Excerpted from Dr. Ames’ recently released book Human Rights: Towards a Global Values System.
“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.
Rigoberta saw a stark difference between indigenous and modern education. To indigenous people, nature was their teacher. Her father was very suspicious of modern schools and said that once people learned to read and write, they weren’t any use to the community anymore. They moved away and were indifferent toward their community. Rigoberta wanted to go to school to learn to read and write. Her father said she would have to learn on her own since he had no money for her education. He thought she was trying to leave the community and was concerned that she would forget her heritage. She still insisted she wanted to learn. Despite her father’s misgivings, she sporadically attended a Catholic school.
As she was becoming a woman, her parents told her that she had to be a mother. They also warned her not to not wait too long before getting married, although the community did not shun childless couples. Unlike the ladinos, her community did not reject the huecos, what they called homosexuals. They saw all different ways of life as part of nature. They also said that whatever her ambitions were, she had no way of achieving them. That’s just how life was.
When Rigoberta turned 14 many of the villagers went as a group to work on the plantations. She and a friend, Maria, were assigned to pick cotton that was being sprayed with chemicals. Maria died from the poisoning and was buried on the plantation. Rigoberta was mad with grief. She hated the people who sprayed the crops, holding them responsible. Rigoberta decided, against her parents’ warnings, to take a job as a maid in the capital city. The maid’s job was a disaster, as she described it, she was treated worse than the owner’s dog. She worked for a couple months then left, vowing never again to take such an insulting position. Her job as a maid left her with the impression that the rich were un-Christian, lazy and mean.
After she left the maid’s job she was distressed to find that her father was in prison. Big landowners had come to their village to take away the land that her father and other villagers had cultivated for over 22 years. The peasant farmers, like her father, were at a disadvantage because they did not speak Spanish and did not understand their rights. The big landowners had started to threaten her father when he began getting involved with the unions, which were helping the peasants keep their cultivated land. The most upsetting thing for her was not being able to communicate; therefore, she vowed to learn Spanish. After a year and a great deal of trouble, her father was finally released from prison. Everyone in the community helped to get her father out of prison by contributing to the legal fees needed for his case.
The landowners were furious that her father had been released. Shortly after his release, the landowner’s guards kidnapped him near the village. Her brother immediately mobilized the whole village to get him back. The villagers cut off the kidnappers’ escape path, and they used their weapons—machetes, sticks, hoes, and stones—to fight the kidnappers. They found her father, who the kidnappers had abandoned, beaten and tortured but was still alive. The villagers carried him to the nearest health center, but the landowner’s guards had gotten there first and paid the doctors not to treat him. Her mother had to call an ambulance to take him to a hospital in the next city. He arrived at the hospital half dead. Her father remained in the hospital, and her mother had to work in the city to pay for his care. While still in the hospital, they received another threat that said her father would be kidnapped from the hospital. The family decided he needed a safer place to stay. With the help of some priests and nuns, they transferred him to a secret place where the landowners could not find him. After a year in the hospital and in hiding, he returned to his home in the village, but, according to Rigoberta, he was not the same.
When her father was in the hospital he talked to many people in the region and found that indigenous peoples in other areas were also being treated badly and faced eviction from their land. He continued to work with the unions, traveling and fighting for his community. Rigoberta traveled with her father learning about the things he was doing. She was also learning Spanish from the nuns and priests who were helping them. Some Europeans were sending money to help support their cause.
Then in 1977, authorities arrested him again and put him in prison, charged as a political prisoner and sentenced to life imprisonment. But her father was not alone; priests, nuns, the unions, and the community supported him in his fight. The unions pressed for his release. After imprisonment for only 15 days, he was suddenly released. While in prison, he met a fellow prisoner who told him the peasants should unite and form a Peasants’ League to reclaim their lands. Upon his release, her father joined with other peasants and started the Peasant Unity Committee (CUC). They all started thinking about the roots of their problems and came to the conclusion that everything stemmed from the ownership of land. The best land was not in the peasants’ hands but belonged to the big landowners. Every time these landowners saw that the peasants had new land, they tried to throw them off of it and steal it from them.
It was at this point that Rigoberta began to learn about politics. She wanted to find out about the problems indigenous peoples faced in the rest of Guatemala. The CUC started to grow and spread like wildfire among the Guatemalan peasants. She began to see that the root of her people’s problems was exploitation. The rich got richer because they exploited the labor of the poor. She also saw that the ladinos were culturally oppressing her people by taking away their traditional way of life and preventing them from unifying. She started to work as an organizer and continued to learn Spanish. She joined the CUC in 1979 and traveled to different areas of Guatemala. But a main barrier in her interaction with different people in her country was that they couldn’t understand each other. She couldn’t speak their indigenous language, other than Quiche, and they couldn’t speak Spanish. So, along with Spanish, she began to learn three other indigenous languages. One of the issues that she worked on was the barrier between the ladino and indigenous communities. The ladinos were a minority in Guatemala, since indigenous people made up 60 percent of the population. She found, to her surprise, that not all ladinos were rich; many were very poor, but they felt superior to indigenous people. This sense of superiority prevented the two groups of poor people from unifying together to solve their common problems.
In 1979, the government began a crackdown on her family and other members of the CUC. Government soldiers accused her little brother, who was doing organizing work as well, of being a communist. The soldiers took him away and beat and tortured him for over 16 days. They cut off his fingernails and then his fingers, cut off his skin, burned part of his skin, and then cut off the fleshy part of his face. Twenty men with him had also been tortured and one woman had been raped and then tortured. They died a horrible death. No one was held responsible for their deaths. On January 31, 1982, security forces killed her father when he and other peasants occupied the Spanish Embassy in the capital to protest the plight of Guatemalan Indians. Rigoberta’s father, Vicente Menchu, had become a national hero and led the protest. In this same span of time, high-ranking army officers kidnapped, raped, and tortured her mother, who also died a horrible death.
The Guatemalan government wanted Rigoberta, but after her mother’s death she fled to Mexico. While in Mexico, she dictated her autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchu (1984), telling the world not only about her own story, but also about the lives of her fellow indigenous peoples. Her book and her social justice campaign brought international attention to the conflict between indigenous peoples and the military government of Guatemala. In 1992, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and used the $1.2 million cash prize to set up a foundation in her father’s name to continue the fight for human rights of indigenous peoples. Due to her efforts, the United Nations declared 1993 the International Year for Indigenous Populations. Menchú now serves as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and is a figure in indigenous political parties. She unsuccessfully ran for President of Guatemala in 2007 and 2011.
- What do you think was Rigoberta Menchu’s biggest contribution to promoting human rights for indigenous peoples?
- How was her struggle similar and different from other human rights activists you know of?