Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1845
Although I, Rigoberta Menchú is classified as autobiography, it is, in many ways, inaccurate to call the book an autobiography or a memoir, because those texts are written largely for purposes of recalling and celebrating a life, whereas Menchú told her story for the purposes of informing a larger public...
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Although I, Rigoberta Menchú is classified as autobiography, it is, in many ways, inaccurate to call the book an autobiography or a memoir, because those texts are written largely for purposes of recalling and celebrating a life, whereas Menchú told her story for the purposes of informing a larger public about human rights abuses in Guatemala. It is precisely that designation as autobiography, however, which has caused so much controversy about the veracity of her story. Critics of Menchú have alleged that Menchú includes many falsehoods and exaggerations throughout her story, events which did not occur at all or transpired differently. Her supporters contend that even if every detail of her story was not witnessed by Menchú, as a verbal account in both the oral tradition of Quiché Indians and its more recent permutation into testimonio, that her story cannot be judged by conventional standards of autobiography, since it was not written with the same intention or by familiar methods. Menchú's story retains its value not as autobiographical literature, but as a singular voice for thousands of silenced Guatemalans.
Her critics further allege that her claims to being a poor, uneducated Quiché Indian woman, the child of impoverished Indian peasants, are also false. They assert that she was actually the daughter of an Indian landowner, and the recipient of extended schooling well into her adolescent years. David Stoll, a professor at Middlebury College, published a book in 1998 titled Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans in which he disputes Menchú's claims that she had no formal schooling, that a brother of hers died of starvation as a child, and that another brother was murdered, burned to death before her eyes after being tortured. He claims to have found eyewitnesses who recall the situations differently. CNN.com reported on December 15, 1998, that the New York Times had also found such eyewitnesses who recall events differently. They assert that the land dispute Menchú details in her book as a twenty-two-year struggle between her father and ladino landowners was in fact a dispute between her father and his in-laws. Stoll claims that most peasants were far more ambivalent about making allegiances, given their options: the brutal and unjust Guatemalan government, or the violent and unforgiving guerilla movement. Stoll claims he is not out to debunk or delegitimize Menchú, but that he is concerned about the political momentum created by what may be a falsified story, momentum which led to Menchú being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.
Menchú has explained these inconsistencies with a combination of cultural background and political imperative. In a response reported on CNN.com on January 21, 1999, Menchú stated, ‘‘I still haven't written my autobiography. . .what you have is a testimonial.’’ She counters reports that there was no brother who died of starvation on the finca by explaining that Indian families often give the same name to more than one child; in her family there was a Nicolas I and Nicolas II. She also chides Stoll, saying that as the expert, he should have known that. She confirms that she did participate in literacy classes run by nuns at a Catholic boarding school, but that she was there as a maid, not a student. Stoll, for his part, insists he never called Menchú a liar, but that as ‘‘[t]he book expresses 500 years of Native American experience in the eyes of a woman born in 1959. . .It can't be a literal truth.’’ Given that he believes this, it is baffling that he would spend ten years trying to find and substantiate falsehoods in Menchú's account.
Menchú narrated her story in a tradition that is both centuries old and shaped by modern forces. Her Quiché Indian heritage relies heavily on oral tradition to pass precepts, information, morals, and history from one generation to the next. As a twentieth-century Guatemalan peasant, her story is also told in the ritual manner of testimonio, or testimony, a form which is common in modern Latin American narratives. In both, there is a sense of shared history to be recounted, a collective memory and experience which any narrator adds to when telling his or her story. Menchú's testimonio is replete with recommendations, explanations, as well as secrets; it is, according to Zimmerman, ‘‘a culminating life act,’’ which aggregates the experiences of many Guatemalans into one narrative. Her use of the pronoun "I," Zimmerman explains, ‘‘is imbedded and absolutely tied to a 'we.'’’ In a CNN report from February 12, 1999, Menchú declared, ‘‘The book that is being questioned is a testimonial that mixes my personal testimony and the testimony of what happened in Guatemala. . .The book that is being questioned is not my biography.’’ Menchú agrees and acknowledges that the book is not her biography; indeed it was never intended to be read as a biography or autobiography. In Indian (and to some extent, Latin American) culture no one's story exists in an individualized vacuum, distinct from this collective memory and experience.
The purpose of Menchú's testimonio is twofold: to inform the global community about the plight of her people, and to be of service to her people by being their voice. In her book Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, Hazel Carby describes a similar process undertaken by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a black female writer in the crisis period of post-Reconstruction, in writing her novel Iola Leroy. Addressing the horrors of slavery and its effects, Harper writes passages which ‘‘shift from the individual experiences of her character to the experience of a race.’’ Harper undertakes an endeavor similar to Menchú's in attempting to give voice to her community, previously silenced by exclusion from the government and the press, as well as from language and literacy acquisition.
This is not to say that lies are acceptable if the text is written for purposes of political persuasion or enlightenment, but Menchú does counter and explain each of Stoll's charges. Menchú affirms, on the first page, ‘‘This is my testimony. I didn't learn it from a book, and I didn't learn it alone.’’ This statement underscores the fact that her testimony was learned, both from other people, and from her own experience, not something which merely happened that she is now just retelling. As reported on CNN.com on February 12, 1999, she asked a New York audience to read her book and "focus attention on the need to investigate and prosecute massacres, kidnappings, and widespread torture during Guatemala's 36-year civil war." Her supporters contend that detailed authenticity does not determine the worthiness of Menchú's activism.
Since Western academic categories do not recognize testimonio as a familiar narrative form, Menchú's book is erroneously categorized as autobiography. But why apply standards of accuracy, plot development, or narrative form of autobiography to a form which is inherently different in purpose and heritage? Western-style autobiography attempts to dramatize one's life story so that the reader may vicariously experience or genuinely empathize with the events in others' lives. Testimonio seeks to accumulate and recount one's own experiences and those of one's community, in order to enlighten and provoke others to action. Stoll's and other's challenges to Menchú's testimonio, even if proven true, will not mitigate her status as a Nobel Prize laureate, or her international prominence as a human rights activist. The implication that the mere taint of fiction should diminish the credibility of Menchú's story and her purpose is clearly a political argument, one which denies the altogether different structure, intent, and history of testimonio and oral tradition, its standing as a widespread cultural practice, and its legitimacy in Menchú's cultural sphere.
