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I, Rigoberta Menchu

Rigoberta Menchu

Important Quotations Explained

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Key Facts

1. My Name is Rigoberta Menchu. I am 23 years old. This is my testimony. I didn’t learn it from a book and I didn’t learn it alone. I’d like to stress that it’s not only my life, it’s also the testimony of my people. . . . My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.

These passages open I, Rigoberta Menchu and are the first words we hear from Rigoberta as she begins her story. Rigoberta makes it clear from the outset that she is a representative of her community, speaking not only for herself but also for her people. This attitude reflects the Latin American tradition of testimonio, in which events that have happened to a person’s community can be adopted and retold as though they have happened to an individual. This device allows Rigoberta to communicate both events that happened to her and experiences of other Guatemalans in a way that is cohesive and compelling. By using such a technique, however, Rigoberta opened herself to criticism regarding the accuracy of her account, particularly by the anthropologist David Stoll, who spent a number of years working to discredit Rigoberta, based on the notion that what she presented in her book was fact. Though I, Rigoberta Menchu has been widely referred to as an autobiography, this label is somewhat misleading. In actuality, as Rigoberta says here, the work is a testimony, defined as a story that serves as evidence of some wrong that has been committed.

By stating that she “learned” her testimony, Rigoberta reminds readers that its telling has been influenced by others and that the experience she presents in the following pages has been minted consciously, not only by her but by the collective entity of her people. Rigoberta illustrates the closely knit quality of her community here, and throughout the work she develops her own attitudes about the world as she reflects on the values passed down to her from ancestors and elders. For Rigoberta, there is no such thing as an identity completely separate from the Indian community. This stance informs her approach to telling the story and allows her to plug images and details into events she did not actually witness but only heard about from other community members. Aside from enriching the work, such descriptive elements help Rigoberta build her case because she was, indeed, working to gain support for her human rights efforts at the United Nations when I, Rigoberta Menchu was published.

2. From then on, I was very depressed about life because I thought, what would life be like when I grew up? I thought about my childhood and all the time that had passed. I’d often seen my mother crying. . . . I was afraid of life and I’d ask myself: “What will it be like when I’m older?”

This passage appears in Chapter XIII, just after Rigoberta’s friend, Maria, is poisoned on the finca. Seeing both her brother and a friend die at the fincas makes Rigoberta depressed, then angry. She questions here what the future will hold for her and responds by feeling afraid. Throughout the remainder of the work, Rigoberta replaces fear with action and independence. Her impulse to respond and engage with her world is present in these passages, as she chooses to be an active player in the events that surround her. Looking at her weeping mother, whose spirit appears to be defeated in this quotation by the ills that have been thrust upon her, Rigoberta responds not by crying but by asking a powerful, somewhat political question. Though Rigoberta is only fourteen years old when this passage takes place, she interprets the events that have happened to her people not as sentences that are unstoppable and must be endured but as conditions that can be improved and changed.

Rigoberta will not rest until she is given a satisfactory answer to the question of what the future holds for her and for all poor Guatemalans. By asking this question of herself, she is motivated to incite change in her own life. This passage is somewhat a turning point in Rigoberta’s development as a woman, as she comes to the understanding that advancement must begin with her. This dissatisfaction with the present conditions and hope for a changed future compel Rigoberta to leave the relative safety of the Altiplano in search of knowledge, first as a maid in the capital and later as a human rights worker and political organizer. Rigoberta takes such a step despite being afraid of life, a bravery she exhibits throughout the work and one that is repeated in actions taken by other members of her family and by Guatemalan peasants throughout her country.

3. We were going to ask for two days holiday and if they didn’t give it to us we’d go and spend Christmas somewhere else. But I was anxious. I couldn’t do it then, perhaps because of the way my parents had brought me up. I was incapable of disobedience. And those employers exploited my obedience. They took advantage of my innocence.

