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.
Rigoberta Menchú Tum was 23 years old when she arrived in Paris in January 1982, when she gave the interview that would produce her memoir. The worst of Guatemala’s civil war was yet to come. The roots of the crisis reached back to five years before Menchú was born, to the CIA’s 1954 overthrow of democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz. The agency objected to the fact that Arbenz had legalized a small communist party and implemented an extensive agrarian reform. Following the coup, Washington promised that it would turn Guatemala into a “showcase for democracy.” Instead, it created a laboratory of repression. After the costly Korean War, US policy-makers decided that the best way to confront communism was not on the battlefield but by strengthening the “internal defense” of allied countries. Guatemala, now ruled by a pliant and venal regime, proved a perfect test case, as Washington supplied a steadily increasing infusion of military aid and training. US diplomats often signaled a desire to work with a “democratic left”—that is, a noncommunist left. But the most passionate defenders of democracy were likely to be found in the ranks of Washington’s opponents and singled out for execution by US-created and -funded security forces.
By the late 1970s, more than two decades after the overthrow of Arbenz, the Guatemalan government stood on the point of collapse. Repression against reformist politicians, a radicalized Catholic Church, indigenous activists and a revived labor and peasant movement swelled the ranks of a left-wing insurgency that, by the end of the decade, was operating in eighteen of Guatemala’s twenty-two departments. Between 1976 and 1980, security forces killed or disappeared close to a thousand Social and Christian Democrats, trade unionists, university professors and students. By 1980 death squads were running rampant in Guatemala City and the countryside, and mutilated bodies piled up on the streets and in ravines.
In the indigenous highlands, violence against activists had been commonplace since the 1954 overthrow of Arbenz, and steadily increased through the ’60s and ’70s. Menchú’s brother, Petrocinio, was murdered in late 1979. Repression of Catholic priests and catechists reached such a pitch that the church shuttered its diocese in the department of El Quiché in 1980; the first of many assaults on Menchú’s village took place that year on Christmas Eve. The massacres started in 1981 and at first were not linked to a plan of stabilization or rule. Then in March 1982, shortly after Menchú’s Paris interview, a military coup in Guatemala brought an even more vicious, yet more competent, regime to power. In an effort to eliminate the insurgent threat without generating wider circles of radicalization, military analysts marked Mayan communities according to colors: “white” spared those thought to have no rebel influence; “pink” identified areas in which the insurgency had a limited presence—suspected guerrillas and their supporters were to be killed but the communities left standing; “red” gave no quarter—all were to be executed and villages destroyed. “One of the first things we did,” said an architect of this plan, “was draw up a document for the campaign with annexes and appendices. It was a complete job with planning down to the last detail.”
A subsequent investigation by the United Nations Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH)—a truth commission, for which I worked as a consultant—called this genocide. The CEH documented a total of 626 army massacres, most of which took place between early 1982 and 1983—that is, the period between Menchú’s interview and her book’s publication in French and Spanish. In a majority of cases, the commission found
evidence of multiple ferocious acts preceding, accompanying, and following the killing of the victims. The assassination of children, often by beating them against the wall or by throwing them alive into graves to be later crushed by the bodies of dead adults; amputation of limbs; impaling victims; pouring gasoline on people and burning them alive; extraction of organs; removal of fetuses from pregnant women…. The military destroyed ceremonial sites, sacred places, and cultural symbols. Indigenous language and dress were repressed…. Legitimate authority of the communities was destroyed.
Massacres broke the agricultural cycle, leading to hunger and widespread deprivation as refugees hiding in the mountains and lowland jungle scavenged roots and wild plants to survive. A million and a half people, up to 80 percent of the population in some areas, were driven from their homes, with entire villages left abandoned.
This scorched-earth campaign was designed to cut off indigenous communities from the insurgency and break down the communal structures that military analysts identified as the seedbed of guerrilla support. This explains the exceptionally savage nature of the counterinsurgency, which, while constituting the most centralized and rationalized phase of the war, was executed on the ground with a racist frenzy. The point was not just to eliminate the guerrillas and their real and potential supporters but to colonize the indigenous spaces, symbols and social relations military strategists believed to be outside state control. Terror was made spectacle. Soldiers and their paramilitary allies raped women in front of husbands and children. Security forces singled out religious activists for murder and turned churches into torture chambers. “They say that the soldiers scorched earth,” one survivor told me, “but it was heaven that they burned.”
