When I, Rigoberta Menchu hit bookstores as Me Llamo Rigoberta Menchu Y Asi Me Nacio La Conciencia in 1983, only a handful of intellectuals and political activists around the world knew how difficult life had become for thousands of Indian people living in Guatemala under an abusive military dictatorship. Rigoberta Menchu was twenty-four years old and living in exile in Mexico City, and around the world, people responded to her vivid, often shocking words and images.
I, Rigoberta Menchu rose from a weeklong marathon of interviews with Menchu, conducted by the Venezuelan anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, the book’s editor, in Paris in 1982. The book was eventually translated into twelve languages, including English in 1984, and introduced into the curriculum at several prominent universities, spawning a flurry of dissertations. In human rights circles, Menchu’s name gradually became familiar. In 1992, Menchu won the Nobel Peace Prize, and the general public became aware of her and her cause. After she won the Nobel Prize, Menchu became a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and launched a human rights foundation.
Born on January 9, 1959 in Chimel, a settlement in the rugged northwestern region of Guatemala, Menchu was the sixth of nine children. Her mother, Juana Tum, was a healer and a midwife. Menchu’s father, Vicente, was a laborer, preacher, and widely acknowledged leader in the village that Menchu and her family called home. A member of the Quiche (pronounced Kee-chay) Indians, one of twenty-two groups descended from the Mayans, Menchu was raised in a community that interwove traditional, ancient Mayan beliefs with those introduced by the Roman Catholic Church. Political action became another important thread in Menchu’s childhood tapestry, because she was frequently exposed to the effects of a Guatemalan civil war that broiled throughout her youth and continued, with increased fervor, through the 1980s and into the 1990s. It came to an end in 1996, largely because of Menchu’s efforts. After she went into exile in 1981 and even more after she won the Nobel Prize in 1992, Menchu frequented the headquarters of the United Nations in her traditional Mayan attire and, often, bare feet.
During Menchu’s early years, ladinos, or Spanish descendents, made up the dominant class in Guatemala and ruled in society, business, and the government, creating a vast separation between the wealthy minority and the poverty-stricken peasant majority in Guatemala. Menchu’s Quiche people lived off of the maize, potatoes, and beans they grew in the cool, humid slopes of the Altiplano. Their homes were simple hovels that lacked electricity, running water, and sewage. To make ends meet, Menchu’s family, like many Indian families, were forced to work at the coffee and cotton plantations, or fincas, that dotted the Guatemalan landscape.
When Menchu and her family went to work at the plantations, their lives essentially belonged to the wealthy plantation owners. These owners pressured them to run up debts at plantation stores and cantinas, and when they returned to the mountains, they often had just a trace more money than when they started. This experience was common for Indian laborers in Guatemala, many of whom lost children to starvation, disease, or harsh pesticides that rained down on Indian families while they worked in the fields.
As Guatemalan rebels began to take up arms against those in power, their guerilla armies frequently hid out in Guatemala’s high country, near Menchu’s village. Caught in the crossfire between the ladino-controlled Guatemalan government and the guerillas, many Indians, including members of the Menchu family, became sympathetic to the guerillas and embraced their cause. Even Indians who didn’t have guerilla sympathies were frequently targeted by the government as suspected communists. Frustrated by the abuses of his people at the hands of the Guatemalan government and the wealthy landowners who repeatedly attempted to wrench his fertile land away from him, Vicente Menchu joined with other peasant leaders to form the Peasant Unity Committee (the CUC) in 1978. Before he died in 1980, Vicente Menchu asked his daughter to continue his fight. Words became Menchu’s chief weapon.
During the 1990s, I, Rigoberta Menchu was the subject of increasing controversy and debate, which came to a head when David Stoll, an American anthropologist, traveled to Guatemala and, through interviews with Menchu’s family and neighbors, picked apart the accounts that Menchu communicated with such vivid detail in the book. In his 1999 book, Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, Stoll claimed that Menchu made up or overstated many of her reports, including a searing account of what it was like to watch as her younger brother was burned to death in public by the Guatemalan military. Though billed as an autobiography, Menchu’s book falls in line with the Latin-American storytelling and literary tradition known as testimonio, or testimony, in which one speaker presents the story of an entire community or group as though it were his or her own. Menchu’s defenders believe that I, Rigoberta Menchu doesn’t have to stand up to scrutiny regarding its truth. In its portrayal of the troubles that the entire Indian population faced in Guatemala, they say, the book is accurate.
Attackers argue that Menchu ought to be held responsible for the holes in her story, and many accuse her of taking advantage of the violent situation in her country to further her left-leaning political beliefs. Others claim she was involved with Guatemalan guerilla groups. Still others question the authorship of I, Rigoberta Menchu, suggesting that Elisabeth Burgos-Debray influenced the finished product more than she should have. Though some groups claimed Menchu ought to be stripped of her Nobel Prize, the Nobel committee refused, stating that Menchu’s record as a human rights activist stands alone, regardless of the controversy surrounding her autobiography. In 1998, Menchu published her own memoir, Crossing Borders, which picks up where I, Rigoberta Menchu left off.