marxist guerrilla coalition, the EGP operated primarily in the highlands where Menchú was born. It was founded in 1972 by Ricardo Ramerez, an old friend of Che Guevara who shared Che's belief in foquismo—the romantic and erroneous notion that the dramatic military feats of a small band, or foco, of guerrillas could inspire politically dormant peasants to join a revolutionary war. It was the EGP's attempt to enact this strategy in the remote area where Vicente Menchú had his farm that provoked some of the bloodiest army reprisals in the early '80s.

In Paris, the EGP steered Menchú to Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, a Venezuelan Communist anthropologist who had also been part of Guevara's circle in the '60s. (Her husband, Regis Debray, launched his career as a participant in Che's failed Bolivian adventure.) Originally, the idea was for Burgos-Debray to write a magazine article based on Rigoberta's recollections. Once Menchú started dictating, however, there was no stopping her. As Stoll puts it, “what resulted was an explosion of memory and imagination, in a young woman who had lost most of her family, who had found a new home in the revolutionary movement, and who was determined to fight back.”

Rigoberta's defenders, including Rigoberta herself, have sometimes tried to shift blame for the book's flaws onto Burgos-Debray. Indeed, the Nobel Laureate's saintly image has been marred by unseemly disputes with Burgos-Debray over the unexpectedly high profits from the book, rights to which Menchú initially signed away. Thus, it is important to note that Stoll has listened to the tapes of the original Menchú interviews upon which the book is based, and has concluded that Burgos-Debray is absolutely right when she insists that “every phrase in the book comes from what Rigoberta Menchú said on the tapes.”

We also learn from Stoll that the EGP retained final editorial control over the book. Ricardo Ramerez personally vetted the book for any contradictions with the EGP line—or violations of the group's secrets—before it was sent to a publisher. Among the inconvenient truths that Ramerez deleted was information that tended to absolve the Guatemalan authorities for the Spanish Embassy fire, and Menchú's account of children being used as fighters for the guerrillas. The next thing anyone knew, the colorfully garbed Menchú was all over the lecture circuit in America. An international political phenomenon had been born.

After Stoll's book, we have a pretty good idea of why Rigoberta Menchú lied. The only question remaining is why so many in North America and Europe believed her impassioned propaganda. A part of the answer, of course, is that much of the book is true—and much more of it was at least plausible, given the army's repugnant record. Like all good propaganda, I, Rigoberta Menchú was premised on a kernel of veracity. Thus, not even conservatives such as Dinesh D'Souza, who first attacked American academia for its fascination with the book in Illiberal Education in 1991, ever thought to suggest that Menchú might have concocted her story. D'Souza and others merely challenged the fact that such a plainly ideological tract should be elevated to the literary and political canon.

There is another, more disturbing reason for the public's acceptance of Menchú's story. It is that the mainstream media never raised any doubts about it, before or after Menchú went to Oslo. David Stoll's book has rightly caused an uproar; but it is an irony of this uproar that The New York Times, which confirmed Stoll's conclusions on December 15, 1998, should now be sharing the credit (or the blame) for exposing Menchú's lies. Actually, Stoll's book is a big fat embarrassment to the paper of record, and to the rest of the American media. After all, I, Rigoberta Menchú has been established as scripture for a decade and a half; and the war in Guatemala has been a preoccupation of the Times, in its news pages and in its opinion columns, for almost as long.

But the book's vision of simple, virtuous peasants and evil, blood-drenched landlords is the sort of political cartoon that was irresistible to too many members of the press corps in Central America. It is also the sort of vision that the press would have savaged if it had been presented from the other end of the political spectrum during the Reagan years—which is exactly how the press corps responded when the State Department in the 1980s portrayed Nicaragua's Miskito Indians as the innocent victims of the black-hatted Sandinistas. Menchú herself, by the way, sided with the Sandinistas against the Miskitos. In those days, class analysis still trumped race, gender, and sexuality. (Larry Rohter, who did the recent Times piece based on Stoll's book, was himself an honorable exception to the press corps's ideological tendency.) And so it transpired that the first person who undertook a skeptical and scholarly look at Menchú's influential tale was an assistant professor of anthropology from Middlebury College. One wonders how many other “facts” we have read about Latin America—the enviable health care in Cuba, or the popularity of the Zapatista rebels among Mexico's Indians—are also not exactly facts.

The credulity with which Menchú's ghastly fairy-tale was greeted in the West must also be explained in broader cultural and psychological terms. It seems incontrovertible that Menchú pulled the wool over so many eyes because she reconstructed herself romantically in the image of Western civilization's most enduring symbol of innocent victimhood. She is the noble savage; or more precisely, the noble savage after the invention of ideology.

It was Columbus himself who pioneered the notion that the Americas' indigenous people had known nothing but natural communitarian bliss before their contact with him. Upon returning from his first voyage, he wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella: “I certify to their Highnesses that there is no better land anywhere, that there are no better people: they love others as themselves and speak the sweetest language in the world.”

The myth of an Edenic hero incapable of evil flourished in Rousseau and (with a different inflection) in the Marxist tradition, and in the stirring pages of The Last of the Mohicans, and eventually in what the Venezuelan political scientist Carlos Rangel has called the West's “absurd feeling of guilt” that “its civilization has corrupted the other peoples of the world, grouped as the ‘Third World,’ who, had they not been exposed to Western culture, would have remained happy as Adam and flawless as diamonds.” In his book The Latin Americans: Their Love-Hate Relationship with the United States, a small classic of dissenting political analysis that first appeared in 1976, Rangel noted that the image of the noble savage also left its imprint on the radicalism of Latin America's left-wing intellectuals. In his view, these intellectuals “transmuted” the noble savage into the “good revolutionary,” producing the Guevarist dogma that Latin America could recover its pre-Columbian innocence through the cleansing process of continental revolution.

This was the EGP's doctrine. It was also Rigoberta Menchú's doctrine, at least until the end of the cold war and her own celebrity made it necessary for her quietly to abandon the support for violent revolution to which she had anyway never completely owned up. Thus I, Rigoberta Menchú describes its author's community of Chimel, high in the misty Guatemalan mountains, as nothing less than “a paradise.” As Stoll observes:

If Rigoberta's denial of Spanish and literacy was a preemptive defense of her authenticity, brought on by racist assumptions she was encountering, then the obsessive quality of these denials suggests that she was not just doing it for her listeners. She also could have been doing it for herself. The noble savage was invented by Europeans, but it has been taken to heart by many an indigenous intellectual seeking to join the wider world on equal terms. Rigoberta would be far from the first Indian who went off to school and the city, who collided with discrimination, and who responded by idealizing her origin as a Rousseauian idyll. It takes time to learn that claims to innocence only encourage paternalism.

What is certain is that Menchú's self-invention as the downtrodden noble savage rendered her immediately useful to a revolutionary Guatemalan left that might otherwise have continued to see her only as a cook (the role that she apparently played in the safe houses of Mexico City, where she lived before going to Paris). And it rendered her immediately comprehensible to those North American academics, journalists, and church workers who like to linger over the shortcomings, real and imagined, of their own society—who feel most moral when they feel most guilty. If the defense being mounted on behalf of Rigoberta Menchú now seems especially fierce, it is because this defense is also a self-defense. A particular kind of mendacity has flourished with a particular kind of gullibility.

Stoll has forever embarrassed the mendacity and the gullibility. He is certainly harsh when he writes that “books like I, Rigoberta Menchú will be exalted because they tell many academics what they want to hear. Such works provide rebels in far-off places, into whom careerists can project their fantasies of rebellion. The simplistic images of innocence, oppression and defiance can be used to construct mythologies of purity for academic factions claiming moral authority on the grounds that they identify with the oppressed.” Harsh, but also courageous; and not at all unfair.

Calvin Reid (essay date 8 March 1999)

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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 account, Menchú called her 1982 book “a testimony, not a biography” and indicated that she is currently conducting research to write a genuine autobiography. She dismissed the recent allegations as “an unjust campaign to destroy my name.” Last year, Menchú published Crossing Borders a continuation of her life story after she received the Nobel Prize.

Since its publication in 1982 I, Rigoberta Menchú has sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide. According to the book's current publisher, it is a fixture in college courses on Latin America and continues to sell nearly 40,000 copies a year in trade paper. The book and her work in support of indigenous peasants led to Menchú being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Allegations that she lied about her background surfaced in December 1998 in a New York Times article based on research collected by David Stoll, an anthropologist at Middlebury College in Vermont, and published in his new book, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. Stoll's book charges, among other things, that Menchú's account of a conflict between powerless Indians and brutal landlords is not true, that the land dispute depicted in the book was actually between different factions of her own family and that while her story of the deaths of two of her brothers is true, her published version is misleading. He also claims that although Menchú has portrayed herself as an illiterate Indian plantation worker, she really attended elite schools and was better educated and far more privileged than she has made known.

Both the New York Times article and Stoll's book have provoked a firestorm of debate. Karl Yambert, Stoll's editor, said the book, which has been back to press three times and now has more than 10,000 copies in print, has been “attacked from both sides.” Stoll, who considers himself a critic from the left, has been attacked by left-wing commentators as an apologist for the political right out to undermine a great symbol of peasant liberation. Conservative political commentators have called Menchú a liar who has concocted a romantic tale of third-world class war to attract international left-wing sympathy.

At the press conference, Menchú said that when the book came out in 1982, “I had to convince the world to look at the atrocities committed in Guatemala.” Menchú dismissed charges that she attended “elite” schools, claiming that she received only the most basic instruction in literacy—without any formal credit—after hours, while working as a maid in a convent school when she was 16. Although she admitted that she did not personally witness the death of one of her brothers as she described, she claims to have used the eyewitness accounts of others who were present. Menchú also claimed that the Menchú family land dispute ended in 1966 and was “a small part” of the conflict.

Stoll told PW that his book was an attempt to “modify but not change how we look at Guatemala.” He was emphatic that Menchú's 1982 book “is not a hoax. That is not the case I'm making. She is not a liar. She's a genuine victim who lost four members of her family to the security forces.” According to Stoll, I, Rigoberta Menchú is “a very useful book” that has been “interpreted too literally. It is not an eyewitness account. But it is so attractive to foreign readers that it overshadows other Mayan peasants' perspective on the Guatemalan civil war.”

According to Stoll, Menchú's 1982 book “simplified” the situation in Guatemala, “which was a defensible strategy in 1982, to drum up international pressure to stop army abuses.” However, Stoll noted that Menchú's responses at the press conference were “not candid.” He said that she did receive formal credit at four educational institutions in Guatemala. One institution, he added, was a special accelerated work and study program for bright girls at a convent school where she did work as a maid and received formal credit. Also, despite Menchú's comments at the press conference, Stoll told PW that the land dispute was purely between Menchú's in-laws until her parents were killed by the army in 1980. There was only one short-lived dispute with a landowner, Stoll said, which was resolved by government mediation (and accepted by the landowner) in her father's favor in 1970.

Despite the controversy and accusations over the book, Stoll is quick to praise Menchú's role in Guatemalan history: “I have respect for what has happened to her. People who know Guatemala know that her story is true in some sense. I defend her right to dramatize her story in 1982 and my right to criticize it as a scholar in 1998.”

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

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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 Guatemalans, in which he questions many aspects of Rigoberta's life story presented in I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. On December 15, The New York Times ran a front-page story reporting on the controversy, and sent one of its sleuthing reporters to Guatemala to corroborate some of Stoll's findings. In the midst of the controversy, Guatemala is still struggling to consolidate its fragile peace and to find ways of addressing the legacies of 36 years of war. In this interview, which took place on February 10 in the NACLA offices, Rigoberta discusses the controversy and its impact on the current political situation in Guatemala. NACLA correspondent Steve Dudley interviewed David Stoll by telephone on January 26.

[Burt and Rosen:] Last year, the Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI) project, which documented the testimonies of the victims of Guatemala's civil war, made public its final report. The UN Commission on Historical Clarification is scheduled to release its final report in late February. How would you describe these two processes and their relevance to building peace in Guatemala today?

[Menchú:] The REMHI and the UN Commission are tremendously important because they have exhaustively documented the nature of the crimes committed by the Guatemalan armed forces during the 36-year conflict. We now know the names and stories of many of the victims—as well as of the victimizers.

The REMHI was particularly important because it established a new methodology for recovering the testimonies of the thousands of people who suffered these crimes. Most investigations are run by a few experts who show up and ask questions and tell people how to present their testimonies. But the REMHI was designed to be a participatory investigation, in which community leaders—many of whom were Mayan—interviewed over 6,000 victims and eyewitnesses. This made it possible to collect information about more than 50,000 cases of human rights violations, and out of these individual memories to begin to construct a collective memory.

Monsignor Gerardi, who led the REMHI, paid with his life so that this project could materialize. The Monsignor's death was a tremendous blow to us, but we continue to work in defense of human rights in honor of his memory.

REMHI has been described as a process of recovering memory “from below.” How would you characterize this process and its relationship to the work of the UN Commission?

The REMHI set the standard for truth-seeking; this was important because that meant that the UN Commission had to rise to the level of the REMHI report. In many ways, the two reports are complementary, and together they have succeeded in breaking the fear and terror that have dominated Guatemalan society for so long.

More than 80٪ of all the testimonies collected by REMHI were of indigenous people. The REMHI made it possible that their great and painful story be heard. It marks the first time in our history that indigenous people were active participants in the writing of their own history. And they were also participants in drawing up the recommendations for the future to ensure that these atrocities never happen again. It was also a small compensation to the victims for all they had suffered—for the first time they could tell their stories without fear and be certain that it was not in vain.

The other main achievement of the REMHI project is that no one can now deny what happened in Guatemala. There was a systematic campaign of genocide and ethnocide against the indigenous peoples of Guatemala. REMHI represents a struggle against forgetting. A struggle against indifference. Many people have been victims of the violence, and not everyone has told their story. But it is no longer a question of individual guilt; it is a national tragedy.

Our hope is that this will contribute to a process of reconciliation, of coming together, of rebuilding confidence in the future. For finding and uncovering the truth gives us an opportunity to start all over again.

Isn't it true that there are social forces in Guatemala who do not want this process of truth-telling to continue?

Clearly. For example, REMHI and the UN Commission were denied access to the secret files of the G-2, one of the most feared secret police forces in the past. Nor did they have access to the important files of the army or the national police.

The Association of Military Veterans reportedly has its own files, which it has not made available. There are also those who say, “Well yes, the indigenous people were killed, but it was necessary. The army was just carrying out its mission. Rios Montt didn't want to kill. He just wanted to bring things under control. The Communists and theologians manipulated the situation and exposed the people by creating a myth.”

