Rigoberta Menchú Tum
1959 – Present
The Power of the Storyteller
“It is said that the bones of the dead tell no lies. In many cases, they speak on their own behalf, telling stories of pain, violence, and abuse. In Guatemala, every clandestine cemetery that is found, every bone that is recovered from Mother Earth speaks of the people who were annihilated, of the homes burned, of the indiscriminate massacres. In short, they speak of the crimes against humanity, of the genocide committed by the army against the indigenous people.”
– Rigoberta Menchú
Do innocent people ever deserve the infliction of painful violence, oppression, and suffering? A brutal history of genocide is, undeservedly, a memory that many civilians of Guatemala must bear. However, through storytelling, such memories can be transformed into opportunities for healing and empowerment. By sharing her own personal narrative, one woman shed light on the burdens that countless Guatemalans lived through and still grapple with today. By expressing her own pain and triumphs, one woman illuminated a path towards peace and justice for her people. That woman is Rigoberta Menchú:
It’s hard for me to remember everything that’s happened to me in my life since there have been many very bad times but, yes, moments of joy as well. The important thing is that what has happened to me has happened to many other people too: My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.
Mayans in Guatemala: A History
The Mayan people are sometimes, mistakenly, thought of as an ancient people, no longer existing in the world at present. To the contrary, the truth is that they are still alive and continue to function similarly to how they always have. The earliest Maya civilizations date back to as early as 2000 BC, as they began to appear in the highlands of Guatemala. City-states, teeming with the bustle of an emergent culture, grew as trading networks covered large areas of what has become, Central America and Mexico. By AD 250, towering temple cities of pyramids and plazas rose up in the Guatemalan uplands. The notable architecture of such monuments became a trademark aspect of the developing Mayan infrastructure. The Mayans are also known for creating complex mathematical and astronomical systems, as well as their own hieroglyphic writing method. As a part of their religion, the Maya adhered to the belief that time had a cyclical nature. Their spiritual rituals and ceremonies were linked to the celestial and terrestrial rotations that they observed, and would later utilize to create their own calendar. The intricate contributions that they made to such a broad range of studies illustrate how prominent and distinguished the Maya way of life was and continues to be.
When the Europeans arrived in the early 1500s, the Mayan civilization had already begun to crumble. Internal conflicts made the Mayans a divided people who were easily vanquished by the Spaniards. By 1528, those of native blood had descended to the very bottom of the newly founded social hierarchy, as Pedro de Alvarado had established Spanish rule over the entire region. The lands of the Maya were cut up into great estates and the native people were mercilessly taken advantage of by the new landowners:
Guatemala’s geography, like the memory of her people, is crisscrossed by massive displacements and ruptures. The roots of social conflict in Guatemala are found in a tradition of political exclusion, ethnic discrimination, and social injustice that permeates the state structure.
There are twenty-three indigenous ethnic groups in Guatemala, each with their own unique language and culture. Of the varied ethnicities, Rigoberta Menchú belonged to the Quiche, also sometimes called the Maya-Quiche. Their name means “many trees”, derived from the highlands that were surrounded by forests in which they lived. The Quiche considered themselves Indians, as their roots were derived from the Mayan civilization. Rigoberta came from San Miguel Uspantan, in the northwest province of El Quiche. It was on this terrain that Rigoberta would witness the atrocities forced upon her people.
Much of the way in which Guatemala’s history unfolded has to do with what can be found in a steaming dark mug of its domestic agricultural crop, coffee. By 1839, Guatemala triumphantly declared independence and became a part of the Mexican Empire. It was when liberal President Justo Rufino Barrios came to power in 1873 – as he introduced coffee growing, along with a modern approach to politics and the development of an army – that Guatemala’s sociocultural background became essential to the way in which the nation would continue to operate. Agricultural crops provided many Guatemalans, Rigoberta’s family included, with employment, profit, and a means of survival. During that time, coffee was considered the gold of Latin America. Rich landowners, who controlled areas that were once owned by the indigenous Mayans, forcibly grew the coffee there and used the Mayans who once owned the lands themselves, as cheap labor. Because of the inequitable social system that had taken hold in Guatemala, the Mayans had no power to change this. The Mayan people, who once thrived in their own cities and prospered due to their exceptional ingenuity, were robbed of all their rights.
1944 brought optimism to Guatemala, as a new government enforced liberal economic reform, bringing more civil and labor rights to working class people and peasants. However, conservative executives came to power in Guatemala during the 1950s, alongside anti-communist regimes. This coup d’etat in 1954 paved the way for Castillo Armas, a right-wing Guatemalan Army Colonel, to destroy the political and social improvement of the past decade, ending much of the freedom that Guatemalan’s had recently gained. He banned all labor unions and any existing left-wing political parties. The National Committee to Defend against Communism (Comite Nacional de Defensa contra El Comunismo) was founded, and declared legal, the abduction of any person that they deemed a threat to the state. They made a list of all the people that were to be detained who had any remote association with communism. Anyone who the committee held captive had no right to habeas corpus, and was banned from any opportunity for employment. There were 72,000 people on the committee’s list by December 21, 1954. With their rights seemingly destroyed, the hope of any political stability withered among the greater proportion of the Guatemalan people.
