In the early eighties, I, Rigoberta Menchú became an international bestseller. A moving account of gruesome repression, gut-wrenching poverty and vicious racism, the book made Menchú a human rights celebrity, eventually winning her a Nobel Peace Prize and focusing worldwide attention on the plight of Guatemalan Indians. Menchú was unsparing in her criticism of the Guatemalan Army, charging it with the wholesale slaughter of thousands of Indians, including members of her own family.
As the New York Times recently reported, however, David Stoll, a professor of anthropology at Middlebury College, has called Menchú’s story into question. In Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans Stoll alleges that Menchú exaggerated and otherwise distorted some of the events she chronicled in her autobiography.
No matter how absorbing this controversy may be–and it has been taken up gleefully by the right, with Dinesh D’Souza proclaiming in the Weekly Standard that “there were plenty of reasons to be suspicious from the outset of Rigoberta Menchú’s credibility”–we should keep it in perspective. Menchú’s book came out in 1983, just after the Guatemalan military had concluded the most brutal campaign of repression in this hemisphere. In 1982 alone, the army committed more than 400 massacres, destroyed hundreds of Indian communities, killed as many as 100,000 people and forced nearly 1 million from their homes. Until the publication of Menchú’s book, the international community was largely silent about these atrocities, while the major news media in the United States paid hardly any attention to them at all.
Throughout the worst period of the violence, the Reagan Administration repeatedly attempted to discredit human rights organizations working to publicize the massacres. One State Department official went so far as to suggest that Amnesty International was waging a “calculated program of disinformation which originated from Managua, Nicaragua and [was] part of the worldwide communist conspiracy.”
Menchú’s book cut through this veil of silence to reveal a hidden history of pain, death and terror. Her story was a call to conscience, a piece of wartime propaganda designed not to mislead but rather to capture our attention. It relied upon a classic Dickensian technique of pulling together different individual experiences into one character’s heart-rending story. Such distortions were probably necessary to break through the wall of media indifference.
One of Stoll’s principal charges is that Menchú lied about the death of her relatives. It seems that Menchú did not witness her younger brother die of hunger on a lowland plantation, nor was another brother burned alive by the army in the public square of her village, as she had claimed.
Whatever the truth of these allegations (interviews with other relatives, as quoted in the New York Times in mid-December, lend them significant weight), the undisputed facts of Menchú’s story are horrible enough: She did have two brothers who died of malnutrition at an early age; her mother and brother were kidnapped and killed by the army; and her father was burned alive.