ceAn Indian Woman In Guatemala: Without A Trace Of Bitterness In Her VoiceStacye RothbardTranscultural perspectivesNovember 11, 1996Guatemala is the land of Eternal Springs and the home of the richly cultured andhistoric Mayan people. It it also the country of Rigoberta Menchu, anilleterite farm worker, turned voice of oppressed people everywhere. Guatemalaalso has the sad distinction of being home to Latin America’s oldest civil war.
“For more than three decades, left-wing guerrillas have fought a series ofrightist governments in Guatemala. The war has killed an estimated 140,000 inthe country, which has 11 million people.” (N.Y. Times June 14, 1996 pA4 col 2)This is a story of a people in crisis, and one woman’s struggle to use truth, asa means of setting her people free.
The majority of the population are Indians, and much of the struggles arise outof the ashes of the past. Spain conquered Guatemala in 1524, which was thestart of the oppression of the native people of Guatemala. Since this time thenative people have been ruled by the Spanish speaking minority, the Ladinos,many of which are descended from the Spanish colonists.
Beginning in 1954, when Guatemala’s elected government was overthrown by thearmy, the military began a brutal war against the Indian people. This type oftorture and oppression continued, and during the 1970’s the repression wasespecially harsh; during this time more and more Indians began to resist. Itwas during this time that Rigoberta Menchu’s family became involved in theresistance.
The situation in Guatemala is similar to South Africa, where the black majorityare ruled with absolute power by the white minority. Like South Africa, theIndians in Guatemala are lacking in even the most basic of human rights.
“Indeed the so-called forest Indians are being systematically exterminated inthe name of progress. But unlike the Indian rebels of the past, who wanted togo back to pre-Columbian times, Rigoberta Menchu is not fighting in the name ofan idealized or mythical past.” (Menchu xiii) Rigoberta is working towarddrawing attention to the plight of native people around the globe.
Once an illiterate farm worker, she has taught herself to read and write Spanish,the language of her oppressor, as a means of relating her story to the world.
She tells the story of her life with honesty and integrity in hopes ofimpressing upon the world the indignation of the oppressed. In addition to theSpanish language, Rigoberta borrows such things as the bible and trade unionorganization in order to use them against their original owners. There isnothing like the bible in her culture. She says, “The Bible is written, andthat gives us one more weapon.” ( Menchu xviii ) Her people need to base theiractions on the laws that come down from the past, on prophecy.
Her own history and the history of her family is told with great detail in thebook I, Rigoberta Menchu. Not only does one learn about the culture of herpeople and about the community in which she lives, but an understanding isgained as to impetus to react against ones oppressor. Born the sixth child toan already impoverished but well respected family, Rigoberta remembers growingup in the mountains on land that no one else wanted, spending months at a timegoing with her family to work on the fincas (plantations).
A lorry owned by the finca would come to their village, and the workers, alongwith their children and animals, would ride together, in filthy and overcrowdedconditions. Each lorry would hold approximately forty people, and the trip tothe finca took two nights and one day, with no stops allowed for the bathroom,it is easy to imagine the unsanitary condition that resulted. Each worker wouldtake with them a cup and a plate and a bottle for water when they worked in thefields. The youngest of the children that were not yet able to work had no needfor their own cup and plate since, if they did not work, they would not be fedby the finca. These children’s mothers would share with them their own rationof tortilla and beans, though many of the children were severely malnourished,and two of Rigoberta’s own brothers died while on the finca.
At the tender age of eight Rigoberta was earning money to help her family, andas proof of her own personal fortitude, by age ten she was picking the quotas ofan adult and was paid as such. Her first experience in the city was at twelveyears old in the capital of Guatemala where she worked as a maid. She retellsthe story of how when she met the lady of the house, she was told that sheneeded new clothes, since hers were so worn and dirty from working on the finca,and how she was given a salary advance of two months pay which was to be usedfor the new clothes.
Remembering back, Rigoberta describes how she was treated, “The mistress used towatch me all the time and was very nasty to me. She treated me like… I don’tknow what… not like a dog because she treated the dog well. She used to hugthe dog.” (Menchu 94) The first night she recalls being given her dinner thesame time that the dog had been fed, she was given a hard tortilla and somebeans, while the dog was given “bits of meat, rice, things that the family ate.”(Menchu 92) It hurt her to see that in the eyes of this family she was lowerthan a dog. She left her job when one of her brothers came to tell her that herfather was in prison.
This was the beginning of her father’s involvement with the unions, and thebeginning of the awakening for her family, but also, the beginning of theirtroubles with the government. Three months after getting out of prison, herfather was “tortured and abandoned-They had torn off the hair on his head on oneside. His skin was cut all over and they’d broken so many of his bones that hecouldn’t walk, lift himself or move a single finger.” (Menchu 112)When her father was arrested the second time, he was considered a politicalprisoner. This promptedRigoberta to begin to learn to speak Spanish as a means of helping her father.
After spending fifteen days in prison and meeting a man who was being held forhelping the peasants, her father found his calling and continued to fightagainst the government. He had to leave his family in order to protect themand as of 1977 went into hiding.
The village began to study the bible as text to educate the people. “Manyrelationships in the bible are like those we have with our ancestors, ourancestors whose lives were very much like our own.” (Menchu 131) They learnedabout revenge and fashioned weapons based on the descriptions in the bible.
There were many attacks on the village and many of her friends and familymembers were killedIn September 1979, when she was 19, her younger brother was kidnapped by theGuatemalan army and accused of trying to help the peasants win the right to ownland. They cut off his finger-nails, then his fingers, then the skin on hisface, then the soles of his feet. He was then marched to the village squarewhere, in front of his family, he was doused with gasoline and set aflame.
A few months later her father was also burned to death. Several weeks afterthat the army arrested, tortured, and killed her mother, then left her bodyhanging from a tree to be eaten by dogs.
Menchu fled to Mexico, but continued her struggle to help her people. as aresult of her work on the rights of indigenous people around the world, she wasawarded the honor of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. She still remainsa controversial figure in Guatemala, where government officials criticized herselection for the prize. She has been accused of supporting the country’sleftist actions and harming Guatemala’s image abroad.
In awarding the prize, the Nobel committee wanted to draw attention to theplight of Guatemala’s Indians in the hope that it would lead to improvedconditions. Recently, Guatemalans have found cause for that hope, as a peaceaccord is due to be signed in January 1997, ending the fighting between therebels and the government. In addition, a truth commission has been formed tohelp families of disappeared members find answers relating to their deaths, byuncovering the country’s many unmarked mass graves. Rigoberta Menchu continuesto live in exile under death threghts upon her return to Guatemala. She is welladapted to the life which has been handed down to her, by generations of poorand oppressed Indians. Yet when she speaks, she speaks of her beautiful culture,and of the many joys that her family had over the years, all without a trace ofbitterness in her voice.
Works CitedMenchu, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman In Guatemala. London:Verso, 1984.
“Guatemalans Take New Step Toward Peace.” The New York Times 14 June 1996,pA4 col 2