During a visit to Paris as part of the Guatemalan political organization known as “the 31 January Popular Front,” Rigoberta Menchu meets Venezuelan anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray and agrees to tell her life story so that it can be transformed into a book. The two work feverishly for several days, Burgos-Debray questioning Rigoberta, who tells her story in Spanish, her second language. The result is several hours’ worth of recorded interviews that Burgos-Debray transcribes and arranges as I, Rigoberta Menchu.
As far back as Rigoberta, a Quiche Indian, can recall, her life has been split between the highlands of Guatemala, known as the Altiplano, and low country plantations, or fincas. Each year, she and her family spend about eight months at the fincas working for ladinos, Guatemalans of Spanish descent. Starvation and malnutrition are constants at the finca, and the Indians are routinely sprayed with pesticides. Rigoberta and her people find respite in the months they spend in their small village in the Altiplano that they call home. In the deeply wooded Altiplano, Rigoberta’s life centers around the ceremonies and traditions of her community, many of which celebrate the natural world. At the fincas, she and her people struggle to survive in cramped, miserable conditions at the mercy of wealthy landowners and their overseers. They move between the two worlds each year in a truck covered with a tarp, and by the time she is eight years old, Rigoberta is already a hard worker, capable of picking several pounds of coffee each day.
Though she lives in a traditional Indian society, Rigoberta’s awareness of a world beyond the finca and the Altiplano begins to dawn when she is still quite young. When her younger brother, Nicolas, dies of malnutrition while at the finca, Rigoberta begins to feel both angry and afraid of what the future will hold for her. Visiting Guatemala City, the capital of Guatemala, with her father, whom she idolizes, Rigoberta is at once terrified and compelled. As she grows older and begins to develop a conscience, Rigoberta starts to yearn for change, both for herself and for her community. She craves education and wishes above all to learn to speak Spanish so that she can explore the world outside of the Altiplano and the finca. Though she begins to follow in her father’s footsteps and take on leadership duties in her community, she also yearns to learn about the world and its people.
When she’s offered a job as a maid at the home of a wealthy landowner in Guatemala City, Rigoberta leaps at the opportunity, hoping she’ll get a chance to master Spanish. Immediately upon arriving in Guatemala City, however, she understands the discrimination that exists for people of her heritage. At the landowner’s home, even the dog is treated better than she. The most influential force in Rigoberta’s life as she figures out the various household tasks is Candelaria. Like Rigoberta, Candelaria is an Indian, yet she has learned to speak Spanish and dresses as a ladino. She has also figured out how to get under the mistress’s skin and routinely sabotages her by neglecting certain chores and talking back. When Rigoberta’s father comes to the mistress’s house and asks for money, Candelaria convinces the mistress to contribute. Rigoberta doesn’t follow in Candelaria’s footsteps right away, but Candelaria’s rebellious spirit has an impact on her that continues even after Candelaria is booted out of the house.
Upon returning from her work in the capital, Rigoberta finds out that her father has been jailed because he refused to cooperate with ladino landowners who attempt to claim the land in the Altiplano where Rigoberta’s community lives. This is the first of several times that Rigoberta’s father is jailed, and Rigoberta and her siblings work constantly to free him for good. After the landowners and the government repeatedly hoodwink the Indians, the Indians decide to defend their lands and rebel against the Guatemalan powers. Led in part by Rigoberta’s father, they form the Peasant Unity Committee, or CUC, to pool their resources against the powerful ladino government and business owners. By this time, Rigoberta has taken a leadership role in her community, and she and the rest of her family play a major part in helping the Indians develop strategies to defend their lands against the Guatemalan army. The Indians rely on simple weapons such as traps and knives to fight back, and they are inspired in their cause by the Bible’s stories of disenfranchised populations and people.
After securing her own people’s holdings, Rigoberta goes on the road as a representative of the CUC, helping Indian communities secure their lands and outsmart the Guatemalan army. As the CUC becomes increasingly influential, Rigoberta and her family find themselves more at risk. First, Rigoberta’s brother, Petrocinio, is kidnapped and burned alive while Rigoberta’s entire family and village are forced to watch. Then Rigoberta’s father leads an offensive on Guatemala City and is killed along with a group of protesters while storming the Spanish Embassy. Finally, Rigoberta’s mother is kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered. Rigoberta responds by renouncing marriage and motherhood and becoming more involved in the peasant cause, leading strikes and other rebellious actions until she finds herself in danger and is forced into exile. Though Rigoberta’s sisters join the guerilla army to fight for the rights of Guatemala’s Indian peasants, Rigoberta decides to take a diplomatic route, telling stories of her people and putting legislation into place as a way of furthering the rights of Indians.