I, Rigoberta Menchu
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Power of Language
While several of Rigoberta’s siblings choose to fight the peasant cause by joining a guerilla group, Rigoberta understands that she can fight using words and stories. I, Rigoberta Menchu comes directly from this impulse. Working with Burgos-Debray, Menchu clearly realized that her autobiography would be a powerful tool in bringing about change for the Guatemalan people. By her own admission in the closing lines of the book, Rigoberta selectively chooses exactly what she will reveal about herself and her people. A master of rhetoric who learned how to preach about the Bible early in her life, she appears keenly aware of the emotion she wants to stir among her listeners and readers. As a girl, when Rigoberta realizes she wants to bring about change, her mind turns immediately to mastering the Spanish language and learning how to read. Despite the fact that this idea threatens Rigoberta’s father, she nonetheless pursues the language doggedly, knowing that these skills will help her succeed in the larger world.
The Cost of Progress
Progress isn’t necessarily a positive element for Rigoberta and her people, who often find themselves bearing the burden of advancements initiated by the white man. The Indians in Rigoberta’s village react by resisting progress and clinging to their way of life in the Altiplano. Elders and ancestors, emblems of the past, are celebrated in tribal ceremonies, whereas modern trappings such as Coca-Cola are condemned for their role in diluting Indian identity. When ladino landowners come to seize the land of Rigoberta’s people in the name of progress, Rigoberta and her fellow villagers take up machetes, build traps, and unite in militaristic fashion. In their efforts to preserve the old ways, the Indians must resort to violent activities that distance them from their ancestors. In effect, even those who would rather not move forward are, by their proximity to change and advancement, forced to comply. Through progress, Rigoberta wins the freedom to pursue education and life outside of the Altiplano and to make her own choices, such as renouncing marriage and motherhood. Progress also enables her to approach the United Nations, appealing to the basic humanity that links people of all races and creeds.
The Virtue of Hard Work
Whether they are at home in the Altiplano or on the job at the fincas, Rigoberta and her people embrace manual labor wholeheartedly. By the time she is eight years old, Rigoberta has already developed fingers dexterous enough to pluck coffee beans from bushes without breaking a twig, and a back strong enough to haul pounds of coffee. She feels significant pride in these accomplishments, despite the pain she’s endured. It isn’t necessarily difficult labor that causes Rigoberta and her people to resent ladinos but rather the ladinos’ lack of respect for the Indians’ basic needs and their way of life. When she becomes a maid in the capital, Rigoberta dutifully performs the tasks that are expected of her, even those as foreign and seemingly pointless as ironing. Meanwhile, Rigoberta regards the mistress with disdain, noting in particular that she spends her days doing nothing. As Rigoberta moves away from manual labor and into working for the CUC and other peasant groups, she maintains a high level of activity, passing out flyers and discussing her cause with any who are interested. Clearly, the drive to work is important to Rigoberta, and it is indeed her and her people’s persistence that makes the CUC cause take hold.
I, Rigoberta Menchu opens with a thorough, textured account of the traditions that surround the process of giving birth in Rigoberta’s culture. Throughout the book, Rigoberta repeatedly returns to explanations and descriptions of traditions surrounding other aspects of Quiche Indian life, including marriage, death, and the harvesting of the maize. Both Rigoberta and Burgos-Debray assert that keeping traditions alive is a way of preserving the Indian community and fighting against the Guatemalan dictatorship that threatens it. Modern elements that pull people away from tradition contrast with the traditions that make the work compelling. This contrast creates a tension that mirrors the tension Rigoberta feels as she steps outside the standard role of an Indian woman. The impact of Candelaria choosing to dress as a ladino, for example, or Rigoberta deciding not to have children are heightened because such occurrences are placed against Rigoberta’s emphasis on the way things have always been done.
Early in Rigoberta’s story, her definition of community includes only those with whom she lives in the Altiplano. As her community is persecuted along with other Indian groups, Rigoberta’s sense of community broadens to include all of the Guatemalan Indians. Later, as her community is virtually destroyed and she goes into exile, she must again redefine community to stand for all those with whom she works to liberate her people. In Rigoberta’s imagination and through storytelling, however, she keeps the idea of her community on the Altiplano alive.
The text of I, Rigoberta Menchu originated from an extended storytelling session in which Rigoberta told her experiences to Burgos-Debray, and Rigoberta continuously breaks the action to insert more stories of her past. Storytelling informs the very structure of the book, but it also is an important part of how characters in the work interact with one another. When the Old Woman meets Rigoberta and the community after killing the soldier, she joyously tells a story about it. During marriage ceremonies, Indian elders tell stories of their past. Stories distill the many chaotic elements of the strife between Guatemalans and Indians, allowing Rigoberta to draw readers in and make them care about what she has been through.
The lorry, with its closed sides, represents the darkness Rigoberta and other Indians exist within before they reach the point when they can no longer ignore the exploitation the ladinos have brought to them. People become sick in the lorry, but they also become sick of the oppressive conditions under which the Guatemalan government and landowners force them to live. After Rigoberta watches her brother die and grows angry for the first time, she sees her surroundings more clearly while returning to the Altiplano by bus. No longer kept in the dark, she has important insight that powers her efforts to reclaim her people’s rights. As I, Rigoberta Menchu unfolds, Rigoberta is usually the one who can see things clearly, and she must tell others how to defend themselves.
Rigoberta rips the corte, or skirt, that the mistress gives her in half, which signifies her ripping away from tradition and the obedient identity she has always known within her community. Until this point, Rigoberta’s stance has been to cover her growing anger with sweetness and submission. Her experience working as a maid in a ladino household and the example of Candelaria reveal to her that in order to claim her rights and the rights of her people, she must become more assertive, even aggressive. In remaining chapters, Rigoberta becomes more and more militant and less and less the timid, obedient servant she is when she arrives in the capital. Rigoberta’s mother continuously reminds her to continue wearing her corte and huipil, important parts of traditional Indian dress, a request that Rigoberta respects and follows. Still, to fight the Guatemalan government and landowners, Rigoberta must, in effect, rip away from the traditional fabric of her life.
The Old Woman
In I, Rigoberta Menchu, the Old Woman is an archetypal figure, which is an element that occurs cross-culturally in literature. She symbolizes the ancestors that Rigoberta and her people look up to, but she is also the first Indian in the work who commits murder. The Old Woman’s willingness to kill in the name of justice and liberty gives other Indians permission, from the ancestors and elders, to take life. The Old Woman is also a fierce defender of her culture and its people, and will stop at nothing to protect the younger generation, even though her own family has been killed. Able to summon enough strength to take down a soldier, the Old Woman also signifies the idea that those who appear meek or feeble might, in actuality, be capable of strong, powerful acts.
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