Is the point, then, to discredit Menchú's book as literature, thereby rendering it unfit for use in the classroom? If so, one must return to the point that Menchú's book does not fit neatly into the category of autobiography and its dramatic requirements of a captivating plot, well-developed characters, and handily resolved conflicts. Her story is a testimony of events which occurred in Guatemala, events which she wanted to bring to the world's attention for purposes of ending the suffering and exploitation of her people. Menchú's story does not make use of literary conventions that Western readers are accustomed to, expressly because hers is a "resistant literature." She does not want the reader to identify with her, like a sympathetic character in a novel, but to listen to her; she keeps the reader at a distance, rather than develop her character in the book and invite the reader to have complete empathy. As Ann Wright, the translator of Menchú's book, puts it, "Her words want us to understand and react." The book is not recognizably canonical, but it can, however, play an important part in classes where the purpose is to investigate and analyze oral history and political narratives.
In addition, readers of the translated English version are reading a text which is, in Moneyhun's words, ‘‘several times removed from whatever we might recognize as Menchú's 'real world,'’’ because translation is not "simply a negotiation between language but between mind sets and world views." So critics who challenge and denounce Menchú for inconsistencies in her story are doing so based on a text which is not in its original, authentic form. Menchú told her story to ethnographer Elizabeth Burgos-Debray over the course of a week, who then transcribed it and put it into print in Spanish; that Spanish print version was then translated by Ann Wright. Subsequent to Menchú's oral testimony, the printed version was shaped by Burgos-Debray, although she denies doing so in the introduction, only to contradict herself a paragraph later. Burgos-Debray has her own worldview and literary and linguistic influences, as does translator Ann Wright. It is possible that this process of translating, first into Spanish print and then into English, transforms Menchú's story from testimonio to oral history. The difference between oral history and testimonio, according to John Beverly, is that ‘‘in oral history, it is the intentionality of the recorder— usually a social scientist—that is dominant. . .In testimonio, it is the intentionality of the narrator that is paramount. . .testimonio has to involve an urgency to communicate, a problem of repression, poverty. . .[a] struggle for survival, implicated in the act of narration itself.’’ In other words, Menchú's story does not have to be entirely hers, nor entirely personally true, for it to be effective, edifying, motivating, or provocative.
Since she is taking advantage of a rare opportunity to be the voice of a previously silenced people, she is responding to the pressure to tell the story of the whole accurately and poignantly. It is not the sheer veracity of her facts that determines the value of her story in a political-social context, but that the truth of the Guatemalan peasant experience is revealed, comprehended, and honored.
Source: Lydia Kim, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Lydia Kim is a teacher of world history and English literature at Cary Academy in Cary, North Carolina.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3027
Long before David Stoll's book appeared and the New York Times journalist Larry Rohter (1998) gleefully proclaimed it a definitive expose of Guatemala's only Nobel Prize winner since Miguel Angel Asturias (and the only indigenous female, let alone Guatemalan, to become an international icon), there were articles and interviews purporting to summarize Stoll's argument and his motives for advancing it. From exposure to a few of these I formed my first impressions of his project and was willing to give his motives for devoting ten years of his life to it the benefit of the doubt.
I seriously questioned the timing of a book that would most certainly tarnish the reputation of one of the few objects of international pride Guatemalans have had in the past few decades and worried that its appearance would make an already difficult process of reconciliation more so. But I was willing to concede that Stoll's inquiry, however uncomfortable and disagreeable, might lead to a useful reex-amination of the idealizations that inevitably emerge during a war. I was interested in honest discussions of a revolutionary strategy that, in retrospect, had underestimated the power of the enemy and carried such a high cost in human lives, particularly those of indigenous Guatemalans. I knew from experience that complexities, nuances, and contradictions are typically overlooked or go unmentioned in the course of mobilizing support for one or another side in a war or in efforts to stop widespread human rights violations.
If, I reasoned, all Stoll intended to do was to show that Rigoberta's autobiography might have been partly a composite or an oversimplified account, crafted in a historical context that required a certain amount of clandestinity and dissimulation to survive, that could be useful information for those who studied and used oral histories. Again, if it was an account partially shaped by the international audience with whom she was trying to communicate—the First World anthropologist to whom she first told her story and later the audiences in the United States whose sympathy with the plight of indigenous peoples, human rights victims, and activists for change she sought—that might be important to know. Furthermore, different regions of Guatemala had undoubtedly experienced the army, the revolutionary movement, and the violence differently, and reconstruction of events in specific communities could be useful in spite of methodological difficulties such as the fact that many witnesses are dead and survivors tend to shape interpretations to fit those of the victors. Reconstruction of village experiences might be useful even if, as in this case, the villages were not representative of those most sympathetic to the revolutionary movement or those most subject to army retaliation.
Reading the book, however, disabused me of my original generosity about Stoll's agenda and intentions. His aim is to question not only whether Rigoberta Menchu was an eyewitness to the events she describes and whether the story she tells about her family and community coincides with that of others but whether her testimony is a valid account of how the violence began and whether Indians who sided with the revolutionary movement did so out of conviction or out of pragmatism, fear, and manipulation. He suggests that, in fact, Rigoberta and the solidarity movement promoted a mythical interpretation of the origins of the war and that Rigoberta's telling of "her" story around the world actually prolonged the war.
In Stoll's revisionist version of recent Guatemalan history (one supported by few sources other than army apologists), the real cause of poverty is not conflicts between impoverished peasants, mostly Indian, and landed oligarchy, mostly ladino, but rapid population growth. As he sees it, the primary source of conflict in the countryside is tensions among indigenous peasants over land, and the real cause of genocide is not the systematic implementation of counterinsurgency plans (such as Plan Ixil and President Efrain Rios Montt's Plan Victoria '82, devised in consultation with U.S. military advisers and implemented by military officers trained in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s) (Black, 1984) but the actions of "panicked" soldiers and ''a homicidal sector'' of the officer corps baited by the guerrillas. The "indiscriminate" massacres of many innocent civilians, in Stoll's view, were an understandable if regrettable response to the strategy of ‘‘irregular war,’’ in which combatants and civilians cannot be clearly distinguished. Army and guerrilla violence are roughly equivalent. He never discusses the historical links between Guatemalan army violence and U.S. training and advice and never asks why torture, extrajudicial disappearances, and attacks on unarmed civilians have been hallmarks of counterinsurgency campaigns in Latin American countries without rural insurgencies or why the repression extended to villages with little direct involvement in the revolutionary movement.
