Guatemala is the land of Eternal Springs and the home of the richly cultured and historic Mayan people. It it also the country of Rigoberta Menchu, an illeterite farm worker, turned voice of oppressed people everywhere. Guatemala also 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 of rightist governments in Guatemala. The war has killed an estimated 140,000 in the 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, as means of setting her people free. The majority of the population are Indians, and much of the struggles arise out of the ashes of the past. Spain conquered Guatemala in 1524, which was the start of the oppression of the native people of Guatemala. Since this time the native 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 the army, the military began a brutal war against the Indian people. This type of torture and oppression continued, and during the 1970’s the repression was specially harsh; during this time more and more Indians began to resist. It was during this time that Rigoberta Menchu’s family became involved in the resistance. The situation in Guatemala is similar to South Africa, where the black majority are ruled with absolute power by the white minority. Like South Africa, the Indians in Guatemala are lacking in even the most basic of human rights.
Indeed the so-called forest Indians are being systematically exterminated in the name of progress. But unlike the Indian rebels of the past, who wanted to go back to pre-Columbian times, Rigoberta Menchu is not fighting in the name f an idealized or mythical past. ” (Menchu xiii) Rigoberta is working toward drawing 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 of impressing upon the world the indignation of the oppressed. In addition to the Spanish language, Rigoberta borrows such things as the bible and trade union organization in order to use them against their original owners. There is othing like the bible in her culture. She says, “The Bible is written, and that gives us one more weapon. ” ( Menchu xviii ) Her people need to base their actions 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 the book I, Rigoberta Menchu. Not only does one learn about the culture of her people and about the community in which she lives, but an understanding is gained as to impetus to react against ones oppressor. Born the sixth child to an already impoverished but well respected family, Rigoberta remembers growing p in the mountains on land that no one else wanted, spending months at a time going with her family to work on the fincas (plantations).
A lorry owned by the finca would come to their village, and the workers, along with their children and animals, would ride together, in filthy and overcrowded conditions. Each lorry would hold approximately forty people, and the trip to the 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 would take with them a cup and a plate and a bottle for water when they worked in the ields.
The youngest of the children that were not yet able to work had no need for their own cup and plate since, if they did not work, they would not be fed by the finca. These children’s mothers would share with them their own ration of 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, and as proof of her own personal fortitude, by age ten she was picking the quotas of an adult and was paid as such.
Her first experience in the city was at twelve ears old in the capital of Guatemala where she worked as a maid. She retells the story of how when she met the lady of the house, she was told that she needed 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 used for the new clothes. Remembering back, Rigoberta describes how she was treated, “The mistress used to watch me all the time and was very nasty to me. She treated me like… I don’t know what… not like a dog because she treated the dog well.
She used to hug the dog. (Menchu 94) The first night she recalls being given her dinner the same time that the dog had been fed, she was given a hard tortilla and some beans, 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 lower than a dog. She left her job when one of her brothers came to tell her that her father was in prison. This was the beginning of her father’s involvement with the unions, and the beginning of the awakening for her family, but also, the beginning of their troubles with the government.
Three months after getting out of prison, her father was “tortured and abandoned-They had torn off the hair on his head on one side. His skin was cut all over and they’d broken so many of his bones that he couldn’t walk, lift himself or move a single finger. ” (Menchu 112) When her father was arrested the second time, he was considered a political prisoner. This prompted Rigoberta 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 for helping the peasants, her father found his calling and continued to fight against the government.
He had to leave his family in order to protect them and as of 1977 went into hiding. The village began to study the bible as text to educate the people. “Many relationships in the bible are like those we have with our ancestors, our ancestors whose lives were very much like our own. ” (Menchu 131) They learned about revenge and fashioned weapons based on the descriptions in the bible. There were many attacks on the village and many of her friends and family members were killed In September 1979, when she was 19, her younger brother was kidnapped by the Guatemalan army and accused of trying to help the peasants win the right to wn land.
They cut off his finger-nails, then his fingers, then the skin on his face, then the soles of his feet. He was then marched to the village square where, 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 after that the army arrested, tortured, and killed her mother, then left her body hanging from a tree to be eaten by dogs. Menchu fled to Mexico, but continued her struggle to help her people. as a result of her work on the rights of indigenous people around the world, she was warded the honor of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.
She still remains a controversial figure in Guatemala, where government officials criticized her selection for the prize. She has been accused of supporting the country’s leftist actions and harming Guatemala’s image abroad. In awarding the prize, the Nobel committee wanted to draw attention to the plight of Guatemala’s Indians in the hope that it would lead to improved conditions. Recently, Guatemalans have found cause for that hope, as a peace accord is due to be signed in January 1997, ending the fighting between the ebels and the government.
In addition, a truth commission has been formed to help families of disappeared members find answers relating to their deaths, by uncovering the country’s many unmarked mass graves. Rigoberta Menchu continues to live in exile under death threghts upon her return to Guatemala. She is well adapted to the life which has been handed down to her, by generations of poor and 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 of bitterness in her voice.