Although change for the better often comes with time, for the people of Guatemala the passage of time did not bring about the justice they yearned:
During the sixties, in addition to combat between the guerrillas and the army, government violence targeted peasants in the eastern parts of the country. In the seventies, state violence was particularly virulent in the cities. It was trained on leaders of social movements and sectors opposing the successive military regimes, in addition to the guerrilla infrastructure. In the early eighties, counterinsurgency policy took the form of state-sponsored terrorism featuring systematic, mass destruction, particularly of indigenous communities and organized peasant groups.
Left-wing groups surfaced from the poor classes of indigenous people and peasants in the 1960s as a result of the ongoing political oppression. In response, Guatemalan security forces, without warning, used forced disappearances against the civilians in 1966. According to international human rights law, a forced disappearance happens when a person is secretly kidnapped or imprisoned by a state or political organization by a third party with the authorization, support, or consent of a state or political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person’s fate and whereabouts, with the intent of placing the victim outside the protection of the law.
Essentially, the only criteria that would deem a Guatemalan citizen worthy of a forced disappearance was that they were Mayan. This injustice sparked a profound resistance from the Guatemalan people.
Repression of the Guatemalans continued into the 1970s, as the first of many military rulers representing the Institutional Democratic Party came to power. The Guatemalan military assumed government powers over five years, successfully infiltrating and eliminating enemies in every socio-political institution of the nation. The government’s forces continued its military conflict by fighting against all government opponents including left-wing politicians, indigenous activists, critical academics and students, trade unionists, journalists, returning refugees, and street children. Throughout the resulting civil war, it is estimated that up to 200,000 Guatemalans either died or went missing.
Delivered into a Corrupt Nation: Rigoberta is Born
According to tradition, the indigenous Quiche people of Guatemala, think of a girl’s value as being “…like the earth bringing forth corn, beans, plants, simply everything. Earth is like a mother bringing forth human life.” It was in this agrarian culture that Rigoberta Menchú came into the world on January 9, 1959.
Rigoberta’s father, Vicente Menchú, was an Ark amale, meaning that he was a natural leader of the community, looking after his people on his own accord, rather than being officially elected. This group lived on the outskirts of the coffee, sugar, and cotton plantations, owned by the wealthy ladinos (Guatemalans of mixed decent). Rigoberta’s family was one of many who worked these lands, earning what would equate to approximately one U.S. dollar per each 10-hour workday. Harsh working conditions, poverty, and hunger were the basis of Rigoberta’s childhood. At only eight years old, she would hand-pick coffee with her father by day, earning a disproportionately smaller pay for her work. Her baby brother, Nicolas died of malnutrition and was buried in a cardboard box because of her family’s inability to afford anything better. When things seemed like they could not get any worse, Rigoberta’s older brother died of poisoning from the insecticides used on the coffee plants that they had worked on.
Rigoberta continued to work with her family as she grew older, taking on more adult responsibilities as the years went on. At the age of ten, she was brought into the circle of elders in her community, who explained to her that life would not get any easier with time. Rigoberta had already noticed this herself, as she did not understand how it could be possible that she was a third class citizen in her own country. Her people were ranked below the ladinos, who were positioned below the Spaniards. The Indian culture that she belonged to, which existed in Guatemala long before any of the ladinos or Spaniards, was at the very bottom of the social stratosphere. The landowners for whom Rigoberta and her family worked treated them worse than animals. It was upon this realization that an important question was ignited in Rigoberta’s mind: Why don’t all of the Indians rebel and take their land back from the wealthy landowners? As her conviction grew it prompted her to devise a plan for creating change.
Age thirteen brought a big change to Rigoberta’s life. She went to the capital of Guatemala, to take a job as a maid. She worked for four months without pay, as the cost of her maid uniform was deducted from what would have been her paycheck. She watched with hunger as the house dog was given bits of fine meat and rice while she was given leftover beans and stale tortillas. After a year of such mistreatment, Rigoberta returned to her village with scarcely more than forty quetzals – the equivalent of about 5 U.S. dollars. The culmination of wrongs that she and all of her people were obligated to tolerate each day motivated her to call attention to this injustice. Later in life, she says, of her childhood:
I had no childhood, I had no youth, I did not have enough to eat; I had nothing. I asked myself why this was so and compared my life with that of the children of the rich whom I had met… All these things went through my head and I did not know to whom I could speak about my thoughts.
