It Was Heaven That They Burned
Her nearly weeklong interview in Paris therefore was the first sustained opportunity Menchú had to process memories and survivor guilt. And what pours forth like a flood is a rich portrait of a complex, unique individual. Menchú sanctifies her father as a paragon of revolutionary virtue, yet she also reveals an emotionally conflictive relationship to a man she alternately renders as loving, determined and nurturing but also quick to anger, prone to drink and despair and ineffectual. Though Menchú exalts Mayan life for political reasons, as well as out of genuine affection, a perceptive reader will find a surface not so still, a struggle not only on behalf of family and community but against them. As Menchú's story unfolds and her world expands, from Chimel to Guatemala as a whole and then to Mexico and beyond, it becomes clear that her progress—in terms of what she discusses (her political education) and what she omits (her formal education, such as it was)—is largely made possible by the turmoil and dislocation she is denouncing. The dissonance that results is irrepressible. "Papá used to be... well, I don't mean foolish exactly because it's the thieves who steal our land who are foolish... Well, they asked my father to sign a paper but he didn't know what it said because he'd never learned to read or write," she recalls, in a passage where Burgos left the ellipses in to capture a hesitant criticism and an implied superiority. It is a hint that Menchú wrestled not just with routine ambivalences of those who enjoy advantages not available to parents but the singular fact that those advantages were part and parcel of the terror that took your parents' lives and shattered your hometown.
In the midst of social decay, Menchú as a person comes into sharper focus. "I've been in love many times," she says, and considering the inassimilable loss of her family she can be forgiven if her initial explanation for why she rejected marriage and children seems like pamphleteering. But it is soon revealed that her position is less a choice than an effort to get some control over a situation that leaves her little choice. "It puts me in a panic," she admits. "I don't want to be a widow, or a tortured mother." By the end of her story, it is her mother—her body having been left to the vultures until "not a bit...was left, not even her bones"—who emerges as the defining parent. Menchú credits her with pointing to a strategy of emancipation not through collective action or cultural identity but an insurgency of the self, a rebellion against filial expectations. "I don't want to make you stop feeling a woman," Menchú recalls her saying, "but your participation in the struggle must be equal to that of your brothers. But you mustn't join just as another number.... A child is only given food when he demands it. A child who makes no noise gets nothing to eat."
The revolution was defeated. But many of the human rights, indigenous and peasant organizations that continue today to fight to democratize Guatemalan society were founded as popular-front organizations covertly linked to one or another rebel group. One of the lasting contributions of the insurgent organizations, particularly the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres and the Organización Revolucionario del Pueblo en Armas, was to provide a school for critical thinking for poor Guatemalans, many of whom continue to be politically active. As theories of how to understand and act in the world, Marxism and liberation theology gave inhabitants of one of the most subjugated regions in the Americas a way to link their local aspirations to larger national and international movements and to make sense of the kind of everyday, routine forms of violence, as well as stunning displays of terror, that are documented in Menchú's book. It also gave them a means to insist on their consequence as human beings. What makes Menchú's testimony so extraordinary is how far her engagement with ideas clearly outstripped whatever orientation she might have received from organizers. What she learned from her travails, she learned by her own impressive will and intelligence. Her interpretation of events broadly reflects the concerns of liberation theology, and at times it can sound mechanical. But it is clearly rooted in her personal grappling with the dilemmas of history and her particular experience of power and powerlessness. "The world I live in is so evil, so bloodthirsty, that it can take my life away from one moment to the next," Menchú says, "so the only road open to me is our struggle, the just war. The bible taught me that."
If I, Rigoberta Menchú served only as the testament of a failed revolution, a moment in history when the highest collective ideals of liberation theology crashed headlong into the most vicious distillate of cold war anticommunism, it would be a good book, still worth reading. But what made liberation theology, along with Latin America's New Left more broadly, so potent a threat in a place as inhumane as Guatemala in the 1970s was not just its concern with social justice but its insistence on individual human dignity. This combination of solidarity and insurgent individuality is the heart of Menchú's memoir, and that's what makes it a great, perhaps even immortal, book.