by Kenneth Justice
The plight of the poor and social justice is often told from the perspective of the intellectual elite and academics. However, the true story of what life is like at the bottom rung of society is not merely something you can observe, it is something one must experience. And that is exactly what a Nobel Peace Prize winner accomplishes in her self-titled account “I, Rigoberta Menchu”. The line between oppressor and oppressed is so neatly woven in Menchu’sa account that it leaves the reader wondering how in the 21st century that humanity still allows social inequality to exist.
Menchu’s book is an account told to Venezuelan author Elizabeth Burgos whose opening introduction explains in detail how she recorded Menchu’s life story over a period of days and faithfully wrote the book in the first person allowing the narrative to be entirely that of Menchu without the transcriber’s own personal commentary. The book is a history and social commentary of the Guatemalan Native Americans in the second half of the 20th century and their struggle to survive both physically and psychologically in a society entirely governed by descendants of the European Spanish conquerors. Menchu chronicles her life growing up amongst her indigenous people and how she eventually joined her father and others in a crusade to fight back against the government in order to win more rights and freedom for the Native Americans.
In an article published by Western Michigan University, Lynnette Grate (2002) writes, “One of Menchu’s main objectives is to maintain a cohesive Mayan culture. Menchu records her culture’s past through memory, detailing rituals, customs, and traditions” (para. 2). This is indeed an important element in the book as Menchu documents in massive detail the various traditions of her Quiche countrymen even as far as explaining the birthing and midwifery practices of her people. This element of traditions and descriptions that Menchu offers instantly connects the reader to her people in an intimate manner which helps to humanize her people and their suffering in such a way that by the time Menchu introduces the Guatemalan Spaniards and the other peoples of Guatemala, who she portrays as oppressors, the reader is entirely outraged at the social injustice which she describes.
A central figure in the memoir is her father Vincent. He is described by Menchu as intelligent, wise and heroic. When Vincent leaves the family on numerous political excursions in the cause of Guatemalan rights, the reader is invited to both weep over his departure from his family yet to also celebrate the political cause he has joined. Absent from the book is any mention by Menchu that the political cause her father is a part of is called “guerilla warfare” by critics (Nobel Media, 2014). Eventually, Menchu’s father and brother were executed having been accused of guerrilla activity and then in one of the most awful moments of the book, her own mother is arrested by the army, tortured and raped. Whenever guns and actual fighting is mentioned in her book Menchu almost always portrays her Quiche people and fellow Native Americans as acting in an almost passive, peaceful manner. Guns to them are merely weapons of the oppressors and not something they take up willingly but rather begrudgingly. This way of telling her story likely is motivated by Menchu’s goal of constantly portraying her people as the victims in every way, shape and form.
Menchu’s book is not without critics however, and in 1999 author and anthropologist David Stoll released his book “Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans” in which he contests that Menchu’s book is less than accurate, “and accuses her of romanticizing her story in order to gain stronger support for the Guatemalan guerrilla movement” (Berg, 2010). Stoll claims that major elements of the suffering that Menchu documents is not entirely accurate, “how poor really were Rioberta and her family? Did she in fact go to the coffee plantations at all? Was her brother burned alive or “just tortured and killed by the army? And was Rigoberta there to witness it for herself?” (Berg, 2010). Stoll’s claims and questions have been criticized by others as being a “positivist and Western-biased one” which demonstrates the sharp clash between cultures and perspectives when it comes to history and the interpretation and writing of historical accounts (Berg, 2010). Ultimately, no one can ever know the exact details and facts when it comes to true nature of Menchu’s account and the stories she tells. However, what is agreed upon by many is that the Guatemalan Native Americans did indeed suffer from elements of violence and persecution by greedy landowners and unscrupulous people (Berg, 2010). Berg (2010) goes on to write, “The Central-American country was, during the 20th century, repeatedly blighted by land disputes and violence. The reason why – and who is to blame – is still disputed. Whatever you believe is the answer will reveal all about your political standpoint…” (para. 7). As with all history there is an element which each reader and student must come to terms with in their own estimation; each person must interpret all the evidence and determine what they deem to be the most reliable with the realization that there is an element of subjectivity surrounding each of the accounts.
Ultimately, the story of “I, Rigoberta Menchu” serves as a lasting testament of the Quiche people and the indigenous nations throughout Central America. It is a narrative that has the ability of educating industrialized countries in the remarkable fortitude and faith of people who although they look different and live different lives; are every bit the same in their humanity. Too often society and people groups clash over differences. Books such as Menchu’s remind us that though our traditions and cultures may be different, at the heart of all people is our humanity which connects us.
Berg, Ragnhild Sovi. (2010). When Truth is at stake: The Rigoberta Menchu Controversy. http://www.siu.no/eng/Front-Page/Global-knowledge/Issues/2010/When-Truth-is-at-stake-The-Rigoberta-Menchu-controversy
Grate, Lynnette. (2002). I, Rigoberta Menchu. http://www.wmich.edu/dialogues/texts/irigobertamenchu.html
Nobel Media. (2014). Rigoberta Menchu Tum-Biographical. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1992/tum-bio.html