‘I, Rigoberta…’

‘I, Rigoberta…’

Middlebury, Vt.


Middlebury, Vt.

In their review of my book Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans [“Bitter Fruit for Rigoberta,” Feb. 8], Greg Grandin and Francisco Goldman are right that my critique of the Nobel Peace laureate’s 1982 memoir must be viewed in terms of the larger truth she told about Guatemala. They could have quoted me to that effect. But, like others leaping to defend Menchú against the apostate anthropologist, Grandin and Goldman are not reviewing my book: They are upset over the December 15 New York Times story that corroborated some of my findings. Anyone who, unlike your reviewers, has time to read the book will notice that I defend the essential factuality of Menchú’s account of how her brother and mother died. As for the laureate never having seen two other brothers die as children, this is a point that the Times reporter decided was significant, not me.

As my book argues at length, it was no crime for a political refugee to dramatize her life to draw attention to the atrocities committed by the Guatemalan Army. That is not the reason I challenged the aura surrounding I, Rigoberta Menchú. The reason for questioning the most widely read book about Central America is that so many scholars have thought up so many reasons that it should not be compared with other versions of events. Like a Clinton scandal, the denials and cover-ups are more consequential than the original transgression. Because of my appalling decision to interview other survivors of the laureate’s village, I’ve been called everything except an infidel Jew.

Grandin and Goldman trash my book for facing a question that jumps out from peasant testimony: Did armed struggle really grow out of their prewar tribulations? That is what Menchú told us in 1982. Or was guerrilla warfare imposed on peasants by the fact that part of the urban left chose a strategy that heightened repression, forcing peasants to join the guerrillas to defend themselves? The distinction is not academic to peasants who had no experience of kidnapping and massacre until the guerrillas showed up with the army on their heels. In Menchú’s homeland, little that her neighbors say about their prewar experience points toward armed struggle as a solution. Unlike Grandin and Goldman, they are still unaware that it was their historical duty to pay the price that civilians always pay for irregular warfare, as sitting-duck surrogates for will-o’-the-wisp combatants.

It is hardly “blaming the victim” for me to point out that Ladino-led guerrillas did not represent Mayan Indian villagers as seamlessly as Menchú claimed in 1982. Mayans told many interviewers that they were “caught in the crossfire,” but such statements were carefully deleted from solidarity videos. Grandin and Goldman know that the first guerrilla comandantes in Guatemala were US-trained army officers fleeing from a failed putsch, who then led the Guatemalan left into the trap of Guevara-ismo, as diagnosed by Jorge Castañeda, Jon Lee Anderson and many other sympathetic analysts. The reviewers are right that the guerrillas are not responsible for right-wing terror in Latin American history, but that hardly proves that armed struggle is the best or inevitable response. What if the main result is to provide an excuse for more repression?

One of the dangers of Menchú’s story is that as the expression of a novice cadre, it enshrined a rationale for guerrilla warfare that continues to enchant the latte left in New Haven long after it has lost its appeal in rural Guatemala. When, in academic forums in the early nineties, I began to point out how peasant testimony contradicted Rigoberta’s, I was told that I must be browbeating my sources into mouthing my racist, colonialist story line. Even now, attempts to quote other peasant perspectives will be countered with the argument that peasants are too repressed to speak for themselves, leaving the floor to the Menchú cult. Grandin and Goldman’s lofty, dismissive attitude helps explain why my book ended up on the front page of the New York Times. What was defensible agitprop in a human rights emergency in the early eighties should not be enshrined fifteen years later as truth commissions prepare their reports. The only people who should feel threatened by my book are the ones making a living off simplistic views of Guatemala.


Portland, Ore.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum was not awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because she is self-taught or because her mother, father and brother were killed by the Guatemalan Army. She has been acknowledged globally because these things did not break her–they made her an activist struggling for human rights on college campuses, in church basements, in refugee camps from Chiapas to Thailand, in the United Nations and in Guatemala’s battered justice system.

Menchú’s book is a struggle to make her unthinkable experiences real enough for an international audience to understand why some people took up arms. She collaboratively created the book at a dichotomizing time. In l982 people were either for or against the army. But in a country with twenty-three languages and many experiences of the aftermath of the war, it is not surprising that in l999 there are, Rashomon-like, many different memories. Now, from a safe distance of fifteen years, with the privilege of well-funded North American researchers, we should think critically about the long-term effects of the civil war, but we question the political stakes in undermining the credibility of Menchú.

