I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray
I, Rigoberta Menchu is essentially a collection of interviews with Rigoberta Menchu about her activism and the culture that she has worked so hard to preserve and liberate, conducted over the course of one week. Menchu is a Quiche Indian woman from Guatemala who has been organizing for cultural preservation, labor rights, and against military occupation in her community and those of indigenous peoples in Guatemala since she was only a child. She was twenty-three at the time of the interviews, and in 1992 she was winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Quiche Indians, and many other Indian communities in Latin America, have little contact with the rest of the world. They face terrible discrimination and oppression, and struggle to maintain their ways of life. They shun the education received in traditional schools, which favors a version of history that is biased against them and promotes modernism. Chapters devoted to explaining various Indian values and rituals–birthing ceremonies, marriage ceremonies, death rituals–provide breaks in the narrative of Menchu’s social justice work and life struggle and, without revealing too much (for much of their beliefs and customs are secret, as they view secrecy as one of their main methods of self-preservation), provide valuable insight into a culture that most outside of it know little to nothing about.
These sections also provide a much needed break from reading about the many horrifying tragedies that Rigoberta Mench has endured while channeling her grief into productive community organizing throughout the Guatemalan Civil War and after.
Rigoberta Menchu recalls helping her mother work on the fincas (plantations, coffee and cotton) for almost nothing, under inhumane conditions, while breastfeeding and caring for her other small children. It was around this time, when she was about eight, that she remembers forming a consciousness of the exploitation her people faced at the hands of landowners. Not only were they barely paid, they were charged for the few things they needed to do their job and often returned home in debt. They were treated like animals, and women were often sexually abused on the job. Two of her younger brothers died on the fincas from malnutrition; another was choked with pesticides by a helicopter which dropped them while workers were still in the fields.
In 1967 powerful landowners, with the help of the Guatemalan government, kicked Rigoberta and her people off their land and claimed it as their own. This would not be the first time. As appointed community leaders, her parents helped to get their community organized against the land-grab. Her father enlisted the help of the unions, and put them off for a few years. But he was taken advantage of by people who knew the law better than he, and whom he could not communicate with as he couldn’t speak Spanish. He was manipulated into signing contracts without informed consent, tortured by the landowners’ bodyguards, and imprisoned. He was in and out of jail as a political prisoner, for “compromising the sovereignty of the state”, for the rest of his life.
Disguised as a fight against communism, the Guatemalan government continued to occupy Indian villages and rape, torture, and massacre their inhabitants. But the Indians put up their best fight. Rigoberta, her mother, and her siblings were not discouraged by the imprisonment, torture, and eventually the death of her father; they were determined to defend themselves and their community indefinitely, even if they must sacrifice their lives. They taught each other to build traps for the soldiers, to use their few resources against their enemies. Rigoberta began traveling to other Indian communities nearby, learning the similarities and differences in their cultures, sharing the story of her people and learning theirs, and offering advice for resistance. She raised consciousness and encouraged people to investigate the root causes of their poverty and oppression so that they were able to form a united front. Her siblings and mother did the same, indeed her whole community was involved somehow out of necessity, but her mother focused specifically on organizing women (and children), for as she told Rigoberta, a revolution without women is no revolution at all.
But Rigoberta’s progress was continually hindered by many linguistic barriers. She finally learned Spanish, the language of her oppressors, in order to work against them. In a similarly subversive manner, she continued to do what she had done since she became a catechist at the age of 12, and used stories in the bible and lessons she’d learned from Catholicism to support the spiritual struggle of her people and encourage their plight.
The work that her mother and her brother did didn’t save them. Her brother was kidnapped, tortured for sixteen days, and burned alive along with other captives in front of their whole family and people, to teach them a lesson. Her mother was kidnapped, raped and tortured, and left for the animals to finish off (these chapters are extremely graphic and disturbing–they gave me nightmares, so consider this a warning). They were not able to save themselves, but the work they did help to sustain their people, their loved ones. Rigoberta herself became a wanted woman, and was forced to go into hiding. Her two sisters went into the mountains to join the guerillas.
It’s a difficult story to read, but worth getting through to learn about this woman and her activism. It’s also fascinating to learn of the ways in which she works to save her people and culture by, at first glance, acting in direct opposition to them. She reveres Quiche tradition, yet renounces marriage and motherhood so that she may continue her important work. She learns the language of her oppressors in order to denounce them. She takes what she finds useful of Catholicism and leaves the rest. She has interesting things to say about the roles of women in revolution and the machismo of her companeros, and the social barriers that exist between intellectuals and those who have not received traditional education. I was also intrigued (re: abhorred) to learn more about how the Guatemalan government couched their abominable actions in terms of anti-communism.
As for the book itself: as I stated earlier, it’s basically a series of translated interviews. Rigoberta Menchu was not speaking in her native language, and it shows. The editor pretty much left things exactly as they were said, which is a method I respect. But these things combined leave lots of room for repetition and structural awkwardness. The rhythm of her monologues was difficult for me to get into, and it’s not always chronological, which bothered me. I haven’t listened to audio books since I was a kid, and reading this, I was tempted to try one for the first time since. I don’t know if it’s available in that format, but I might recommend it over the dead-tree book version. It just made me wish I could see her speak live or something instead. I learned a lot from it and am glad I read it, but the actual reading experience wasn’t that great for me.
I honestly don’t know much about the current situation of indigenous peoples in Latin America, but this book definitely made me want to learn more. I really hope that Rigoberta Menchu’s work, and that of her family and companeros, has alleviated at least some of the suffering of her people, and that we continue to learn from them!