By Joseph Collins
In the face of staggering government violence and repression, Rigoberta Menchu was an unstoppable beacon of hope. As a fiercely determined human rights activist, Menchu fought tirelessly to bring dignity and justice to the indigenous people of Guatemala. Even when confronted with personal tragedy, exile, civil war, and genocidal terror, Menchu remained strong, determined to gain legal protections for the K’iche Maya of her homeland. And in the end, she and her supporters won the day, bringing new levels of peace and democracy to a nation that had known only war and authoritarian rule for more than 36 years.
Having won numerous humanitarian awards for her efforts, including the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, Rigoberta Menchu has since joined other like-mined women to broaden her work and help spread a message of equality, hope, and justice around the world. While her legacy is not without controversy, Menchu has fought long and hard to expand human rights and to ensure a better future for all Guatemalans. And despite everything she has been though, she continues to push forward with her work to this day.
“When you are convinced your cause is just, you fight for it.” – Rigoberta Menchu
FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
Rigoberta Menchu Tum was born on January 9th 1959 in Laj Chimel, a hamlet in the north-central Guatemalan province of El Quiché, the heartland of the K’iche indigenous people. From the beginning, daily life was a struggle for Rigoberta and her poverty-stricken family, which included her father, Vicente, her mother, Juana, (both day laborers) and several brothers. Starting at the age of eight, Rigoberta would help her parents by working on large plantations, where they performed physically demanding labor as migrant workers. To earn enough money to survive, the Menchu family would travel from plantation to plantation and spend months at a time picking coffee beans and other crops as a means of support. For the most part, the work was intense, difficult, and often dangerous. Rigoberta lost one of her brothers to insecticide poisoning, which was sprayed copiously in the fields with little concern for the worker safety. She later lost another brother to malnutrition, as laborers were not paid very much, and the struggle to survive was a constant challenge. The loss of two brothers in a relatively short amount of time was a constant reminder of the hardships Rigoberta and her family faced.
When she was 13 years old, Rigoberta Menchu had her first experience with discrimination, shortly after she was hired to work as a maid for a wealthy family in Guatemala City (the capital). The family, which was of Spanish descent, looked down on Rigoberta because of her indigenous heritage. On a daily basis, Rigoberta was treated disrespectfully and made to feel like a second-class citizen. As Rigoberta grew older, she became increasingly aware of the routine discrimination faced by indigenous people in Guatemala. It wasn’t long – while still a teenager – that she became actively involved with the human rights movement through local Catholic Churches.
“It is not possible,” said Menchu, “to conceive a democratic Guatemala, free and independent, without the indigenous identity shaping its character into all aspects of national existence.”
Joining with the Catholic Church, she began advocating for social reform and speaking out against human rights violations, not realizing at the time how much her role as human rights defender would grow and how much of an important figure she would soon become.
HARSH GOVERNMENT RESPONSE
Not long after Rigoberta Menchu was born, Guatemala’s civil war erupted. In 1954, the Guatemalan military held a coup, overthrowing a democratically elected left-leaning government and replacing it with a hardline, military dictatorship. The new military government ruled with an iron fist, brutally dealing with any and all forms of resistance. After years of human rights abuses, a leftist guerrilla movement rose up to challenge the government and demand political reform. The government responded with violence, and a full-blown civil war broke out – a war that would last for more than 36 years (from1960 to1996). Civilians who opposed the government were arrested, tortured, and often killed. In rural areas, where guerrillas often receive local support, entire villages were massacred. In total, more than 200,000 people were either killed or were “disappeared” as a result of the conflict. In the 1980s, when the war reached its peak, many observers believe the killing became “genocidal” in nature, with a concerted effort to wipe out rural indigenous groups, which tended to side more with the anti-government rebels.