So there is a tendency to want to clean up the image of the dirty war. But the truth uncovered by the REMHI can no longer be hidden. It cannot be undone. It is now part of the historical record.

How do you respond to the charges by numerous critics, stemming from the book published by David Stoll questioning aspects of your first book, I, Rigoberta Menchú, that your story is at least partly fabricated? Has this controversy had any effect on the process you have been describing?

We have had many meetings with human rights groups and various indigenous organizations in Guatemala, and we are all concerned because the discussion has been brought to a personal level, to attempt to dispute the story of Rigoberta Menchú.

In many ways, during the 1980s, I was a solitary indigenous voice, the only survivor, upon whom fell the task of traveling the world, going to the UN and to human rights groups around the world to tell them of what was happening in Guatemala. Now there is an effort to say that this solitary voice is not valid. But this is not the 1980s, when people were silent and there were many reasons to worry; now we are over 30,000 strong, and every story being told, every testimony gathered by REMHI and the UN Commission, is part of the broader tapestry of thousands of stories that are being woven together to write our history. Mine is just one page among thousands that have confirmed what really happened in Guatemala.

The implication of the charges is that if Rigoberta Menchú—the best-known Indian from Guatemala, a Nobel laureate—is lying, then these Indians who are unknown must also be lying. We believe there is a malicious element in all of this, and, moreover, that it is politically motivated. We are unsure where this political campaign is coming from. But we have no doubt that there are sectors who do not want the people to tell their stories. In some way, there is a complicity here. If during the 1980s someone said that I was telling lies, and those charges had been investigated, they would have discovered the extreme violence going on in my country. The onslaught against the indigenous population was just beginning when I fled Guatemala, so they might have helped prevent the 422 massacres that took place.

Of course there are omissions in my book. Among the most evident omission is in relation to my brother Patrocinio. The names of the witnesses who saw the torture and who told the story are left out. These were conscious omissions because in the context of the 1980s this was necessary to protect the lives of those who remained in Guatemala. If I had said my sister Anita was with my mother when they burned my brother Patrocinio, I would have been exposing her to death. And so many more people who were witnesses also would have been put at risk. Perhaps these omissions do not make any sense today because we are in a different period. So a more constructive way of responding is to say that the collective testimony of REMHI and the UN Commission is adding to the pages of the history of the Guatemalan people.

It is true, as Mr. Stoll says, that I spent a lot of time with the Belgian nuns of the Order of the Holy Family and the school they run, which provides education mainly to middle and upper-middle class Guatemalans. I was there for a long time, but as a servant. I mopped floors and cleaned toilets, work that I am very proud to have done. It was not an “elite” school as Mr. Stoll says. In Guatemala there are very few elite schools—the elite sends its children to Harvard. I will never complain about the time I spent there, because the Sisters protected me and taught me many things.

Another of Mr. Stoll's charges is that the land conflict I describe was a simple dispute between my grandparents. Now my grandparents have been dead for some time. The fact is that there was a dispute among my grandparents because they had bought a farm together and they never could decide who owned which part, but that was not the problem. The problem was a large old-growth forest which the big landowners coveted and which my father, with a group of people, was also soliciting from the government because these were public lands. So, Mr. Stoll tells only a part of the truth. He doesn't say that there were more actors involved—in fact there were seven actors—and the dispute still hasn't been resolved. We hope that the land census can resolve these ongoing land disputes. But to say that it was a dispute among Indians—among brothers—is malicious and only a partial version of the truth. Mr. Stoll says he consulted an official file of 600 pages. But the file is a thousand pages long; what do the 400 pages that he does not mention say?

I think that the intention is to divert the question of collective memory by bringing the discussion to a personal level. Of course, there are other intentions here as well. I think that underlying this is the fact that the “official history” is always written by others. The conquistadors, the victors, the victimizers have always written history. It is unfathomable for certain sectors in Guatemala that we have written our own history, that we have insisted on our rights to our own memory and our own history. They would like to see us remain victims forever.

I am concerned, however, that at this particular moment, this controversy might negatively affect the process of establishing the collective truth of the victims of this war. If it had erupted prior to the REMHI report, the official version of Guatemalan history might have triumphed.

Your book has also been questioned as a political tool. How do you respond to these charges?

It is obvious that Mr. Stoll is obsessed with his own conclusion. For some time he has tried to talk with me and I haven't wanted to do so. He also tried to interview various friends. He would say, “Look, I know your history, and I know who your parents were and I have information about them.” His only intention was to corroborate his own version of events, and he never had the respect to listen to the people, and that's why I never wanted to talk to him. For my own dignity, I didn't want to engage in this discussion.

But the question is this: For many years it has been said that we Indians are useless and ignorant, that we can't make our own decisions, that we are manipulated by the Communists and the theologians, that the theologians turned me into a myth. In reality, the intention is to destroy the myth of Rigoberta Menchú. But he doesn't realize that this myth called Rigoberta Menchú has blood in her veins, believes in the world, believes in humanity, believes in her people. This myth is not carved out of stone, but is a living, breathing person.

My book was a cry in the silence. It had no objective other than to expose the carnage being deployed against the Guatemalan people. It was the cry of a survivor, one of the first survivors who managed to cross the border alive. I also traveled all over the world to tell about what happened to my parents. In those years, I was very conscious that my only mission in the world was to not permit that those atrocities continue. And I think I have fulfilled that mission.

I am happy that it fell on me to take part in the Peace Accords, the dialogues, the negotiations, and that I even had the human ability and the sensitivity as a woman to shake hands with the military officers on the day following the signing of the Peace Accords. We planted a tree in the Ixcan together—the Minister of Defense, a guerrilla commander and myself. It was not just theater. It was something very deeply felt.

I don't want to say that I forgive what happened in the past. I think that forgiveness will evolve as part of a much larger process. I want to see justice. I want to see respect. I want to see that we can live together peacefully so that forgiveness can take place. But yes, a demonstration of a willingness to begin again was important. It is the same with my book. If some people didn't hear my cry back in 1982 or heard it and remained complicit in what happened in Guatemala, that too is part of our collective history.

But many people did hear, and therefore we were able to obtain the support of human rights organizations and the UN. In 1984 we succeeded for the first time in having a special UN rapporteur named to Guatemala. But this testimony no longer belongs only to me. It belongs to Guatemala and to the world; it belongs to the memory of indigenous people everywhere, and especially to all those who are survivors.

Tell us about the work you see ahead of you.

Most importantly, I am not alone. There is a team of people who work with me at the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation. We have worked tirelessly to assist local efforts to address the problems of reconciliation and reconstruction. We have especially worked hard to promote political participation on both a municipal and regional level. Remember that most of those assassinated during the war were community activists. We have to rebuild local leadership, and it is our hope that young people will become more and more involved in this task.

We have also been involved in the debate over constitutional and educational reforms. Rather than remaining on the sidelines saying, “we like this” or “we don't like that,” we have made concrete proposals. And in the case of education, we believe that unless it is intercultural, interethnic and multilingual, then intolerance will continue, racism will continue, and so will impunity.

It is not true—and I want to say this very clearly—that I am working to be the next president of Guatemala. Many sectors fear this because they don't see me as an ally, but as an adversary. The same thing happened to Martin Luther King and many other world leaders who were seen by those in power as adversaries.

What I do want to do is be a part of the international campaign to promote a culture of peace in the year 2000. But I hope we can establish a new peace ethic in which justice is considered an essential part of peace. Without justice there is no peace. And there can be no justice without democracy, without development, without respect, without equity.

Peter Canby (essay date 8 April 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6804

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 destroyed by the violence then sweeping Guatemala. The book was soon translated into twelve languages and has since sold more than half a million copies.

Guatemala is a country of eleven million people that had been in a state of intermittent civil war since 1954, when the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown by a right-wing military coup. During this period perhaps two hundred thousand Guatemalans were killed through political violence. By telling her story in a strong personal voice, Rigoberta Menchú (universally known as Rigoberta) did much to publicize the violence in Guatemala, particularly during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it was directed largely at the country's Maya Indian population. Eventually, in December of 1996, the government and four opposition guerrilla groups (by then joined together in the organization known as the URNG) signed a peace accord. Rigoberta's book and the international attention it attracted had no small part in bringing about this result.

What made Rigoberta's message so important was that she was a Maya Indian. Half of Guatemala's population is Maya, and during the late seventies and early eighties—the period in which Rigoberta's book is set—the Maya suffered violence on an enormous scale. As part of the peace accords, the government and the guerrillas agreed to establish a Commission for Historical Clarification—commonly referred to as the truth commission—which issued its report last month. Compiled under the supervision of a distinguished German jurist, the report, released this February, described the government's counter-insurgency policy as “genocidal” as well as “racist” and noted that “the massacres, scorched-earth operations, forced disappearances and executions of Mayan authorities, leaders, and spiritual guides, were not only an attempt to destroy the social base of the guerrillas, but above all, to destroy the cultural values that ensured cohesion and collective action in the Mayan communities.”

Most of Guatemala's Maya live in the country's mountainous highlands, where they speak a variety of closely related but mutually unintelligible languages and are tied to a desperately poor farming economy based on corn, beans, and squash. In the late 1970s, many Maya became engaged in social activism—they founded cooperatives, started unions, agitated for land. The government felt threatened enough by these movements to begin systematically assassinating their leaders. At the same time, several antigovernment guerrilla groups established themselves in the highlands, and when large numbers of the Maya began to join the guerrillas—often less as a result of political sympathy (although many sympathized) than out of the need to save their lives—the government further increased its violence.

Beginning around 1980, the government initiated a policy of “draining the sea in which the guerrillas swim,” driving people out of large regions of the Maya highlands, killing tens of thousands of Indians, displacing hundreds of thousands of others, and entirely eradicating several hundred villages—including Rigoberta's. All this eventually proved successful in separating the guerrillas from their social base and thus undermining them politically and militarily. But the cost to the Maya was staggering, and because of the remoteness of the most brutally affected regions, this ruthless policy was little noticed outside Guatemala. As one of the few Indians willing to recount firsthand experience of the violence, Rigoberta, then twenty-three, suddenly became the spokesperson for its victims.

Rigoberta described herself in her book as someone who had grown up in a remote village, had no education to speak of, and had only recently learned Spanish. But she proved an astonishingly effective public speaker. Marcie Mersky, currently a member of the Guatemalan truth commission, who once helped organize Rigoberta's early speaking tours of the United States, recalls that “Rigoberta had an uncanny ability to stand on a stage and figure out who was in front of her. She'd give her testimony as if she were living it. She'd have everyone crying, everyone in the palm of her hand.”

The horrifying experiences Rigoberta recounted were made all the more vivid by her small size, her open smile, and the fact that she always appeared in the colorful dress of her region. She described the death of her father, a well-known peasant organizer who was burned to death when Guatemalan security forces stormed the Spanish embassy which he and twenty-six others had occupied as a protest over the militarization of the Indian highlands. She told of how her mother had then been arrested by the army, tortured, raped, and left on a mountainside to die. “They left her there dying for four or five days,” she wrote, “enduring the sun, the rain and the night. My mother was covered in worms, because in the mountains there is a fly which gets straight into any wound.”

Finally, she told of the kidnapping of her sixteen-year-old brother, Petrocinio, snatched by the army on his way to the market to buy sugar, wrongly accused of being a guerrilla, and then tortured, doused with gasoline, and burned alive along with other army captives before a crowd of Indians that had been forced to watch. (“This is what we've done with all the subversives we catch,” she quoted a soldier as saying, “because they have to die by violence.”) An American journalist, Paul Goepfert, remembers Rigoberta moving a California audience to tears with her account of Petrocinio's death. After listening to her, he traveled to Guatemala to write about the violence, married a Guatemalan, and still lives there today. “It changed my life,” he told me. “A whole generation of us came here because of Rigoberta.”

In 1992, the year of the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World, Rigoberta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This was the second Nobel Prize ever given to a Guatemalan (the first, for literature, went to the novelist Miguel Angel Asturias in 1967), and it made Rigoberta a potent, and controversial, figure inside Guatemala. Guatemala has long been a country where Maya Indians are treated with scorn by the country's non-Indian population. Rigoberta's achieving such international recognition was thus something of an embarrassment to many Guatemalans. The president at first declined to meet with her and racist jokes immediately began circulating around Guatemala City. (For example: One day Rigoberta goes to heaven and knocks on the gate. “Hey Jesus,” Saint Peter calls out, “the tortillas are here!”)

Dina Fernandez, a columnist for the Prensa Libre, one of Guatemala's leading newspapers, told me she thinks that Guatemala is gradually changing its attitudes toward Indians. When I mentioned to her that I'd seen Rigoberta's name in the papers for one reason or another nearly every day I'd been in Guatemala, she said, “My mother runs the style and social section of Prensa Libre. A year or two ago, she commissioned a poll which showed that Rigoberta was the most recognized woman in Guatemala. In the middle classes, people are beginning to accept that Rigoberta is entitled to meet European leaders and royalty. You couldn't say this about people from the upper classes, but little by little the Maya are beginning to become integrated.”

In the aftermath of the peace accords, however, what Guatemala seems to be experiencing is not so much integration as a strange kind of postwar explosion—economic, psychological, political, a succession of changes that seem simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. The current president, Alvaro Arzú, was elected in 1996 and is the leader of the PAN party, the party of big business. Under his administration Guatemala has experienced not only considerable foreign investment but what people nervously refer to as an opening of “political space.” But as befits a country that is credited with inventing the concept of “disappearing” people for political purposes, and where government-sponsored death squads until recently killed with complete immunity, this seems tentative, and quite possibly temporary—something like a flower that blooms only once every few decades.

Ironically, moreover, many Guatemalans are calling for the one thing that seems most likely to narrow that political space—an accounting that would show who caused the deaths and how. An outsider might wonder why Guatemalans can't leave the past behind; inside Guatemala it seems clear to many that examining the past is the only way to leave it behind. As one human rights activist put it to me, “The war created fear, a lack of communication, a lack of confidence, an inability to resolve conflicts. You can't reconcile with the living if you can't reconcile with the dead.”

Just how perilous an undertaking this can be was demonstrated by the murder last spring of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, the chief sponsor of the human rights report supported by the Catholic Church and produced by a group called REMHI, or Recuperación de la Memória Histórica. REMHI took testimony from some fifty-five thousand victims of political violence, three quarters of whom were Maya. Many of these statements were collected by Maya interviewers in their native languages; the organizers hoped that the cathartic experience of remembering would help restore unity to torn communities.

