The narrator and protagonist of I, Rigoberta Menchu. Proud, hardworking, and idealistic, Rigoberta is a Quiche Indian who finds herself poised for leadership when her people are persecuted and exploited by the powerful Guatemalan dictatorship. Rigoberta oscillates between despair and anger as she gains the skills and confidence that enable her to make a difference in her community and in the world. Fiercely traditional, Rigoberta defends her family and fellow Indians, celebrating the folkways and stories that have been passed down for generations. Rigoberta repeatedly pursues activities that aren’t typical among the women in her culture. Eventually, Rigoberta becomes a radical political activist who travels throughout the world, telling her story and furthering the Guatemalan peasant cause.
The editor of I, Rigoberta Menchu. Burgos-Debray interviewed, recorded, transcribed, and arranged Rigoberta’s autobiography. Though Burgos-Debray’s presence is only implied in the action of I, Rigoberta Menchu, she shapes the story. An educated, left-leaning anthropologist, Burgos-Debray sympathizes with Rigoberta and holds a romantic view of her and her fellow Indian peasants. Cooking the traditional dishes that are staples in both women’s homelands, for instance, Burgos-Debray feels a deep connection with Rigoberta, but Rigoberta doesn’t return the connection because she mistrusts ladinosand other outsiders.
Rigoberta’s father. A leader in his community, the Roman Catholic Church, and the CUC, Vicente is Rigoberta’s chief role model. From early in Rigoberta’s life, Vicente presses on her his hope that she’ll continue his cause. Vicente was an orphan who entered the Guatemalan army at a young age before he met and married Juana Tum, and he is committed to his family and the Indian community. Despite his apparent strength, he can also be thin-skinned, sometimes escaping his problems by drinking alcohol.
Rigoberta’s mother. A traditional Indian healer, Juana believes strongly in upholding the values and practices of the elders and the ancestors. However, she wholeheartedly embraces the cause of the Guatemalan peasants and is able to unite people in simple but powerful ways. After seeing three of her sons die at the hands of the Guatemalan landowners and government, Juana becomes more militant and even sympathizes with guerillas who live in the mountains near her village.
Rigoberta’s older brother. Petrocinio is singled out by the Guatemalan military for his work as a catechist and as a community leader among the Guatemalan peasants. Rigoberta, her family, and their community must watch as he is burned alive by the Guatemalan military, which galvanizes their commitment to fight for Indian rights.
Another maid in the landowner’s house, where Rigoberta works in Guatemala City. Candelaria is a “ladinized” Indian, which means she speaks Spanish and wears ladino clothing, not the traditional Indian dress. Confident and street-smart, Candelaria shows Rigoberta how to perform household duties at the landowner’s house, but she also teaches her how to sabotage wealthy landowners and what it takes to stand up to authority. She is a survivor who holds onto her dignity, even though she is eventually thrown out of the landowner’s house.
Rigoberta’s little brother. Two-year-old Nicolas succumbs to illness at the finca. His death spurs Rigoberta’s dawning realization of her people’s exploitation and her understanding of what life means for Indians living in Guatemala. Upon Nicholas’s death, Rigoberta feels angry and wishes to make changes in her own life and the lives of her people.
The wife of the wealthy landowner who hires Rigoberta to work as a maid in Guatemala City. The mistress hates Indians but also relies on their strong work ethic to keep her household running. She sees Rigoberta and Candelaria as an extension of her household and expects them to behave and dress appropriately. Yet she also mistreats them, feeding her dog better food than she sets aside for the Indians.
A member of the Guerilla army. Rigoberta’s twelve-year-old sister visits Rigoberta while Rigoberta is in hiding in Guatemala and reminds her that being a revolutionary isn’t born of something good but of “wretchedness and bitterness.”
A member of the guerilla army. Rigoberta’s youngest sister says she can honor her mother only by taking up arms.
Rigoberta’s friend at the finca. Maria exists only in Rigoberta’s memory, but her death sets off a rage within Rigoberta that energizes her commitment to become a leader among her people and to do whatever it takes to transform the dismal lot most Indians face.
A resident in one of the communities where Rigoberta organizes the Guatemalan peasant movement. A widow who has lost her entire family, the Old Woman is tired of fighting the Guatemalan government. However, she is also willing to take more risks than her neighbors in rebelling against them and ends up killing a member of the Guatemalan army. Because she has traits that appear in legends and myths cross-culturally, the Old Woman is an archetypal figure.
A friend of Rigoberta’s from the finca. Dona Petrona Chona, the mother of two small children, is murdered after she refuses advances from the landowner’s son. Her role in I, Rigoberta Menchu is highly symbolic and suggests the fractured identity of Rigoberta and all of the Indian people. Like the Old Woman, Dona Petrona Chona is also an archetypal mother figure.
The president of Guatemala from 1974–1978. Rigoberta refers to him as Kjell Laugerud, and he tells the Indians he sympathizes with them. However, he then betrays them and sides with the Guatemalan landowners.
The president of Guatemala from 1978–1982. Lucas Garcia is more aggressive toward the Indians than was Kjell Laugerud. He sets up military bases in the Altiplano, where his soldiers routinely rape, torture, and kidnap Indians.