Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a K’iche’ Maya woman from highland Quiché, Guatemala, is an international advocate for indigenous rights and the winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. Born in 1959, she came of age during the country’s brutal and eventually genocidal armed conflict (1960–1996), and has been involved in organizing and advocacy most of her life. As a young woman, Menchú participated in Catholic activism seeking better conditions for people in Guatemala’s rural highlands, mostly indigenous Mayas. She and other Catholic Action catechists led efforts for rights and dignity in the here and now, challenging a traditional Catholic emphasis on rewards for the poor in heaven. The work led to involvement in the Committee for Peasant Unity (Comité de Unidad Campesina, or CUC), a group uniting campesinos from the region’s many Maya communities and connecting them to Maya and ladino (non-Maya) workers on coastal plantations. CUC was the first organization to achieve such a presence in Guatemala, and it quickly drew the attention of a military state determined to quell social mobilization. In the context of brutal repression in the late 1970s and early 1980s, CUC—like many opposition movements—developed an alliance with the revolutionary Guerrilla Army of the Poor (Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres, or EGP). Violence spiraled, for the country and for the Menchú Tum family specifically. In January 1980, students and CUC activists, including Menchú’s father, occupied the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City to call attention to state terror. State forces firebombed the building, and the protestors and others burned to death. The army had murdered Menchú’s brother the year before, and tortured, raped, and killed her mother a few months after the embassy massacre. Rigoberta Menchú fled to Mexico in 1981. Personal trauma did not prevent her from becoming a compelling spokesperson for the opposition, and in that capacity she traveled to Europe to raise awareness of the violence in Guatemala. That is where interviews for the famous I, Rigoberta Menchú were recorded, facilitated by the EGP. That testimonio introduced audiences worldwide to repression in Guatemala while arguing for multiethnic resistance to it. Over the years, critics have levied charges that Menchú’s testimonio—with a narrative style blending many people’s lived experiences—misrepresented her life and served the interests of the revolutionary Left. These critiques in turn generated impassioned defenses of her testimonio as an important expression of political voice. Menchú has continued to work on behalf of Mayas and other marginalized people both internationally and within Guatemala.
Work by Rigoberta Menchú Tum
Menchú’s writings include memoirs, speeches, interviews, and a children’s book. Since her first publication, Menchú has used her texts to advocate for indigenous rights and justice, often narrating her own powerful story in order to relate the recent history of the people of Guatemala. Her seminal testimonio, Menchú 2000 (first published 1983), and one of its many translations, Menchú 2010 (originally 1984), awoke the world to the genocidal violence of the Guatemalan state. Though told from a first-person perspective, the work reflects the experiences of countless indigenous families and communities across the country during the armed conflict. During the decades-long period of war (1960–1996), violence grew steadily and ultimately swelled to mass destruction and genocide under the military’s scorched-earth counterinsurgency program in the rural highlands in the early 1980s. Maya experiences of this terror are powerfully captured in the testimonio, and the book and Menchú herself were ubiquitous on college campuses in the 1980s. Menchú was able to return to Guatemala beginning in 1988 and, with other exiled opposition figures, she tested a tentative political opening in the country. In the changing context, her work turned more explicitly to indigenous rights. Just before winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Menchú examined the significance of the Quincentennial for the indigenous peoples of the Americas in Menchú and Yanez 1992. That same year, she published Menchú and Comité de Unidad Campesina 1992, a document that reports the history of CUC, the campesino organization in which both her father and she were active. Menchú 2011 is her powerful 1992 Nobel lecture, which calls for democracy, peace, and human rights for the marginalized everywhere. Since winning the Nobel Prize, Menchú has delivered speeches on the importance of ensuring indigenous rights around the world. An example of one of her many addresses to the United Nations can be found in Menchú 1993. Menchú, et al. 1998 offers a retelling of Menchú 2010 and includes a description of her life after the testimonio’s publication. A rearranged translation of Menchú, et al. 1998, Menchú 1998 is the English-language version of that autobiography. Similarly, Menchú 2011 offers a simultaneously personal and collective reflection on her life both before and after her rise to fame. Menchú 2015 provides readers not only with ruminations on her life and career, but also with photos of both her public and private life. Menchú and Liano 2004 is a children’s book about her childhood in Chimel.
Menchú Tum, Rigoberta. “From This Day Forward.” In State of the Peoples: A Global Human Rights Report on Societies in Danger. Edited by Marc S. Miller, 1. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.
Address to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights from February 1993 regarding 1993 as the UN International Year of the World’s Indigenous People. Advocates for the passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)—which would be realized in 2007—and promotes more indigenous inclusion and an end to discrimination.
Menchú Tum, Rigoberta. Crossing Borders: An Autobiography. Translated and edited by Ann Wright. New York: Verso, 1998.