By simply providing a forum in which the victims of the past had a chance to speak out, however, REMHI was on dangerous ground. The REMHI report was released on April 24, 1998. Two days later, on April 26, Bishop Gerardi was ambushed in his parish-house garage and bludgeoned to death with repeated blows from a cinder block. “We never expected such a strong reaction,” Edgar Gutiérrez, a former economist who is the REMHI project's coordinator, told me. “We expected an effort to discredit the report psychologically but never this. It had a big impact, it was a big blow to us. But it also made us realize that the report was important for the country, that even if the cost was human life we had to proceed.”

The idea of the REMHI report arose in 1994 during an early stage of the negotiations between the army and the guerrillas. When human rights organizations in Guatemala proposed establishing a truth commission to investigate the violence, they met with opposition from both the army and the guerrillas. “We looked at the negotiations and weren't optimistic about the truth commission,” Edgar Gutiérrez told me. “Neither party wanted it. We wanted to open the way.” At the insistence of human rights organizations, the truth commission was nevertheless established. The government consented to it, however, only on the condition that its report would both contain a general amnesty (except in cases legally established as genocidal) and that it not include specific names. In other words, as Marcie Mersky put it to me, the contents of the report couldn't be used to prosecute individual crimes.

REMHI, by contrast, was bound by no such restrictions. Although the REMHI report itself mentions only a few of the names of those responsible for the violence, its files are open. Indeed, one of the reasons proposed to explain the bishop's murder is that he returned home to find someone seeking the project's unpublished computer files. If so, the effort would have been to no avail. “We had already sent the sensitive material overseas,” Edgar Gutiérrez said to me. “But if people want to prosecute, REMHI will open its archives.”

Despite the government's almost comically inept inquiry into the Bishop's murder, most people in Guatemala believe the army was responsible. Gutiérrez agrees with this and feels that the message the army was conveying was that the truth commission, with all its restrictions on prosecution, was as far as the army was willing to go. “The army was saying the model on which the peace is based has been negotiated,” he said to me. “The truth commission was the limit. If you want to go beyond it, the punishment is death.”1

If so, the army was in for a shock. When the truth commission released its report in late February, it concluded that the “many massacres and other human-rights violations” against the Maya population between the years 1981 and 1983 constituted a deliberate state-driven policy of genocide as defined by a United Nations convention that the Guatemalan government had become party to in 1949. (It also concluded that the US had supported Guatemalan forces that had committed acts of genocide.) This essentially canceled the amnesty not just for ordinary soldiers but also for the Guatemala high command and its civilian collaborators and left them all open to future prosecution.


It is not only the military that is being challenged, however. Accusations against Rigoberta herself have caused increasing consternation. In the late 1980s, the anthropologist David Stoll, who is now teaching at Middlebury College in Vermont and is the author of a 1993 book on Guatemala, Between Two Armies: In the Ixil Towns of Guatemala, was collecting accounts of the violence in the town of Chajul, just over the mountains from the hamlet of Chimel, in which Rigoberta had been raised. Stoll asked one of his Chajul informants about Rigoberta's account of how she and other members of her family were forced to stand silently by while her younger brother Petrocinio was tortured, doused with gasoline, and burned alive.

To his surprise, his informant—as well as several others from Chajul whom Stoll subsequently interviewed—told him that he did not remember any such event having taken place. Eventually, Stoll arrived at his own view of what he believed happened and he presents it in his recently published book Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. According to him, a group of prisoners from Rigoberta's region (presumably including Petrocinio) were flown in by the army in a helicopter. The army dressed up the prisoners in olive-green so as to make them look like guerrilla soldiers, prodded them down a path toward Chajul, and shot them from an ambush. The soldiers then threw old shotguns next to their bodies and pointed the corpses out to residents of Chajul as an example of what would happen to guerrillas who dared defy the army. The corpses were left in the sun for several hours before one of them was burned, and they were then all buried in a common grave in the town cemetery.

Stoll went on to examine other aspects of Rigoberta's book and soon found other claims that were not true. In her book, Rigoberta describes herself as an uneducated peasant girl. In interviews with Rigoberta's relatives and former classmates, however, Stoll discovered that she'd spent several years at convent schools—first at the Colegio Belga in Guatemala City and then at the Colegio Básico Nuestro Señor de Candelaria in Chiantla, Huehuetenango, where she finished seventh grade—a remarkably high level of education for an Indian girl in Guatemala. Because she'd been in convent school, moreover, Stoll argues that Rigoberta can't have been employed—as she claims to have been—as a maid for a rich family in Guatemala City, and can't have worked in abusive conditions on coastal plantations—where she claims a younger brother Nicolás died of malnutrition. Stoll, in fact, found a living brother, Nicolás, who successfully resettled the family's land long after the war had finished.

The central story of I, Rigoberta has to do with Rigoberta's father's life-long struggle to defend his community's land against the claims of his greedy and corrupt non-Indian neighbors. In fact, by investigating petitions filed by Rigoberta's father in the government land-claims office, Stoll discovered that Rigoberta's father's struggle had not been primarily against ladinos, as Guatemalans of mixed ancestries are known, but rather against another group of Maya led by his own in-laws. Stoll also discovered that, from what he could tell, the cycle of violence in Rigoberta's region had been set off not by the army but by a guerrilla force that had assassinated two neighboring ladinos—one well-liked by his farm workers. The army then began retaliatory attacks against Rigoberta's village because the guerrillas had visited there a few months before.

Stoll does not deny that Rigoberta's village was destroyed and that half her family was killed, including her father, her mother, and her brother Petrocinio. But he points out that many of the other events in Rigoberta's book are either distorted, fabricated, or claim to be eyewitness accounts of events which Rigoberta herself cannot actually have seen. The reason for all this, Stoll argues, is that after Rigoberta fled to Mexico in 1980, she allied herself with guerrilla groups there and “drastically revised the prewar experience of her village to suit the needs of the revolutionary organization she had joined.” In other words, when she wrote her book, Rigoberta was essentially serving as a propagandist.

Rigoberta herself has made it clear that she had joined popular front organizations close to the guerrillas. In 1980, after the army had killed her father, her mother, and Petrocinio (the army killed still another brother a few years later after he surrendered to prevent his three children's starving to death), her village was attacked and destroyed and she fled to Mexico with the help of nuns. There she was eventually reunited with two of her younger sisters who had since joined the guerrillas. In early 1981, she became a member of FP-31, a guerrilla popular front organization named for the day on which her father was killed in the Spanish embassy fire.

What troubles Stoll about Rigoberta is not that she joined the guerrillas—at one point he suggests that she may have been “responding to the loss of her family by taking refuge in a new system of coherence”—but that the invented history in her book made her into what he refers to as a “composite Maya,” a propagandistic guerrilla stereotype intended to illustrate what he considers a simplistic and self-serving explanation of the violence. For the purposes of the guerrillas, he argues, all ladinos had to be evil, all the Maya had to be oppressed, and the army had to have initiated the violence. Rigoberta's actual story—in which her father quarreled with other Maya, the guerrillas initiated the killing, and Rigoberta was safely in a convent school—would not have demonstrated any of these points and therefore wouldn't have been useful.

It was essential to the guerrillas, Stoll argues, that they portray themselves as responding to the local needs of Indians and their desire to resist oppression; they wanted to be seen as representing popular aspirations during a time of steadily worsening economic circumstances. Stoll, however, is not at all impressed by this self-portrait. He maintains that before the violence things were getting better for the highland Maya and that what set off the killing was the very presence of the guerrillas, a presence that provoked a brutal, oppressive, and racist reaction from Guatemala's armed forces. Stoll claims the guerrillas followed a disastrous strategy of forcing peasants to choose sides by infiltrating their movements, mobilizing them against the army, and creating the conditions for ferocious army retaliation. “Their guerrilla columns grew temporarily from village survivors who had nowhere else to turn,” Stoll writes, “but the ‘popular base’ from which they expected a steady flow of maize and youth was shattered.”

This argument presents some difficulties. Stoll doesn't support his assertion that things were getting better for the Maya before the arrival of the guerrillas with either statistics or even anecdotal information. His view is contradicted by carefully documented studies by such historians as Susanne Jonas, who convincingly describes worsening land shortages among the Maya and an increasing dependence on underpaid seasonal Maya laborers by coastal agribusiness plantations.2 Stoll, moreover, seems to believe that because he has found evidence that the guerrillas started the violence in Rigoberta's region, it follows that they must have started the violence everywhere. This might or might not be the case. In his book the issue is entirely unexplored.

Stoll is right, of course, to insist that the guerrillas accept their share of the responsibility for initiating the killing. But establishing who exactly started the violence is not as simple as he makes it seem. While the truth commission, for example, acknowledges the guerrilla tactic of armed provocation, it concludes that the government's response was “totally disproportionate to the military force of the insurgency.” More important, the commission argues that the government lumped “all opponents under one banner, democratic or otherwise, pacifist or guerrilla, legal or illegal, communist or non-communist,” and knowingly exaggerated the threat posed by the guerrillas in order to justify the “physical annihilation or absolute intimidation of this opposition.”

During the dictatorship of General Fernando Romeo Lucas García between 1978 and 1982, for instance, government-sponsored death squads killed a great many trade unionists, peasant organizers, and Catholic “catechists,” or activists. For their own protection, some of the opponents of the government joined what had been, until that time, an insignificant guerrilla force. It seems clear, however, that an army that had already been assassinating its political opponents for well over a decade would not have hesitated to attack members of such opposition groups even if the guerrillas had never emerged in the countryside. Other than his account of Rigoberta's region, Stoll presents no evidence to the contrary.

In Guatemala City I met with Frank LaRue, a prominent human rights lawyer and former labor union activist who narrowly escaped being killed in 1980 when he was late for a meeting from which twenty-seven of his colleagues were kidnapped and disappeared. “Under Lucas García,” LaRue said to me, “three hundred catechists, fourteen priests, one nun, eighty journalists, and five professors from my own law school alone were murdered. How can you say the guerrillas were responsible for this? How do you explain the army murdering them? What did they have to do with the guerrillas? The army just couldn't abide any independent thought, that was all. They had to stamp it out.”

While Stoll was establishing that Rigoberta's version of the violence was at odds with what actually happened, moreover, he kept running into Guatemalans who didn't care about Rigoberta's inaccuracies and outright inventions because they felt her book presents an essentially correct image of the horrors that the Guatemalan Maya had experienced. He concludes that Rigoberta's story “meets certain needs so well that the question of whether it is true or not is almost beside the point.” She may, he writes, have put stories she heard into the first person in order to “represent as many of her people as she could.” One man from Rigoberta's region told Stoll, “There are many things that she took as her own that happened to the people. What happened to the people she wrote as if it … happened to her. … She speaks of the reality. She speaks of real things, of the massacres, of the tortures. I suppose that if they give her the [Nobel] prize, she will not take it for herself, … but for her people.”


The truth, however, is that even without Stoll, the guerrillas have been coming in for criticism in Guatemala. The URNG, the umbrella organization made up of the four formerly independent guerrilla groups, has formed a political party, but, two years after the peace agreement, it hasn't yet announced a program or elected a single representative to Congress. The URNG doesn't seem well suited to take part in elective democracy. A member of the Frente Democrático Nueva Guatemala, the leftist party of the “popular groups” allied with the former guerrillas, told me that the FDNG leaders had no ideological differences with the URNG but felt they might have differences in practice. “We have a different experience from the political-military leaderships. We have to organize from the base up, not the other way around.”

The guerrillas negotiated the final peace accords with PAN, the party of neoliberalism and big business. The two groups were able to work together partly because the private secretary to President Arzú, a former guerrilla named Gustavo Porras, was able to act as a go-between. The guerrillas have thus wound up in what seems to many Guatemalans a contradictory alliance with the advocates of the international capitalism they used to denounce. “The guerrillas did well considering their military

Until the Mincho case, Rodrigo Asturias seemed the one guerrilla leader who might have had a future in national politics. From a socially prominent family, he had helped to found and run Siglo XXI, a successful publishing company, while in exile in Mexico. Asturias's father, moreover, was the Guatemalan novelist Miguel Angel Asturias, the 1967 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, who was known for his interest in Guatemala's Indian heritage. Not only had his son, Rodrigo, taken the nom de guerre Gaspar Ilom from the name of a Maya hero in one his father's novels, but Rodrigo Asturias's group, ORPA, had made the most successful efforts to incorporate Maya members. However, after ORPA's role in the kidnapping became apparent, the peace negotiations were suspended for three weeks and the price of their resumption was the removal of Asturias from the guerrilla team.

The URNG party headquarters are in a middle-class suburb on the edges of the city center in a neighborhood of neat, pastel-painted, semidetached houses with small lawns and wide sidewalks. When I went to see Asturias there, I found no marking on the headquarters building, only a heavy metal door with a small window through which a guard peered out at me. Inside, the guard, a young Maya, tried to keep an eye on the street while also watching a Spanish-language version of Power Rangers on a portable TV.

Asturias is sixty years old, a tall, youthful-looking man with thinning, long white hair, an athlete's slouch, and a disarming grin. He was wearing jeans and a red-and-white checked shirt. A Mont Blanc pen protruded from his pocket. When he gave me his card, it read “Rodrigo Asturias Amado” and, underneath, “Gaspar Ilom.” “I've legalized ‘Gaspar Ilom,’” he said. “Now I have two names.”

Asturias told me that after his parents separated, when he was eight, his father became a diplomat and moved away to Argentina, leaving young Rodrigo to be raised by his grandparents. He'd been educated at Catholic schools by priests whom he referred to as “Franquistas, and practically fascistas,” and had been rebellious from an early age, always more interested in “political struggle” than in literature. In March of 1962 he took part in a guerrilla insurrection in the eastern part of the country which turned into a disaster. His group was ambushed. Of the twenty-three guerrillas, thirteen were killed, and two escaped. The others were imprisoned, including Asturias. Shortly afterward, Asturias was deported to Mexico, where he was to spend the next seven years. The police drove him to a river marking the border and ordered him to swim across.

According to Asturias, ORPA opposed the traditional Marxist idea that Indians were backward and gave positions of high responsibility to Maya, including Efraín Bamaca, who was later captured and presumably murdered by the army. As for the accords, they were, he argued, the best the URNG had been able to obtain after ten years of negotiating, mostly with PAN, which he saw as “an expression from the right, but much more modern.” The URNG, Asturias told me, was not planning to run a presidential candidate in the upcoming 1999 elections, but it seemed apparent to me that despite his disastrous entry into civilian politics, Asturias himself was considering the prospect of running for election in 2003.

