Rigoberta Menchú

Rigoberta Menchú(born 1959) was a Guatemalan human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. Despite her youth she became an eloquent spokesperson for the rights of the indigenous peoples of the entire Western Hemisphere.

Rigoberta Menchúwas born on January 9, 1959, in Chimel, a village in the Quichéprovince in the northwest highlands of Guatemala. Her mother, whose surname was Tum, was a midwife and traditional healer, and her father, Vicente, was a day laborer, catechist, and community leader. Both her parents belonged to one of the many indigenous groups of Guatemala, the Quiché Maya, and spoke little Spanish. Young Menchúherself spoke only Quiché(one of over twenty different languages spoken in her country) until she was 19.

Her difficult childhood is an example of how hundreds of thousands of Indian children grow up in Guatemala. Every year she followed her parents to the southern coastal plantations, fincas, where they spent months picking cotton and coffee. During the rest of the year the family, back in the highlands, collected wicker in the mountains and grew maize, beans, and potatoes to supplement their diet. Menchústarted working when she was only eight; two of her brothers died on the plantations, one was poisoned by insecticides and the other—only two years old—from malnutrition. At age 13 she had her first prolonged direct experience with people of Spanish culture (and with discrimination), when she worked as a maid for a wealthy family in Guatemala City. Soon thereafter, her father was imprisoned for his efforts to save land from seizure by large landowners.

Social and Political Unrest

Menchú's political awakening was shaped by Guatemala's turbulent history. After a coup d'état backed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency toppled a left-wing president in 1954, a series of military governments ruled the country with an iron hand. A guerrilla movement that began in 1962 triggered a violent government response directed not only at the guerrillas, but also at their supporters, real and alleged, often located in the countryside. Political violence was renewed in the 1970s, when government repression was applied in such an indiscriminate fashion that U.S. President Jimmy Carter, after repeated warnings against human rights violations, suspended economic aid in 1977. Guatemala's Indians, composing 60 percent of the population, suffered the indignities of forced relocation and military service. In this environment of political turmoil, indigenous vindication movements were considered by the government to be part of a communist conspiracy.

An Activist is Born

Menchúbecame politically active, inspired by her family's involvement and by her religious beliefs. Like many others in Central America, she was influenced by Liberation Theology, a movement that believes that the Bible should be read through the eyes of the poor and that Jesus Christ had a special message of liberation for poor people. In an interview she described how peasants "felt everything the Bible said was coming to pass, with Christ crucified, Christ attacked with stones, Christ dragged along the ground. One felt the pain of that Christ, and identified with it."

Another important influence was her father, Vicente, who was active in the Peasant Unity Committee, a group that fought for peasant land rights. She joined the committee in 1979, and was asked to organize the country's 22 Indian groups, each with its own culture and language, against exploitation. A few months later her 16-year-old brother, Petrocinio, was tortured and then killed by the army. The following year she lost her father in an event that received widespread coverage in the international press. Vicente Menchú, along with other representatives of indigenous groups, occupied the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City to press their demands. The army attacked the embassy and burned it, killing 39 people, including Menchú's father, who burned to death.

International Campaign Begins in Exile

The next year her mother was kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the army, and two of her sisters joined the guerrillas. Life in Guatemala was too dangerous for her, and Menchúfled to Mexico in 1981. In exile, she began an international crusade to explain the plight of the Guatemalan Indians, and joined the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations.

In 1983, during a trip to Paris to promote her cause, she dictated her autobiography to a Venezuelan anthropologist, Elizabeth Burgos. The result of their collaboration was the widely read book, I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, which was translated into more than a dozen languages. It brought her to the attention of the rest of the world and helped her to become the foremost spokesperson for indigenous peoples.

Efforts Bring Acclaim

Although her first attempt to return to Guatemala in 1988 ended badly (she was threatened and put in jail), she later visited her country for short periods of time. It was during one such visit in October of 1992 that she learned the Nobel Peace Prize would be given to her "in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples." She was only 33.

With the $1.2 million from the prize she set up a foundation named after her father. She was active in the continent's Five Hundred Years of Resistance Campaign and in the United Nations International Indian Treaty Council. In June of 1993, during a political crisis in Guatemala, Menchúplayed an instrumental role in the events that brought to power a new president, Ramiro de León Carpio, a human rights advocate. Growing international pressure also helped force the government to ease up on military repression, and in 1995 many refugees who fled to Mexico to escape torture began to return.

Menchúremained an advocate for indigenous peoples, and in June, 1996 was named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for a Culture of Peace by the Director-General of UNESCO. Later the same year she went to Norway to watch Guatemalan government and rebel leaders sign a cease-fire agreement for the 42-year conflict—Latin America's longest civil war—that she and her family fought so hard to end.

Her activism was controversial. Conservative commentators accused her of being associated with communist guerrillas, but she defended herself by saying that if she were a revolutionary she would be fighting in the mountains. She summarized her views in an interview published in 1993: "I believe that in Guatemala the solution is not confrontation between indigenous people and latinos [people of Spanish culture]. Rather, we need a country where we can live together with mutual respect."

Further Reading on Rigoberta Menchú

Rigoberta Menchú's autobiography, written in collaboration with Elizabeth Burgos, was translated into English with the title I Rigoberta Menchú (1984). More information appears in interviews published in World Press Review (December 1992), in the Progressive (January 1993 and December 1995), various issues of the UNESCO Courier (1996). and articles in the Los Angeles Times (October 17, 1992; May 7, 1993), the New York Times (October 17, 1992; October 19, 1992; December 11, 1992; June 10, 1993; September 15, 1993; May 8, 1994; November 17, 1995), and in Time (October 26, 1992).