Rigoberta Menchu: The Beginning of an Indigenous Activist, Part I (Part II coming June 21st)

Excerpted from Dr. Ames’ recently released book Human Rights: Towards a Global Values System.

Rigoberta Menchu

Rigoberta Menchu

“We Indians never do anything which goes against the laws of our ancestors.” –Rigoberta Menchu 

Rigoberta Menchu’s harrowing story spans her childhood growing up poor in a poor country, as an indigenous person with a culture different from modern culture, and as a global activist fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples. In a sense, she speaks for all indigenous peoples of the American continent. The cultural discrimination she has suffered is something that all the continent’s indigenous peoples have been experiencing since the Spanish conquest. Her voice allows indigenous peoples to speak. She is a witness who has survived the violence aimed at destroying her family, community and culture, and she is stubbornly determined to break the silence and to confront the systematic extermination of her people.

Map of Guatemala

Map of Guatemala

Menchu belongs to the Quiche people (a branch of the Mayans), one of the largest of the 23 ethnic groups in Guatemala, each having its own language. She was born on January 9, 1959 in the hamlet of Chimel on the Altiplano (highlands) to a poor peasant family who lived in a village in the northwestern Guatemalan province of El Quiche. She was immersed in the Mayan culture. In her biography, Menchu tells the story of the Guatemalan people and her personal experiences, which are, in essence, the reality of a whole people. Colonial powers have historically oppressed her people, and she is determined to make sure that the sacrifices her family and community have made to fight this oppression will not have been in vain. She makes it clear that “Latin Americans are only too ready to denounce the unequal relations that exist between ourselves and North America, but we tend to forget that we too are oppressors and that we too are involved in relations that can only be described as colonial. In countries with a large Indian population, there is an internal colonialism which works to the detriment of the indigenous population.”

Mayan Tikal Central Plaza

Mayan Tikal Central Plaza

To Rigoberta Menchu, living in the village of Chimel as a child was paradise. It had no big roads and no cars. People could only reach it by foot or horseback. Her parents moved to Chimel in 1960 and began cultivating the land. No one had lived there before because it was very mountainous, but they were determined to stay no matter how hard the life. They had been forced to leave their previous hometown because ladinos (Guatemalans of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry) settled there and gradually took control. Her parents spent all they earned and accumulated so much debt that finally they had to leave their house to pay the ladinos.

04 girl learning Q'eqchi' alphabet

girl learning Q’eqchi’ alphabet

Rigoberta’s father had a very hard life as a child. His father died when he was a child, leaving his wife with three small boys to raise. Her grandmother went to work as a servant for the town’s only wealthy family. The boys did small jobs around the house, such as carrying wood and water and tending animals. As they grew into young men, her employer didn’t want to keep feeding them, so her grandmother had to give away her eldest son, Rigoberta’s father, to a man who fed and worked him. Her father soon left that situation and found a job on a plantation growing coffee, cotton, and sugar cane. He sent for his mother and brothers to live with him. They earned very little money but were able to finally save enough to move to the high country. Shortly after the move, her grandmother became ill and died. The brothers decided to split up and the army forcibly recruited her father.

After her father’s discharge from the army, her parents met and soon after married. Her mother also came from a very poor family who lived in the Altiplano. They moved about looking for work in the area and were hardly ever at home. Her parents got permission from the government and scraped together enough money to pay a fee to cultivate land in the Altiplano. Since it took many long, hard years for the land to finally produce crops, her parents had to travel down to the coastal region to work on the plantations.

The family grew rapidly; Rigoberta was the sixth of nine children. Like other indigenous families, the children suffered from malnutrition. Most children didn’t reach the age of 15 years old. When she was a little girl she remembered spending only 4 months in the family’s house in the Altiplano and the rest of the year working on the coastal plantations. Only a few families owned the vast plantations producing cash crops that were sold abroad. Poor families like the Menchu’s tended the crops, a harsh life that her parents and others endured for many years.

Guatemalan community

Guatemalan community

In Menchu’s community there was a highly respected elected representative who acted as a father to the whole village. Her mother and father were the village’s representatives and the mother and father for all the children of the village. The birth of a baby is very significant for the community, as it belongs to all, not just the parents. Her mother, a midwife, helped women give birth at home; villagers considered it a scandal to have a child in the hospital. The community baptized a newborn before the parents took the infant to church. The newborn’s hands were tied for eight days, which symbolized that one should not accumulate things the rest of the community does not have. On the eighth day the child’s hands were untied; the open hands meant s/he knew how to share and be generous. The family teaches each child to live like fellow members of his/her community; no one had more than others.

