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Rigoberta Menchú

Nobel Peace Prize winner
Born 9 January 1959 (1959-01-09) (age 51)
Laj Chimel, Quiché, Guatemala

Rigoberta Menchú Tum (born 9 January 1959, Laj Chimel, El Quiché, Guatemala) is an indigenous Guatemalan, of the K'iche' Maya ethnic group. Menchú has dedicated her life to publicizing the plight of Guatemala's indigenous peoples during and after the Guatemalan Civil War (1960–1996), and to promoting indigenous rights in the country. She is the recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize and Prince of Asturias Award in 1998. She is the subject of the testimonial biography I, Rigoberta Menchú (1983) and the author of the autobiographical work, Crossing Borders. Later, American anthropologist David Stoll visited Guatemala and uncovered evidence that some of the claims in Menchú's Nobel Prize-winning autobiography were false.

Menchú is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. She has also become a figure in indigenous political parties, running for President of Guatemala in 2007.



Menchú received a primary-school education as a student at several Catholic boarding schools. After leaving school, she worked as an activist campaigning against human rights violations committed by the Guatemalan armed forces during the country's civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996.

In 1981, Rigoberta Menchú escaped to Mexico. In 1982, she was the subject of a book about her life, "Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y asi me nacio la conciencia" (My Name is Rigoberta Menchu and this is how my Conscience was Born), which was translated into 5 other languages including English and French. A notable translation by French author and anthropologist Elizabeth Burgos made her an international icon at the time of the ongoing conflict in Guatemala.[1]

In 1991, Menchú participated in the ongoing preparation by the United Nations in its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples..

Since the Guatemalan Civil War ended, Menchú has campaigned to have members of the Guatemalan political and military establishment tried in Spanish courts. In 1999 she filed a complaint before a court in Spain because prosecutions of crimes committed during the civil war are practically impossible in Guatemala. These attempts stalled as the Spanish courts determined that the plaintiffs had not yet exhausted all possibility of seeking justice through the legal system of Guatemala. On 23 December 2006, Spain called for the extradition from Guatemala of seven former members of Guatemala's government on charges of genocide and torture. These include former military rulers Efraín Ríos Montt and Óscar Mejía. Spain's highest court ruled that cases of genocide committed abroad could be judged in Spain, even if no Spanish citizens have been involved. In addition to the deaths of Spanish citizens, the most serious charges include genocide against the Mayan people of Guatemala.

Menchú has become involved in the Mexican pharmaceutical industry as president of the company Salud para Todos ("Health for All") and the company "Farmacias Similares", with the goal of offering low-cost generic medicines.[2] She served as presidential goodwill ambassador for the 1996 peace accords.[2]

In 2006, Menchú was one of the founders of the Nobel Women's Initiative along with sister Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Wangari Maathai, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire. Six women representing North America and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa decided to bring together their experiences in a united effort for peace with justice and equality. It is the goal of the Nobel Women's Initiative to help strengthen work being done in support of women's rights around the world.[3]

Rigoberta is also a member of PeaceJam, an organization whose mission is "to create young leaders committed to positive change in themselves, their communities and the world through the inspiration of Nobel Peace Laureates who pass on the spirit, skills, and wisdom they embody."[4]. She travels around the world speaking to youth through PeaceJam conferences.


On 12 February 2007, Menchú announced that she would form an indigenous political party called Encuentro por Guatemala and that she would stand in the 2007 presidential election. Had she been elected, she would have become Latin America's fourth indigenous president after Mexico's Benito Juárez, Peru's Alejandro Toledo and Bolivia's Evo Morales.

In the election, Menchú was defeated in the first round, receiving three percent of the vote.[5]. Several candidates of her party were threatened and two of them were killed. After the elections Rigoberta Menchu gave a message of peace on television. [6]

In 2009 she was involved in the newly founded party Winaq.

