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.
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.
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.