We are saddened by the feeling of betrayal expressed by many at David Stoll’s “revelations.” Professors say they have to take down their posters and stop teaching Menchú’s testimonial. But, as Kay Warren of Harvard says, this controversy should only make the book more interesting to teach. Behind Stoll’s concern with “objective facts” lies a moralizing tale that situates well-intentioned but naïve North Americans as the victims of deception carried out by Menchú and the Guatemalan popular movement. Any guilt felt at the US role in the 1954 coup or at US backing of the counterinsurgency state is assuaged because we are the dupes of a shrewd manipulator. Menchú is being used as a weapon in wars in the United States about multiculturalism, affirmative action and who will get to represent experience–those who lived it or “objective” outsiders who arrive in the aftermath?

Guatemala Scholars Network


New Haven, Conn.

Trying to distance himself from the damage he has wrought, David Stoll speaks in so many voices he should have called his book, We, David Stoll. As he defends the “essential factuality” of Menchú’s story, the monsters in Guatemala responsible for the worst repression in the hemisphere trumpet his work with glee, while here the likes of Dinesh D’Souza, David Horowitz and the New York Post dismiss Menchú as a liar and campaign to revoke her Nobel Peace Prize. After repeated cautions from colleagues about the repercussions of publishing his work just before the Truth Commission report, Stoll’s sympathy for Menchú appears at best naïve, at worst disingenuous.

When challenged on the merits of his thesis, Stoll resorts to two evasive strategies: He either cloaks himself in the mantle of the victim–the last honest man willing to speak empirical truth to power–or he lashes out at his critics, branding them as leftist ideologues or, worse, latte-swilling elites. Much like the radical right, which has seized on his work, Stoll attempts to dismiss all his critics as PC thought police, when in fact they hold a range of opinions.

But Stoll’s book is ultimately not about Rigoberta Menchú. Stoll sacrifices her to advance a thesis–that peaceful reform in Guatemala was possible until pre-empted by the guerrillas–that the historical record does not support. By the end of his exposé, Stoll has parlayed minor discrepancies in Menchú’s life story to pronounce not only on recent Guatemalan history but on Central American, Mexican and indeed all of Latin American history. His breadth is astonishing.

Stoll’s letter does not respond to our main point that his “findings” do not warrant his widely speculative and sensational conclusions regarding the causes of political mobilization and violence. He simply repeats once more that he found Indians who felt they were between two armies. Undoubtedly. And any scholar could go to Birmingham, Alabama, and find plenty of African-Americans who say that the civil rights movement placed them in danger. In Stoll’s moral universe, Martin Luther King Jr. is responsible for Bull Connor’s dogs.

Nowhere is this moral logic applied more grotesquely than in Stoll’s interpretation of the 1980 Spanish Embassy massacre in which Menchú’s father, Vicente, was killed. Although the Catholic Church’s exhaustive investigation has found the state responsible for the firebombing, Stoll, based on the speculations of two California arson investigators not present at the crime, suggests that the fire was actually a “revolutionary suicide that included murdering hostages and fellow protesters.” Thus Stoll transforms Vicente Menchú from victim to victimizer. Considering that this claim has long been the position of the Guatemalan military, it puts into perspective Stoll’s efforts to present “other versions” of events silenced by the “cult” of Menchú. Those interested in the most definitive analysis of the violence and responsibility, an analysis that completely refutes Stoll’s argument, should read the executive summary of the final report of the UN-sponsored Guatemalan Truth Commission, which is available on the Web at hrdata.aaas.org/ceh.


Brooklyn, N.Y.

Because Rigoberta Menchú’s memoir was conceived as a work of propaganda and because it succeeded as one, and because so many in Guatemala have always known it was one, I’ve never quite understood what it is Menchú is supposed to apologize for or what the uproar is actually about. Menchú’s book drew worldwide attention to the violence being inflicted on “poor Guatemalans” by the Guatemalan Army, and for that reason alone I’ve always been happy she “wrote” it. What rankles is the whiff of ideological obsession and zealotry, the odor of unfairness and meanness, the making of a mountain out of a molehill. And when I think of who–in Guatemala, not New Haven, where I’ve never been–is being most hurt by Stoll’s “scholarship” and who is being helped, I feel sad and don’t believe that it is only the cause of truth that is being served. It might be completely legitimate to argue what Stoll wants to argue about Guatemala’s war, but it is his vainglorious attempt to make the success of that argument solely contingent on a discrediting of Menchú that is truly offensive.


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