In Stoll's version, Guatemalan Indians were recruited to a strategy that had "failed" even before the movement's heyday in the 1970s and the army massacres of the 1980s. He implies that guerrilla leaders knew of the risks involved but failed to give peasants and Indians adequate "consumer protection warnings" before joining. Anyone who knows the history of armed revolutionary movements in Latin America knows, however, that the defeat of Che in Bolivia had little to do with the Guatemalan guerrilla movement in the 1980s. Che and his band never managed to get to first base with Bolivian peasants. But Guatemalan revolutionaries incorporated Indian as well as Christian (liberation) philosophy into their theoretical frameworks, learned some of the local languages, spent years studying local conditions, and, unlike Che in Bolivia, recruited successfully from local populations in their areas of greatest strength. One movement was based on the foco guerrilla war strategy and the other on ‘‘popular war’’ more akin to the Vietnam experience (which eventually resulted in independence).
Given the long history of racial/ethnic division, state-sponsored repression, and generalized mistrust in Guatemalan culture, what is extraordinary is the degree of support the revolutionary movement had among rural Indians and ladinos in the 1970s and early 1980s. Not all rural Indians and ladinos, perhaps not even the majority, supported the revolutionary movement. Rarely does any social change movement that has a high degree of risk mobilize a majority of those who are supposed to benefit from it. Nor was there a perfect fit between the goals and dreams of those who supported the movement and those who led it or a homogeneity of motives among the active and passive supporters affiliated with it at different times in different places. There never is. Gaps between the rhetoric and coherent narrative of leaders and the agendas and experiences of followers are a given in social movements, as are exaggerated claims of representation. But what is undeniable is that, after the victory of the Sandinista revolution in 1979 and prior to the Rios Montt coup that implemented a coherent counterinsurgency strategy and centralized military command in 1982, both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and revolutionary sympathizers believed that the Guatemalan revolutionary movement was a real contender for power. Through the 1970s, popular (unarmed) movements demanding land, better wages and working conditions, and an end to repression were strong, heterogeneous, and broadly based. It was partly their strength, particularly in indigenous areas, and, later, the threat of an indigenous insurrection, rather than the threat of the guerrillas alone, that caused the army's response.
Thus, the armed revolutionary strategy adopted in the 1970s did not seem doomed then as it may appear to have been today. If, in retrospect, it is important to question whether it was justified, given its human costs, the counterinsurgency capacity of the army, and the international context (particularly the resolve of the United States not to let another Nicaraguan revolution take place in the region), as some former guerrilla strategists and activists themselves have done, it is with the benefit of hindsight. And if the adoption of an armed revolutionary popular-war strategy indeed closed off opportunities for other forms of resistance, this was not evident in the 1970s when organizing within this framework began.
The Human Agency of Indigenous Revolutionaries
Despite denials, Stoll seems to believe that Indians who joined the revolutionary movement in the 1970s or participated in the beginnings of rural insurrections between 1970 and 1982 (not led or directed by the National Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity [Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca-URNG]) were not really capable of pursuing their own political agenda but were misled or used. Indians, like other poor people, are thus better understood as victims or dupes rather than historical agents. He also seems to believe that the presence of economically better-off rural or urban leaders or intermediaries (priests, nuns, missionaries, university and high school students, middle peasants, etc.) undermines a movement's claims to be fighting poverty, illiteracy, and inequality. More literate and educated people are always catalysts for social movements on behalf of the poor, disenfranchised, and dispossessed. Few social movements would qualify if we removed those led by individuals who came from more literate and economically comfortable backgrounds.
Stoll recognizes that a number of Indians were guerrilla combatants and cadres, including middle-level leaders, in several revolutionary organizations, but he uses the fact that leaders at the highest levels were ladino to diminish the significance of their participation. While we can and should be critical of the relative absence of women and Indians in high-level leadership positions in the Guatemalan guerrilla movement, this criticism should not be allowed to obscure the significance of the hundreds who joined the movement with agendas that both paralleled and diverged from those of top leaders. Women, for example, frequently saw participation in the revolution as a vehicle through which sexism and discrimination could be addressed, despite the reluctance of leaders to raise these issues directly (see Chinchilla, 1998), and Indian women and men joined the revolution to address issues related to racism as well as economic exploitation.
Rigoberta and the Human Rights and Solidarity Movements
There is no doubt that many people in the United States who met Rigoberta for the first time in the early 1980s were impressed, moved, and even transfixed by her. She was young, articulate, and intelligent. For those of us who knew Guatemala, the fact that an indigenous woman from a country where Indians had been marginalized and subordinated could connect so well with audiences of people so different from her was extraordinary. Rigoberta left lasting impressions on cynical journalists and television interviewers as well.
Powerful as Rigoberta's book and, even more, her persona were in reaching uninitiated audiences, heads of state, and international diplomats, however, I, Rigoberta Menchu was hardly the human rights and solidarity movement's "little red book," and Rigoberta was never its leader. If it turns out to be true that scholars were not skeptical enough about Rigoberta's representations of her particular family and village, it is because the outlines of her account coincided with those of many other reputable sources, including a landmark study of land concentration and landlessness by the U.S. Agency for International Development published in 1982 and eyewitness and secondhand accounts by missionaries, priests, nuns, ministers, anthropologists, Peace Corps volunteers, journalists, refugees and immigrants, and United Nations workers.
While the popularity of Rigoberta's book on college campuses may have made it a key source for some students and teachers who knew little else about Guatemala, for the Guatemalan solidarity, human rights, and scholars groups it was hardly the only or even the most important one. At the national and international level, people concerned about Guatemala were never dependent solely on URNG representatives for their information about political conditions and human rights. Amnesty International, Americas Watch, scholars, journalists, and a myriad of church groups took great pains to document the situation and design campaigns for stopping the repression.
Even the National Network in Solidarity with Guatemala (NISGUA), formed in the early 1980s, had a wide range of groups and members as its affiliates-pacifists, armed-struggle supporters, liberals, socialists, human rights activists, atheists, clerics, missionaries, ordinary churchgoers, students and professionals, Spanish teachers, artists, anthropologists, archaeologists, world travelers, hippies, (U.S.) Native Americans, weavers and importers of indigenous crafts, and others. The URNG analysis of events and strategies was always available in NISGUA, but it was certainly not embraced without question. The most enduring point of unity in NISGUA was working to end serious human rights violations and changing U.S. policy. As Marilyn Moors, who worked closely with Washington, DC, groups and the national office, told me in a recent conversation, ‘‘Never have I known a network made up of more contentious groups and individuals than NISGUA in the 1980s.’’ Her observation coincides with my own firsthand experience.
