Rigoberta Menchu, a Quiche Indian, pushes herself and others past victimhood to empowerment. A survivor to the core, Rigoberta begins as a meek and obedient daughter, but she gradually gains a strong, militant sense of her individual rights and the rights of her people. Though Rigoberta’s alliance to elders and to her father in particular is fierce and unyielding, she nonetheless yearns to change the future for herself and others like her. Though she is repeatedly reminded during tribal ceremonies that all Indians must succumb to a life of hard work, misery, and suffering, she refuses to accept her lot. When her brother Nicholas dies of malnutrition at the finca, Rigoberta grows angry, not despondent. Over time, this anger motivates her. Later, as many other members of her family, including her mother and father, are murdered, Rigoberta grows increasingly militant. She sees the merits of violence as a means to an end, yet she stops short of joining the Guatemalan guerillas.
As a young girl working on Guatemalan plantations, Rigoberta works hard and recognizes the virtue of continuing to labor at certain tasks, even when it appears there is no end to what must be done. Later, Rigoberta applies her work ethic to political change, realizing that patience is a key component to any worthwhile effort. Though early attempts to learn Spanish are thwarted, for example, she doesn’t give up on her dream and eventually succeeds in learning the language. Highly adaptable, Rigoberta is able to blend teachings from Roman Catholic missionaries with Indian beliefs and rituals that have been passed down for ages. As she forges her political ideologies, which center on peasant rights and the inherent value of the poor, Rigoberta molds her Catholic beliefs to support her ideology, rejecting the Roman-Catholic hierarchy while embracing certain stories from the Bible and the figure of Christ as leader of the poor. Rigoberta is at once extremely traditional and radically modern. While she carefully preserves the ancient ways of her people by chronicling birth and death ceremonies in painstaking detail, for example, she also renounces motherhood and marriage so she can follow in her father’s footsteps, a radical move for a woman in any society but especially in one as traditional and old-fashioned as that of the Quiche Indians.
Vicente Menchu is perhaps the most influential person in Rigoberta’s life. Despite a checkered past that includes orphanhood, a stint in the Guatemalan military, and occasional bouts of alcoholism, Rigoberta’s father is a leader in his village. To Rigoberta and, indeed, many Indians, he is larger than life, an embodiment of strength, solidarity, and courage. Early in Rigoberta’s life, he takes her to Guatemala City and leads her through the streets of the capital, giving her a first glimpse of the Guatemalan government in action at the INTA (the Guatemalan National Institute for Agrarian Transformation). Though frequently absent from the Altiplano, Rigoberta’s father stays tied to his roots, routinely reminding Rigoberta not to forget about her ancestors. He also underscores the necessity for resistance as a form of preserving cultural identity.
Rigoberta’s mother is a keeper of traditions and the old ways of doing things. A traditional Indian healer, she has an intimate relationship with nature, knowing, for example, when it’s about to rain or the best time to sow crops. Although not articulate in political affairs, she is able to weave protest into simple acts, such as tending to guerilla soldiers when they are ill or cooking for protesters. Her influence on Rigoberta is subtle. Though Rigoberta considers her father to have far more impact on her evolution, she continues to obey her mother in certain powerful ways, such as continuing to dress in traditional Indian apparel, which profoundly affects her interactions with others.
Throughout I, Rigoberta Menchu, Rigoberta’s mother exhibits a high level of endurance, gracefully bearing difficult trials, such as watching her children die, one by one, in sometimes violent ways. She is able to absorb difficult experiences, whereas Rigoberta’s father sometimes runs away or drinks to deal with trauma. Even as she approaches death, Rigoberta’s mother exhibits strength and courage that last, and this point is driven home by the way the earth slowly absorbs her body after she dies—she doesn’t disappear immediately.
Though she is just a maid working in the home of a wealthy Guatemala City landowner, Candelaria manages to resist and rebel against those who assume power over her. She has an enormous impact on Rigoberta, proving to her that something as simple as cleaning can be infused with revolution. Though she has assumed a ladino identity, Candelaria retains her sense of self. She protects Rigoberta from the conniving mistress for whom they work, and when Rigoberta’s father comes to ask for money, Candelaria talks the mistress into contributing. Candelaria appears in I, Rigoberta Menchu just before Rigoberta must tap into her own rebellious nature. In many ways, Rigoberta inherits some of Candelaria’s traits as she presses forth as an activist in the CUC.