Monday, May 9, 2016

Rigoberta Menchú, Guatemalan Civil Rights Activist

Rigoberta Menchú grew up in the Mayan villages of Guatemala under conditions of extreme poverty and oppression. She organized the Mayan people and taught them to fight back in what became a brutal 36-year civil war. 

"This world's not going to change unless we're willing to change ourselves." ~ Rigoberta Menchú 

Rigoberta Menchú was born on January 9th 1959 to a poor Indian peasant family in the mountains of Guatemala. She grew up with her seven siblings in the village of Chimal, which her parents founded. Like the majority of Guatemalan people Rigoberta and her family were descendants of the Mayan Indian people of Central America.

The families in the village where Rigoberta lived were exceedingly poor. They had small houses made from cane or corn stalks, and spent years clearing fields in the the forest so they could grow enough corn to feed the family. Rigoberta helped with the farm work from a young age, both in the northern highlands where her family lived and the bigger coffee plantations that offered work along the Pacific coast.

The plantations and ranches (known as fincas) that offered work were owned by Landinos, descendants of the Spanish who invaded Central America in the 1500s. The Landinos hold most of the power and wealth in Guatemala, while the Indian population numbers far greater, but is desperately poor.

Rigoberta was working for the fincas when her baby brother died of malnutrition. The family had barely enough money to buy food, and did not dare complain or ask for more, as they would be thrown out. Working in the fields with her family and younger siblings from 3AM until the sun went down, Rigoberta was paid four cents a day.

Bad conditions get worse

Working on the fincas, conditions were terrible. Workers would receive pay cuts for breaking a branch off a tree, and the medicine, food, and supplies they bought at the company store was at much higher than market price. Workers had very little to show for it after months of hard labor, and some were even in debt from buying food.

Besides being unfair, conditions were also unsafe; after losing one brother to malnutrition, Rigoberta lost another after he was sprayed with toxic pesticides while working - the owners of the fields did not usually clear the fields of workers before they sprayed.

After working for years in these conditions to earn enough to survive, the Mayans faced further challenges from the Landinos when they tried to claim the Mayans' land in their mountain villages.

Civil War

Due to political and economic inequities between the Mayan and Landinos, civil war broke out in the 1960s and raged through the 1970s. Resistors to the Landinos and their government banded together to form guerrilla groups, which were targeted by the Guatemalan army.

The Mayans protested, demanding greater inclusion and equality for their language and culture. Rigoberta's father Vincente was the village leader, and after meetings with government officials were non-productive, he met with labor organizers and the leaders of other villages. Rigoberta often traveled with her father to these meetings and was a witness to his frequent arrests. He would tell her "When you are old enough, you need to do what I do."

As the civil war raged on, the government sent armies to the Mayan villages to destroy everything and kill the families, or else imprison and torture them. By the age of fifteen, Rigoberta had taken over as the leader of her village. She met with her father's friends and with priests and other community leaders, and organized her own village that protected itself from attacks by the army. They had no money for weapons of the traditional kind, so they developed underground escape routes and hideouts and used crude weapons like sticks and rocks  to defend themselves, and even used chilies and lime juice to blind their attackers.

Rigoberta traveled to other villages and taught them to organize and fight back. One of the factors dividing the villages and making it harder for them to band together was not just geography but language: the Mayan people spoke 22 different languages so communication between the groups was nearly impossible. Understanding this, Rigoberta learned to speak three additional Mayan languages as well as Spanish so she could carry information to each of the communities.

In 1978 Vincente helped form the Peasant Unity Committee, or CUC. This group was the first national organization formed by peasants and indigenous people, and worked specifically for their rights. By the time Rigoberta joined this group in 1979 it was a powerful political group supported by the majority of Guatemalans.

Rigoberta's family was also being pursued by the government by this time, and after meeting one final time to say goodbye, they all scattered to different villages, as they were too large a target when they stayed together.

The family was captured and killed one by one. Rigoberta's brother Petrocinio was apprehended, then tortured and burned alive while she and her mother were still present (though Rigoberta's presence at this event would later be challenged by numerous figures in the media).

Four months later her father was killed in an attack on the Spanish Embassy. Leading a group of CUC members in 1980, Vincente succeeded in taking over the embassy and multiple radio stations in an effort to get their story out to the world, but the group was overwhelmed and burned to death when the Guatemalan army bombed the building under instruction from their General Lucas Garcia to "Kill all of them. Don't leave anyone alive." 37 CUC members would die in the resulting fires. The following year, Rigoberta's mother was raped and killed after being kidnapped while buying food for hungry villagers.

Guatemalan Genocide 

Rigoberta became the leader of the CUC and organized more protests in the cities and teaching self-defense in the villages, all while being pursued by the Guatemalan government. In the meantime, the army instituted "Operation Sophia" which aimed to eliminate the guerrilla resistance groups by taking out the civilian bases from which they operated.