As Rigoberta Menchu and her family became more involved in civil rights activities for indigenous people, demanding fair treatment, civil rights, and private land ownership, the government did not fail to notice. Eventually, Rigoberta and her family were targeted by government officials and accused of involvement in guerrilla activity. Although these accusations were false, officials used these claims as an excuse to put pressure on Rigoberta and her family to cease their activism. Despite the risk involved, however, Rigoberta refused to back down, convinced of the virtue of her cause. One day, without warning, the army arrested Rigoberta’s father, Vicente, and tortured him for allegedly taking part in the execution of a local, wealthy plantation owner (a crime he had nothing to do with). Traumatized by the experience, Vicente decided to become more actively involved in the push for reform. When he was finally released, he joined the Committee for Peasant Unity (Comité de Unidad Campesina or CUC), an indigenous rights organization opposed to the harsh military government. Before long, Rigoberto also joined the CUC, hoping to bring about positive change. But as her continued opposition to the military government grew, so did the government’s anger. Their response to the growing activism of Rigoberta and her family was harsh, swift, and merciless.
In 1979, when Rigoberta was just 20 years old, her brother Patrocinio was kidnapped by government troops, killed, and dumped in a mass grave. The following year, her father was also murdered by government forces – apparently for participating in a mass protest. Her father had joined a large group of indigenous rights activists at the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City, when military troops attacked the building and burned it to the ground, killing 39 people inside, including Rigoberta’s father. While these brutal acts of violence were intended to send a message to the Menchu family, they only strengthened Rigoberta’s resolve, and she became even more involved in the human rights movement. Later that year, Rigoberta played a large part in organizing a strike led by the CUC, calling for better working conditions for indigenous farm laborers. In May of 1981 – barely a year after her father’s death – Rigoberta was actively involved in large demonstrations in Guatemala City (the very city where her father was killed), again calling for equal rights and fair treatment of the K’iche Maya people.
That same year, government troops struck again, this time kidnapping Rigoberta’s mother, who was tortured, raped and eventually killed. At this point, Rigoberta – just 21 years old – realized that her entire family was being systematically murdered and that she would most likely be next. Her heart heavy with sorrow, Rigoberta Menchu fled her home country and sought asylum in neighboring Mexico. Once there, she was given shelter and helped by a local Catholic group. Although shaken and heartbroken, Rigoberta was determined to continue fighting for human rights. From her new home in Mexico, Rigoberta Menchu launched an international crusade to fight for Guatemalan Indians, hoping to raise global awareness about the brutal repression taking place in her homeland.
Her efforts soon caught the attention of the United Nations, and before long she became a member of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations. As a result of her unflagging efforts, she had taken her calling as a human rights defender to the next level and was now ready to fight for justice and equality on an international stage.
“The Mayan people will once again flourish. I believe in this very strongly.” – Rigoberta Menchu
THE WORLD STAGE
Now working with a global community, Rigoberta Menchu demanded that the Guatemalan government cease its campaign of brutality against the country’s indigenous people – hoping that international pressure might have a greater impact. In 1982, she helped establish The United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition (RUOG), an organization opposed to the military rule of Guatemala and their cruel treatment of its people.
Menchu also thought that she could help raise awareness by writing a book about her own personal experiences and the suffering of her people. In 1983, with the help of Elizabeth Burgos, a Venezuelan anthropologist, Menchu wrote and published “I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Women in Guatemala,” a gripping testament to the hardships she and her people endured, and a book that received international acclaim. Her literary success catapulted her into worldwide fame, and she became a leading global figure representing indigenous rights. (Although her book would later be called into question by researchers for several inconsistencies and a few disputed claims, the core of her story proved to be true and it’s message was no less powerful.)
Thee years later, in 1986, Rigoberta served as narrator for “When the Mountains Tremble,” a powerful documentary examining the suffering and struggles of the Mayan people. At this point, Rigoberta’s main goal was to document her people’s struggles for the world to see, believing that greater global awareness might force the Guatemalan government to make peace and end its campaign of repression. Yet, while her message was getting out to the world, progress in Guatemala remained slow.
