It Was Heaven That They Burned | The Nation


It Was Heaven That They Burned

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Subsequent research over the past decade has proved Stoll's provocative thesis about Guatemala's civil war to be largely wrong, while confirming Menchú's interpretation of events. The definitive refutation has come from the Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico—the aforementioned UN truth commission—which released its findings in early 1999, shortly after the Menchú controversy broke. Based on more than 8,000 interviews and extensive archival and regional research conducted by a staff of more than 200, the CEH, like Stoll, understands that the escalating civil war emerged from the fault lines of local conflicts, including petty family grievances and parochial land conflicts, often among peasants and between indigenous communities. But it places its examination of any given clash within the broader context of a militarized plantation economy where nonindigenous elites fought to hold on to their monopoly control over land, labor, markets, credit and transportation. As to the town of Chimel, commission investigators recognized local feuds between peasants but also found evidence that Ladino planters did play a crucial role in instigating violence and dispossession in the 1960s and '70s. On the key point of chronology, which is ultimately the hook on which Stoll's case dangles, the CEH documents a clear pattern of repression enacted by planters, Ladinos and security forces in the indigenous highlands well before the arrival of the guerrillas in the 1970s. Stoll says the army showed up in Chimel only after the EGP guerrillas executed two Ladinos in the spring of 1979, thus laying blame for the ensuing spiral of events that claimed the life of Menchú's brother and mother and the destruction of Chimel at the feet of her father's allies. But CEH researchers found that the military's arrival in the region, and the start of its harassments, predated these killings.

Editor’s Note: A longer version of this essay will appear as the introduction to Who Is Rigoberta Menchú?, forthcoming from Verso in 2011. The essay was commissioned as the preface to a new edition of I, Rigoberta Menchú, but the essay was excluded from the volume when it appeared earlier this year. The author’s rights to I, Rigoberta Menchú are held by Elisabeth Burgos, who conducted most of the 1982 interviews in Paris that would serve as the basis of Menchú’s memoir. As rights-holder Burgos retains the right to veto any new editions; after reading the essay, she exercised her veto. She has not offered an explanation of her decision.

About the Author

Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University and is the author of Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize...

Also by the Author

Multiple commentaries from the journal show a pattern of making sure white people aren’t taken for total villains when discussing slavery.

He taught us how to live with loss, and he told us, over and over again, that other utopias are possible.

The CEH is concerned less with identifying who fired the first shot in any one skirmish than with understanding the larger causes of the civil war. Starting with an introduction that provides staggering statistical evidence of inequality—Guatemala's health, education, literacy and nutritional indicators continued to be among the most unjust in the world despite an abundance of natural wealth—the CEH's final report offers a damning analysis of Guatemalan history:


From independence in 1821, an event led by the country's elite, an authoritarian state was created that excluded the majority of Guatemalans; it was racist in theory and practice and served to protect the interests of a small, privileged elite.... State violence has been fundamentally aimed against the excluded, the poor, and the Maya, as well as those who struggled in favor of a just and more equitable society.... Thus a vicious circle was created in which social injustice led to protest and subsequently to political instability, to which there were always only two responses: repression or military coups.


Contrary to those who would blame the romance of revolution for the insurgency, the commission concluded that the state, confronted with movements demanding reform, "increasingly resorted to violence and terror in order to maintain social control. Political violence was thus a direct expression of structural violence."

To questions concerning her schooling and her brother's execution, Menchú has offered straightforward answers. In a 1999 interview, she said she omitted discussing her experience as a student and servant in the Colegio Belga because she hoped to protect the identities of the Catholic nuns who were involved in the kind of pastoral activism associated with liberation theology. "How I would have loved to tell of all the experiences I had," she said, but "the last thing I would have wanted during those years was to associate the Belgian school with me." Menchú did not study with the rest of the students, and she took classes part time a few days a week in the afternoon, working as a maid to pay for her room and board, cleaning the school in the morning and evening, earning twelve quetzals a month (about $12). She admits she did not witness the murder of her brother, but she relates an account of his killing, including the disputed fact that he was burned alive, from her mother. "And in response to whether my brothers, my father, were rich," she said to accusations that her family was relatively well-off, "go to Chimel and you will see for yourself."

Menchú would not be the first partisan or literary notable to rearrange events in his or her life. Think of Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain. The untruths of Henry Kissinger, also a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, are legion, yet no publisher would feel the need to include a preface setting them in their proper context before reissuing one of his many books. A more appropriate comparison would be with Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique (1963), who portrayed herself as an alienated, apolitical housewife when in fact she was a longtime activist who hailed from a family with deep roots in the left labor movement. Few would consider using Friedan's narrative manipulations to cast doubt on the reality of the experience she was describing.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.