I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala

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Historical Context

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A Thirty-five Year Civil War
When Guatemala's economy changed from an agrarian economy to an trade economy based on coffee in the late 1800s, the government needed more and more land on which to grow this lucrative cash crop. To satisfy its need for land, the government employed a strategy known as ‘‘land grabs,’’ whereby arable land was forcibly taken from Indian villages and used to grow coffee and other cash crops. Because coffee was labor intensive to process, the government began to pressure Indian communities to work on plantations, as Pratt explains, by "passing a 'vagrancy law' requiring all landless peasants to work for at least 150 days per year for either thefincas or the state." This law, in conjunction with the military's takeover of Indian land (thereby rendering Indians "landless" in the eyes of the law), is the reason why Menchú's family and so many others had to migrate to the coast for most of every year to work on the fincas.

A new government came into power in 1944, beginning a period known as the ‘‘Ten Years of Spring,’’ with Arbenz as president. Labor and land laws were modified to favor peasants' rights, land was taken from corporations and redistributed back to peasants. Unfortunately for the peasants, the largest corporate landowner was United Fruit Company, a U.S.-owned conglomerate, who cried foul and ''Communism'' back in the States, which was experiencing the McCarthy anti-Communist juggernaut; United Fruit had a monopoly on fruit exports from Guatemala, and it ‘‘stood to lose 400,000 acres,’’ in the land redistribution, according to Pratt. The Arbenz government was overthrown in a U.S.-backed military coup in 1954, part of the United States' worldwide anti-Communism campaign, and was replaced by a military dictatorship.

Organizers such as Menchú and her family members, and Indians in general, because of their communal ways and organizing work, were labeled as Communists and became government targets nearly overnight. It was during the period of authoritarian rule following Arbenz' administration that the ‘‘land grabs’’ were in full force; peasant lands were once again forcibly reappropriated and peasant resistance crushed. The guerrilla movement developed in response to the government's brutal tactics, in tandem with a groundswell of grassroots organizing, such as literacy campaigns, farming cooperatives, and health initiatives for the poor. The government responded to guerrilla reprisals by organizing death squads, such as the notorious ‘‘La Mano Blanco,'' or the White Hand. During a peaceful occupation of the Spanish Embassy, against the protests of the Spanish ambassador, the army set fire to the building, killing all but one protester, including Menchú's father.

An irony is that the finca system actually brought groups of Indians into contact, a gathering which would have been difficult otherwise, given the remoteness of most Indian villages. Indians from different groups were able to meet and compare experiences and, eventually, communicate and organize. Perhaps one of the largest triumphs of the resistance was the coalition established between ladino peasants and Indians, manifested during the strike of over 75,000 workers in 1980. It was a coalition which could only develop when racist, classist, and linguistic barriers were finally minimized.

Literary Style

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Menchú's story begins with the story of her parents, her orphaned father and her abandoned mother, who both matured under the same impoverished conditions as Menchú herself. In her narration, Menchú takes the reader from the dreadful conditions of the finca to the difficult but fulfilling communal life.

Point of View
The book is written in first person, from the point of view of Menchú, who has learned to speak Spanish through immersion. She is in her early...

(This entire section contains 788 words.)

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twenties when she dictates her story to ethnographer Burgos-Debray, and she describes not only her life story, but the stories of her father and mother, other villages, and the evolution of the CUC (The United Peasants Committee).

There are two salient symbols which Menchú weaves through her narrative: maize and talk. Maize (corn) is the center of the Indian economy; they eat, sell, and feed their animals with maize. They hold elaborate ceremonies before the first yearly harvest of maize. Childbirth ceremonies reaffirm that humans are made of maize, and how the essence of humans can be found in maize. Maize is the life-blood of the Quiché Indian culture.

Talk is another important representation of Quiché culture; it is through talk, spoken language, that those near death pass on their recommendations and secrets, and it is through talk that young people and newlyweds reiterate their commitment to the community and its ways. It is the inability to talk to one another that keeps the different Indian ethnicities from uniting effectively against their common oppressors, the ladino landowners and government. When tortured by the army, Indians have their tongues cut or split, so they will not be able to talk of the atrocities they have suffered, or pass along warnings and true stories of brutality.

