“I was a hunted woman,” says the protagonist of the 1983 memoir I, Rigoberta Menchú, describing how she was forced into hiding in Guatemala’s capital city after security forces firebombed the Spanish embassy which her father and other Mayan peasants took control of hoping to bring international attention to a worsening situation. Her mother had been detained, tortured and raped, the body left out in the open and guarded for months until dogs and vultures had stripped it to the bone. Her brother Petrocinio had met a similar fate.
Born to an indigenous family in the Guatemalan department of El Quiché —named for the K’iche’ people who predominate the region— Menchú was almost two when a civil war erupted in 1960 between the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Gen. Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes and the country’s poor and indigenous communities. Her father Vicente was a member of a communist guerrilla group fighting to assert indigenous rights against landowners and a repressive regime. In order to protect their young daughter, or perhaps to further her political education, Menchú’s parents sent her to a Catholic boarding school where she was introduced to liberation theology, a movement seeking to restore Christianity as a religion of the poor and thus often aligning itself with leftist campaigns to topple systems —colonialism, imperialism, capitalism— blamed for the spread of poverty and oppression.
In 1982, two years after her father’s death, Menchú found herself in Paris giving a weeklong interview with Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, the Venezuelan anthropologist (and former wife of French philosopher and Che comrade Régis Debray). I, Rigoberta Menchú was the product of that interview, immediately becoming a primary text in Latin America’s political history.
For her candor and continued advocacy for the indigenous people of her homeland during its bloody 36-year-long conflict, Menchú was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, the quincentenary year of Colón’s landing in the Americas.
Earlier this year, a court sentenced Pedro Garcia Arredondo, a former police chief responsible for the firebombing of the Spanish embassy in 1980 that killed Menchú’s father and 37 others, to 40 years in prison for murder and crimes against humanity, plus another 50 years for the deaths of two students at a memorial funeral following the assault.
During the Paris interview back in 1982, a 23-year-old Menchú recalled something her younger sister had told her during those uncertain days in hiding:
She said: ‘What has happened is a sign of victory. It gives us reason for fighting. We must behave like revolutionary women.’ ‘A revolutionary isn’t born out of something good,’ said my sister, ‘he is born out of wretchedness and bitterness. This just gives us one more reason. We have to fight without measuring our suffering, or what we experience, or thinking about the monstrous things we must bear in life.’ … This encouraged me a great deal.
Now it is Rigoberta who has encouraged the rest of us.
Honoring Menchú is how we celebrate our heritage.