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.