I, Rigoberta Menchu is listed as a “testimonial biography”, biography, and a memoir. Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, who wrote it down for her, calls it a narrative. Menchu narrated her story for Burgos and it is written in the first person. I had read another narrative by an activist when I was writing my old blog, it was The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Since it’s consistently listed as being “by” Menchu herself.
Menchu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for “her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples”. The book didn’t spark international attention to the struggle of the Guatemalan Indians, but it appears to have been a big part of her international activism afterward. That said I chose to read it for two of my reading challenges this year. It is written by and/or about a Nobel Laureate, and fits task 4 of Read Harder “Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author” whether you consider it written by Menchu or Burgos. Menchu is also a woman in translation, which is why I chose her memoir/narrative/biography for this month.
There’s a lot to love about the book despite that there are also some truly heart wrenching and horrific parts as well. Menchu talks about her life and that of the daily life of being an Indian in Guatemala before, leading up to and during the 36-year civil war but the book is written before it ends. I’ll be honest, many of the horrors were reminiscent of those found in the memoirs I read about the Nobel Peace Laureates who helped bring an end to the Liberian Civil War, Leymah Gbowee and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Armies are capable of truly horrific acts when they are both prejudiced and unrestrained. On the other hand, this is the first I’ve read of the kinds of tortures mentioned here. I’m sure these soldiers didn’t invent them, but I hadn’t run across such things in prior reading and am horrified that anyone is capable of anything like the burning of the Spanish Embassy. The Guatemalan Indians were already under quite a bit of hardship before the civil war started and while I’m sure they weren’t the only people to suffer, their suffering only appeared to increase as the war raged on.
I loved reading about the ceremonies they held and the traditions that she revealed, though I recognize that she didn’t she reveal all of them. There are also some great mentions of the work of women in the struggle, particularly that of her mother.
My mother used to say that through her life, through her living testimony, she tried to tell women that they too had to participate, so that when the repression comes and with it a lot of suffering, it’s not only the men who suffer. Women must join the struggle in their own way. My mother’s words told them that any evolution, any change, in which women had not participated, would not be a change, and there would be no victory.
Her mother is pretty spot on. I believe it’s passages such as this that make people call the book “feminist” and say that Menchu’s activism was to “publicize the rights of Guatemala’s indigenous feminists”, but the book itself takes great care to take remember that everyone was in the struggle and that they work together. There’s an entire chapter on the women and their involvement in the movement and the reasons to not have a separate women’s movement or organization. They mostly revolve around the fact that this was not a women’s or men’s problem. It was an everyone problem, as all civil and human rights struggles and problems are.
Though this book ends in 1984, Menchu’s story itself does not. She later wrote an autobiography of events that came after called Crossing Borders that was also translated into English by Ann Wright who translated this one. It was published in 1998 but her activist didn’t stop then either. In the last two decades she’s also published some children’s books about Mayan stories and her childhood, run for president twice and was a co-founder of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Since her award was given in 1992, though, it should have her reception of the Nobel Peace Prize.
I read I, Rigoberta Menchu on Scribd but it’s also available for purchase from sites collected on BookLikes if you click on the cover image above or add to Goodreads for later.