Controversies about her testimony

More than a decade after the publication of I, Rigoberta Menchú, anthropologist David Stoll carried out an investigation of Menchú's story, researching government documents, reports, and land claims (many filed by Menchú's own family), and interviewing former neighbors, locals, friends, enemies, and others for his 1999 book Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. He did not interview Menchú herself, however. Stoll confirmed that Menchú grew up in a Mayan peasant village which was visited by Marxist guerrillas and then attacked by the Guatemalan army. However, Stoll claimed that Menchú changed some elements of her life, family and village to meet the publicity needs of the guerrilla movement, which she joined as a political cadre after her parents were assassinated.

In the book, Menchú maintained that her family was actively involved in fighting against their subjugation by wealthy Guatemalans of European descent and the Guatemalan government. She also claimed that her father, Vicente Menchú, had founded the peasant movement known as the Committee for Campesino Unity. Instead, Stoll and New York Times journalist Larry Rohter found that Vicente Menchú, while poor, was relatively prosperous by local Mayan standards. As leader of his community, he won a 27.53 km² land grant from the Guatemalan government. Unfortunately, his success led to a long-running dispute with his wife's relatives, in the Tum family, who claimed some of the same land. During the late 1970s, when Vicente Menchú's daughter claimed that he was an underground radical political organizer, he was at home in his village of Chimel working with U.S. Peace Corps volunteers.

In her 1982 life story, Menchú claimed that she and her family had been forced to work as peons on a distant coastal plantation for eight months of the year, as millions of other impoverished Mayan farmworkers continue to do every year. According to neighbors, however, the family was sufficiently well-off to avoid this fate. Menchú also claimed that her father refused to allow her to attend school, on the grounds that it would turn her into a non-indigenous "ladino" who would forget her Mayan roots, but in reality, Catholic nuns supported her in a succession of private boarding schools until she reached the 8th grade.

Stoll claims that Menchú's account of watching her younger brother Nicolas die of malnutrition was false, as Stoll located a living brother of hers named Nicolas. Menchú has responded that she was referring to another brother also named Nicolas (giving several children the same name is a common practice among rural Mayans in Guatemala). When interviewed by Rohter, the surviving Nicolas affirmed that two brothers had died of malnutrition but remembered the name of only one of them, Felipe.[7]

In one episode in her 1982 story, Menchú claimed that her younger brother Petrocinio had been burned alive by Guatemala's military while she and her family were forced to watch in a town plaza. After interviewing local townspeople and reviewing contemporary human rights reports, Stoll concluded that Petrocinio was shot and killed by Army-supported paramilitary groups, rather than burned to death, and his body dumped in a mass grave, and that Menchú and her family had not witnessed his death. In follow-up interviews with the New York Times, Menchú conceded that she had not personally witnessed the murder of her brother as it was related to her by her mother. "Show me where the mass grave is where he is buried. If someone will give me his body, I will change my view. My truth is that my brother Patrocinio was burned alive."[8]

However, Stoll does not claim that her 1983 story is a hoax. The reason is that she in fact lost both her parents, two brothers, a sister-in-law and three nieces and nephews to the Guatemalan security forces.

In response to Stoll's findings, Menchú initially accused him of defending the Guatemalan military and seeking to discredit all victims of the violence, but later she acknowledged making certain changes in her story. The Nobel Committee has dismissed calls to revoke her Nobel prize because of the reported falsifications; however, Geir Lundestad, the secretary of the Committee, said her prize "was not based exclusively or primarily on the autobiography".[1] According to the Nobel Committee, "Stoll approves of her Nobel prize and has no question about the picture of army atrocities which she presents. He says that her purpose in telling her story the way she did 'enabled her to focus international condemnation on an institution that deserved it, the Guatemalan army.'"[1]