“What about Mincho?” I asked. His expression suddenly changed. “I was not involved in the kidnapping,” he said, “although people in my organization were. I take political but not personal responsibility.”


When I was in Guatemala, despite my repeated requests for an interview Rigoberta declined to speak with me. After David Stoll's book made the front page of The New York Times in December, however, Rigoberta gave press conferences, first in Mexico City and then in New York, at which she addressed several of the issues raised by Stoll. In Mexico City in January, she explained she had heard the story of Petrocinio's death that she had used in her book from her mother. Ignoring the evidence of Stoll's witnesses, she said that if there was a choice between accepting Stoll's story and her mother's, she chose her mother's. Rigoberta also said that she'd been at the Colegio Belga under a special arrangement whereby in exchange for four hours of instruction a week—she called it “alphabetization”—she'd worked cleaning dormitories and classrooms. Partly in order to protect the nuns at a time when she was being hunted by the police, she said, she'd used the experience as the basis for her chapter about having worked as a maid. Rigoberta also insisted that she had a brother who had died of malnutrition on a coastal finca; it just so happened that he had the same name as the surviving brother Stoll had talked to. In this case she produced the birth certificate of the deceased brother, though he turned out to be ten years older than her, not younger.

In New York in mid-February, I attended Rigoberta's press conference in a midtown United Nations office tower. She is so small that when she sat in a chair her feet barely touched the ground. The combined effect of her very large head and the traditional costume she wore was to make her look disconcertingly like a doll. She seemed irrepressibly talkative and curious about her audience and also, in view of her difficult situation, surprisingly unconcerned with details. The campaign against her book, she said, was a campaign to “decontextualize it” from Guatemalan history. When she'd written the book, she continued, she'd been completely alone—a survivor trying to convince the world to pay attention to the atrocities that she and other Maya had experienced. By now her testimony had merged with the testimonies of thousands of others who'd told equally horrible stories to REMHI, and she was intent on concentrating the public's attention where it should be—on the guerra sucia, the dirty war that had been pursued in Guatemala.

Seated behind Rigoberta as she spoke was a tall man with a dark beard, a dark suit, and a dark blue shirt. This was Gustavo Meoño, a former Christian radical, former head of “mass organizations” for the EGP—the guerrilla group with which Rigoberta had been affiliated and which Meoño left in 1993—and now the head of the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation. As Rigoberta responded to queries and sometimes got the details wrong, the intense-looking Meoño would quietly correct her. “No,” he would say, “the brother who died on the coastal finca was born in 1949, not 1959,” or, “No, Rigoberta had been paid twenty quetzales a month, not a day, when she'd worked as a maid at the Colegio Belga.” As he did so, Rigoberta cheerfully explained that her foundation was conducting an inquiry into Stoll's allegations and that reporters should speak to Meoño about the details. But many of Stoll's findings remained unrefuted.

In Guatemala City, several people told me that if I was interested in the issues that had arisen over Rigoberta's book, I should speak with Arturo Taracena, a Guatemalan historian who had played an important part in getting it published. In 1981, Taracena had been a doctoral student at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and also European director of the EGP. His old friend and fellow EGP member, Gustavo Meoño, contacted him and told him about a Maya refugee named Rigoberta Menchú who had fled Guatemala and whom Meoño had met while she was staying in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. She was then a guest of Samuel Ruíz García, the bishop of the diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas and an advocate of liberation theology.

Meoño had previously known Rigoberta's father. In fact, I was told in Guatemala City that he'd driven Rigoberta's father and other protesters to the Spanish embassy, which they occupied before they were burned to death. Meoño had been impressed by Rigoberta's remarkable ability to stand before a crowd and graphically describe the violence being inflicted on Guatemala's Indians. He arranged for Rigoberta to join a European tour to publicize their plight and he asked Taracena if he could put Rigoberta up while she was in Paris.

Through his academic connections, Taracena knew a doctoral candidate, a Venezuelan anthropologist named Elisabeth Burgos, who was interested in writing a magazine story about the violence against Guatemala's Maya. Burgos is the former wife of Régis Debray, the French journalist who was caught in Bolivia some years before, trying to carry a message from Che Guevara's soon-to-be-exterminated band, and was thrown in jail. Burgos, who had been Debray's companion for years and had undergone military training with him in Cuba, married him while he was in jail, and led a successful international campaign to win his release. In Cuba, moreover, Burgos had become friends with Ricardo Ramírez, a Guatemalan exile and friend of Che Guevara's, who was soon to found the EGP. She became fascinated by Guatemala, she told me in a telephone interview, although she'd never been there. To Taracena, Burgos seemed the perfect person to write about Rigoberta.

Shortly after Rigoberta arrived in Paris, Taracena claims, he and a Canadian psychiatrist named Cécile Rousseau (Rousseau was also a guerrilla supporter, using the name Marie Tremblay) took Rigoberta to Burgos's apartment and discussed what might be done to help her. In Burgos's account of her first meeting with Rigoberta, however, published in her introduction to I, Rigoberta, she makes no mention of either Taracena or Rousseau and simply describes Rigoberta appearing at her door one evening, wearing traditional Guatemalan dress in the January cold. Burgos acknowledged to me that Rousseau did accompany Rigoberta on her first visit, but claims that Taracena didn't appear until Rigoberta came a second time. “He was very preoccupied with his thesis,” she told me. “Plus he had family at risk in Guatemala. He didn't want to show his face. He didn't want to get burned.”

Whoever actually introduced Rigoberta and Burgos, however, the two apparently hit it off and Rigoberta moved into Burgos's flat while Burgos conducted the interviews. Rigoberta stayed for a week and recorded eighteen hours of conversation.

According to Burgos's account, just the two of them talked with each other—no one else was involved. Each day began with Rigoberta making tortillas by hand, which reminded Burgos of watching arepas being made in her Venezuelan youth. Afterward, Rigoberta told the story of the destruction of her village and family. Like virtually everyone else, Burgos apparently found Rigoberta mesmerizing. Listening to Rigoberta, Burgos wrote in her introduction to I, Rigoberta, “every gesture has a preestablished purpose and … everything has a meaning. … As we listen to her voice, we have to look deep into our own souls for it awakens feelings and sensations which we, caught up as we are in an inhuman and artificial world, thought were lost for ever.”

After Rigoberta Menchú left Paris on her tour, Burgos took Rigoberta's tapes and turned them into a book with herself as the author and thus holder of the book's rights. For years, she sent the royalties to Rigoberta, but when Rigoberta began her Nobel campaign she asked Burgos not only to replace Burgos's name on the book with her own, but also to allow her to draw up new book contracts. Burgos refused. The two fell out, and in 1993, Burgos ceased sending Rigoberta royalties. Rigoberta, after the first of Stoll's allegations began to surface, accused Burgos of having made up the passages that Stoll was disputing—an accusation Burgos denies. Stoll, for his part, said he traveled to Madrid (where Burgos was then living) and heard the first two hours of Burgos's tapes, enough, he felt, to convince him that the book was an accurate reflection of what Rigoberta had told Burgos.

I met Taracena one morning at ASIES, a study center in the well-to-do suburbs of Guatemala City. Taracena had left the EGP in 1993, he told me, partly because of “certain differences” (he would not elaborate except to say he and the EGP had not entirely been in agreement ideologically) but mostly, he said, because he wanted to resume his life as a historian. He took me to the ASIES library and proudly showed me a book he had just published about a region of the Guatemala highlands around Quetzaltenango that had in the early nineteenth century briefly set up its own independent republic. “A paternal ancestor of mine was chief of state,” he told me.

Taracena and I went to a nearby restaurant for breakfast. He seemed nervous, formal, professorial. I remembered hearing that he came from a prosperous family but had been disinherited when he'd joined the guerrillas.

“Look,” he said as soon as we sat down, “I've kept my mouth closed for sixteen years, but everything has its limits. Cécile Rousseau and I introduced Rigoberta to Burgos. At that point, Burgos didn't know anything about Guatemala. We planned the agenda with her and took part in the first two days of the interviewing. We left partway through the third day only because we could see that it was going well. At the end of the week, I went back to Burgos's and picked up Rigoberta. Later, when the manuscript was ready, I edited it, tied the themes together, and made changes of fact and of grammar. I made a glossary of Guatemalan words and made suggestions for chapter breaks.”

Taracena told me that after he'd edited the manuscript, he'd gone off to Nicaragua. On his return, he learned that Burgos had had the book translated into French and had signed a contract with Gallimard in which she—not Rigoberta—was listed as the author. After the Gallimard edition appeared, he discovered that neither he nor any of the others involved in the project were acknowledged. “She wanted,” he explained to me, “to erase any trace of anyone else who helped her with the book.” Taracena, as he has put it, had a “great polémica” with Burgos and, as a result, his name as well as that of Rousseau and several others were added to the acknowledgments of the Spanish edition when it appeared late that same year.

For her part, Burgos claims that Taracena sat in only on the tail end of several of the interviews and that he read the manuscript and prepared the glossary and did not do not much else. She also claims that Gallimard dropped the acknowledgments from the original Spanish manuscript without ever consulting her. (Gallimard released a paperback edition this winter which, at Burgos's request, included them for the first time.) For whatever reason, the acknowledgments were not carried over into the English or German editions or most of the other languages into which the book was translated.

In Taracena's view, Burgos and Stoll had converging interests. “She was in the process of breaking with the Latin American left and he wanted to prove his thesis at any cost—that Rigoberta lied and that behind her was a Communist plot. She was an Indian woman manipulated by Communist forces and the Communist politico in this case is me.” He pointed at his own chest. “You don't see anyone else attacking autobiographies like this; there's a hidden racism. If Stoll is an anthropologist and doesn't know that Indian people speak collectively, that she expressed the voice of the collective conscience, then I don't know what he knows. If he has a point of view about Guatemala, he should write it.”

What he said about collective conscience raised an obvious question. “Do you mean,” I asked, “that the claims Stoll made about Rigoberta not having personally experienced everything she claimed to have experienced are true?”

“Of course,” he said. He waved his hand dismissively. “She came to Europe by herself when she was twenty-two years old. The magic of her book is the first-person narrative. There are things that she heard from other militantes, things that she didn't see, things that she put in her own voice. What she was narrating,” he told me, “was the life of the Maya.”


  1. For more on the inquiry into the Bishop's murder, see Francisco Goldman, “Murder Comes for the Bishop,” The New Yorker, March 15, 1999.

  2. Susanne Jonas, The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and US Power (Westview, 1991).

Elizabeth Burgos (essay date November 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5240

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 encounter, one has to go back to another, also in January, but in the year 1966, during the Tricontinental Conference in Havana. The aim of the Tricontinental had been to coordinate the armed struggle on the three continents in what was then known as the Third World: Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Rigoberta Menchú, of course, was not among the participants; at the time she would only have been seven years old, and one must suppose that she could not have imagined the future that awaited her. Nevertheless, her destiny was set in motion in Havana during that memorable gathering. I myself had just been expelled from Venezuela, my homeland, to which I had tried to return after a year-long stay in Bolivia. Also attending the conference was an important Guatemalan delegation under the young guerrilla leader and ex-army officer Luis Turcios Lima. Together with the Guinean leader Amilcar Cabral, they were the conference's stars.

There are encounters that lay out and determine the course of a life, and such was the case of my encounter with a Guatemalan couple who were also at the Tricontinental. Ricardo Ramírez and Aura Marina Arriola were their real names, and right away we became inseparable friends. Both were leaders of the Partido Guatemalteco de Trabajo (Guatemalan Labor party—PGT). Intellectually and in human terms they were an exceptional pair. Aura Marina, an anthropologist, was an advocate for the participation of indigenous people in Guatemala's revolution, which she argued was crucial for its success. The most suitable model for Guatemala's armed struggle, she believed, was that of the popular revolutionary war as developed in China and later in Vietnam. Those long evenings debating with Aura Marina and Ricardo in Havana were what inspired my partner to write his famous book Revolution in the Revolution? (Debray, 1967).

Years later, the scene had changed. I next met Aura Marina in 1969 in Europe. She had come with the mission of organizing support networks for the new phase of the guerrilla war, which was to commence at the beginning of the 1970s. Turcios Lima had died by this time, and the guerrilla focos of the 1960s had been destroyed. Ricardo had abandoned the PGT and returned to Guatemala to establish a new guerrilla movement, an effort that gave rise to the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (Guerrilla Army of the Poor—EGP). Naturally I joined Aura Marina in the action she had undertaken in Europe, even though I had by that time already experienced the failure of the guerrilla war in Venezuela and, above all, the defeat of Che in Bolivia and would later witness the coup that felled Allende.

When Marie Tremblay arrived at my home with Rigoberta Menchú that afternoon in January 1982, then, I was not surprised, nor did I think it exceptional. Many of those who came to Paris in the stampedes of Latin Americans brought on by the dictatorships passed through my house. Moreover, I had already been working with Marie Tremblay trying to stimulate a movement in solidarity with Guatemala in France. Rigoberta Menchú's presence in Europe had to do not with an anthropological project but with a political one: it was intended to sensitize public opinion to the terrible repression hanging over her country, especially its indigenous communities. The terror reigning in Guatemala was so atrocious that not even foreign journalists dared to get close to it. Exiles, fearing reprisals against their families, abstained from talking; silence covered that kingdom of death. The fact that Marie Tremblay was a collaborator of the guerrilla group ORPA led me to think at first that Rigoberta Menchú was also a member of that group. However, Arturo Taracena, a cousin of Aura Marina and an EGP collaborator in Paris, explained to me that the organization guiding Rigoberta Menchú's trip was not ORPA but his own.

Initially, no one spoke about a book. What was proposed was simply a journalistic interview, which I wrote and published thanks to Ruth Valentini, Angel Parra's partner and a writer for Le Nouvel Observateur. It was the first interview with Rigoberta Menchú published in a press outlet of any significance, and it was reproduced in a number of important European newspapers.

As our meetings progressed, however, I became aware of the fascination of Rigoberta's testimony and her own talents as a narrator. At first, Arturo Taracena accompanied Rigoberta to my house each morning and came to collect her every evening. But Rigoberta had to continue her tour—the next stop was Holland, as I recall—and Taracena was very busy with his doctoral thesis. To make everyone's life easier, then, he decided that Rigoberta should stay at my house. We began the recording sessions very early, interrupting them only to eat. Dinners were moments of companionship: my daughter was then five years old, and we were sometimes joined by my Venezuelan friend Giovanna Mérola, who was at the time passing through Paris.

Although I had begun the project that became [I, Rigoberta Menchú] as a political action and not as anthropological research, my education with the Hungarian anthropologist and psychoanalyst Georges Devereux led me to apply his teachings. For Devereux, the practice of interviewing was essential to research; his teachings were based on anthropology and psychoanalysis, and his approach differed from the journalistic and the sociological. He believed that the interviewer should intervene as little as possible; questions should serve to induce the generation of words by the interviewee, giving free rein to the unconscious—that is, to free association, respecting silences until the interviewee interrupted them.

After transcribing the cassettes, I eliminated the questions, as I am accustomed to doing when writing up an interview, and prepared thematic index cards indicating the page on which each topic appeared in the manuscript. To construct the book, I searched for themes, cut, and began to reassemble—what one now does with the “cut” and “paste” operations on the computer. Having established the structure on the basis of the assembling of themes, I proceeded with the task of stringing things together, which consisted of looking for rare pearls: sentences or words deferred for later examination, lost in the middle of the debris that must be eliminated so that spoken language will continue to transmit a voice and at the same time be readable—that is, something that is not boring, that reads like fiction. In reality I was more inspired by cinematographic montage than by literary techniques—concretely by Chris Marker and Costa Gavras, whom I had had the opportunity to observe while they were editing film.

The procedures involved might also be likened to spinning fibers into yarn and then knitting. It was a method I learned in the company of Hélène Cixous, whose seminar I frequented at the beginning of the 1970s. She taught me the need to break the barriers of texts, to go in search of the memory of literature—the memory of its past and, at the same time, its prophetic memory. These lessons allowed me to perceive the conjunction between Rigoberta's Spanish and her mother tongue. This was the main challenge I confronted: to transform the oral translation that Rigoberta Menchú made from Quiché to Spanish into written language.

Very quickly I realized that Rigoberta Menchú wanted to talk about herself, to go beyond just an account of repression. I therefore opted in favor of delving deeply into her customs, her vision of the world (as much political as religious), and, above all, her identity. Of course, taking the interviews in this direction had much to do with my preoccupations; Rigoberta's desire to express her personal experiences and issues in my own life coincided. Nevertheless, everything that appears in the book is a product of the faithful transcription of Rigoberta Menchú's words. Naturally there is a subtext in which traces of my own autobiography are implicit, as there is also in the form in which the book was published and in which its launch took place.

Had I not been able to count on the help of friends I had made during my life as a “professional revolutionary,” I would never have been able to bring out a book on an unknown indigenous woman with the most prestigious publisher in France, present an interview in the most influential French weekly, or produce a television program, the first film on Rigoberta Menchú. I came to publish with Gallimard thanks to my friendship with Ugné Karvelis, the second wife of Julio Cortázar, who was responsible for the section on foreign literature. Similarly, in Spain, publication was thanks to my dear friend Manuel Scorza, who sent the manuscript to his literary agent in Barcelona, Ramón Serrano, who in turn enlisted the help of Carlos Barral. And in London it was published by Robin Blackburn, whom I had also met in Cuba during the Tricontinental.

Once the process of writing was finished, I gave the manuscript to my closest Latin American friends to read. I wanted to be sure that the text was comprehensible in any country of the continent. I listened to the suggestions of all, taking some into account and others not. The voice that I had closest at that time, though, was that of my Venezuelan poet friend Carol Prunhuber. On the practical level, Arturo Taracena contributed by assembling the glossary.

The Argentine poet Juan Gelman gave me confidence in myself by supporting my wish not to exclude the chapters about customs that others suggested reducing to appendices. The common opinion was that those chapters would interfere with the drama of the account of repression. Gelman also supported my decision to preserve the language and political turns of phrase in the original text. I remember that we spent a whole day rereading the text, listening to it aloud. For Gelman, this experience was painfully wrenching: his own son and pregnant daughter-in-law had been abducted by the military in Buenos Aires and never been heard of again.

Through such collaborations the cloth of solidarity with Guatemala was woven, centered on the persona of Rigoberta Menchú.1

There was never a clear break between me and the EGP after this period, only a gradual drifting apart. Aura Marina eventually left Europe, and my correspondence with her was interrupted; later I would learn that she had abandoned the organization.

Meanwhile, some time after the publication of the book I began to hear that there were those who argued that the provocative policies of the guerrillas [determinismo voluntario] had much to do with the army's massacres in indigenous communities. Moreover, I heard that because of this same voluntarism an important split had occurred at the heart of the EGP. I was given no explanation for any of this. When Rigoberta Menchú passed through Paris during that period, she maintained the most absolute silence. Only once did she refer to it indirectly, saying, “We indigenous people always pay very dearly for everything.” A manifest unease, translated into silence, had taken hold of the guerrillas. Indeed, no one spoke of the guerrilla war any more, but of repression. And so it remained until 1986, when the democratic opening appeared and the possibility of peace was put forward for the first time. Even then, however, the “peace process” dragged on for ten more years. This was the period during which Rigoberta Menchú reached her greatest international influence.

Then in 1989 there was the trial of General Arnaldo Ochoa and Antonio de La Guardia in Cuba. I expressed my disagreement with their sentence, sending—together with others—a telegram to Fidel Castro asking him not to execute them. This placed me definitively in a position of political incorrectness that is unpardonable in such circles. After the publication of the work La guerra en tierras mayas by the French sociologist Yvon Le Bot (1995)—an analysis that provided the answers the EGP had failed to offer of the guerrilla war's consequences for the indigenous communities—I wrote an essay endorsing his theses, an act that did nothing for my situation as a “dissident.”

I must emphasize that at no time did Rigoberta Menchú personally express any disagreement with me right up to the eve of the Nobel Prize. We saw each other whenever she passed through Paris, and she never uttered even the slightest reproach. Only when the presentation of the Nobel Prize for Peace grew near did I begin to hear echoes of her declarations to the press attacking my participation in the writing of the book. Then, secondhand, I received a folder from the Committee in Solidarity with Guatemala in Paris—at the time dedicated to the campaign on Rigoberta's behalf for the Nobel Prize—in which my name had disappeared not only from authorship of the book but also from the Casa de las Américas prize, which was now listed as having been awarded to her alone. Something had occurred in the shifting of her political alliances—as we know, such things are malleable and elastic—such that my name was considered undesirable from that time on. Or perhaps the fact that I was not Guatemalan was thought counterproductive by her communications consultants; something of that nature emerges in La nieta de los Mayas (1998b),2 Who knows? For me it remains unexplained to this day.

Since that time Rigoberta Menchú, who is not frugal with her versions of events, has offered several explanations of the way in which the book was generated and written. She has proceeded to adapt these stories according to the moment and the circumstances. First she claimed that “Elizabeth Burgos had been somewhere nearby at the time of the interviews” but that it had been she herself who wrote the book in Mexico “with the help of comrades.” Then she spread the rumor that I had interviewed various indigenous people and synthesized the story into one, taking her as the sole persona. This version coincided with the appearance on the scene of the anthropologist David Stoll, who communicated to Rigoberta Menchú that he was undertaking research on her and that some aspects of her life did not coincide with what she herself had reported. At the same time she began to denounce anthropologists and to assert that she did not consider herself reflected in the book whose author was Elizabeth Burgos, “because I did not have the right to say whether I liked the text or not, or whether it was true to the details of my life. Now my life is mine, for which I consider it opportune to say that that book is not mine.”

However, I had the good fortune to have a meeting with my old friend Ricardo Ramírez, maximum leader of the EGP, in April 1998 in Guatemala. Aside from the emotion of seeing him again—I did not imagine that it would be the last time but he died in July of that year—his words calmed me. He assured me that his feelings toward me had not changed and that the EGP had had nothing to do with the position adopted by Rigoberta Menchú with respect to me—that, in any case, she had ceased to be an EGP militant. He also confirmed that he had read the manuscript of the book when I sent it to him for the organization's approval before publication. He did not clarify in which country he had been, whether Mexico, Nicaragua, or Guatemala.3

I felt liberated. It would have hurt me greatly to know that a friendship as charged with meaning as ours had been stained by the infighting that so often overcomes political movements after a war. Such periods are filled with guilt, resentment, and opportunism. Some of my detractors—among them professional historians—seem to have realized too late the opportunity they missed when they passed up the chance to be the author of Rigoberta Menchú's testimonio. Now they hope to recapture the lost moment, to create for themselves a personal myth. It is not very ethical but it is understandable; it is human.

The last time that I met Rigoberta Menchú was in Paris in February 1993. I had asked for the meeting—I had tried to see her various times, sending innumerable letters and faxes, without reply—because I wanted her to explain to me what was happening, why in addition to casting doubt on my role in the book's production she had also declared that I had never sent her any royalties. On this latter theme, let me affirm here that I never considered the book my individual project; indeed, I decided on my own, without any prior conditions before undertaking writing, that all of the eventual royalties would go to Rigoberta Menchú. What had happened was that in the early years Rigoberta Menchú had had neither a bank account in Europe nor a fixed address; in those years she was living semiclandestinely, at least insofar as her place of residence was concerned. Unfortunately, the Committee in Solidarity with Guatemala, which she had first selected as the recipient of the royalties, was not recognized as a tax-exempt organization, which meant that it would have had to pay high taxes on the royalties if it had received them directly. The funds thus remained on deposit with the publisher, Gallimard, until a formula could be developed to get them to Rigoberta Menchú. For legal and tax reasons and by agreement with Rigoberta Menchú, it was finally decided that Gallimard would transfer the funds to the Fondation France Libertés-Danielle Mitterand, with which Rigoberta Menchú maintained close relations. The Spanish royalties, in contrast, she received directly with the help of Ramón Serrano.4 In Spain, after the first edition sold out the book was not republished until the awarding of the Nobel Prize.

When we did finally meet, she told me that “times had changed” and asked that I legally renounce authorship of the book. She gave me two reasons:

1. She had offers from important North American publishers who wanted to pay a lot of money, but because she was not the legal author it was impossible for her to sign contracts, especially because Gallimard had the world rights.

2. The president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, had proposed placing the Nobel Prize medal and the book that recounted her life story in the Templo Mayor in Mexico City, but since I was not indigenous my name could not appear on the book's cover.

The lawyer for Gallimard explained to me that if I accepted what Rigoberta Menchú was asking I would be in breach of contract not only with Gallimard but also with all the publishers with whom I had signed contracts over a period of more than ten years and that, of course, I would risk the legal consequences. Beyond the slanders of which I was the object, I was not prepared to see myself involved in a lawsuit. I wrote an extensive letter to Rigoberta Menchú explaining the situation to her and suggesting that she leave things as they had been established ten years earlier and write a new book in her own hand narrating her experiences as an international activist. When I received no reply, it was clear that contact had been broken. I therefore suspended the transfers of money. Solidarity does not mean having to be humiliated.

The new book Rigoberta Menchú has published, La nieta de los Mayas, would have been a good occasion to take steps to resolve the contradiction she confronts between the history she narrated in 1982 and the course of her life since then. She owes her existence as a public figure to that earlier narration; nonetheless, she is not the same person today. She is that person with the addition of all the life experience accumulated with the passage of time. But no, in the new book she has sought to repeat the same scheme as the first. She has thus produced a European object, abetted by European scribes, with the difference that the first time it was justified by her own situation and the circumstances of the period in Guatemala. Instead of a life narrative accompanied by reflections—which at 40 and following the richness of her experiences she should be in condition to bring forth—she has limited herself to producing a mirror image, taking the first book as a model with the sole object of supplanting it. Neither a very ambitious objective nor a politically astute one, it betrays a great shortsightedness; what it achieves, in relation to the first book, is a pallid reflection that does not withstand comparison. Not only do the book's contents not justify it but it does not have the originality of the first. Instead of updating the persona historically and politically, it confines her even more to the role of a character playing herself. It simply fails on every count. Moreover, given that in the present situation no one would have impeded her writing and publishing and launching it first in Guatemala—indeed, there is now a Maya publishing house—one must ask why she did not write it with the help of Maya intellectuals. Given that she claims to speak for and embody all indigenous people, certainly this would have been more congruent with her political position. To have published in Guatemala with the help of Maya writers would in itself have amply justified the book's existence, making it more than simply another mediated exercise.

My reference point is France, given that it is the country in which the circumstances of life have placed me. Since 1955 there has been a collection in France created by the anthropologist Jean Malaurie, Terre Humaine, dedicated exclusively to publishing testimonial texts; already it has 64 titles. Gallimard also has a series, Témoins (“witnesses”), created and directed by the historian Pierre Nora—the same one that includes Rigoberta Menchú's testimonio. In neither of these is there a dogma about authorship. If the narrator is the one who has written the book, as regularly happens, she or he of course appears as the author. If the text has been produced on the basis of interviews, in contrast, the author is the person who does the work of writing. And if it is the case that the narrator intervenes in an active way in the writing, then both appear as authors or coauthors. There is, in other words, no rigid norm for designating the authorship of a book in this genre; it depends on the circumstances in which the book has been written.

It should be noted that I alone have been reproached for appearing as the author of a testimonial book. The best exponents of the genre in Latin America—Miguel Barnet, Roque Dalton, Elena Poniatowska, Claribel Alegría, Margaret Randall, Gabriel García Márquez, and others—have been exempt from this reproach. Undoubtedly Rigoberta Menchú and her aficionados have their own reasons for wanting to exclude my name. None of these other authors, with the exception of Roque Dalton and his Miguel Mármol, put the actual name of the interviewee in the title: all opted for generic titles. Perhaps that was my mistake: if instead of giving it the name of Rigoberta Menchú I had opted for Habla una India de Guatemala, history might have treated me differently.

Still, I was careful that the name of Rigoberta Menchú, rather than that of an author, would be the sole subject, occupying the entire space. That is why her name appears in the title in capital letters. The subtitle designates neither a geographic nor an ethnic belonging; it expresses a metaphysical idea that situates her in the universal. The title reiterates the identity of the subject, an act that is repeated in the first sentence of the narrative. There is no hint of ambivalence or neutrality about her identity. Before beginning to read, the reader has already established contact with the narrative voice. (Of course, I refer to the title in Spanish, which is the only one for which I am responsible.)