I, Rigoberta Menchú cut through the shroud that surrounded this slaughter. The heartbreaking murders of Menchú’s brother, father and mother mark key turning points in a powerful coming-of-age story in which the protagonist’s progress as a politically aware person merges with the revolutionary momentum of society as a whole. Menchú presents her father’s long struggle to defend their village’s land against the predations of planters as typical of the dispossession suffered by Guatemala’s peasants, and subtly melds indigenous rituals and beliefs to the ideals of liberation theology, a current in Catholicism that sought to align itself with the poor. Having given her interview before the genocide, which turned the tide of the war in favor of the military, Menchú brings readers to the edge of the abyss. We now know that the revolution was doomed to fail, and there are hints throughout her book that Menchú knew it as well. By her story’s end, she lingers timorously on the cusp of the looming apocalypse, which she tries to forestall by increasingly asserting the inevitability of the people’s victory.
In one passage, Menchú recalls hiding in the capital before her flight to Mexico, sick with ulcers, unable to rise from bed for days at a time, finding consolation that she “wasn’t the only orphan in Guatemala” and that her grief was the “grief of a whole people.” For a moment, she is bearing the burdens of “all poor Guatemalans” not to predict triumph but to accept loss. Having unexpectedly reunited with her 12-year-old sister, Menchú demands to know what kind of world could produce such misery: “How is it possible for our parents to be no longer with us?” Her anguish leads her to fantasize about succumbing to some unnamed “vice,” a “depravity,” so that she would no longer “have to think or bear life.” Menchú would go on to escape Guatemala and achieve international recognition. Here, though, she glimpses the oblivion that was the fate of some war widows and orphans. The vices available to Mayan women were sex and drink, and starting in the late 1970s, indigenous prostitutes, refugees from decimated families, began to haunt the margins of Guatemala City’s downtown, many still dressed in native traje. A more common fortune was to struggle on in solitude, trying to hold what was left of one’s family together. Menchú’s despair, however, is fleeting. “What has happened is a sign of victory,” she reports her sister telling her; “a revolutionary isn’t born out of something good” but of “wretchedness and bitterness.” Having confirmed her commitment to the struggle, this triumphalism is obviously less propaganda than deflection, a way for Menchú to put off reckoning with incalculable loss and barely controlled rage. “We have to fight without measuring our suffering,” her sister said.
In 1999 David Stoll, a professor of anthropology at Middlebury College who had spent many years researching the veracity of Menchú’s story, published his findings, charging that the Nobel laureate exaggerated and otherwise distorted some of the events chronicled in her autobiography. Many who knew Guatemala well thought Stoll’s book, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, a strange exercise in compulsion in which the author repeatedly reaffirmed his admiration for Menchú but then drove himself to dispute even her offhanded comments. “What rankles,” wrote journalist and novelist Francisco Goldman—who has spent many years peeling back the layers of the baroque conspiracy surrounding the 1998 execution of Guatemalan bishop Juan José Gerardi—”is the whiff of ideological obsession and zealotry, the odor of unfairness and meanness, the making of a mountain out of a molehill.”
Two of Stoll’s charges concerning Menchú’s life do have merit. First, he documents that she received some education, contradicting a claim that her father refused to send her to school because he did not want her to lose her cultural identity. Second, Stoll presents evidence that Menchú falsely placed herself at the scene of her 16-year-old brother’s murder. Petrocinio Menchú was kidnapped by the military when his sister said he was, and was brought along with other captives to the town of Chajul, accused of being a guerrilla and murdered to intimidate the population. Menchú’s account of the execution, Stoll believes, “can be considered factual.” Except she did not witness it. As to Menchú’s equally harrowing description of her mother’s killing, Stoll grants that “Rigoberta’s account is basically true.”