This passage appears near the end of Chapter XIV, just before Candelaria is fired. It demonstrates the conflict Rigoberta feels upon realizing that, to force change, she will have to become less compliant and obedient. The “we” Rigoberta refers to here is Candelaria and Rigoberta. As maids at the landowner’s home, Rigoberta and Candelaria often must work together, but Candelaria spearheads rebellious acts, including killing and plucking chickens for the Christmas feast but then refusing to dress them. Candelaria is at once a foil for Rigoberta and a role model: through her, Rigoberta begins to understand that one of the few options Indians have for communicating their dissatisfaction with the ladinos who exploit them is to rebel by not catering to the ladinos. Though Rigoberta claims here that she was incapable of disobedience, she quickly learns to become comfortable with going against those in power.

In her autobiography, Rigoberta refers to the ladino opinion that the Mayan Indians were weak and submissive, which contributed to the downfall of the Mayan culture. She rejects this notion, yet in this passage, she stresses the fact that her parents raised her to be submissive. The price of progress is an important theme in I, Rigoberta Menchu, because, as Rigoberta points out in this passage, bringing about change sometimes involves changing identity and going against the manners that have been passed down from previous generations. The fact that Candelaria and Rigoberta choose Christmas, a season of tradition for the ladinos, as the time in which they will begin to sabotage their employer works to heighten the tension Rigoberta experiences as she pulls away from the expectations of her elders and ancestors in an attempt to protect the values they have passed on to her.

4. “A revolutionary isn’t born out of something good,” said my sister. “He is born out of wretchedness and bitterness. This just gives us one more reason. We have to fight without measuring our suffering, or what we experience, or thinking about the monstrous things we must bear in life.”

This passage occurs in Chapter XXXIII, when Rigoberta has gone into hiding in Guatemala. It is one of the few times we hear from Rigoberta’s sister, age twelve, who remains nameless. In the following chapter, Rigoberta tells her little sister’s story, and we learn that this sister joined the guerillas many years earlier, at the age of eight. This is contrary to Rigoberta’s response, which is to take a diplomatic approach to fighting for the rights of her people. These two young women embody the dilemma of whether to fight with weapons or take on the peaceful protests of such activists as Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. Though she is a few years younger than Rigoberta, Rigoberta’s sister embraces the dark underbelly of the movement in which she and her other sister are involved. She bluntly reminds Rigoberta that there isn’t anything romantic to the lot they have been given in life.

Rigoberta holds on to her idealism despite these dire sentiments. She maintains the belief that her efforts and the efforts of the other companeros will ultimately end in something positive. Rigoberta’s sister, on the other hand, views life as “monstrous” and revolutionaries as coming into the world out of wretchedness and bitterness. This view contrasts sharply with the idea of birth as Rigoberta illustrates it in the opening chapter of I, Rigoberta Menchu, where children are born into lives of hard work but are celebrated by the community. Rigoberta’s sister’s words are a harsh reminder of the loss of community infrastructure the Indian people have endured. For her, an identity of revolutionary has replaced that of Quiche Indian. Rigoberta resists this jadedness as she continues to identify with the way things used to be in her community and to hope for a reconstruction of traditional Indian identity.

5. I’m still keeping my Indian identity a secret. I’m still keeping secret what I think no one should know. Not even anthropologists or intellectuals, no matter how many books they have, can find out all our secrets.

These words close I, Rigoberta Menchu, and they are the last we hear from Rigoberta. Her reference to anthropologists is a reminder of the constant presence of Burgos-Debray in the preparation of the work. Throughout the autobiography, Rigoberta tells her story with remarkable candidness. Here, however, she reveals that she has selectively divulged information about her identity, which gives her the final authority and raises the question of what she held back in her story. The exact nature of her relationship with Burgos-Debray is also unclear. In the introduction to I, Rigoberta Menchu, Burgos-Debray conveyed her relationship with Rigoberta as being extremely collegial, even familial, because the two shared a Latin heritage. Yet Rigoberta’s closing words contradict the sense that she bonded with Burgos-Debray and instead casts the impression that perhaps Rigoberta didn’t trust Burgos-Debray to the extent that Burgos-Debray claimed in her introduction. This serves as a reminder that Indians might perceive their relationship with those who are outside of their community, whether they are ladinos, Europeans, or Americans, differently than do those outsiders.

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