Groups affiliated with the solidarity and human rights networks included many Guatemalan activists, some of them recent immigrants, representing a variety of ages and classes, ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds. The Guatemalan solidarity committee with which I worked in Los Angeles always had access to a wide variety of opinions from families of committee members and the large Guatemalan immigrant community, numbering somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000, including some 2,000 to 3,000 Q'anjob'al Indians. These voices included those of URNG supporters and combatants, former government soldiers and deserters, Q'anjob'al Indians who had worked with the Ejercito Guerrillo de los Pobres (Guerrilla Army of the Poor-EGP) and others who claimed to have been victimized by it, priests who supported the movement and priests who did not, Guatemalans who were Marxists and Guatemalans who were staunch anticommunists, and a variety of politicalparty activists from left to right. People in the solidarity movement who had grown up in Guatemala or who had deep roots there were very familiar with the complexities and contradictions and the many levels of meaning, overt and hidden, of a social reality characterized more by repression than by democracy and trust.
Likewise, the Guatemala Scholars' Network, which began with some 20 members in the early 1980s and grew to some 350, has always been a politically and philosophically diverse group, as Stoll, who himself has been a member for some years, undoubtedly knows. The Scholars' Network included well-informed individuals with long experience in Guatemala. If we add together the Guatemalan activists, the scholar activists, and other students, journalists, and ex-missionaries and clerics, we undoubtedly had more people with firsthand knowledge of Guatemala in all its complexity than any other similar support movement in recent history. Behind the activism was a deep appreciation for historical context that Stoll, despite his anthropology training, surprisingly lacks.
If Stoll wishes to be taken seriously, he must do more than substitute one superficial, unidimensional stereotype for another. His portrayal of the Guatemala solidarity movement and the network of activist scholars who undertook human rights and solidarity work in the 1980s is little more than a caricature.
Reaction to the Book in Guatemala
Stoll asserts that anyone who subscribes to a historical view of the origins of army violence by dating it to the 1960s or to elite fears generated by land reform and the mobilization of workers and peasants during the 1944-1954 reform movements (violently brought to an end through a CIA-supported coup) and anyone who believes that poverty, discrimination, repression, and inequality created fertile ground for revolution has "bought into" the URNG line. Human rights agencies, solidarity organizations, the United Nations, European governments, scholars, religious people, and ordinary citizens have fallen for this URNG-propagated myth, Stoll believes, because Rigoberta's testimony has given it credibility.
But this version of history, in one form or another, is also shared by many Guatemalans, including those not necessarily sympathetic to the revolutionary movement. Guatemala's foreign minister, who recently spoke at my university, for example, cited poverty, discrimination, political repression, inequality, and a lack of democracy as the principal reasons for the war. The local deputy consul general talks in similar terms. Furthermore, most Guatemalans believe that Rigoberta's narrative is essentially true, if not for her and her family then for the many other Indians who suffered during the war. They remark on the naivete of a white North American anthropologist's traipsing through areas controlled or previously controlled by the army that have suffered repression asking questions about politics and clandestine organizations. They are stunned to learn, for example, that a trained anthropologist could ask the mayor of Uspantin if people in his town had been organized by the Committee for Campesino Unity and take his answer (‘‘I don't recall calling a CUC meeting’’) at face value. With the indigenous poet Humberto Akabal, they believe that "in Guatemala, it is not that the rocks can't talk; it is that they don't want to." The debate over Stoll's critique of Rigoberta's book in the Guatemalan press was intense for little more than two weeks and then became insignificant. More important, most Guatemalan writers or politicians, including notoriously conservative and anticommunist ones such as Jorge Skinner-Klee and Carlos Manuel Pellecer, have found little in Stoll's argument with which they could identify. Skinner-Klee has gone so far as to call Rigoberta's book ‘‘a Guatemalan epic’’ on the order of the Odyssey or the Iliad.
Stoll's version of the U.S. human rights and solidarity movements is naive at best and opportunist at worst. He must impeach not only Rigoberta but the whole of the human rights and solidarity movement to create space for his idiosyncratic version of recent Guatemalan history. He attempts to do this by caricaturing the movements and arguing that Rigoberta's testimony was their centerpiece. He gives little consideration to how his own positionality may have shaped his choice of an entry point into developed-country culture wars. He is unapologetic about his use of an inherently problematic methodology and insufficiently concerned about how the time and circumstances of his first entries into the region (in the middle of the worst of the war in the 1980s, when reportedly only the army and people sympathetic to it trusted him) might have shaped his understanding of rural indigenous Guatemala or how his conducting interviews in areas where he does not speak the local language may have influenced what people chose to tell him. In the end, it is Stoll the journalist rather than Stoll the scholar who pursues what some have called the ‘‘symbolic impeachment’’ of Rigoberta Menchu's testimony.
Source: Norma Stoltz Chinchilla, ‘‘Of Straw Men and Stereotypes: Why Guatemalan Rocks Don't Talk,’’ in Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 26, No. 6, November, 1999, pp. 29-37.
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Two recent news items on Guatemala have made headlines in North American papers. One is the publication of the report of the UN Commission for Historical Clarification, which found the Guatemalan army overwhelmingly responsible for the political massacres that left some 200,000 Mayans dead or missing in the course of that country's 36-year civil war. The other comes from reports questioning the veracity of the biography of the best-known spokesperson for Guatemala's indigenous peoples, Rigoberta Menchu.
Clearly, the present airings of doubt about Rigoberta Menchu's life story are emblematic of the political skepticism of the 1990s—a decade that witnessed the collapse of really-existing socialism, the failure of Sandinismo in Nicaragua and the retreat of progressives everywhere from any semblance of a radical engagement or a global vision. We have to understand the present zeitgeist to understand why such stories now show up on the front pages of The New York Times.
The present controversies surrounding I, Rigoberta Menchu also require an understanding of how its literary-polemical form, the testimonio, or testimony, emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. The testimony grew out of the unique relationship between popular movements in Latin America—especially Central America—and solidarity movements in the United States and Western Europe. The goal of the testimony was to didactically convey salient sociological facts to a Northern audience through an exemplary life history, and to thereby solicit moral, political and economic support for local struggles.