The New York Times highlighted Stoll’s accusations in a top-of-the-fold, front-page story, while publications high and low—The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, Lingua Franca, Time, the New York Post—weighed in. Some took the opportunity to commission lengthy meditations on the relationship of facts to memory in a preliterate, traumatized peasant society. Others simply swiped at the academic left, lumping Menchú with Edward Said, whose autobiography Out of Place was just then also coming under attack for allegedly obscuring some facts of his life while embroidering others. Conservatives, of course, seized on Stoll’s accusations. David Horowitz called I, Rigoberta Menchú “a tissue of lies” and “one of the greatest hoaxes of the 20th century…virtually everything that Menchú has written is a lie.” He took out ads in college papers, condemning Menchú as a “Marxist terrorist,” denouncing professors who continued to teach her book and calling for the revocation of her Nobel.
For his part, Stoll seemed caught off guard by a controversy that was quickly escaping his control, offering contradictory statements to explain the point of his research. His book dedicated a chapter to proving that Menchú could not have witnessed her brother’s execution, yet he now said that “how one member or another of her family died” was a minor issue. Stoll confirmed the “essential factuality of Menchú’s account of how her brother and mother died” yet complained to a reporter that she was “still displaying a lack of candor” in answering his charges. He distanced himself from the right, defending Menchú’s status as a Nobel laureate, and flailed at the left, complaining that members of the “Menchú cult” had called him “everything except an infidel Jew.”
Stoll had criticized the “postmodern scholarship” of Said in his book, yet now he pleaded with those gripped by the scandal to keep focused on Guatemala. His point was not to discredit Menchú, he said. He wanted, rather, to contest popular and scholarly explanations of Guatemala’s civil war that presented the insurgent Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP) and its peasant and Christian affiliates—such as those extolled by Menchú—as growing out of a collective experience of historical racism and economic exploitation. Instead, Stoll argues that conditions in the Western Highlands were improving for most indigenous peasants in the 1970s and that the state had conducted widespread repression not to uphold an unjust system but merely “to get at” the EGP, which was largely led by middle-class urban radicals with little connection to or support in the peasant communities they presumed to liberate. It was the guerrillas, therefore, who pre-empted the possibility of peaceful reform by bringing to power the “homicidal wing” of the military. Mayans, for their part, joined the rebels in droves only to escape state terror, not because social conditions drove them—or ideals motivated them—to make a revolution.
To make his case, Stoll actually focuses less on Rigoberta Menchú than on her father, Vicente, presenting him as a litigious landowner locked in a decades-long quarrel not with rich Ladino planters, as his daughter described, but with his wife’s family (Ladinos are non-Mayan Guatemalans). In the years before his death, Vicente Menchú was evicted from his land, jailed and beaten, Stoll confirms, but those primarily responsible for his torment were his Mayan in-laws, the Tums. He also guesses that Vicente Menchú was not as politically active and astute as his daughter made him out to be, notwithstanding his involvement in peasant leagues, local development projects and the catechist movement. He speculates that Rigoberta Menchú, too, came to her “political consciousness” late, largely in reaction to the murders of her brother, father and mother, and perhaps spent the time her family was being persecuted enjoying life at Catholic boarding schools. From these conjectures, Stoll makes what he considers his most important deduction: that the Menchús stumbled into their alliance with the insurgents, and they did so not because they were determined to overthrow an intolerable social system but because they hoped to gain the upper hand against their peasant rivals. In so doing, they—and their neighbors—reaped the whirlwind.
Stoll complained that, amid all the scandal’s noise, the larger point of his research was getting drowned out. But it was not. Right-wing activists, finely attuned to how A leads to Z, knew exactly what was at stake. They said it more shrilly, but they said more or less the same thing: “The fact is that there was no social ground for the armed insurrection that these Castroists tried to force,” Horowitz wrote; ultimately “the source of the violence and ensuing misery that Rigoberta Menchú describes in her destructive little book is the left itself.”