Frustrated, Rigoberta decided to visit her home country directly. With her growing international visibility, Rigoberta hoped she might be able to safely return to Guatemala to push for change on her own native soil. Yet each time she visited Guatemala, continued death threats forced her to return to Mexico. In fact, during her very first return visit (1988), Rigoberta was arrested and temporarily jailed by government forces, before finally being released and allowed to leave.
As news of her struggle spread, so did her acclaim in the international community. In 1992 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her commitment to peace and human rights for indigenous people of her country. At the time, she was only 33 years old.
Finally, in 1993, Menchu’s tireless crusade – along with mounting international pressure – helped to force the military government of Guatemala to step down and begin the process of peace and reform. Ramiro de León Carpio, a human rights advocate, came to power as the new president, and 3 years later, a peace treaty was officially signed by both the new government and the rebels, thus ending the 36-year civil war. Many refugees who had fled from Guatemala to Mexico finally began to return. It was a triumphant moment for Rigoberta Menchu, who, along with her family, had fought so hard to bring about reform.
With the conflict now over, Rigoberta was able to return to her home country and push for greater human rights protections, as well as some justice for the years of repression the Guatemalan citizens had endured. Before long, she approached the government of Spain, hoping they might be able to push the new Guatemalan government in a more positive direction. She asked Spanish officials to help prosecute those in the previous military government for war crimes, genocide, torture, and state terrorism carried out against more than 200,000 people during the war – many of them the K’iche Mayans. Although Spain has long had considerable influence over Guatemala, they initially hesitated until they felt all other avenues involving the Guatemalan courts had been exhausted. However, Rigoberta realized that the Guatemalan courts would be equally resistant to bring about justice, so she continued to pursue Spanish officials. Finally, in 2006, the Spanish government agreed to help, extraditing 7 key Guatemalan officials to Spain to be tried. In 2015, after a lengthy process, a government official was convicted of murder, attempted murder, and crimes against humanity for his role in the embassy attack where Rigoberta Menchu’s father died.
Her greatest moment of victory, however, came when, after a lengthy trial, the previous president, Efrain Riios Montt, was finally convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide in 2013 and sentenced to 80 years in prison. Although not all of those accused were found guilty, Menchu had at least achieved these major victories for herself and her nation.
“I am like a drop of water on a rock. After drip, drip, dripping in the same place, I begin to leave a mark, and I leave my mark in many people’s hearts.” – Rigoberta Menchu
During this whole time, Menchu remained active in a wide range of human rights efforts. For instance, she became involved in the fight to ensure health coverage for all Guatemalans, including the K’iche Mayans, by serving as president of Health for All, an organization that sought low-cost healthcare and generic drugs for the entire population. And in 2006, Menchu co-founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative, an organization made up of six female Nobel laureates who support women’s groups around the world campaigning for peace, justice and equality. Among the esteemed members are Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist, and Jody Williams, an American activist who worked tirelessly to ban the use of land mines around the world. Menchu also became a member of Peace Jam, an organization dedicated to developing young leaders who are committed to positive change in themselves, their communities, and the world. As a member of Peace Jam, Menchu travels the word, delivering lectures to promising young activists, encouraging them to find peaceful solutions to conflicts and to embrace civil rights for all.
“Only together can we move forward, so that there is light and hope for all women on the planet.” – Rigoberta Menchu
Over the years, Rigoberta Menchu has received numerous awards for her humanitarian work. In addition to winning the Nobel Peace Prize, she has been given the Prince of Asturias Prize (1998), awarded for her achievements in humanities and public affairs. She has also been honored with the Order of the Aztec Eagle Award in 2010 for her ongoing human rights achievements.
In 2013, the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM) appointed her Special Investigator for its multicultural nation program, giving added authority to her campaign. Today, Menchu continues to seek justice for the Mayan people impacted by the horrors of the civil war and for human rights in general. And despite the controversy surrounding her 1983 book, Rigoberta Menchu remains well regarded by humanitarian groups and activists across the globe, who find her relentless courage and commitment to be a continued source of inspiration.