Rigoberta’s fellow villagers were Catholic, but they saw the religion as just another channel of spiritual expression. They didn’t totally trust all the priests, monks, and nuns of the church. They believed that the sun was the father, and mother was the moon. Rigoberta felt that the Catholic Church has tried to “keep her people in their place,” but as Christians they gradually acquired an understanding of their rights and dignity. She thinks “that unless a religion springs from within the people themselves, it is a weapon of the system.”

The family took all the necessities for their stay on the plantations—bedding, cooking utensils, and clothing. Sometimes employers paid them by the day and sometimes for the amount of work done. Children who did not work did not earn any pay and were not fed. The little ones who worked got a ration of tortillas. Rigoberta’s mother had to share her ration of food with her.

Guatemala coffee plantation

Guatemalan coffee plantation

The plantations had a cantina owned by the landowners that sold food, alcohol, and sweets. The children always pestered their parents for sweets, cakes and soft drinks. The prices were marked up on an account, and at the end of the work period when the workers were paid, they had to settle their debt, which was always a lot. For example, if a child accidentally broke a branch of a coffee bush, the worker had to work to make it up. Every plantation had a cantina where workers got drunk and piled up huge debts. They often spent most of their wages just paying off the debt. Rigoberta sadly remembered her father and mother going to the cantina out of despair. She commented, “But he hurt himself twice over because his money went back to the landowner. That’s why they set up the cantina anyway.”

When Rigoberta turned 8 she started to earn money on the plantation by picking coffee, and when the family returned to their mountain home, she worked in the fields growing maize (corn). The plantation work was very hard and her parents were usually exhausted. She noted that most of the women who worked picking cotton and coffee had 9 or 10 children. Of these, 3 or 4 were healthy and would survive, but most of them had swollen bellies from malnutrition and the mother knew that 4 or 5 of her children would die. Even Rigoberta’s brother died from malnutrition. Men who had been in the army often abused young girls. Many girls had no families and turned to prostitution. She was sad to see this happen since prostitution did not exist in Indian culture.

Rigoberta celebrated her 10th birthday in the Altiplano. Her parents explained her responsibilities and that soon she would be a woman who could start having children. On her 12th birthday, it was the custom to receive a gift of a small animal to raise; her father gave her a pig. She sold weavings that she did in her spare time, after working in the fields all day, to get enough money to buy food for her pig.

Guatemalan ceremonies

Guatemalan ceremonies

Rigoberta’s community respected many things connected with the natural world. For example, water was sacred to her community. She explained, “Water is pure, clean, and gives life to humans. The same is true for the earth. The earth is mother of humans, because she gives us food. Her people eat maize, beans and vegetables; they cannot eat things made with equipment or machines. That is why they ask the earth’s permission to sow maize and beans.” Copa, the resin of a tree, was a sacred ingredient in candles for her people. The candles gave off a strong, smoky, delicious aroma when burned, and they were used in ceremonies to represent the earth, water and maize. They prayed to their ancestors and recited ancient prayers. Their grandfathers said they must ask the sun to shine on all its children: the trees, animals, water, man and enemies. To them, an enemy was someone who steals or goes into prostitution.

A happy moment in village life was when the farmers planted maize (corn). They had a fiesta in which they asked the earth’s permission to cultivate her. They lit candles and offered prayers and then blessed the seeds for sowing. According to the ritual, they honored the seed because they buried it in the sacred earth and by the next year it would multiply and bear fruit. They did the same with beans. When the maize started growing on their farms, they went back down to work on the plantations. When they came back, the maize had reached maturity. Maize was the center of their culture; they believed they were made of maize. They thanked mother earth for the harvest. After they harvested their crops, they all gathered together for a feast.

Indigenous people in village

Indigenous people in village

Every village had a community house where they all assembled to celebrate their faith, to pray, and to enjoy special ceremonies and fiestas. They all worked communally to clear bush in the mountains, and when sowing time came, the community met to discuss how to share the land, whether each one would have his own plot or if they would work it collectively. Everyone joined in the discussion. In her village, they decided to have their own plots of land but also to keep a common piece of land shared by the community. If anyone was ill or injured, s/he would have food to eat from the communal land. It mostly helped widows. Each day of the week, someone would work the communal land.


  1. What differences did Rigoberto experience between her indigenous culture and modern culture?
Aside | This entry was posted in Global Community, History, Public blog and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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