Revolutionary upheavals in Central America were in no small part struggles over basic material resources. These conflicts acquired horrific scale and brutality owing to the racist legacies of colonialism and the entrenchment of landed elites in authoritarian governments and abusive militaries. Communicating complex historical lessons like these has always been difficult, but it proved well-nigh impossible to convey the salient facts against a Reagan propaganda offensive demonizing Communist aggression in ‘‘our backyard.’’
The testimony offered an end-run around these obstacles. It attempted to convey an analysis of indisputable facts of scale—inequality, racism, repression and struggle—through the details of an individual life. Like its antecedent—the ethnobiographies collected by Oscar Lewis—the testimony condensed a life history into a single argument about a big picture. Therein lay the polemical strength but also the analytical weakness of the form. The testimony is convincing, not because it offers a studied, exhaustive analysis of social structures or historical developments, but because it weaves a narrative of discovery as an autobiographical tale: The author comes to the Truth simply by knowing his or her own experiences, by claiming his or her own voice, by possessing his or her self. The appeal of the story is thus based on the authoritative voice of the speaker, who stands as a representative of larger social groups.
Rigoberta Menchu's life story was more successful than myriad other testimonies of the period because, in the circulation of meanings on a global scale, it better reflected the tastes and interests of its intended audience in the United States and Western Europe. Page by page, Menchu's life appears as a straightforward morality play about the coming-to-consciousness of a poor Indian peasant woman. As with didactic Hollywood movies, nothing complicates the picture, where poor Indians struggle against rich Ladinos. Menchu's struggles are those of Everywoman, her story is the story of all poor Guatemalans.
But individual life history seldom dovetails so clearly with the larger course of social history, much less with the demands of an audience craving clear-cut tales of unmediated authenticity. Individuals cannot really exemplify the singular experiences or uniform interests of larger groups. Poor Indian peasant women invariably turn out to have varied experiences, opinions and interests.
What was long whispered in solidarity circles and suspected by academics who used I, Rigoberta Menchu now appears to have been empirically documented: Some of the narrator's details do not quite square with the facts, at least the facts as recalled by other eye witnesses. With a middle-school education, Menchu was undoubtedly better educated than her story lets on. Three of Menchu's siblings died, apparently under circumstances bearing some resemblance to but not quite identical with events she describes. The central land struggle in Menchu's autobiography undeniably happened in the context of a highly stratified social system in which Spanish-speaking Ladinos wield power and wealth, but this particular conflict occurred not between poor Indians and rich Ladinos but, as is so often the case, between related indigenous families, neither of whom could be described as wealthy or powerful. And so on.
In short, Menchu appears to have told her story in a manner that force-fits her and her family's experiences into the social analysis she wished to dramatize. The narrator thus becomes Exemplary Rigoberta, the very personification of Maya struggles, edited and airbrushed into an icon who stands outside the course of real-life events (which are always complex) to embody a simplified lesson, a clear purpose, a Pure Idea.
Narrative devices like these—the use of composite personas, shadings of events—would have scarcely raised an eyebrow in a properly qualified ethnographic work or in an historical novel. But they undercut the authority of a text that purports to tell us the unvarnished truth—indeed, that reports to embody the truth, in a singular persona—without proviso or caveats. It cannot be said that anyone has come out very well in the ensuing brouhaha.
After casting himself as the Matt Drudge of anthropology, David Stoll has insisted that he never intended to attack or discredit Menchu. This is not very convincing. Stoll suggests in an interview in the March/April 1999 issue of NACLA that his real aim is to contribute to a critical reassessment of the guerrilla struggles of the 1970s and 1980s. But poking holes in Menchu's autobiography does not demonstrate his by-now familiar refrain that violence only begets more violence. If one's goal were a balanced assessment, it would be far more logical to suggest that whatever semblance of formal democracy that now exists in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua owes its existence to the very revolutionary movements Stoll now disparages.
Menchu, for her part, has responded by questioning the timing of Stoll's book and The New York Times reporting it stimulated. She has suggested that such unflattering reportage is part of a conspiracy designed to cast doubt on the findings of the Guatemalan truth commission. In NACLA, the Times, and other vehicles, Menchu falls back on two standard defenses: Are you saying my brother isn't dead? Are you saying Indians are all liars? Once again, Menchu conflates her own persona with the people and with the movement.
Perhaps most disappointing have been the responses coming from the North American academic left. ‘‘I don't care whether it's true or not,’’ huffs one scholar in The Chronicle of Higher Education . Others insist that Menchu's account is, in effect, still true, even if it is not. The Guatemala Scholars Network insists that Menchu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize not because she watched her brother being burned alive or because she was eye-witness to horrific violence, but because of her role as a public spokesperson for the indigenous rights movement. Such a statement evades the obvious. Menchu was awarded the Prize precisely because she wove a convincing narrative about the deaths of her family members into a story about ethnic, class and political conflicts. Her family indeed met gruesome deaths at the hands of the state. But would her tale have had the same force, would it have received the same accolades, had it begun in the real-life complexity of land conflicts between related indigenous families?
Although Menchu's testimony has never much affected the course of indigenous rights or political mobilization inside Guatemala, her impact on solidarity politics, higher education and multiculturalism in the United States and other Northern countries has been more profound. For a time, she stood as an object lesson on the truth of identity and the power of authentic voices. Her testimony was touted as a new model of writing, one that superseded the traditional canon, standards of argumentation, and demands for ethnographic verification. She was appropriated as the most accessible of the postcolonials, and an image of Menchu was shaped that compounded the bases of identity politics—poor, Indian, peasant, woman. On this count, the left, in effect, fell prey to its own worst impulses—a tendency to romanticize noble natives and to oversimplify the nature of social struggles in stratified societies.
It is not just for academic reasons that editorial airbrushing and oversimplification are bad practices. Iconization is a bad practice for the left because it offers a fake resolution for the real complexities and dilemmas of history. The emotional work performed by icons is good for rallying the faithful, but proves incompatible with effective struggle. Halos illuminate nothing. The facts matter. Details matter. Complexity matters. Any left incapable of working through the facts in all their complexity will be by definition inadequate to the task it poses.
