I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1094

Community The book contains detailed descriptions of Quiché Indian ceremonies, traditions, and customs, which Menchú gives in order to explain the profound sense of community which fuels Indian village and family life. The village is an extension of the family, and all previous generations are represented in the village through...

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Community
The book contains detailed descriptions of Quiché Indian ceremonies, traditions, and customs, which Menchú gives in order to explain the profound sense of community which fuels Indian village and family life. The village is an extension of the family, and all previous generations are represented in the village through remembrances of ancestors and their ways.

The ceremonies for childbirth, marriage, and death all emphasize the importance of community involvement. A pregnant woman is given all the comforts and attention that the village can afford, and the birth itself is one of the rare occasions when the village will kill an animal to celebrate. Indians engage in intricate ceremonies to ask the earth's permission before sowing and harvesting; it is considered blasphemous to abuse the land, when the earth is the mother and father of all that exists upon it. Marriage is undertaken only after an elaborate series of visits by the prospective groom and his parents to the bride's family; the bride makes the ultimate decision. Even after marriage, if the situation becomes untenable, the bride can leave her husband and his family and return to her village, where the community will care for her, feeding her out of a communal surplus which she, in turn, contributes to with her labor. For death rituals, the community, not the family of the dead, bears all the expenses of the burial. It is one of few occasions when flowers are cut, to be placed around the coffin. Before his death, an Indian will offer his secrets to one chosen person, and all of his advice and his recommendations to his family. Menchú says, "We can only love a person who eats what we eat," explaining that when encountering non-Indians, the willingness to accept Indian ways is a crucial sign of empathy.

One other significant aspect of all these rituals, which has developed since the appearance of the ladino, is the pact that all Indians make at certain milestones (birth, ten years of age, marriage) to uphold and maintain the ways of their ancestors and to "destroy the wicked lessons we were taught by [the White Man]," since "if they hadn't come, we would all be united, equal, and our children would not suffer." Even these century-old ceremonies have adapted to include not only an acknowledgment of the Indian's history, but a call to consciousness of the Indian's present situation at the hands of ladinos, and a promise to battle the forces which endeavor to corrupt Indian ways.

Language and Literacy
Menchú's community has an oral tradition through which they pass information about traditions and history from one generation to the next. Because of the variety of language spoken among the larger Indian population, however, Menchú finds that Indians cannot communicate with one another, despite their similar circumstances. Menchú's family is afraid that she will acquire other undesirable ladino traits if she learns Spanish, but ladinos have kept Indians from learning Spanish anyway, by keeping them out of their homes and schools. Menchú learns how disempowering it is not to be literate, particularly in Spanish, when her family is cheated into signing documents they did not understand, which ultimately left them landless. The chapter where Menchú describes her decision to learn Spanish to organize peasants more effectively is titled ‘‘Farewell to the Community: Rigoberta decides to learn Spanish.’’ Her decision is based on the logic that ‘‘Since Spanish was a language which united us, why learn all the twenty-two languages in Guatemala?.. .I learned Spanish out of necessity.’’

Natural World
Menchú refers to the earth as ‘‘the mother of man,’’ because she ‘‘gives him food.’’ Animals, water, and maize are considered pure and sacred, and are often invoked in prayer. Menchú also notes that "they" call the Indians polytheistic because they acknowledge the God of water, the earth, and the son, but she explains that all are expressions of the one God, ‘‘the heart of the sky.’’ All life originates with this one God, and for that reason, Indians promise to respect all life, killing neither trees, plants nor animals without good cause or first asking permission to do so from the earth. Even when the Indians begin to organize the villages to protect themselves from the army, they ask the ‘‘Lord of the natural world, the one God,’’ for permission "to use his creations of nature to defend" themselves. For this reason, the indiscriminate killing of people and animals by the army is still more shocking to the Indians.

When Catholic Action began to spread the Christian doctrine among the Indians in 1945, the Indians willingly accepted it as not a discrete religion, but another means through which to express their existing indigenous beliefs and practices, such as prayer. Menchú delineates the similarities between Catholicism and Indian beliefs: "it confirms our belief that, yes, there is a God, and yes, there is a father for all of us...we believe we have ancestors, and that these ancestors are important...the Bible talks about forefathers too...We drew a parallel [between Christ] and our king, Tecún; Umãn, who was defeated and persecuted by the Spaniards." Later, Menchú finds that the Indians can use the Bible as a weapon in the struggle for social justice, observing that the Kingdom of God where all humans are equal should be created here on earth, despite some teachings of the Church that compel Indians to be passive and accept ‘‘God's will.’’

Migration and Dislocation
Movement and relocation are the two primary modes for Indian living conditions, since Indian families can only spend a third of the year cultivating their own land at home in the Altiplano, spending most of the year away at the finca. When traveling to the finca, Indians attempt to replicate a sense of home by bringing their animals, utensils, and other small possessions, although doing so makes the long journey by truck uncomfortable and sometimes unbearable. The dislocation is underscored by the fact that Indians are covered by a tarp while traveling, making it impossible to see the countryside they cross. Furthermore, when the government begins to force Indians off their own communally developed land and onto individual parcels or uncultivated land, it exacerbates the sense of dislocation by forbidding the use of basic natural resources that are critical to the Indians survival, such as trees. The Guatemalan Forestry Commission begins to require advance permission for cutting down trees, and when permission is granted, charges the Indians exorbitantly for them, although corporations are seen freely cutting down hundreds of trees for business use.

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