From 1981-1983 the army destroyed 626 indigenous villages, killed over 200,000 people, and displaced an additional 1.5 million. The government implemented a scorched-earth policy, by which they destroyed and burned fields and crops, slaughtered livestock, poisoned water sources, and violated sacred or cultural Mayan symbols. The U.S. government and President Ronald Reagan voiced support of these brutal regimes, believing them to be necessary anti-communist efforts during those years of the cold war.

In 1981 at the age of 22, Rigoberta fled from her county to join fellow villagers in exile in Mexico. She was devastated to leave her country but believed it was the only way to carry their story to the outside world. In Mexico, she led the efforts to put an end to civil war in Guatemala and the genocide of indigenous people and helped form the United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition (RUOG).

To further spread the story of her people, in 1983 Rigoberta published the book I, Rigoberta Menchú, a book about her life. Her gripping story gained attention internationally and was translated in 12 different languages. In the years that would follow Rigoberta returned to Guatemala on three occasions, but death threats forced her back into exile.

November 20, 2014. Public News Agency of Ecuador
Rigoberta maintained a high profile as an activist for the rights of indigenous people and organized conferences, speeches, and protests around the world. For this decades-long fight as well as for her book, in 1992 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Considered an international hero, there were also those who believed that Rigoberta was making up her experiences and the role she played in the Guatemalan resistance to further her communist views.

Rigoberta's credibility came under fire when writer David Stoll wrote Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans disputing certain points in Rigoberta's account. While hotly debated in the press, the attacks would remain unfounded under scrutiny. Vilified by the international conservative media, there were some who even demanded that Rigoberta return her Nobel Peace Prize, but it did not come to this and Rigoberta was soon able to focus on the advocacy work that she had dedicated her life to.

Despite the controversy, Rigoberta remained a hero to millions of Guatemalans who lived in poverty and to ingenuous people around the world who were struggling for their rights. With her testimony, former President of Guatemala Efraín Ríos Montt was brought to trial in 2012 and formally charged with genocide and crimes against humanity - part of the reason it took so long to bring him to trial was that he enjoyed diplomatic immunity for many years, and that finally ran out in 2012 when his term as President of the Congress of Guatemala ran out.

For his role in the widespread massacres, rape, torture, and other human rights abuses affecting millions of people, Montt was sentenced to 80 years in jail. In 2015 the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned this conviction, stating that he could not be sentenced due to his age and deteriorating health conditions. A new trial was ordered, but Montt was declared unfit for trial as a doctor rules he could not understand the charges being brought against him.

The civil war in Guatemala lasted for 36 years, ending in 1996 when a peace treaty was signed. A report in 1999 by the U.N.-backed Commission for Historical Clarification found that 83% of those killed were Mayan, and 93% of human rights violations were perpetuated by state forces and military groups.

United States. involvement in the country was also singled out as a key factor contributing to human rights violations, including training for the officers in counterinsurgency techniques and assistance in national intelligence.

Since  the end of the civil war, Guatemala remained a country in turmoil, with violence and intimidation continuing to be a major issue. Organized crime groups operate unchecked, and presidential elections are notoriously corrupt.

Rigoberta remains actively involved in the fight for justice in Guatemala, organizing protests as recently as last year to overturn the most recent corrupt President, Otto Perez Molina. The demand for his resignation were successful, and Molina was jailed only hours after he resigned. Rigoberta's fight continues, as she seeks his trial and imprisonment for crimes committed in the 1980s.


"We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism."

"We say no to the peace that keeps us on our knees, no to the peace that keeps us in chains, no to the false peace that denies the values and contributions of our peoples."

"Peace cannot exist without justice, justice cannot exist without fairness, fairness cannot exist without development, development cannot exist without democracy, democracy cannot exist without respect for the identity and worth of cultures and peoples." 

"I think that nonviolence is one way of saying that there are other ways to solve problems, not only through weapons and war. Nonviolence also means the recognition that the person on one side of the trench and the person on the other side of the trench are both human beings, with the same faculties. At some point they have to begin to understand one another."

"Unless a religion springs from within the people themselves, it is a weapon of the system."

"Only those of us who carry our cause in our hearts are willing to run the risks."

  • Rigoberta Menchú Tum - Biographical, Nobel Media Web AB 2014,, 2016
  • Girls Who Rocked the World, Michelle Roehm McCann & Amelie Weldon, Alladin & Beyond Words, 2012
  • Genocide in Guatamala (1981-1983), Holocaust Museum Houston,, 2016.
  • A Watershed Moment for Guatemala, Democracy Now!, September 4, 2015

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