This is no small point. Accuracy about the shape of local struggles is of critical importance, as Alejandro Bendafia's study of demobilized Contras, Una Tragedia Campesina: Testimonios de la Resistencia, illustrates. When the triumphant Sandinistas brought the revolution into remote areas of Nicaragua after their 1979 victory, they were drawn into pre-existing land feuds between contending campesino kin groups and political factions—disputes much like those to which Menchu's relatives were party. Preaching the gospel of redistributive justice and class empowerment, inexperienced cadre took an oversimplified approach to the crazy-quilt patchwork of alliances they encountered in the countryside. In consequence, they sometimes took land from poor peasants to give to other poor peasants. Such mistakes, repeated wherever the FSLN had shallow roots or failed to understand local conflicts, embittered a section of the rural poor and created the Contra base that was so effectively mobilized by Washington.
But mistakes in practice and interpretation notwithstanding, some basic facts remain: Large numbers of people in Central America joined revolutionary struggles in the 1970s and 1980s not because they were deceived by clever storytellers who wielded details in a slippery manner, but because gross inequalities and political repression led them to the conclusion that only revolutionary movements could implement the desired changes.
Who is telling that story in a plausible, methodical manner today?
Source: Roger N. Lancaster, ‘‘Rigoberta's Testimonio,’’ in NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 32, Issue 6, May-June, 1999, p. 4.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2681
Rigoberta Menchu, 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 Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (Westview Press, 1998), in which he questions many aspects of Rigoberta's life story presented in I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (Verso, 1984). 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.
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?
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 complimentary, 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. REHMI 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 Menchu, 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 Menchu.
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 Menchu—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 therefor 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 liked 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 Menchu. But he doesn't realize that this myth called Rigoberta Menchu 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 guerilla 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 Menchu 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.
Source: Jo-Marie Burt and Fred Rosen, ‘‘Truth-telling and Memory in Postwar Guatemala: An Interview with Rigoberta Menchu,'' in NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 32, Issue 5, March-April, 1999, p. 6.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3589
I'll never forget the first time I stood in front of a university classroom in the fall of 1966. It was packed with the composition students I would be teaching as a part-timer at a large urban campus in Chicago. Names like Mary Ellen Arpino, Lois Leposky, Joan Krishko, and Ron Sigada reminded me of my own classmates back in the Western Pennsylvania mining town where I was born. Part of the Anglo-Saxon minority in Portage, I had grown up feeling both superior to and excluded from the Italian and Eastern European Catholics whose lives I observed with both fear and envy through the window of my Republican childhood.
Those people were the "foreigners," according to my great-Aunt Mary who had come to the United States from Scotland when she and my grandmother were still toddlers. Annie Dillard's Western Pennsylvania childhood was spent in fear and envy of the Irish Catholic Jo Anne Sheehys who, in Dillard's An American Childhood, ice-skated in the winter street outside her Point Breeze house in Pittsburgh. In my own adolescence, I was in awe of the Mary Ellens and the Joanies whose bodies glided with their own "radiance" across the teen canteen dance floor.
As soon as I began calling the roll on that first day of composition class, I knew that I would be canceling most of the supplementary texts I had added to the anthology of essays departmentally required for all composition sections. I would make room on the syllabus for my students' lives. The course, I hoped, would be a larger window on American ethnicity.
After leaving Chicago for Chapel Hill some ten years after I began my teaching career, Annie Dillard's autobiography, had it been published by then, might have been the model of the book I wanted to write about growing up in Western Pennsylvania. Having left the flat plain of the Middle West, I found myself again in the Back Country whose low mountains chained down the Alleghenies to the Carolina Piedmont. But instead of writing my own autobiography, I returned to graduate school at the end of my first year in North Carolina so that I could develop a theory of autobiography that employed the writing of others.
Four years after publishing my dissertation, I left for a city among other hills halfway around the world. Divorced by then and taking my first sabbatical since starting out in that Chicago classroom, I decided that I wanted to turn fifty in Jerusalem, not Greensboro, North Carolina where I was a tenured professor of religion and literature. It was on my subsequent return to Jerusalem that I first read Dillard's An American Childhood. Having taken the sabbatical to begin a book on the autobiography of the Holocaust, I later went back to Jerusalem to work and study on the Palestinian West Bank.
It was in the third world, then, that I first read Annie Dillard' s autobiography and, as it turned out, began writing my own. I say, ‘‘as it turned out,’’ because I didn't realize how much of my own life was implicated in a book I began to write about a Palestinian refugee family. Gaining access to the life of that family was not a matter of getting outside my own window but of acknowledging that it was there: I was looking at them from somewhere. How the window of my own life both blocks and facilitates the telling of Palestinian lives was part of the story I wanted to tell.
The information I have been supplying thus far is not personal background but critical foreground to the more explicit argument I want to develop about an ethics of reading third world autobiography, which begins with the reader, not with the text. Defining the location of that reader is the first interpretive task for such an ethics. The next interpretive task requires the interrogating of that location. Defining and interrogating the reader's location finally affords the reader what Edward Said calls a ‘‘wider optics’’—a new and expanded location which can move interpretation toward transformation or what George Yudice has recently called an "ethics of survival," which engages the autobiographical activity of the first world reader as well as the third world text. Along the way, I will be addressing the differing functions of the ' 'other'' in first and third world representations of selfhood and identity.
I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala is the third world autobiography I want to use. A life history set in a country that accounts for more than half of the disappeared in Latin America, I, Rigoberta Menchu is a counter-story that works against such disappearance to the extent that it testifies to the appearance of her people on the stage of history and names the harsh reality in which they live. It is furthermore a resistance story about directing that history and transforming that reality.
Life stories like Menchu's emerged in Latin America after the Cuban Revolution and were elicited by other more privileged women like the Venezuelan anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, who edited and inscribed Menchu's story. She interviewed Menchu in Paris, where the Guatemalan had been invited in 1982 to participate in a conference sponsored by the 31 January Popular Front. The organization's name commemorates the day in 1980 when Menchu's father and other early leaders of the Committee of Campesino Unity had been burned to death during their peaceful occupation of the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City to protest military repression in their villages.
Latin American women like Burgos-Debray were trying to overcome their own marginality in a patriarchal culture. Through such testimonials as Menchu's, they wanted to show that oppressed people were subjects and not merely objects of national histories. The inscribers of these testimonials were also raising questions about the negative aspects of the concept ''third world'' with its connotations of dependency and racial backwardness. They were helping to redefine "third world" as a positive term of radical critique against colonialist policies both inside and outside Latin America.