Rigoberta grew older as Guatemala grew more corrupt. The Mayans continued to be removed from their lands by the military, without legal recourse. In 1974, when Rigoberta was sixteen, new generals came into power who promised to distribute the Mayans’ land more evenhandedly. This turned out to be an empty promise, which outraged Rigoberta. She became even angrier because of the language obstacle that she and her people experienced, as they did not speak Spanish, and therefore could not communicate with the national leaders. They did not have the option to learn Spanish either, as there were no schools offered to Mayan children. Rigoberta had had enough when her own brother, Petrocinio, was kidnapped and tortured for days. Her family was forced to attend a public punishment in which the captain described the tortures that her brother, amongst other innocent captives, had endured. He then poured gasoline over all of the prisoners, and lit them on fire in front of the entire village’s eyes. Rigoberta’s family witnessed one of their own members die in flames. It was after this epic tragedy that Rigoberta decided to organize resistance to government atrocities in the form of a peace movement.
A Plea for Peace
Rigoberta knew that she needed to become more familiar with the struggles of all the oppressed people in her country so she started with the various mountain villages scattered across Guatemala. She lived with several tribes and learned their languages, including Mam, Cackchiguel, and Tzutuhil. She learned what she could of the Spanish language by ear, since she never had the opportunity to attend a school and formally learn how to read or write. She listened to all people within these villages, hearing their stories of misery and how they had suffered under the current ruling power. Rigoberta did not know the meaning of letters or words on paper, but she understood the concept of drawings. She taught these people, using paper material that she brought with her into the villages, how to draw, so that they could testify what they had witnessed through pictures that they could create. Rigoberta reflected:
My life is not in my hands any longer. I have placed it in the hands of our cause. I may be killed today or tomorrow, but I know that my death will not be in vain but as one more example… The world in which I live is so criminal, so bloodthirsty, that it may take away my life from me at a moment’s notice… Therefore, the only thing left to me is the fight, righteous violence.
Rigoberta’s father, Vicente, had been imprisoned for trying to organize the Mayans into a formal movement of resistance in 1977. In the meantime, Rigoberta joined a formal group of campesinos, peasant farmers, whose work consisted of going to the wealthy estates where the farmers worked, and organizing them into groups. By 1979, Rigoberta joined the Comite de Unidad Compesina (CUC), or Peasant Unity Committee, which consisted largely of indigenous natives. She would later join the managing board, because she had a huge impact as one of the leaders of the group. Of her role within the CUC she said:
“I became the leader of a whole people. I am looking after Ladinos and Indigenas. I do not read or write and my Spanish is rather poor. I often felt valueless. But I know what my experience is worth, and one has to share it with all humanity.”
Rigoberta was unique in that she was one of the few women heavily involved in the resistance, which allowed her to concurrently recognize the notable contributions that many women made to the peace movement. She observed:
Women play an incredible role in the revolutionary struggle… Mothers who stand on the barricades with their children, distribute flyers or carry documents from one place to another… The working woman, the campesina, the teacher…their experiences cause them to do all these things.”
In 1980, Rigoberta was traveling for her work with the CUC when she found out that both of her parents had died tragically. Her father died, trapped in fire, as he took part in a peaceful demonstration at the Spanish Embassy when it went up in flames. Her mother was captured by soldiers, and gruesomely tortured, before they murdered her. The genocide that gripped Guatemala became overwhelming, as soldiers bombarded any and every area that hinted of even the slightest threat to their control. Rigoberta took all these dangers into account, and concluded that it was no longer safe for her, an indigenous woman who regularly participated in strikes and demonstrations, to remain in Guatemala. She left in 1981 and fled to Mexico, where she helped to create the United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition (RUOG).
In 1982, Rigoberta made her way to both Geneva, and to the United Nations in New York City, pleading for justice and the restoration of rights for the indigenous people of Guatemala. That same year she met Venezuelan author and anthropologist, Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, and narrated her life story to the writer in a series of interviews. However, it was not until her autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú, was published in ten languages in 1983, that the world finally heard her. Throughout the next few years, she continued traveling back and forth to Guatemala despite government opposition. She proceeded with her work in social justice and ethnic-cultural reconciliation, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. She dedicated the award to her father, Vicente Menchú, and used the money that she earned to establish the Vicente Menchú Foundation, in an effort to help young indigenous people receive an education.
In 1996, the 36-year civil war in Guatemala finally came to an official end with a peace accord that would not have come to fruition without the tireless work of Rigoberta and many other non-violent activists. Rigoberta sought further redemption for her people, and succeeded in getting the Guatemalan political and military establishment atrocities heard in court. Ten years after the peace accord was reached, seven former government members were extradited on charges of torture and genocide against the Mayan people of Guatemala. These triumphs did not mark the end of Rigoberta’s fight for peace and justice, however. In 2007 and 2011, she ran for President of Guatemala, campaigning around the country for equal rights for all its citizens. Though she did not win, Rigoberta continues in her cause with passion for the sake of her native country’s people. She recounts:
“Rigoberta Menchú Tum”, PeaceJam, http://www.peacejam.org/laureates/Rigoberta-Menchú-Tum-10.aspx, 9 Oct. 2013.