Abridged and rearranged translation of Menchú, et al. 1998, with different introduction, conclusion, and reordered chapters. Autobiography about Menchú’s experiences after winning the Nobel Peace Prize. As the title suggests, she describes the process of entering new geographies, institutions, and communities over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, and, in turn, of returning to old places, organizations, and memories. Like her other works, she places the Maya cosmovisión at the heart of the story.
Menchú Tum, Rigoberta. Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia. 16th ed. Edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 2000.
Acclaimed testimonio by Menchú, first published in 1983, in which she shared the graphic experiences of violence suffered by her family and Maya people before and during the Guatemalan armed conflict. Published a year later in English as I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala; the original Spanish title, My Name is Rigoberta Menchú and This Is How My Consciousness Was Born, more accurately captures Menchú’s personal history and the content of the work.
Menchú Tum, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. 2d ed. Edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. Translated by Ann Wright. New York: Verso, 2010.
English translation, first published in 1984, of Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia. Explores Menchú’s childhood in the Quiché highlands, economic crises and labor migration, discrimination, campesino organizing, state repression, and revolutionary mobilization. The testimonio, based on interviews with Menchú conducted by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, marks the beginning of Menchú’s rise to global fame as a human rights advocate. Audio recordings of these interviews (in Spanish) are available in Burgos-Debray 1982, cited under Documentaries and Audio Resources.
Menchú Tum, Rigoberta. “Our History Is a Living History.” In The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Edited by Greg Grandin, Deborah Levenson-Estrada, and Elizabeth Oglesby, 509–512. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
Abridged version of her Nobel Lecture from 10 December 1992. The speech is dedicated to the Maya peoples of Guatemala past and present, and to indigenous and oppressed communities fighting for democracy globally. Advocates for peace, democracy, and harmony. Originally read in Spanish; translation by Greg Grandin. Both English and Spanish versions in full can be found online at the Nobel Prize website.
Menchú Tum, Rigoberta. K’aslemalil, vivir: El caminar de Rigoberta Menchú Tum en el tiempo. 2d ed. Mexico City: Coordinación de Humanidades/Menchú Tum Hacia una Cultura de Paz A.C, 2015.
Memoir and photo essay of Menchú’s life. Includes reflections on her experiences with violence, friendships, activism, marriage to Ángel Francisco Canil Grave, political and spiritual beliefs, and candidacy for president of Guatemala. Concludes with a letter from her son, Mash Nawalja’ Canil Menchú.
Menchú Tum, Rigoberta, and Comité de Unidad Campesina. Trenzando el futuro: Luchas campesinas en la historia reciente de Guatemala. Donostia, Spain: Tercera Prensa-Hirugarren Prentsa, S.L, 1992.
Coauthored with the Comité de Unidad Campesina (CUC). The front matter includes two poems by Menchú and a vignette of Menchú’s meeting with Basque activist Bernardo Atxaga. The primary text reports the history of CUC, including its formation, turning points, and activities. Originally published as El clamor de la tierra: Luchas campesinas en la historia reciente de Guatemala (Donostia, Spain: Tercera Prensa-Hirugarren Prentsa, S.L., 1992).
Menchú Tum, Rigoberta, and Dante Liano. The Girl from Chimel: Tales from a Mayan Village. Translated by Chris Mulhern. Tadworth, UK: Acorn Book Company, 2004.
Originally published in Spanish as Li Mi’n, una niña de Chimel. Children’s book about Menchú’s childhood in her village, Chimel, before the height of the armed conflict. Short chapters about family, connection to the environment, and harmony. Allusions and parallels to the Popol Vuh. Good for introducing Menchú and Maya cosmovisión to elementary-school students.
Menchú Tum, Rigoberta, Gianni Minà, and Dante Liano. Rigoberta, la nieta de los mayas. Madrid: El País-Aguilar, 1998.
Memoir produced by Menchú after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Reflecting on her experiences in the 1990s, she looks back to her youth in Chimel and her activities over time as an activist. As in Menchú 2010, she emphasizes that this is not her singular story, but rather a collective history of the Maya. Includes short essays by Galeano, Minà, and Ak’abal and photos from the conflict and her life. Translated to English without front matter or photos as Menchú 1998.
Menchú, Rigoberta, and Anibal Yanez. “The Quincentenary, a Question of Class, Not Race: An Interview with Rigoberta Menchú.” Latin American Perspectives 19.3 (Summer 1992): 96–100.
Interview with Menchú, prior to her Nobel Peace Prize win, on the 1992 Quincentennial, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. She explains that the occasion highlights the unequal political and economic relationships between the governments of the Global North and Global South and asserts that the anniversary should focus on continental unity, indigenous identity, and indigenous rights.
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