When I returned to my teaching career in the United States, I decided to use An American Childhood as a point of embarkation for the course on third world autobiography which I team-taught with an anthropologist. An autobiography like hers, we agreed, could be useful in defining our own location since most of us, like Dillard, had had a middle-class American childhood. More than that, Dillard would help us to measure the distance between our lives and Menchu's, in their differing modes of self-representation as well as their material conditions.
In beginning the course with Dillard, we began to appreciate some of the differences between what I called autobiography of nostalgia and the testimonial. The former represents a mainstream tradition of self-writing in the industrialized West and North. A strategy of recovering what would otherwise be lost, autobiography of nostalgia is directed toward the past. The autobiographer's identity depends not only on recovering this past but on individuating his or her experience of the past. Childhood memories are especially important since it is in that period that the process of individuation has its start. That process is experienced as separation, painful but necessary to establish a self/world boundary that must be kept essentially intact to assure the unique individuality on which identity is based. Growing up requires the self s outward movement into the world, but in such a way that a sense of boundary is maintained and even sharpened by experiences of otherness. The other, alluring but dangerous, continues to reset those limits that keep alive one's sense of having a self.
Unlike nostalgic autobiography of the first world, the testimonial's understanding of selfhood is based on collective identity, not individuality. Early in her account, Menchu is quick to insist that her ''personal experience is the reality of a whole people.’’ What follows in the first half of her book is the description of rituals which establish the bond between the community and each of its members. Those rituals begin with the practice of the mother who, ''on the first day of her pregnancy goes with her husband to tell ... elected leaders that she's going to have a child, because the child will not only belong to them but to the whole community.’’
Like other third world autobiographies, the testimonial is oriented toward creating a future rather than recovering a past. It is a form of utopian literature that contributes to the realization of a liberated society based on distributive justice. A form of resistance literature as well as utopian literature, the testimonial resists not only economic and political oppression, but also any nostalgic pull towards an idealized past—pre-Hispanic origins, for instance, which promise false comfort. To resort to such indigenism would implicate Menchu in the very culture from which her testimonial wants to free itself.
While autobiography of nostalgia welcomes and, in fact, needs the other, the testimonial has to find ways of deconstructing it, since otherness in the third world is the most basic structure of colonial control. It is a construction by means of which the oppressed are kept "barbarian" and the colonizer securely defined as the bearer of civilization's burden. The operative existence of the other justifies a colonialist structure of domination.
Through autobiography of nostalgia like An American Childhood, I tried to define and establish the location from which the first world reader listens to the voice of Rigoberta Menchu. The reader I constructed is a reader very much like myself some ten years ago when I developed a theory of autobiography based on the self-writing of Thoreau, Wordsworth, and Proust—all of them writing in the romantic tradition of an Annie Dillard and all of them members of a culture that already has a voice (Gunn, Autobiography). Although I raised questions about an autobiographical tradition that privileged the private and ahistorical self, it was not until I spent time in the third world that I began to see that another set of questions had to be raised about the ''narrative space of familiarity'' that my very choice of texts constructed (Kaplan). That space was first of all defined by the first world citizenship of my informants. To be sure, I ended my project with Black Elk, but even there I was reading his testimonial out of the location I had established by means of the others. It is that location I began to interrogate with the help of Menchu.
Were the reader to respond to Menchu from an unexamined mainstream location in the first world, she would, I think, be disturbed or simply incredulous at the suffering that fills Menchu's world and frustrated at how little she could do to alleviate that suffering. She might conclude much like Jane Tompkins did in her essay on American Indians: ''The moral problem that confronts me now is not that I can never have any facts to go on, but that the work I do is not directed towards solving the kinds of problems that studying the Indians has awakened me to.’’ Such limits must be acknowledged in establishing an ethics of reading third world autobiography that gets us beyond a conventional ethics of altruism to an ‘‘ethics of survival.’’
An American Childhood epitomizes a nostalgic mode of self-representation. The following passage illustrates several of its main characteristics:
How much noticing could I permit myself without driving myself round the bend? Too much noticing and I was too self-conscious to live; I trapped and paralyzed myself, and I dragged my friends down with me, so that we couldn't meet each other's eyes, my own loud awareness damning us both. Too little noticing, though ... and I would miss the whole show. I would awake on my deathbed and say, What was that?
Replete with echoes from Thoreau's famous words about going to the woods to live deliberately, Dillard's passage underscores three features associated with a mainstream autobiographical tradition of the industrialized world. First of all, its ‘‘loud awareness'' calls attention to a Cartesian singularity of consciousness. Second, the passage calls attention to an aesthetics within which individuation and style are coterminous. Third, Dillard's exact noticing combines with exact expression to situate the passage in a tradition which privileges inner selfness as both the spring of artistic activity and the starting-point of ontological reckoning. The world is significant to the extent that it enters and is ratified by one's consciousness: Dillard writes, ‘‘... things themselves possessed no fixed and intrinsic amount of interest; instead things were interesting as long as you had attention to give them.''
Nostalgic autobiography seems to hold out the promise that memory can achieve perfect rapport with the past. Dillard writes her autobiography to rescue the sensuous details of her childhood from what she calls a ‘‘cave of oblivion.’’ She understands memory to be an empty space individually filled rather than a cultural activity practiced in and informed by an historical and ideological situation. In order to maintain a centered "I" by defining itself against the other, Dillard's autobiographical agenda has to remain fixed. In the sense that Menchu's testimonial "I" represents the communal and resistant "we," its agenda must remain open.
The comfortable Pittsburgh neighborhoods of Point Breeze and Squirrel Hill where Annie Dillard had her American childhood are worlds away from the inhospitable mountains and fincas of Guatemala where Menchu grew up. Even so, Dillard has her dangerous places: the ''dark ways'' of the Roman Catholic Sheehy family, the ''greasy black soil'' of Doc Hall's alley, the Frick Park bridges under which the bums had been living since the Great Depression, and, in the earliest memory of all, her own bedroom into whose corners a slithering, elongated "thing" would burst nightly to search her out. In the process of figuring the "thing" out as the lights of passing cars, young Annie was "forced" to what she calls "the very rim of her being, to the membrane of skin that both separates and connects the inner life and the outer world."
