I, Rigoberta Menchú … Mostly

In 1992 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Guatemalan writer Rigoberta Menchú, raised in the tiny highland village of San Miguel Uspantán. Menchú was born in 1959, just before a string of military dictators usurped control of Guatemala for 36 war-filled years. She grew up as dozens of opposition and guerrilla groups rose to resist them. Along with many of her family members, Menchú opposed the dictatorship with peaceful demonstrations that included peasants from various regions. When she was eventually forced into exile, she continued her opposition to Guatemala's military rule by drawing international attention to the repressive regime.

In 1983 she published her testimonial, I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, and the plight of Guatemala's indigenous people—and the brutality of the military regime—was revealed in wrenching detail. In her book Menchú described losing two brothers to malnutrition on a coffee plantation and the razing of her village by wealthy land prospectors. Most disturbingly, Menchú related the story of a third brother, who was kidnapped by the army, tortured, and then burned alive.

In 1999 American anthropologist David Stoll challenged Menchú's account with the publication of Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. His research suggested that the conflict over the lands of Menchú's village was actually a long-running dispute between her father and his in-laws, and that although Menchú's brother was unquestionably kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by the military, it was probably not carried out in the manner that Menchú had suggested. Although still a potent symbol of indigenous rights, Menchú is now viewed by some with incredulity.

Whether or not Menchú personally witnessed the events she describes, it is indisputable that hundreds of indigenous workers, particularly children, died of disease, malnutrition, or outright abuse on the plantations. It is also clear that the military committed innumerable acts of brutality, including public executions, in villages all across the country. In 1998 the Guatemalan Truth Commission sponsored by the United Nations denounced the military's actions during the civil war as genocide. Some argue that if Menchú's account wasn't wholly her own, but included incidents suffered by other indigenous men and women, it doesn't detract from the horror of what occurred. If she included the experiences of others to draw attention to a conflict the international community had ignored for more than 20 years, they argue, can anyone really blame her?

Stoll himself admits that Menchú is fundamentally right about the army's brutality, though he downplays it considerably, no doubt to bolster his own book's more dubious claim: that it was the guerrillas, not the ruling generals, who were responsible for igniting political violence in the highlands. But it is the debunking of Rigoberta Menchú that he will be remembered for, and that will forever endear him to Guatemala's war criminals, many of whom remain in public life.

—Gary Chandler

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