As Roberto González Echevarría has explained, for every moment of crisis in Hispanic America there is a text that emerges as the “global representation” of the crisis. Rigoberta Menchú's testimony filled that role of “global representation” for the Central American crisis. In it, the North American left found an anchor for its own passion. Rigoberta, for her part, became assiduous in touring U.S. universities. As a result, she became more than just a book or an image: in her, her audience had access to an indigenous person in flesh and blood, a person whom they turned into a living icon, a sacred totem, tangible proof of “absolute otherness.” Perhaps that is why my own mestiza presence aroused phobic reactions in certain quarters. David Stoll's book, in spite of its polemic nature, has the merit of having retrieved Rigoberta Menchú's testimony from the realm of scholasticism and returned it to life. The testimony still holds a richness of hypotheses and analyses that are far from being exhausted.

There is a tendency in the media where ideological debates are conducted to prefer integral, “essentialist” categories—a tendency that leads to the vehement rejection of mixed, or “mestizo,” thinking. However, if one keeps in mind—as one should—Rigoberta Menchú's profound Christian faith, it ought to be clear that the church has been the most important factor in implanting “mestizo thinking” among Amerindians. This was not because the church constructed the image of the Indian—that image has been constructed dynamically, in the continuous process of negotiating identity to which the Amerindians have been subject since the discovery. This is a process to which all cultures submit when they enter into relations with others; such has been the dynamic of all processes of civilization. Europe itself is a portentous example of that dynamic. The greatest delusion is to believe in “pure otherness”—a creed that leads rapidly to the ethnic cleansing so much in fashion these days, whose consequences we know.

The icon into which Rigoberta Menchú has been converted has contributed to the fact that the just demands of indigenous peoples have become just one more fashion, emptied of content. She has been transformed into a tree that obscures the forest; instead of being a representative she is, rather, a personification of representation. The voice that denounced has been transformed into an invitee of the establishment, distancing herself from the popular movement (Rosalina Tuyuc, personal communication, April 1998).5 Nevertheless, it is not impossible to imagine a future in which there are moments of extreme tension between Guatemala's ladino and indigenous peoples and in which Rigoberta Menchú—given her power to attract attention internationally and ability to weave alliances with the ladino world—could become just the person to reestablish equilibrium between them.


  1. Unfortunately, acknowledgment of those who aided me failed to appear in the French translation because the corresponding pages were lost by either the translator or the publisher. The editions in other languages that flowed from the French committed the same error. Nine editions of the book do contain the original acknowledgments and dedication: three Spanish, as well as Cuban, Mexican, Brazilian, Flemish, and Swedish and the French pocket edition.

  2. The English edition, Crossing Borders (1998a), has cost its editor and translator, Ann Wright, charges of “intellectual piracy” for having appeared as editor on the cover. The denunciations directed at Wright come from the usual academic detractors. In spite of these “specialists'” opinions, however, a book of testimony is not simply a transcription of cassettes: no one can simply “dictate” a 300-page book.

  3. In order that there be no doubt, I shall cite Ricardo Ramírez's own words: “A mi me altera mucho ese tipo de cosas. Yo evito tocar ese tema. Pero te voy a decir sencillamente, ninguna de las cosas que ha hecho Rigoberta al respecto, fue autorizada por mi, ni por la Dirección. Una vez fue a la montaña; nos entrevistamos, sentí en ella contradicciones; me habló de la cuestión del libro. Le dije que ‘lo que tuviera que solucionar al respector lo hiciera directamente con Elizabeth porque ella tiene toda mi confianza.’ Y allí terminó toda la relación, no sólo mia, sino también del EGP, con el libro. Ya nunca más me volvió a hablar Rigoberta del libro. … Con ella mantengo una relación cordial, fraterna; ya ella, hace algún tiempo que no es miembro del EGP y por lo tanto dejó de recibir orientación de nuestra dirección. Esas polémicas interminables no me interesan. Tu me conoces bien, para mi lo único que cuenta es el curso de la Revolución. … Yo quiero que tengas la seguridad de que sabemos que eso ocurrió así [como tu lo cuentas]; tu cuentas con mi respaldo en lo que declaraste [se refiere a la entrevista que acordé al diario Siglo XX ese mismo día en Guatemala], porque efectivamente eso fue así. Las relaciones entre ustedes ya no me conciernen; y eso no debe ser el punto central de nuestra relación.”

  4. Among my personal records I have documents—letters from the publisher, account balances, and so forth—to support what I have said here. In addition, I might mention that I also have the following, which I am in the process of negotiating a place for in a library so that someday it will be available to qualified scholars: the 16 cassettes of the original interviews with Rigoberta, 15 of 90 minutes each, and 1 of 120; a complete transcription of the recorded material, faithfully following the interviews; the original edited version of the manuscript that became the basis for dividing the book into chapters, including scratch-outs and added phrases in my own hand, each chapter in a separate folder; the notecards by topic and page that I used to move from the transcribed text and later to do the editing by cutting with scissors and reassembling with Scotch tape; the press-books from the publication of the book and movie; a copy of the movie aired by Channel 3 of French television, with the title Pour quoi ils nous tuent?; a dossier of documents about relations with publishers and royalties; and assorted letters and other papers.

  5. Rosalina Tuyuc is a courageous indigenous woman, a congressional deputy and founder of the Asociación de Viudas de Desaparecidos (Association of Widows of the Disappeared—CONAVIGUA) during the worst period of the repression, and a woman who herself never left the country.


Debray, Régis

1967 ¿Revolución en la revolución? Havana: Casa de las Américas.

Le Bot, Yvon

1995 La guerra en tierras mayas. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Menchú, Rigoberta

1998a Crossing Borders. London and New York: Verso.

1998b La nieta de los Mayas. Madrid: El País/Aguilar.

Gary H. Gossen (essay date November 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2248

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 role of epic literature in this transformation, an issue that places Rigoberta Menchú's narrative at center stage; and finally (3) the truth status of events that typically underwrite epic narrative in general and Maya story-telling in particular. I shall address each of these topics briefly and will stress throughout that the tempest about the truth, lies, or propaganda that may inform Rigoberta Menchú's testimony amounts to a moot point. What does matter is that she and her editor, Elizabeth Burgos, have created a modern epic narrative that has served as a catalyst for raising the collective consciousness of the Maya people and for provoking a lively debate within the Maya intellectual community about what constitutes Maya identity and history. Western scholars' fulminations about its truth and authenticity are but a sideshow.

A recent journalistic commentary has highlighted the import of the Menchú/Stoll controversy against the backdrop of the February 25, 1999, release of the Historical Clarification Commission's report, Guatemala, Memory of Silence. This editorial comment notes that the Commission's document generally corroborates virtually all of Menchú's generic claims and also testifies to the magnitude of the controversy about who “owns” Maya history.

While the report is a definitive statement about what happened during the war, it is not expected to end the struggle to determine who will write Guatemala's history: “Whoever controls the windows to the past will strongly influence the future. This war is being fought on several fronts. On one battleground, the veracity of a political icon's life [Menchú] has come under fire” (Latinamerican Press, March 8, 1999).

This issue matters a great deal to the greater Maya community. Prior to I, Rigoberta Menchú, there was no charter text that spoke to modern Maya identity as a shared identity. Even the famous Popol Vuh, the great Quiché sacred narrative dating from the mid-sixteenth century—now adopted as a kind of generic Maya Bible, a charter text, by some Maya intellectuals and many lay people in the greater Native American community—indulges in fiercely partisan politics. It exalts Quiché moral and political authority over all others, including the Quiché's erstwhile chief enemies, the Cakchiquels (also Maya). Now all the Maya have I, Rigoberta Menchú, complete with its own political biases. It may indeed be a partisan propaganda document, as Stoll alleges; it may be a conflation of the stories of many into the voice of one, as even she, Rigoberta, now acknowledges; and it clearly does not incorporate the point of view of all modern Maya people. Nevertheless, it stands as the most important Maya literary document of the modern era. In my effort to appreciate its singular stature, I prefer to approach it not as testimony or as history or as autobiography or as biased political propaganda. It should be evaluated in the domain where it belongs: epic literature.


Like virtually all epic texts, I, Rigoberta Menchú records events from an era of trouble and conflict—as experienced by one or several individuals—that transforms public sensibilities into a vivid awareness that “we're in this together,” so to speak. This book belongs to a series of events in the past two decades that mark as causes and effects the emergence of an extraordinary pan-Maya cultural, intellectual, and political consciousness in our time.

This larger context goes well beyond the particulars of Guatemala's civil war to include both Mexico and Central America. Key events include the following: Mexico's conscious tilt, in the 1980s, toward political and economic policies—dubbed neoliberalism—that are hostile to the interests of the rural poor; the end of the cold war (1989–1991); the controversial Columbus Quincentenary and the (not unrelated) 1992 award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Rigoberta Menchú; the beginning of the Maya Zapatista insurrection and the inaugural day of NAFTA, both on January 1, 1994; the Zapatista-sponsored National Indigenous Forum (January 1996); the formal (if not actual) end of civil conflict in Guatemala (December 1996); and the Zapatista-sponsored national referendum on indigenous rights (March 1999), which yielded a nonbinding 95 percent victory for indigenous rights among the 3 million Mexicans who participated. Although I am not arguing for a chain of causally linked events, all of the above have produced a fundamental transformation in the way many Maya communities in Mexico and Guatemala view themselves today—not only as villagers loyal to local customs and local saints but also as members of a larger pan-Maya community that has its own agenda, a common past, and its own nationally specific programs for interacting with the Guatemalan and Mexican states.


Rigoberta Menchú's testimony follows a typical rhetorical device of epic narrative: the return of the hero. Her text reproduces this familiar pattern: the hero leaves the comforts of youth and home; the hero becomes aware of a critical problem afflicting his or her people, usually political oppression; the hero, persecuted, is forced into exile to obtain wisdom and perspective; he or she returns home again, in life or in death, apotheosized as a quasi-god, determined to change the social order. Menchú's highly personal narrative of her youth, her witnessing of atrocities and family tragedy, her politicization in Guatemala, and her experiences as a refugee in Chiapas, where she lived as a member of the household of Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas, all follow this classic heroic plot. Bishop Ruiz served as an important mentor to Rigoberta in exile, just as he has been a steadfast ally of the Maya Zapatista movement in its quest for social justice. Rigoberta has returned to Chiapas on at least one occasion to offer her support for the Maya Zapatista cause. More important, also following another classic heroic motif, she returned to Guatemala as an international celebrity widely mentioned as a plausible candidate for President of the Republic.

What does all of this mean? It means that Rigoberta and her book are local and international icons in the debate about Indian identity and indigenous ethnic politics in the Americas. There are undoubtedly better and more authentic works of indigenous scholarship and artistic creativity, but no work reaches the popular stature and emotional appeal of this work. It must be understood in these terms. I have already stated that Menchú's text accomplishes some of the same ideological purposes for the Maya present as the Popol Vuh provides for the Maya past. As a self-conscious effort to address the condition of “all poor Guatemalans,” there is no modern text that compares with it in magnitude or visibility or true epic proportions.

It is worth noting that many of our best-known epic and sacred texts in the West have taken shape and become canonic in circumstances not unlike those of Guatemala in the past two decades. The most ancient case is the Torah and, specifically, Genesis, which makes a highly biased case for a unified Hebrew nation under a monotheistic god, against a myriad of difficulties both internal and external. Internal troubles range from sibling rivalry to tribal conflict for power, while external threats emanate from state-level societies—Babylon and Egypt—both of which are stronger, initially, than the aspiring Hebrew nation. By the end of the book Babylon is destroyed and Egypt is co-opted under Joseph's stewardship. Jacob, after a “struggle with God,” is eventually renamed “Israel,” sire of the 12 tribes of Israel. A “new era” is in place.

The great epics of the West follow a similar pattern of struggle for sovereignty and ethnic integrity against formidable external adversaries. In the cases of the Chanson de Roland and the Cantar del Mío Cid, the enemy is the expanding Islamic empire. In both of these texts, the heroes do battle with alleged Muslim infidels to defend the Holy Roman Empire (in the case of Roland) or Christian Spain (in the case of El Cid). In both cases the heroes die as martyrs, and in both cases their “cause,” Christian Europe, prevails. The point is that heroic narratives are born in times of threat, peril, and great sacrifice in the effort to defend nations and peoples from annihilation. These narratives also vest the biography and body of the hero with the person of the nation or people that he or she represents.

Extending this model to Rigoberta Menchú, we see that her own life history becomes heroic not only in the construction of the story line but also in the theme of violent sacrifice of virtually her entire family at the hands of the purported enemy—the white Guatemalan state and its allies. Initial acknowledgment of Rigoberta Menchú as a hero came neither from her fellow Maya nor from ladino Guatemalans; it came from the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Now, however, she is the national celebrity par excellence. Love her or hate her, Guatemalans cannot ignore her. Nor can we.


All of which calls to mind my concluding question: Does historical truth in epic narrative really matter? Probably not. Genesis is a composition attributed to many authors, one of whom labored heroically in the fourth or fifth century A.D. to edit many versions to achieve a plausible story line, trying to get rid of discrepancies and contradictions regarding the “truth” of events. He succeeded for the most part, but Genesis as we know it still has many irreconcilable contradictions: Was humanity created once or twice? Did Abraham give Sarah (both his sister and his wife) to Pharaoh as a concubine or as a platonic friend? In either case, how can this act be rendered as honorable? The text of Genesis leaves these and a number of other questions completely open to our interpretation and imagination.

Similarly, the stories of Roland and El Cid both deal with a murky and shifting frontier zone between Christian Europe and the Islamic empire on the Iberian Peninsula. Many scholars regard the story of Roland in Iberia as one of many comparable minor skirmishes that came to be remembered as emblematic of a difficult time in French history. The truth of the circumstances of the martyrdom of Roland matters far less than its power as a distillation of an era in the persona of one individual.

I know from personally examining original manuscripts of hundreds of ballad text transcriptions from which Don Ramón Menéndez Pidal synthesized the definitive version of the Cantar del Mío Cid in the 1930s that the story of this great hero and his deeds, his life and times, has hundreds of variants, many of them radically at variance with one another regarding “what happened.” Don Ramón, an eminent scholar and artist, cut and pasted from hundreds of alternatives to assemble a good story that is now accepted as the “canonic text.” Rigoberta Menchú has engaged in the first generation of such selective editing of a key period in modern Maya history. She has told a good and compelling story of epic proportions that has riveted the attention of the world. Furthermore, the generic facts corroborate her story.

In evaluating the “truth status” of this text, it is easy to forget that it flows from Maya sensibilities and storytelling conventions. This is surely so even though Elizabeth Burgos and other ideologically motivated Westerners were involved in the production and promotion of the book. The Maya cultural and cognitive universe from which this story flows follows a number of what Rigoberta herself calls “our secrets.” Critics have called this romantic hype. I think not.