I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala has a dual literary heritage, descending from ancient Mayan/Quiché Indian culture and shaped by modern Guatemalan social forces. As a spoken narrative which was transcribed and put into print by ethnographer Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, and translated into English by Ann Wright, Menchú's story was left virtually intact the way it was narrated. The act of telling her life story, replete with recommendations, explanations, as well as concealed information, is one of testimonio, a form common to Indian culture. Testimonio, or testimony, is, according to Zimmerman, ‘‘a culminating life act,’’ and Menchú's testimonio is ‘‘like that of one who is going to die.’’ In describing the funeral ceremonies in the Indian community, Menchú notes that before death, the dying will call his family to him and "tells them his secrets, and advises them how to act in life, towards the Indian community, and towards the ladino. That is, everything that is handed down through the generations to preserve Indian culture." Essentially, that is what the peasants struggle is as well: a persistent attempt to preserve Indian culture, their way of life, in the face of ladino encroachment. The purpose of Menchú's narration is not only to describe this struggle, but to be a part of it.

During times of crisis, Zimmerman notes that writers evolve new forms of expression, and in Guatemala, this new form embraced the use of metonymy, using one entity to represent other things associated with it. Menchú acknowledges right away, on the first page, that her story "is the story of all poor Guatemalans." Although it seems impossible, her story is the story of all Guatemalans, not only through the use of metonymy, but accumulation. Just as the recommendations of the dying integrate the story of his life and the advice of all those who came before him, Menchú's story encompasses not only her family's life but the lives of all families like hers.

In Teaching and Testimony, Arata describes a ''flexibility of expression'' which was a "crucial part of Mayan resiliency," facilitating their survival through centuries of invasion, oppression, and hardship. Arata contends that this ‘‘ability to adapt without giving up what is most important provides a continuity through change,’’ a statement which further clarifies how Menchú's people have managed to remain so consistent and true to the ways of their ancestors despite the relentless modernization going on around them. It is also true of the structure of her story, which is fluid, moving seamlessly between a chronological narration of events to detailed descriptions of Indian customs. Burgos-Debray explains that she left all the parts of Menchú's story in the order that it was told, despite worries that it might be confusing or boring to the reader; her editorial decision preserved the fluid, flexible structure of Menchú's narrative which places it so firmly not only in her native oral tradition, but her cultural imperatives.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Arata, Luis O., ''The Testimonial of Rigoberta Menchú in a Native Tradition,’’ in Teaching and Testimony: Rigoberta Menchú and the North American Classroom, edited by Allen Carrey Webb and Stephen Benz, SUNY Press, pp. 82-83.

Bell-Villada, Gene H., ‘‘Why Dinesh D'Souza Has It In for Rigoberta Menchú,’’ in Teaching and Testimony: Rigoberta Menchú and the North American Classroom, edited by Allen Carrey Webb and Stephen Benz, SUNY Press, pp. 50-51.

Beverly, John, ‘‘The Margin at the Center: On testimonio (Testimonial Narrative),’’ in De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography, edited by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, University of Minnesota Press, 1992, p. 94.

Carby, Hazel, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, Oxford University Press, New York, 1987, p. 74.

Moneyhun, Clyde, ‘‘Not Just Plain English: Teaching Critical Reading with I, Rigoberta Menchú,’’ in Teaching and Testimony: Rigoberta Menchú and the North American Classroom, edited by Allen Carrey Webb and Stephen Benz, SUNY Press, pp. 238-39.

Pratt, Mary Louise, ‘‘Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú: Autoethnography and the Recoding of Citizenship,’’ in Teaching and Testimony: Rigoberta Menchú and the North American Classroom, edited by Allen Carrey Webb and Stephen Benz, SUNY Press, pp. 60-65.

Rochelson, Meri-Jane, ‘‘‘This Is My Testimony': Rigoberta Menchú in a Class on Oral History,’’ in Teaching and Testimony: Rigoberta Menchú and the North American Classroom, edited by Allen Carrey Webb and Stephen Benz, SUNY Press, p. 249.

Zimmerman, Marc, ‘‘Resistance Literature, Testimonio, and Postmodernism in Guatemala,’’ in Literature and Resistance in Guatemala: Textual Modes and Cultural Politics from El Senor Presidente to Rigoberta Menchú, Center for International Studies of Ohio University, 1995, pp. 25-26 (Vol. I), 54-55 (Vol. 2).

Further Reading
hooks, bell, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, South End Press, 1984.

A series of easily accessible essays addressing the topic of feminist political and personal action, in practical terms, from solidarity with other women to the nature of work, relationships with men, education, and struggle, among others.

Gómez-Quiñones, Juan, Chicano Politics: Reality and Promise 1940-1990, University of New Mexico Press, 1990.

A political history of Mexico and in the United States, delineated along chronological and ideological lines, clarifies similarities and differences in the conditions of laborers and their fight for social equality and justice.

Roediger, David R., The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, Verso, 1991.

A dense but thought-provoking investigation into the process of racial identity formation, and the effects of this racial identification on the size, strength, unity, structure, and progress of the American working class and labor movement. Sheds additional light on why the barriers between ladinos and Indians remained intact for so long, so tenaciously.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide