Elizabeth Burgos and Rigoberta Menchú

Wednesday, June 6, 2007
Italian translation of Menchú’s autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú, dictated to Elizabeth Burgos.
Italian translation of Menchú’s autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú, dictated to Elizabeth Burgos.

The Nobel Committee awarded the peace prize for 1992 to Guatemalan Rigoberta Menchú “in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples.”

Menchú, a Mayan from the western highlands of Guatemala, joined the Committee for Campesino Unity in response to the brutality of the Guatemalan army that killed several members of her family, including her mother and father. To save her life, Menchú escaped to Mexico and in 1982 visited Paris, where she met the Venezuelan anthropologist Elizabeth Burgos.

Menchú stayed for a week with Burgos, who taped the story of her life. This narrative consisted of her personal experiences, descriptions of Mayan culture, and an account of how the guerrilla movement was giving Guatemalan Indians a voice. In 1983, I, Rigoberta Menchú was published in Spanish. Quickly translated into many languages, it became an international best-seller, and Menchú became an international symbol of all suppressed indigenous peoples.

But even before the announcement of the Nobel Prize, controversy surfaced regarding Menchú. Some argued that her main commitment was to ideology, not indigenous peoples. These critics insisted that the vast majority of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples were caught between the national army and the guerrillas and supported neither.

The controversy faded but was reignited in 1999 with the publication of anthropologist David Stoll’s book on Menchú, which claimed that some material in I, Rigoberta Menchú was factually inaccurate. Many of Menchú’s supporters acknowledge that certain events were changed but insist that the thrust of the narrative gives an honest and essential account of what life is like for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Menchú responded to some of these issues in her 1998 book, Crossing Borders.

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