One should note her adamant use, again and again, of “we” as opposed to “I” in phrasing her testimony. She states the plural, collective voice again in a recent interview that appears in the Guatemalan Scholars' Network (January 30, 1999, my translation):

Q: They condemn you for pretending to have life experiences that are not your own.

A: I can't oblige them to understand these things. All of this, which for me is the history of my own life, is also the history of my own community. I am not a pitiful solitary bird who came from the wilderness, the child of only a mother and a father who are alone in the world. I am the product of a community, and not just the Guatemalan community.

In the Chiapas variant of this world that I know well, the earth itself speaks via its minions, the earthlords; animals still speak to one another and to humans; causality flows not only from human agency but from co-essences that live outside the body; dead historical figures return to help the living; even Spanish is relegated to the primitive lingua franca of all people in antiquity. I believe that Rigoberta Menchú's narrative comes in large part from a Maya cultural universe. When the dust settles from the current controversy, I think the work will assume its rightful place as a major charter document for the Maya cultural and political renaissance that is occurring in our time.

David Stoll (essay date November 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5032

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 was signed, Carol Smith, Victoria Sanford, Norma Chinchilla, and Georg Gugelberger object to my reexamination of I, Rigoberta Menchú. Ordinarily a Nobel peace laureate is subject to scrutiny much earlier in her career. In Rigoberta's case, she expects to run for president of her country. Truth commissions, exhumations, and the declassification of state documents are providing courtroom-quality evidence about the violence that turned her into an international figure. When it comes to the army's crimes, my critics welcome the search for facts. But they have doubts about interrogating the single most widely read book about Central America. While they expect Guatemalan army officers to consent to being tried for mass murder, they do not think Rigoberta should have to face the fact that she went to middle school.

On second thought, there is no reason to be surprised. After returning from a year of fieldwork in northern Quiché Department in 1989, I was full of what violence survivors had told me so many times. They wanted the war to end. Unfortunately, that was not on the horizon because a vestigial guerrilla movement was holding out for concessions that a powerful army was unlikely to make. I could have decided that peasant neutralism was just a function of conquest and hegemony. On the grounds that peasants were too afraid of the army to tell me how they felt, I could have discounted what they said. Perhaps this was just another tough chapter in the popular struggle—so what if it wasn't very popular? Instead, I decided that what peasants said about their experiences challenged our usual presumptions about the war. Was this insurgency really driven by the needs of Maya peasants? Not from what they told me. Right or wrong, I thought that questioning the usual assumption that the violence came out of the very structure of Guatemalan society might help end a stalemate for which Ixils were paying a high cost. So I published a book called Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala.

For anyone whose thinking has been shaped by the solidarity movement, the international support network for the Central American left, the idea that Maya peasants could be caught entre dos fuegos was controversial, even though this is an expression they often used. Since solidarity thinking has had an obvious impact on Guatemala scholarship and human rights work, my book was more excoriated than read. Therefore I decided to examine the popular roots of the insurgency in a second case, that of a particular family who became the war's best-known victims through the pages of a beloved book. Was the guerrilla movement that Rigoberta joined, and whose version of events she gave us in 1982, a grassroots response to oppression? Should the conflict be understood primarily in social terms, as the inevitable outcome of centuries of oppression suffered by Guatemala's indigenous population? Or is it better explained on the political level, as the result of particular decisions by particular groups? Was this a disaster that could have been avoided?

Such questions disturb four of the contributors. They would have you believe that to ask how our thinking has been affected by sympathy with the guerrillas and revulsion against the army is to discredit the victims and become an apologist for the army. So what about the specifics of Rigoberta's story—is my evidence really ludicrous? What are the implications of my argument for how we understand the violence in Guatemala? Am I trying to deflect the army's responsibility for mass killing? Finally, what does the anger over my book tell us about the room for disagreement in Latin American studies?

My impression is that Smith, Sanford, Gugelberger, and Chinchilla were so offended by my book that they invested the rest of their time in composing denunciations, without checking the result against what I wrote. It is hard to think of another explanation for some of Sanford's assertions, for example, that I “obliquely acknowledge” the army's violence against civilians. Did she read Chapter 9 (“The Destruction of Chimel”) and Chapter 10 (“The Death Squads in Uspantán”)? Her attack on Uspantán's former town secretary Alfonso Rivera is ill-informed and unfair; while it is true that Alfonso went to jail for graft, so did four other members of the pro-Rigoberta, town council. While the New York Times quoted him as criticizing Rigoberta, he was always a defender of the Nobel laureate, her father, and her family in his conversations with me.

If Gugelberger had grasped my argument, he would realize that I am the first to minimize the significance of a detail like whether four chimneys or one blew up at Auschwitz. However, the most systematic distortions of my argument are by Smith, one of our senior scholars on Guatemala, from whom we have the right to expect better. When I argue that rapid population growth as well as inequitable land tenure are factors in poverty, she accuses me of blaming poverty on population growth. When I show that peasant support for the guerrillas was more limited than we supposed in the early 1980s, she accuses me of arguing that there was little or none. When I quote Ixils and K'iche's who blame the guerrillas as well as the army for the violence, she accuses me of blaming the guerrillas. When I insist on comparing Rigoberta's version of events with others, Smith scare-quotes me for claiming to be “objective”—a claim nowhere to be found in my book.

Before going further, I should correct the misapprehension that it took me ten obsessive years to track down the problems with Rigoberta's story. Half an hour with a relative or neighbor is enough to raise major questions. The bulk of my interviewing occurred between 1993 and 1995; even then, half my time was in Ixil country. As I have often pointed out myself, oral testimony from a repressed town like Uspantán could be affected by fear of the army or distrust of the interviewer. That is why I checked what Uspantanos told me against other sources. Smith, Sanford, and Chinchilla complain that I rely on mere hearsay (i.e., oral testimony like Rigoberta's), but they ignore the documentary evidence backing up my assertions. The reason I doubt that Rigoberta's father belonged to the Comité por la Unidad Campesina (Committee for Campesino Unity—CUC) is not just the denials by his relatives and other Uspantanos. The reason is also that when the CUC published obituaries for the five members who died at the Spanish embassy, it failed to include Vicente. Even though the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (Guerrilla Army of the Poor—EGP) elevated him to the revolutionary pantheon by naming a new organization of revolutionary Christians in his honor, no one claimed him as a CUC member until his daughter did in Paris, two years after his death.

In contrast, the evidence connecting Vicente to the EGP is anything but thin. Everyone agrees that the EGP visited Chimel. Of the four persons who told me that they had witnessed the first meeting between the guerrillas and the villagers, three said that Vicente welcomed the visitors, for reasons that I carefully explain did not necessarily include pleasure at their arrival. The reason that Vicente died as a guerrilla collaborator is that the fatal occupation of the Spanish embassy was led by EGP cadres from the Robin Garcia Revolutionary Student Front. Even if Smith wants to maintain the old circumlocutions in how we refer to guerrilla political structures, the Vicente of I, Rigoberta Menchú is a guerrilla supporter: have I committed some indecency by showing that his involvement was later, and perhaps more tentative, than portrayed by his daughter?

The fire at the Spanish embassy can be attributed to the Molotov cocktails of the occupiers—probably wielded by the students rather than the peasants—thanks to the sole survivor, the Spanish ambassador, who was so sympathetic to the protesters that the Guatemalan right scapegoats him for the incident to this day. To understand the debate over who started the fire, readers must visualize Dr. Máximo Cajal y López pleading with the riot police not to break into his office, into which the protesters have herded him and the other hostages. As Cajal argues with the police through the crack between the door and the frame, the 37 people in the room behind him are going into panic.

According to Cajal—as he reiterated to the international press, to the Spanish government, and to me—he saw a protester smash a Molotov cocktail on the floor and throw a match that he himself stomped out. Some minutes later, as the police began to break in, he was propelled through the doorway and out of the room by an explosion that occurred behind him, among the protesters and their hostages. When I asked about a rumor that the riot police had shoved a red canister through the door where he was arguing with them, this is what Cajal faxed me: “I never said that I had seen … a policeman with a red, metal artifact. I only saw axes, revolvers, and the barrels of machine guns. I believe that it was the magazine Cambio that spoke of it; perhaps those who were outside in the street (the public, firefighters) saw it.”1 If the fire started among the protesters behind the ambassador's back, how could it have been started by an incendiary device that he never saw being shoved through the door?

Getting back to the main issue, solidarity explanations derived considerable plausibility from the army massacres of the early 1980s. Why would the army do so much killing unless the guerrillas had lots of popular support? As Sanford points out in her analysis of several declassified documents, this was not necessarily the case. But even after many of us grasped the limitations of the Unión Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union—URNG), the coalition of the EGP and several other guerrilla organizations, we continued to assume that masses of peasants joined because they saw no other way to escape poverty and oppression. We continued to believe that the EGP and the rest of the URNG had ridden a groundswell in Guatemalan society. So did I—until I had the privilege of interviewing hundreds of violence survivors in a former EGP stronghold.

Since Smith, Sanford, and Chinchilla are reluctant to distinguish between solidarity work, human rights investigation, and sociohistorical analysis, let me repeat why this is important. Human rights is the most effective arrow in the solidarity quiver. But while the goal of solidarity work is usually to support a political movement, the goal of human rights work is to increase respect for law. The two often go together, but they can also collide, putting activists into an awkward situation. In Guatemala, solidarity/human rights supporters were sometimes embarrassed when the guerrillas turned out to be committing violations of their own.2

As a legal discourse, human rights focuses on specific acts of commission or omission by agents of the state or a presumed state-in-formation like the URNG. Since a human rights violation is a specific criminal act, why the perpetrator did it, or what he was reacting to, is a secondary issue. Ignoring motivation is reasonable in many legal proceedings, but it is not a good way to understand a history of violence because it isolates acts from their context. Recently the Guatemalan truth commissions have gathered a staggering array of testimony about the violence. They have had to juggle a human rights focus on specific criminal acts with a broader focus on sociohistorical process. The latter requires as much context as possible. But that complicates the moral simplicities of solidarity and the criminal responsibilities of human rights violations, as becomes apparent in my account of how political killing spread to Uspantán.

Solidarity ends up being a poor basis for scholarship because of the need to justify a political orientation and its claim to innocence. For scholars accustomed to justifying their presence in Guatemala through solidarity, it has been hard to deal with evidence that, for example, the guerrillas committed the first political murders in Rigoberta's municipio or that student protesters started the fire at the Spanish embassy. That puts the blame on the wrong side, the guerrillas, when the purpose of solidarity thinking is to put all the blame on the other side. Significantly, the issue of “blame” that so concerns Smith, Sanford, and Chinchilla matters only in solidarity work, not in human rights investigations or sociohistorical analysis. Whether or not villagers collaborated with the EGP, the army had no right to kill them in noncombat situations. Even if the student protesters started the fire at the Spanish embassy, the dictatorship was still responsible for the incident because it stormed the embassy over the ambassador's protests.

Solidarity work in Guatemala has always been broader than support for the URNG party line. But it has always been difficult and unpopular to challenge certain convictions that seemed to be validated by the mass killing of the early 1980s. It has also been too easy to discount peasants who fail to live up to expectations. One hallmark of solidarity writing about peasants is frequent reference to “silence,” exemplified here by comparing them to mute rocks. While some indeed have been silenced, others have lots to say. Here are several assumptions they led me to question:

1. Did support for the insurgency spring from the steady immiseration of the poor? As Smith herself has reported, along with Paul Kobrak, myself, and others, many Mayas felt they were making modest political and economic gains through the Catholic Church and other institutions in the 1970s. No one claims they were not poor, so I do not see the point of stuffing my mouth or theirs with a World Bank report. The point is that the tapestry of conditions that Mayas faced is not compatible with the ideological requirements for justifying the enormous cost of armed struggle—that the poor are being pounded into the ground.

2. Was the Maya population on a collision course with the state? Was armed struggle a “last resort” for peasants with their backs to the wall? The last-resort paradigm fits some local situations, but regionally it is not compatible with what we know about the origins of the Maya movement, which is led by people who are taking advantage of expanding opportunities. Nor is the last-resort paradigm compatible with the typical Maya critique of the guerrillas as well as the army—that both sides imposed the war on them. If the insurgency was an inevitable response to centuries of oppression, then the guerrillas would hardly be guilty of imposing it. Finally, last-resort claims are contradicted by our knowledge of how difficult it often was to recruit Mayas.

3. Should blame for starting the violence be laid exclusively at the door of the Guatemalan army? Here I must insist on what so many peasants have told me: while the army did most of the killing, the first people they saw in uniform were often guerrillas who wanted to spread the war into new areas. Contrary to Smith, I do not use the word “natural” to describe the army's response to guerrilla organizing. But it is very likely given what we know about how armies respond to an irregular enemy, that is, one that makes up for its lack of military strength by blurring the distinction between itself and nearby civilians. In the absence of an identifiable enemy, counterinsurgents tend to retaliate against nearby civilians. While the Guatemalan army is a particularly brutal example, there is no shortage of others.

I question how well the violence is explained by racism because (1) this is a conflict in which the first shots were traded inside the officer corps of the Guatemalan army (the first guerrilla commanders were rebel army officers) and (2) the army could be just as brutal to ladino peasants as to indigenous ones, as corroborated by the truth commissions.3 As for why guerrilla leaders should have known what would happen to their civilian collaborators, Chinchilla forgets that what the army did in western Guatemala in the 1980s was only a replay, on a larger scale, of what it did in eastern Guatemala in the 1960s. While she and Sanford accuse me of failing to put my local studies into historical context, this is an example of how I provide more history than they wish to remember.

My books are controversial because they portray more of the intense localism in rural Guatemala than will fit into the assumption that armed struggle was a last resort. However, my findings are hardly unique. While the EGP was stronger in the Sierra Cuchumatanes than elsewhere, the region's other ethnographers (Davis, 1988: 24–26; Watanabe, 1992: 179–183) have had doubts about the depth of its support, as has Smith (1992) herself. Paul Kobrak's dissertation (1997) provides the most convincing evidence of all: it is the finest local study of the violence to date, which is why I have been badgering him to publish it and why my book about Uspantán imitates it. His account of how K'iche's learned to use the civil patrols and neutralist rhetoric to distance themselves from the war built and improved on mine. Far from contradicting my portrait of how peasants responded to the EGP and the army, Kobrak reports hearing from K'iche's what I heard from Ixils, doubling my evidence. As I do, he reports that most land conflicts were between peasants (1997: 70–71), that they looked to the future with guarded optimism (1997: 76–77), that there was little continuity between prewar activism and the guerrilla movement (1997: 113), and that peasants complain about how the guerrillas maneuvered them into confronting the army (1997: 111–112).