Conservatives recognized the value of Stoll’s argument because it had been made before, at least as early as 1790, when Edmund Burke said France’s old regime had been in the process of self-reformation before ideologues who read too much Rousseau derailed things. In fact, Stoll’s position parallels, probably unwittingly, more recent revisionist arguments concerning the French Revolution. Since feudalism was already on the wane before 1789, revolutionary militancy did not advance liberalization but rather represented a ghastly dérapage, as François Furet put it, a slide into chaos. In later work, Furet revised his opinion, rejecting the contingent implications of the word dérapage to argue that the “very idea of revolution” generated Jacobin terror. It is a position that runs to the core of contemporary debates concerning the causes of militancy, between those who see conflict as rooted in larger social relations, with violence resulting from the instigating intransigence of elites, and those who attribute terror to utopian ideological fervor. While the latter position has been used to explain events in Europe and the United States, such as the Holocaust, Stalinism and the New Left, it holds considerably less influence in the third world, where the relationship between repression, on the one hand, and colonialism, imperialism and capitalism, on the other, is hard to deny.
Thus the broad resonance, beyond anything having to do with Guatemala, of the Menchú controversy. Guatemala has long been recognized as one of the most exploited societies in a region defined by exploitation, a place where many Mayans were subject to what was in effect slavery well into the twentieth century. The role of the United States in terminating the first and still so far only government that tried to democratize the country has been so well documented that it has become the mainstream example of choice when one wants to illustrate the misuse of Washington’s power abroad. It even forced a sitting president to apologize. The catastrophe that followed the 1954 coup had staggering human costs, resulting in one of the most savage wars in twentieth-century Latin America. So, if it could be demonstrated that political violence in northern Quiché—among the poorest of regions in the poorest of departments in the poorest of countries—was caused not by land dispossession, racism or aborted reform but by, as Stoll thinks, “middle-class radicals” entranced by the Cuban Revolution, then the whole of Latin American history would be up for grabs. And indeed, by the end of his book, Stoll has parlayed discrepancies in Menchú’s story into a blanket indictment of the Latin American left throughout its cold war history, attributing the rise of death-squad dictatorships in Chile, Argentina and other countries in the 1970s to the “misguided belief in the moral purity of total rejection, of refusing to compromise with the system and seeking to overthrow it by force.”
It is hard, though, to hang such a grand interpretation on the personal motives of one disputatious indigenous peasant and the imaginative license of his 23-year-old orphaned daughter. But Stoll does try, insisting on tracing nearly every act of aggression Menchú attributes to Ladinos, planters or security forces back to an original provocation committed by her father. Nowhere is this shadow narrative more perversely applied than in his account of an event that serves as the climax of both Menchú’s memoir and Stoll’s riposte: the January 1980 firebombing of the Spanish Embassy, which resulted in the death of Vicente Menchú and more than thirty other peasants and university students who were protesting escalating military repression in the countryside, including the killing of Petrocinio Menchú. Investigations by the Spanish government, the Catholic Church and the United Nations all confirmed Menchú’s description of events, and in 2005 a Spanish judge issued an arrest warrant for a former Guatemalan interior minister accused of ordering the bombing.
But on the signal event in the civil war, a naked display of unyielding power when many Guatemalans realized that no reform would be tolerated or petition considered, Stoll cannot help but weigh in. He speculates that the protesters might have intentionally killed themselves to reinforce “the Guatemalan left’s cult of martyrdom.” It’s hard to overstate how extraordinary this statement is, especially coming from a researcher who bases his legitimacy on championing his own fact-based, empirical argumentation over the deductions of a politicized left. There is no tradition of tactical suicide among Guatemalan leftists, and there is not one piece of evidence, not one witness, not even among those critical of the protesters, to support the possibility that the embassy massacre could have been a “revolutionary suicide that included murdering hostages and fellow protesters.” But the logic of his argument, if not the facts of the case, compels Stoll to consider it, and in so doing he transforms Vicente Menchú from victim to victimizer.
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.
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.
