I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala

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Critical Overview

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Menchú's autobiography has been attacked by critics for being an "inauthentic" text. Critics charge that there has been "interference" from editor and ethnographer Burgos-Debray, who interviewed Menchú, or that Menchú herself exaggerated or fabricated parts of her story to make it more dramatic. One of Menchú's earliest and most vocal critics, Dinesh D'Souza, former editor of the conservative college paper the Dartmouth Review and author of Illiberal Education, questioned the veracity of Menchú's status as an impoverished victim of centuries-old discrimination, exploited by corrupt landowners. He offers her vocabulary, her later travels, and her conversion to Catholicism as dubious proof of her victimization. David Stoll, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, conducted years of fieldwork in Guatemala and claims to have found people whose recollections of events described by Menchú differ greatly from hers. He asserts that the truth about Guatemalan politics at that time was far less extreme and polarized than Menchú suggests, and that "the people" were more ambivalent about which side—the guerrillas or the government—to believe.

Advocates of Menchú's counter that the structure and content of Menchú's story are both accurate and typical of the period during which Menchú matures and tells her story. Zimmerman argues that in a ‘‘crisis period’’ such as that of the 1960s-1980s in Guatemala, that writers create "new forms representing new perspectives...each...straining to express...the social whole," such as the form created in Menchú's autobiography. Menchú explains herself, on the first page, that her story is the story of all poor Guatemalans: ‘‘My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.’’ Menchú's supporters contend that it is not the sheer veracity of her facts that determines the value of her story in a political-social context, but that the verisimilitude of the Guatemalan peasant experience is revealed, made accessible, and honored.

Zimmerman, and others, note that Menchú does not use metaphor to develop her descriptions, but metonymy. Metonymy is a literary device which uses the name of one entity to represent the idea of all other entities associated with it. In reference to Menchú's story, that means Menchú's story, and her name, invoke the story and names of all other poor peasants. Her use of the pronoun "I," Zimmerman reasons, "is imbedded and absolutely tied to a 'we.'" In this sense, Menchú's supporters are not acknowledging and excusing falsehoods in her story, but asserting that an inconsistency or contradiction in her story does not render it an inauthentic or unimportant text, because in the balance, it tells the true story of poor Guatemalan peasants who were, in fact, exploited, tortured, and killed.

Another critical aspect of Menchú's story is the method through which it came to print. This book requires an unusual definition of authorship; is the author the person who tells the story, or the one who writes it down? Burgos-Debray, the editor of Menchú's story, assures the reader in her introduction that the narrative that Menchú relayed orally was not altered in the slightest. This book has a special status as literature, spoken narrative, autobiography, and historical text, since it is the true-life story of Rigoberta Menchú, a Quiché Indian woman. Menchú did not actually put pen to paper to write the book; it is the unabridged transcription of her story, which she told in Spanish, to ethnographer Elisabeth Burgos-Debray over the period of a week. (An ethnographer, simply put, is someone who studies other cultures.) Burgos-Debray recorded Menchú's story, transcribed it, organized it, and put the words in print, in Spanish. That book was then translated into English by Ann Wright. The exact words and the flow of the story are Rigoberta Menchú's, but others put her story into book form.

As the book is essentially the printed version of an oral narration, theorists have placed Menchú's autobiography in the genre of "testimonio," or testimony, an oral form prevalent in Quiché culture, and a literary form common in Latin American literature, whether printed or oral.

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Essays and Criticism