If Chinchilla thinks that even guerrilla leaders could not be expected to foresee the army's vicious reprisals, why does Smith think that peasants like Vicente Menchú could? Does Smith think that EGP cadres warned men like Vicente that they were risking everything they had? What my critics refuse to face is the military/political reality of guerrilla warfare, which depends upon deceiving friends, foes, and ultimately oneself. They also fail to acknowledge that, as a revolutionary model applied to one country after another, guerrilla warfare became a self-destructive form of antipolitics. We shall see whether the Zapatistas in Mexico are an exception. Instead of building up the grass-roots left, guerrilla warfare usually destroys it.

The gap between the stories told by Rigoberta and her neighbors raises questions about what Yvon Grenier (1999: 9–17) calls the “dominant paradigm” in scholarship on contemporary Central America. This is the assumption that injustice + reactionary governments = revolution. Political development never strays far from socioeconomic reality in this structuralist conception of history. Analysis tends to consist of filling in the boxes of a functionalist model, in which inequality leads the poor to demand change, whereupon they meet with repression and realize that armed struggle is the only path forward. In Guatemala there are indeed locales where individuals, factions, and villages were quick to welcome the guerrillas as a solution to intractable problems. One that I describe is San Juan Cotzal, where Ixils hoped that the guerrillas would help them recover a large coffee plantation (Stoll, 1993: 68–71). But once you descend to the local level and listen to the recollections of lived experience, the generalizations of the early 1980s become very hard to sustain. More often than not, large-scale support for the guerrillas came only in reaction to the army's indiscriminate reprisals. Even then, much of the population escaped to the coast, hung back, or went over to the army.

Smith is right that of the three revolutionary movements in Central America, the Guatemalan proved to be the weakest. In Nicaragua the Somoza dictatorship was overthrown in a national revolt; in El Salvador the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front came much closer to victory than its Guatemalan counterpart. Still, Yvon Grenier asks an interesting question: why have Latin America scholars lagged behind others in studying revolution in terms of culture, ideology, and agency? Why are “structuralist, mostly economistic and often mechanistic approaches to political change” still celebrated in Latin America? Grenier's study of the role of the Salvadoran universities and political-military organizations suggests an answer. The dominant paradigm removes important actors from scrutiny. Ironically, the Cuban model was premised on the idea that making a revolution depended less on objective conditions than on commitment and vision. Yet mechanistic Marxism relieved the comandantes of responsibility for disasters. So do structural explanations for insurgencies. This is part of the stubborn legacy of Guevarismo in Latin American studies—not foco theory exactly, or enthusiasm for guerrilla warfare, but a pessimistic, self-righteous structuralism that wards off embarrassing questions.

My book makes no sense in terms of Guatemalan politics, Chinchilla argues, and she may be right on the level of Guatemala City, where there is little room for peasants except as they serve the needs of other groups. I, Rigoberta Menchú is important to question precisely because of the monumental confidence that it inspired in how the left views peasants. This is a book that we knew was true because it was what we expected to hear. It made a disastrous political strategy look like an inevitable expression of peasant needs. It allowed us to discount peasants who did not measure up to a high-cost agenda. It enshrined a mythology that, in the name of serving peasants, served the urban left.

Even if am wrong about important points, it ought to be possible to argue that guerrilla warfare was an avoidable tragedy without being subject to an anathema from Carol Smith. Her concluding remarks on “positionality” illustrate one of the ironies of postmodernist thought. The same reflexive lexicon that can be used to open up discussion can also be used to shut it down. The telltale sign is the dismissal of unwelcome evidence on the grounds that the bearer has fallen into a colonialist story line or, more crudely, is not of the correct class, ethnicity, or gender to get a hearing. If someone wants to throw you out of court, no amount of self-positioning will save you. While more can always be said on the subject, my book on I, Rigoberta Menchú contains as much of it as most readers are going to tolerate. If you overindulge, they get the impression that you care more about your soul than your subject.

Since one of my book's arguments is that solidarity assumptions have made it hard to look at the Guatemalan violence critically, I feel vindicated as well as disappointed. The debate over my book suggests that room for disagreement in Latin American studies is smaller than we make out to peers, institutions, and funders. To stay on good terms with some of your colleagues, you must be prepared to suppress information and questions that they will find offensive. There was no shortage of good reasons to document the problems with I, Rigoberta Menchú, but this is surely one of them.

One of the final issues I should address is the book's authorship. Because Rigoberta told her story to a Parisian intellectual, skeptics have wondered whether Elizabeth Burgos put words in the mouth of the future Nobel peace laureate. The evidence that this was Rigoberta's story is considerable, as laid out in my book. But Georg Gugelberger takes me to task for failing to listen to all the available tapes of the January 1982 interviews. Now that I have been able to listen to the 18 hours, I am pleased to report that they bear out my earlier conclusion, as well as the most recent of Rigoberta's own statements, that this is indeed her story. In view of Elizabeth's explanation that she shifted some of the episodes to maintain chronology, what most surprised me about the tapes is how closely the book ended up following the order in which Rigoberta laid out her life.4

What do my findings mean for I, Rigoberta Menchú in the classroom? This is a work that many students find accessible, that some find inspirational, and that can be used to introduce a range of issues in a memorable way.5 Precisely because of the many questions it raises, the book is just the kind that we should be assigning and debating. However, my findings have complicated the task of teaching it, especially in the short span of a week or so that is usually the only time available in introductory courses. The problem with presenting it as a testimonio, as Gugelberger and colleagues have defined it, is that the genre carries a strong connotation of eyewitness truth that he and other advocates have not wanted to see put to the test.6 Instructors have been left dangling between the book's basis in fact and its imaginative qualities.

If I had to pick out the most constructive suggestion of the past few months, it would be Gary Gossen's in this journal. Maybe it is time to liberate Rigoberta's 1982 story from the category of testimonio. That is how the story started out, but it seems to have turned into something else. Let us instead teach it as an epic, and not just as a Maya one, because no small number of ladinos identify with it too. According to Gossen, epic narrative is about a time of tribulation, has a basis in historical fact, and is told from a very partisan point of view yet becomes a charter for national identity. This is how most Guatemalans hear Rigoberta's story—as an Exodus narrative about a village girl who loses her parents to the army; flees abroad, and returns home in triumph. As a national epic, her story is indeed beyond refutation, but that does not mean that we should avoid historical exegesis of it. Latin American studies is no place for fundamentalism. If I, Rigoberta Menchú is becoming national scripture for Mayas and other Guatemalans, that is all the more reason for scholars to be producing the historical criticism for which they will be asking us.


  1. “Nunca dije haber visto—ni ví, naturalmente—a un policía con un artefacto metálico rojo. Solo ví hachas, revólveres y bocas de canoñes de metralletas. Fue, creo, la revista Cambio la que habló de ello; quizás lo vieran quienes estaban en la calle siguiendo desde fuera los acontecimientos (público, bomberos).” Fax sheet from Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Embassy of Spain in Paris, January 31, 1996.

  2. The final, most devastating case occurred in October 1996, on the eve of the final peace agreement, when a ransom kidnapping was traced to a Unión Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union—URNG) comandante. The United Nations truth commission did not accept the URNG's claim that it did not know about the operation (CEH, 1999: Caso ilustrativo 103).

  3. One of the largest massacres of the war was of 178+ ladinos in the Petén village of Dos Erres in December 1982 (CEH, 1999: Caso ilustrativo 31).

  4. Gugelberger also brings in the role of Arturo Taracena, the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (Guerrilla Army of the Poor—EGP) liaison in Paris who introduced Rigoberta to Elizabeth, then participated in other ways that were not acknowledged at the time to avoid implicating his organization. Arturo never responded to my requests for an interview. Before Gugelberger reassigns the book's authorship on the basis of Rigoberta's new memoir Crossing Borders, he should guide us through the differences between what Rigoberta and Arturo say happened.

  5. This is not to say that all the reasons that the book appeals to students are the best ones. Here is what John Watanabe (1999) has to say. “I ceased teaching the book a good number of years ago precisely because I found it rang true for students for all the wrong reasons by playing on their romanticized stereotypes of egalitarian—and oppressed—Indians who spontaneously rise up against their oppressors, just as we would like to imagine we would do in their place. No community, Indian or otherwise, could prove as ideal as Ms. Menchú describes before the violence, or as spontaneously mobilized once it began, but her story had the power to erase an entire term's discussion of the more complex ways such communities could be both cooperative and divisive, nasty and nice to themselves and others as complex, contradictory collections of ‘real’ human individuals.”

  6. While Gugelberger and his associates want us to take I, Rigoberta Menchú as a valid representation of Maya experience, they are not amused by the idea of comparing it with what other violence survivors say. Hence the false accusation, repeated here, that I hold Rigoberta to objectivist truth standards. Buried in Gugelberger's essay is a significant concession: that testimonio is “much closer to literature than documentary.” That was not obvious from his previous contribution on the subject, a book with Rigoberta on the cover called The Real Thing (Gugelberger, 1996).


CEH (Comisión de Esclarecimiento Histórico)

1999 Guatemala: Memoria del silencio. Guatemala City.

Davis, Shelton

1988 “Introduction: Sowing the Seeds of Violence,” pp. 3–36 in Robert M. Carmack (ed.), Harvest of Violence. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Grenier, Yvon

1999 The Emergence of Insurgency in El Salvador: Ideology and Political Will. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Gugelberger, Georg M.

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

Kobrak, Paul Hans Robert

1997 “Village Troubles: The Civil Patrols in Aguacatán, Guatemala.” Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan.

Smith, Carol A.

1992 “Maya Nationalism.” NACLA Report on the Americas 25 (3): 29–33.

Stoll, David

1993 Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala. New York: Columbia University Press.

Watanabe, John

1992 Maya Saints and Souls in a Changing World. Austin: University of Oklahoma Press.

1999 “Letter to the Editor.” Chronicle of Higher Education 45 (23): B3.

Elizabeth Burgos (essay date November 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1109

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 about Latin America, where it is customary for reality to overflow into fiction. In a continent where history and literature have always lived in symbiosis, no one expects there to be just one version of events or is surprised if lived history leads to alternative ways of describing what happened. It seemed to me that those who were identified as experts in testimonial literature were limiting themselves too much to details shorn of context when what was really at stake was whose version of the causes of violence in Guatemala would be remembered.

Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding about I, Rigoberta Menchú in the United States, I believe now, comes from its having been confined within a rigid framework labeled “testimony,” which has been given a connotation closer to legal evidence than to literature. Meanwhile, the same critics also pretend that they are talking about a literary genre when nothing is farther from literature than rigidity. The origin of the misunderstanding is that the critics have mixed their scholarly calling with their political beliefs, in the process converting oral literature—the most supple of genres and the most subject to personal invention—into an almost religious canon, bordering on the absolute. By delegitimizing every attempt at critical skepticism, they have obtained a contrary result: the status of the texts, specifically in this case that of Rigoberta Menchú, has actually become fragile, vulnerable to any misstep.

As for the content of Rigoberta Menchú's narrative, it is well known that in communities with a living oral tradition—I prefer the term “oral literature” to “testimony,” which I consider belittling—the process of memorization is learned right along with language itself. But that which the memory calls back always returns with variations, products in part of individual creativity but also in part of the continual reimagining inherent in the cultural change that is always occurring in every society. In Rigoberta Menchú's case, this reimagining was also influenced by the Marxist analysis she learned as a member of the EGP, as well as the theology of liberation and, of course, the education she received in her religious secondary school.

On a political plane—which is what most interests Stoll in his book—there is another external element that also has to be considered in evaluating Rigoberta Menchú's narrative. Rigoberta Menchú was part of a political project that engaged in popular revolutionary war, and as is well known such warfare has its own specific rules and techniques. The guerrilla—the “little war”—is the kind of war waged by those of limited means. As the warfare of the poor, it depends on the arts of trickery and deception, on feint and misdirection. In the framework of this kind of war, Rigoberta Menchú played a double role: that of communicator, to be sure, but also of transmitter. The political task assigned to her was to communicate but with the purpose of eliciting immediate solidarity. She was to convey the ancient wisdom of her family, of which she became both the bearer and the trustee on the death of her parents, and in so doing to convert that loss into a “collective victory over the ephemeral.” This explains why she always spoke as “we.” That “we” signified “We transmit so that these things we live, believe, and think will not die with us.” The goal of transmission is to occupy space, to live in legendary time, to persist in order to make history. In order to transmit well, it is necessary to sanctify. Information is communicated; what is transmitted are secrets, things that require an initiation. The great secret transmitted between the lines of Rigoberta Menchú's book is that of having dared—her father, her mother, her sisters, and undoubtedly many others close to her—to engage in armed rebellion. That is the source of the “epic character of her story,” which she takes on in the name of all the indigenous people who joined the armed struggle, many of whom have not been able to assume that mantle directly because outsiders' history still sees them as passive victims (for the quoted passages see Debray, 1997).

Rigoberta Menchú's activities internationally were thus inscribed in the strategy of Guatemala's revolutionary war. And thanks to the international stage she was given by the guerrilla war, she was able to make the leap from communicator to transmitter, becoming in the process guardian of the “we”—of that which is common, symbolically, to all the indigenous people. This is undoubtedly why, in the wake of the polemic stirred up by Stoll's book, even those indigenous leaders who have had reservations about Rigoberta Menchú have come to her defense. One of the criticisms I heard, from Rosalina Tuyuc and Otilia Lux de Cojtí, among others, was that in launching her second book of testimony, La nieta de los Mayas, Rigoberta Menchú herself was campaigning against her first. The question here is that of “we” in the best sense of the term. As Rosalina Tuyuc said, “It was wrong for Rigoberta Menchú to repudiate her book. It was not even really her right to do it, because it is a book that belongs to all of us.”

Nevertheless, Stoll's book shows that even in her own community Rigoberta Menchú's version of events is questioned, and this is a fact that deserves to be analyzed carefully. Here I shall limit myself to saying that quite apart from questions of what is true and what is not, my impression is that in the same way that Rigoberta Menchú was the symbol and transmitter of a historical experience, today, as a result of the place she occupies in the collective imagination, precisely as a symbol of a particular cultural and communal configuration, she seems to be for many a perfect target to blame for a model of conduct—the guerrilla—now considered mistaken. She assumed the role of embodying a legend, and when it became necessary she has in turn been burdened with the role of countermodel.


Debray, Regis

1997 Transmettre. Paris: Editions Odile Jacob.

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