It Was Heaven That They Burned
Dante's Inferno "is out"; I, Rigoberta Menchú "is in," the Wall Street Journal wrote, in late 1988, of Stanford University's decision to include third-world authors in its required curriculum. "Virgil, Cicero and Tacitus give way to Frantz Fanon," the paper said, concerned that Stanford's new reading list viewed "the West" not through the "evolution of such ideas as faith and justice, but through the prism of sexism, racism and the faults of its ruling classes." Herewith began the metamorphosis of a young and relatively obscure Guatemalan Mayan woman into something considerably more than a witness to genocide.
Since its publication in Ann Wright's English translation in 1984, Rigoberta Menchú Tum's memoir had been assigned with increasing frequency in university courses in the United States and Europe. Historians taught it as a primary source documenting revolution and repression in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America, anthropologists as first-person ethnography and literary theorists as an example of testimonio, a genre distinct from traditional forms of autobiography. But Menchú's mention in the Journal thrust her further into the escalating culture wars, with conservatives holding her up as an example of the foibles of the multicultural left. "Undergraduates do not read about Rigoberta," wrote the American Enterprise Institute's Dinesh D'Souza in 1991, "because she has written a great and immortal book, or performed a great deed, or invented something useful. She simply happened to be in the right place and the right time."
The place was Guatemala's Western Highlands, inhabited by some 4 million people, the majority poor indigenous peasants living in remote, hardscrabble villages like Chimel, Menchú's hometown. The time was the late 1970s, when the Guatemalan military was bringing to a climax a pacification campaign, the horror of which was matched only by historical memories of the Spanish conquest. By the time it was over, government forces had taken the lives of Menchú's parents, her two brothers and 200,000 other Guatemalans. And though this campaign may have been "unfortunate for her personal happiness," D'Souza said, it was "indispensable for her academic reputation," transforming Menchú into a fetish object onto which "minority students" could affirm their "victim status" and professors could project their "Marxist and feminist views onto South American Indian culture."
Then in 1992, on the 500-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyage to the Americas, Menchú was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and whatever ability she had up until that point to maintain the integrity of her particular story gave way to the burdens of representing the victims of imperialism everywhere. She was given the prize, the Nobel selection committee noted, not just for her work exposing the murder and mayhem committed by US allies in Guatemala but for serving as a "vivid symbol of peace and reconciliation" in a world still scarred by European colonialism.
It is safe to say that most who read her book did not interpret her tale as "an explicit indictment of the historical role of the West or Western institutions," as D'Souza feared, but rather as a saga of individual resilience in the face of great hardship, much like Anne Frank's diary. If anything, Menchú held out the possibility of redemption, as the Nobel committee suggested. Unlike Anne Frank, she survived. And following the end of the cold war, many intellectuals and policy-makers hoping to construct a pax neoliberal were willing to acknowledge that victory over the Soviet Union had entailed some moral compromises. Support of "widespread repression" was "wrong," said President Bill Clinton in 1999, a "mistake" the "United States must not repeat."
Yet as far as irreconcilables on the cultural and political right were concerned, the Peace Prize might as well have been given posthumously to Frantz Fanon or Che Guevara. Trapped as they are by the fallacy of consequent logic, where to admit A would mean accepting Z, those most hostile to Menchú believed that to acknowledge her legitimacy would indeed indict the whole of the West and all of its works. The attacks came fast after she won her Nobel, with detractors working hard to expose Menchú as an Indian with an agenda. They demanded that she "come clean" about her involvement with Guatemalan guerrillas, renounce her support of the Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua and denounce human rights violations in Cuba. D'Souza thought it suspicious that Menchú met her "feminist translator"—Elisabeth Burgos, once married to Che's comrade Régis Debray—"in Paris, not a venue to which many of the Third World's poor routinely travel," and that her "rhetoric employs a socialist and Marxist vocabulary that does not sound typical of a Guatemalan peasant."
What truly irked, though, was not the language but the details. "No details! Never bother me with details!" pleads the archbishop in Jean-Paul Sartre's The Devil and the Good Lord (1951), hoping to be spared the specifics of a violent military suppression of a peasant revolt. Sartre's sixteenth-century cleric knew what cold war triumphalists feared: "A victory described in detail is indistinguishable from a defeat." Menchú provided too many details.