Five weeks after publication of the New York Times article raising doubts about the accuracy of several key allegations found in Menchú’s biography, the Times published a news story which reported Menchú's response to several questions raised in the earlier article.[9] Several days later, the Spanish-language newspaper El País (Madrid) published an extended interview with Menchú in which the Nobel laureate offered a defense of her 1983 biography.[10]


  • Ament, Gail. "Recent Maya Incursions into Guatemalan Literary Historiography". Literary Cultures of Latin America: A Comparative History. Eds. Mario J. Valdés & Djelal Kadir. 3 Vols. Vol 1: Configurations of Literary Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004: I: 216–215.
  • Arias, Arturo. “After the Rigoberta Menchú Controversy: Lessons Learned About the Nature of Subalternity and the Specifics of the Indigenous Subject” MLN 117.2 (2002): 481–505.
  • Beverley, John. "The Real Thing (Our Rigoberta)" Modern Language Quarterly 57:2 (June 1986): 129–235.
  • Brittin, Alice A. "Close Encounters of the Third World Kind: Rigoberta Menchu and Elisabeth Burgos's Me llamo Rigoberta Menchu". Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 22, No. 4, Redefining Democracy: Cuba and Chiapas (Autumn, 1995), pp. 100–114.
  • De Valdés, María Elena. "The Discourse of the Other: Testimonio and the Fiction of the Maya." Bulletin of Hispanic Studies (Liverpool), LXXIII (1996): 79–90.
  • Feal, Rosemary Geisdorfer. "Women Writers into the Mainstream: Contemporary Latin American Narrative". Philosophy and Literature in Latin America. Eds. Jorge J.E. Gracia and Mireya Camurati. New York: State University of New York, 1989. An overview of women in contemporary Latin American letters.
  • Golden, Tim. "Guatemalan Indian Wins the Nobel Peace Prize": New York Times (October 17, 1992):p.A1,A5.
  • Golden, Tim. "Guatemalan to Fight On With Nobel as Trumpet": New York Times (October 19, 1992):p.A5.
  • Gossen, Gary H. "Rigoberta Menchu and Her Epic Narrative". Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 26, No. 6, If Truth Be Told: A Forum on David Stoll's "Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans" (Nov., 1999), pp. 64–69.
  • Gray Díaz, Nancy. "Indian Women Writers of Spanish America". Spanish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book. Ed. Diane E. Marting. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
  • Millay, Amy Nauss. Voices from the Fuente Viva: The Effect of Orality in Twentieth-Century Spanish American Narrative. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2005.
  • Logan, Kathleen. "Personal Testimony: Latin American Women Telling Their Lives". Latin American Research Review 32.1 (1997): 199–211. Review Essay.
  • Nelan, Bruce W. "Striking Against Racism". Time 140:61 (October 26, 1992): p.61.
  • Stanford, Victoria. "Between Rigoberta Menchu and La Violencia: Deconstructing David Stoll's History of Guatemala" Latin American Perspectives 26.6, If Truth Be Told: A Forum on David Stoll's "Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans" (Nov., 1999), pp. 38–46.
  • ---. "From I, Rigoberta to the Commissioning of Truth Maya Women and the Reshaping of Guatemalan History". Cultural Critique 47 (2001) 16–53.
  • Sommer, Doris. "Rigoberta's Secrets" Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 18, No. 3, Voices of the Voiceless in Testimonial Literature, Part I. (Summer, 1991), pp. 32–50.
  • Stoll, David "I, Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans" (Westview Press, 1999)
  • ---. "Slaps and Embraces: A Rhetoric of Particularism". The Latin American Subaltern Studies Reader. Ed. Iliana Rodríguez. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.
  • Ward, Thomas. La resistencia cultural: la nación en el ensayo de las Américas. Lima: Universidad Ricardo Palma, 2004: 285–302,
  • Zimmerman, Marc. "Rigoberta Menchú After the Nobel: From Militant Narrative to Postmodern Politics. The Latin American Subaltern Studies Reader. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.


See also

External links

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