In the daily mapping of her world, it is important for Dillard to name those experiences of what might be called the other but at the same time to keep them on the outside of that membrane. Like the ice-skating figure of Jo Anne Sheehy whom she watches from the ‘‘peace and safety’’ of the Dillard house, they are experiences which take place on the outside of her skin's rim—dark, dangerous, criminal, but also beautiful, mysterious, and "radiant." Dillard's child is careful to keep the membrane virginally unbroken, but she needs nonetheless to be taken to her ''edge'' with that combination of ‘‘desire and derision’’ which communicates the anxiety involved in the construction of otherness (Bhabha).
Not surprisingly, Menchu's autobiographical agenda is quite different. But in a world more literally dangerous, it is surprisingly more open. The telling of her story is a matter of cultural survival. In telling that story to Burgos-Debray, she makes it clear that she used the story of her own past as a strategy for organizing her people against landowners and the larger system of oppression whose interests they represented. "I had some political work to do, organizing the people there, and at the same time getting them to understand me by telling them about my past, what had happened to me in my life, the reasons for the pain we suffer, and the causes of poverty."
In no way unique, Menchu's story is intended to elicit recognition and, in naming the suffering she shares with her people, to deliver them and herself from muteness. Such muteness is a product of oppression. As recently observed by a fellow-member of the Committee of Campesino Unity, ‘‘a person can be poor, dirt poor, but not even realize the depth of their poverty since it's all they know'' (MacGregor). To take notice of the oppression and to give it a name is the first step beyond it. Noticing, it turns out, is an even more important activity in Menchu's culture of' "silence" than it is in Dillard's culture, whose voice is secure. But it is a noticing of material conditions, not a noticing of noticing.
Menchu's testimonial is a story of resistance as well as a story of oppression. More precisely, her testimonial is itself an act of resistance. Solidarity growing out of resistance as much as membership in a community of the oppressed produces the circumstances of her identity. Menchu has to be reminded of these circumstances by a twelve-year-old when she is on the verge of hopelessness following the torture deaths of her brother and then her mother. '‘‘A revolutionary isn't born out of something good,'’’ the young girl told her; '''she is born out of wretchedness and bitterness.''' The twelve-year-old goes on to add something very foreign to an autobiographer of consciousness like Dillard: "We have to fight without measuring our suffering, or what we experience, or thinking about the monstrous things we must bear in life." Menchu's testimonial is instead an autobiography of conscientization.
Menchu leaves behind the communal rituals that have long anchored her and her people in order to enter resistance activity that keeps her on the run outside her own community. Far from mourning her loss, she opens herself to new and potentially conflicting strategies of survival, especially in learning Spanish and turning to the Bible. Spanish is the language of her enemy; those who learn it, as her father cautioned her, often leave the Indian community. The Bible had been used by many priests and nuns to keep her people "dormant while others took advantage of their passivity." Menchu, however, uses both, especially the Bible, as "weapons." Far from being ‘‘an unlikely, movie-set world’’ as it was for Dillard, the Bible became a document by means of which Menchu could understand her people's reality. Moses ‘‘gets pluralized and Christ turns into a political militant’’ (Sommer). Biblical stories allowed Menchu and her people to give yet another name to their oppression.
Instead of constructing a single map within whose boundaries a Dillard can hold safely onto a sense of individual identity, Menchu superimposes many ‘‘conflicting maps’’ in a collective and incorporative struggle for communal survival (Sommer). Yudice notes (in words that echo liberation theologian Enrique Dussel), ‘‘her oppression and that of her people have opened them to an unfixity delimited by the unboundedness of struggle.’’
Dillard's autobiography set side-by-side with Menchu's testimonial raises a new set of issues that can move us in the direction of Yudice's ''ethics of survival.’’ A third world testimonial like Menchu's serves to destabilize the nostalgic structure of autobiography based on a loss and recovery ostensibly beyond the marketplace that gives force to those very terms. More important, it lays the ground for exposing otherness as that construction which keeps women, blacks, Jews, Palestinians, and Guatemalan Indians in their subordinate place.
In order that interpretation become transformative and reading of third world autobiography be ethical, we need to re-insert texts into political cultures and what Raymond Williams calls the "life of communities" (Said). The Pittsburgh of the Fricks and Carnegies is also the Pittsburgh of the unemployed steelworkers and the black slums. That the latter are outside Dillard's ken has everything to do with the fact that the former are not. Gerald Graff has recently reminded us that ‘‘what we don't see enables and limits what we do see.’’ He was offering a personal account of how his teaching of Heart of Darkness has changed as a result of confronting a very different reading of the text from the third world perspective of the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. Simply out of sight from this or that location, huge chunks of the world are blocked out.
Dillard's memories of Pittsburgh block out the Polish and Slovak steelworkers and the Hill District ghetto except, in the case of the latter, as a place where boarding-school boys carouse. To acknowledge such unavoidable blocking is to open the way for examining the emancipatory potential of autobiographical practice in testimonials like I, Rigoberta Menchu. With that "wider optics," we might find a way of breaking through the membrane of critical isolation and solitude to an ethical criticism practiced ‘‘in solidarity with others struggling for survival’’ (Yudice).
Cornel West identifies as an Enlightenment legacy ''the inability to believe in the capacities of oppressed people to create cultural products of value and oppositional groups of value.’’ In any ethical reading of third world autobiography, the racism inherent in this legacy must be exposed and rejected. George Yudice turns this legacy on its head when he concludes his essay ''Marginality and the Ethics of Survival'' by defining ''ethical practice'' as the "political art of seeking articulations among all the 'marginalized' and oppressed, in the interests of our own survival.'' ''We need not speak for others,’’ he says, ‘‘but we are responsible for a 'self-forming activity' that can in no way be ethical if we do not act against the 'disappearance' of oppressed subjects.’’
Autobiography like I, Rigoberta Menchu calls on first world readers to take responsibility, not for the third world but for the locatedness and therefore the limitations of our own perspective. Acknowledging those limitations might contribute to the survival of us all. The ultimate window of opportunity is to stand with Menchu and, acknowledging the cost borne by the third world for our own selfhood, to affiliate at the borders between us.
Source: Janet Varner Gunn, '‘‘A Window of Opportunity: An Ethics of reading Third World Autobiography,’’ in College Literature, Vol., 19, No. 3, October—February, 1992, p. 162.