Rigoberta Menchú

by Emma Gjerdseth

A Norwegian student at the American College of Norway, Emma’s academic interests include economy and environmental studies. Emma is very passionate about environmental issues and hopes to work toward environmental solutions after college.

Rigoberta Menchú was born in 1959 on the 9th of January in Guatemala, where she was raised in a family of Quiche (K’iche’) Indians, which is a branch of Mayan culture. Through the Catholic Church she became involved in social reform, and while she was a teenager she was noticed in women’s rights movements. Because of this she attracted the wrong attention, and aroused opposition in influential circles. As a domino effect to this involvement her family was accused of being a part of, or being sympathizers of, the guerrilla and her father Vincente was imprisoned, tortured, and accused of taking part in the execution of a local plantation owner. After he was released he joined the newly founded union called Committee of the Peasant Union (CUC). In 1979 Rigoberta’s brother was arrested, tortured and killed by the army and she herself joined the CUC. The following year, 1980, Rigoberta experienced a lot of tragedies; Vicente was killed along with other peasants in the Spanish Embassy, and shortly after her mother died after being arrested, tortured and raped.

Rigoberta became increasingly involved in CUC and taught herself more languages, besides from her native Quiché, in order to have more influence in the organization. In 1981 she had to go into hiding in Guatemala before she fled to Mexico. There she became an organizer abroad of resistance to oppression in Guatemala and struggle for the rights of Indian peasants’ rights. In 1982 Rigoberta took part in founding the United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition (RUOG). The following year, 1983, she met the Venezuelan anthropologist Elizabeth Burgos-Debray who ended up publishing a book about her life called I, Rigoberta Menchú. This attracted considerable international attention to Rigoberta’s causes.

According to a press release in October 1992 the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Rigoberta the Nobel Peace Prize “in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples.” This statement was followed by the argument that Guatemala has experienced “great tension between the descendants of European immigrants and the native Indian population. In the 1970s and 1980s, that tension came to a head in the large-scale repression of Indian peoples.

According to the committee Rigoberta came to play a prominent part as an advocate for native rights, she grew up in poverty and her family has experienced the most brutal suppression and persecution. Ending the press release with “Today, Rigoberta Menchú stands out as a vivid symbol of peace and reconciliation across ethnic, cultural and social dividing lines, in her own country, on the American continent, and in the world.” All quotes from the October 16th Press Release – The Nobel Peace Prize 1992.

In 1999 the American anthropologist David Stoll published his book Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans that sparked a debate about Rigoberta’s rights to the Nobel Peace Prize. In his book Stoll claimed that he could prove the events described in the book I, Rigoberta Menchú did not happen the way she described. His arguments were based on knowledge of Guatemalan history as well as interviews with neighbours of the Menchú family.

Rigoberta admitted that some of her assertions in the book weren’t accurate, and that she had held back details in order to protect friends and family. Because the book was published in 1982, during the worst period of human-rights abuses in Guatemalan history, this claim was plausible.

It turned out that Stoll supported her Nobel Peace Prize award, and accepted that Mayan storytelling could be different from Western, leading to inaccurate assertions and her descriptions of events that she wasn’t part of. The root of his problems with her book was on the other hand her descriptions of a peasant movement and guerrilla that did not represent reality. Stoll goes as far as questioning whether her representation could have led the Guatemalan army to believe that the guerrilla threat was more powerful than it was. Making the army’s actions towards guerrilla and civilian population harsher. His accusations started a public debate on Rigoberta’s rights to the Peace Prize. Professor Geir Lundestad, the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, replied to these accusations by stating that the decision of rewarding Rigoberta with the Peace Prize “was not based exclusively or primarily on the autobiography”, and he refused to reconsider the rightfulness of the prize.

According to the Nobel Peace Prize committee the reason Rigoberta Menchú received the Nobel Peace Prize was “in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples” (“The Nobel Peace Prize 1992”. Nobelprize.org). Though there has been controversy about how she got internationally recognized and the content of her biography, one must not forget the hardship Rigoberta has been through and the work she has actually done. Stoll even admits that the way she tells her story it “enabled her to focus international condemnation on an institution that deserved it, the Guatemalan army.” (Biography on nobelprize.org).

To a certain degree, one can in this case, say that the end justified the means. As Lundestad said the award was not based on the biography, so, if one is to believe him, Rigoberta would have been awarded the peace prize even though some events were exaggerated or experienced through others. Though had she done it differently she might not have been known world wide and it might have taken much more time for the international community to realize the extreme behavior of the Guatemalan army.

In the end I would say that she deserves the peace prize, though I wish she had been honest from the start I understand that this is difficult, especially in a world where only extremes are noticed.


Biography: From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1992, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1993 http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1992/tum-bio.html#  – February 6, 2013
“Press Release – The Nobel Peace Prize 1992”. Nobelprize.org. 9 Feb 2013 http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1992/press.html
http://siu.no/eng/Front-Page/Global-knowledge/Issues/2010/When-Truth-is-at-stake-The-Rigoberta-Menchu-controversy – February 9, 2013


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