More than a decade after the scandal, what is notable about I, Rigoberta Menchú is not its exaggerations but its realism. Menchú had arrived in Paris emotionally brutalized, her feelings raw, her sense of urgency to tell a compelling story high. She spoke halting Spanish and had come from a society in which most information was transmitted orally, where hearsay and rumor, not documented fact, prevailed. Her memoir is filled with references to the ways paperwork was used to trick or entrap peasants, along with stories of endless days wasted by her father traveling to the capital to sign a succession of meaningless government forms. One passage in particular highlights the impotence of peasant patriarchy when set against state bureaucracy: Menchú recounts that, as a child, her father took her to the government land office, told her to remain absolutely still, and then took off his hat and bowed to a man sitting behind a typewriter. “That’s something else I used to dream about—that typewriter,” she recalled.
Added to this, she had just survived more than a year of hiding in exile, a period that demanded self-censorship. At the same time, her experience speaking to reporters and solidarity delegations before her Paris interviews had led her to realize the value audiences place on eyewitness accounts. The need to draw attention to Guatemala, which, compared to neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador, was being ignored by the international press, must have tempted her to place herself at the scene of the many crimes she describes. Menchú did not know her interviews with Burgos would produce a book, much less an international bestseller. She had no experience with the publishing industry. And she certainly did not foresee that every one of her statements would be subject to fine-tooth scrutiny. And yet her narrative hews closely to a truthful chronology, and even her most serious embellishment—that she witnessed her brother being burned to death—”can be considered factual,” according to her principal fact-checker.
Scholars commonly discuss I, Rigoberta Menchú as reflecting the communal nature of Mayan society, where oral storytelling blurs the line between individual and group experience. Historians Christopher Lutz and George Lovell reach deep into the past to argue that sixteenth-century indigenous accounts of the Spanish conquest were often written in the collective voice, and that when Menchú, on the first page of her memoir, cautions that her memory is poor and that the story she is about to tell is “not only my life, it’s also the testimony of my people,” she means it literally. “I can’t force them to understand,” Menchú repeated in her 1999 interview. “Everything, for me, that was the story of my community is also my own story. I did not come from the air.”
But over the past decade, as greater light has been thrown on the process that led to the publication of I, Rigoberta Menchú, its author has emerged even more as a determined, distinctive individual. In one account, Elisabeth Burgos, then working toward a doctorate in ethnopsychiatry—a new discipline used to treat Paris’s burgeoning immigrant population, many from France’s former colonies—had wanted to interview a generic “Guatemalan Mayan woman,” not Menchú in particular. And aside from supplying the testimony, Menchú was not involved in the transcription, editing, revising or translation of the book. Yet the two principals who did carry out those tasks—Burgos and Arturo Taracena Arriola, a Guatemalan historian and EGP representative in Paris—confirm that Menchú took control of the interview, speaking in a strong, certain voice. Though Taracena and Burgos suggested topics to be covered, they, Taracena reports, had to “rethink the outline” because Menchú’s “narrative capacity” went “beyond what we had originally conceived…. There was a profound literary quality to Rigoberta Menchú’s voice.” The editors corrected Menchú’s poor Spanish grammar and syntax, and arranged her account chronologically, but, Taracena remarks, the “book is a narration only by Rigoberta, with her own rhythm, with her own inventions, if there are any, with her own emotions.”
Burgos withdrew during the interview process, applying her doctoral training in ethnopsychiatry to treat Menchú as a psychoanalyst would an analysand. That is, she gave Menchú time to talk. And considering her clandestine life in Guatemala and exile in Mexico, swinging between bouts of depression and episodes of intense political activity, Menchú needed it. “Everything was piling up together,” she remembers of hiding in Guatemala City, “it was all on top of me.” In bed for days at a time and refusing to eat, Menchú had few people to talk to. “With all the horrors that I had inside me,” she says, “it would have been comforting for me to be able to talk to all the compañeros, or people who understood me, people who were sympathetic.” But put to work as a servant in a house of nuns, her loneliness grew “worse, because as I washed the clothes, my mind was focused on the whole panorama of my past. There was no-one to tell, no-one in whom I could find some comfort.” After fleeing to Mexico, she did have a chance to speak to delegations and reporters, but such encounters are often extremely formulaic, driven by pressure to raise awareness to what was taking place in Guatemala.
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.