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Rigoberta Menchú

People from Guatemala

Rigoberta Menchu. Her autobiography, entitled My Name is Rigoberta Menchu and this is how my Conscience was born (1983), became popular worldwide.

The municipality of San Miguel Uspantán, made up of a series of communities which are situated fairly close to the municipal seat, is located in the inland Guatemalan department of El Quiché. One of these communities is called Laj Chimel and you can only get to it on foot or by four-wheel-drive because the roads are unpaved. It is home to 17 families, all of Mayá/ K'iche' descent, who live together deep in the cloud forest. On 9th January 1959 Rigoberta Menchú was born in this mountainous region and grew up there in a large family. Her father, Vicente Menchú, was a farmer who was involved in the protection of peasants’ rights. Her mother, Juana Tum, was a midwife carrying on this indigenous tradition which made up for the lack of specialized medical care in the most isolated and remote places.

As soon as she turned 5 she started working in the region´s coffee plantations and she was able to suffer at first hand the exploitation experienced by child laborers and the extreme poverty and discrimination endured by the indigenous people at the hands of the landowners, the Guatemalan army and the paramilitary death squads. The fact that the country was in a state of Civil War between 1962 and 1996 did not exactly guarantee the protection of human rights and the promotion of social justice. This especially affected the indigenous people making their already unstable lives even worse.

She witnessed her brother´s murder at the hands of some landowners who were trying to drive the indigenous people from the plots of land where they had settled so that they could drill and look for oil. In 1979 Rigoberta, together with other young indigenous people, set up the Peasant Unity Committee (Comité de Unidad Campesina- CUC). Through this organization she set out to defend the rights of her fellow indigenous people. Around this time she learnt Spanish, since her mother tongue was Quiché, a language from the Mayan family. The following years were especially hard for her family because her father, who had gone into the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City together with other farmers to peacefully protest against the plundering of their land by the oil companies, burnt to death when the police set fire to the diplomatic headquarters on 31st January 1980. 37 people died in this incident, including the Spanish consul, the ex-president of the Republic of Guatemala and other important figures as well as the farmers who had occupied the embassy.

Shortly after this sad event her mother was kidnapped, raped and murdered. Rigoberta´s brothers joined the guerrilla movement but, staying rooted in the values of liberation theology, she opted to peacefully protest and speak out against the position of indigenous women in Guatemala and throughout Latin America.

To escape the repression she fled to Mexico and there, with the help of Elizabeth Burgos, she wrote her autobiography, entitled My Name is Rigoberta Menchu and this is how my Conscience was born (1983), which became popular worldwide. She toured around many countries with her message of injustice claiming equality for the indigenous people. In 1988 she returned to Guatemala and her international reputation protected her from coming to any harm. This protected status was confirmed in 1992 when, coinciding with the celebrations of the 5thcentenary of the discovery of America by Columbus, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She is the youngest person in the history of the prizes to win this esteemed award, which recognized “her fight for social justice and ethnocultural reconciliation based on the respect of the indigenous people´s rights”.

With the prize money, Rigoberta created the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation, headquartered in Guatemala and with subsidiaries in Mexico and New York.

From then on she began to act as a mediator in the peace process between the army and the guerilla movement in her country seeking to promote respect for the Environment and the equality of women.

In 1998, together with Fatiha Boudiaf, FatanaIshaq Gailani, Somaly Mam, Emma Bonino, Graça Machel and Olayinka Koso-Thomas, she received the Princess of Asturias Award (formerly known as the Prince of Asturias Award) for International Cooperation “for her separate work, to defend and promote the dignity of women”.

In 2003, she was involved in a pharmaceutical campaign in Mexico which aimed to provide generic medicine at reduced prices to disadvantaged communities, in opposition to the big pharmaceutical multinationals. She has also had dealings with politics, putting herself forward as a candidate for the 2007 Guatemalan presidential elections as a member of the party Encuentro por Guatemala (Encounter for Guatemala) but she did not get the result she hoped for. In 2011, she again stood as the presidential candidate for the Frente Amplio Guatemala (Broad Front Guatemala Party), but she came in sixth receiving just 3% of the votes.

Leaving aside some controversies which her biography has stirred up among politicians and North American historians, there is no doubt that this short woman with a good-natured face who is always smiling and who constantly dresses in traditional Mayan attire has put America´s indigenous communities on the international map.

In the words of Rigoberta Menchú: “Guatemala is a wealthy country, but it has suffered greatly. The marks of genocide will last for many years [...]. We must ensure that our children are not accused of genocide or that they do not become victims of genocide, and we will only be able to do this if we remember what happened in the past.  If we cover up past events we run the risk that they might happen again”.