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.
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