Peacemaking in the Face of Genocide – The Story of Rigoberta Menchú

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on Rigoberta Menchú Tum.

By Gabe Sanders.

On January 9, 1959, in Laj Chimel – a small indigenous community surrounded by unpaved Guatemalan mountain range — a Quiché Mayan child and future luminary for indigent natives across the Western Hemisphere was born.

Mothered by a Mayan midwife and fathered by a Catholic coffee farmer, Rigoberta Menchú Tum was quickly thrust into a world of poverty, activism, and violent persecution.  One year after she was born, Guatemala descended into a lopsided 36-year civil war between genocidal government forces and an amalgamation of poor leftist indigenous groups.  This conflict stemmed from a string of authoritarian military regimes – initiated by a 1954 United States-backed coup d’état that replaced democratically-elected Communist Jacobo Arbenz with far-right military officer Carlos Castillo Armas – stripping poor natives of their land and suffrage.  At the forefront of the resistance effort were Ladino peasants and Mayan farmers, including Rigoberta Menchú’s father, Vincente Menchú Perez, who was an outspoken advocate for indigenous farmers’ rights.  As she toiled alongside her siblings in the coffee fields, a young Rigoberta Menchú was inspired by her father to join the Catholic Church’s social reform campaign, while learning from her mother, Juana Tum Kótaja, to defend the rights of Mayan women facing threats of sexual violence at the hands of the Guatemalan military.[1]

At the age of 20, Menchú joined El Comité de Unidad Campesina [or, the Committee for Peasant Unity (CUC)], a labor organization composed of indigenous peasants.[2] She and her father were active in the CUC-led agricultural workers strike in 1980, demanding increased wages and improved conditions for sugar farmers along the Pacific Coast.[3] This effort, along with demonstrations she would help to lead the following year, was met with a familiar accusation from Minister of Defense Hector Gramajo: “that the CUC had direct connections with the EGP (Guerilla Army of the Poor).”[4] The EGP (which stands for Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres) had become the chief opposition to authoritarianism in Guatemala.  Since guerillas chose to meet fire with fire, alleged ties to the EGP were used as a justification for vicious crackdowns, without regard for the strength of the insurgents’ fire nor the validity of said allegations.  By the end of 1980, several of Menchú’s family members, including her brother and both parents, had been tortured and murdered for their supposed involvement in guerilla activities.[5]

In the face of unimaginable tragedy, Menchú refused to back down.  According to her own accounts, she began teaching herself Spanish without having learned to read, write, or speak any language other than Quiché.[6] Spanish is the primary language spoken in Guatemala; but, for Menchú to organize an indigenous movement, she also needed to learn other Mayan dialects.  Doing so allowed her to make a unique impact on a radical group named after the date that her father and other peasant protestors were killed: Frente patriótico 31 de enero (or 31st of January Popular Front).  This coalition would engage in demonstrations, boycotts, and strikes intended “to weaken the government economically, politically and militarily.”[7] In her testimonio, I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, Menchú maintained that the indigenous community rejected violence but believed that “if it was the only way of saving our lives, we would use it with justice.”[8] She remained true to this philosophy during her time with Frente patriótico 31 de enero, where her main role was to educate poor natives in how to tactfully organize resistance to minimize conflict, a responsibility she was able to fulfill thanks to her growing knowledge of Spanish and regional languages.  This knack for education – both of herself and of others – proved most useful in the next chapter of her life.

In 1981, with government forces intent on exterminating the remaining members of her family, Menchú was compelled to flee Guatemala and seek refuge in Mexico.[9] Unable to defend her people from within, Menchú resolved to take her story and fight to the international stage.  She co-founded the United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition (RUOG) in 1982, through which she organized thousands of exiled Mayans who fled to Mexico during the peak of the conflict.[10] Understanding the need to garner global attention, she began traveling to European countries and delivering speeches in Spanish about the genocide of her people.  In 1982, Menchú’s life story was transcribed in the previously mentioned (and frequently referenced) account, I, Rigoberta Menchú, which was eventually translated into over 12 languages.  This unquestionably groundbreaking book has since been publicly accused of deviating from the truth regarding certain circumstances she faced, including the ways in which her mother and brother had died.  Whether or not the claims had merit, there is no dispute that they were murdered by the military, nor that her book helped to illuminate the injustices that resulted in over 200,000 Guatemalan lives lost – 83% of which were Mayan.[11]

“For her work for the rights of indigenous peoples and reconciliation between ethnic groups,”[12] Rigoberta Menchú Tum became the first indigenous recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.  She used her $1.2 million cash prize to launch Fundación Rigoberta Menchú, aimed at supporting indigenous communities in need.[13] Four years later, she served as the Presidential Goodwill Ambassador – an intermediary between the Guatemalan government and guerilla groups – for the 1996 Peace Accords that ended the Civil War and formally recognized the rights of her people.  Of course, ending 36 years of conflict was an extraordinary accomplishment; but, in Menchú’s words, La paz no es solamente la ausencia de la guerra (which translates to, “Peace is not just the absence of war”).[14] Seeking justice and doubtful of the Guatemalan court system’s integrity, Menchú successfully campaigned for past military officials to be prosecuted in Spanish courts.  Two officers, Efraín Ríos Montt and Óscar Mejía, were extradited and detained by the Spanish government on charges of genocide and torture in 2006.[15] The following year, Menchú became the first Mayan woman to run for president of Guatemala.  The campaign was unsuccessful, as was her 2011 bid, but this relentlessness has since earned her several momentous accolades.  In addition to winning numerous international awards, Menchú became a United Nations Ambassador for indigenous peoples, gaining official recognition for 23 indigenous languages.  Her impact on the struggle for ancestral language, territory, and identity has resonated throughout the world, and her fight continues to this day.

[1] Rigoberta Menchu, I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (Verso Books, 2010), 272.

[2]The Nobel Peace Prize 1992,”, accessed July 1, 2021.

[3] Menchu, I, Rigoberta Menchu, 292.

[4]Guatemalan Workers Strike | Ann Arbor District Library,” accessed July 6, 2021.

[5] “The Nobel Peace Prize 1992.”

[6] Menchu,I, Rigoberta Menchu, 207.

[7] Menchu, 297.

[8] Menchu, 197.

[9] Menchu, 309.

[10]UNHCR – Menchú Tum, Rigoberta,” June 4, 2016.

[11]Truth Commission: Guatemala,” United States Institute of Peace, accessed July 5, 2021.

[12] “The Nobel Peace Prize 1992.”

[13]Who Is Rigoberta Menchu​​Tum,” accessed July 9, 2021.

[14]La Paz No Es Sólo La Ausencia de Guerra, Según Varios Premios Nobel de La Paz,” La Vanguardia, November 15, 2015.

[15]Spain Seeks Guatemalan Ex-Rulers,” December 23, 2006.