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Rigoberta Menchu.

Rigoberta Menchu received the Nobel Peace Prize in December, at age thirty-three, for promoting the rights of indigenous peoples. A Quiche Maya Indian from Chimel, Guatemala, she grew up watching her people brutalized by the Guatemalan military during that country's civil war, the longest-running leftist insurgency in the Americas. In her 1983 book, I, Rigoberta Menchu, she describes her life in poverty, her work as a catechist, and her growing understanding of injustice and resistance as she watched family members die: her sixteen-year-old brother flayed and executed with other suspected "subversives" in the plaza of a small town, her mother raped and tortured for days by soldiers, her Catholic activist father immolated with other protesting campesinos while occupying the Spanish embassy.

Menchu fled into exile in the early 1980s. When she returned in 1988 she was threatened with death, arrested, and then released. She left again, but still makes brief visits. She was in Guatemala, at a gathering of indigenous people in the western city of Quetzaltenango, when the prize was announced in October.

Menchu began her activist work as a child, traveling with her father to Guatemala's Indian communities. She became a catechist, and later got involved in organizing peasants to stand up for land rights. Although she says she was never a member of Guatemala's guerrilla groups, Menchu supported her two sisters' decision to join the guerrillas after her parents' death, and her open criticism of the Guatemalan government makes her Nobel Prize controversial. Guatemala's foreign minister, zalo Menendez Park, issued a statement saying that Menchu has "endangered Guatemala" and that she should not have won the prize. Chief military spokesman Captain Julio Yon Rivera reacted to news of Menchu's prize by saying "she has only defamed the fatherland."

Today, Menchu is working with her father's group, the Committee of Peasant Unity, to focus international attention on the Guatemalan military's human-rights abuses. During her exile, she became an advocate for indigenous peoples throughout the Americas.

Menchu's Nobel Prize comes at a delicate moment inside her own country. Two-year-old peace talks in the thirty-three-year-old war feel moribund. The mass killings of the early 1980s appear to be over, but human-rights violations--an average of two "extrajudicial executions" or forced disappearances every day--continue to be logged by monitors. The war is still percolating in the countryside, which "justifies" the killing of academics and unionists, as one diplomat explained, because "as long as there is a war, activism is subversion, so that there's no possibility for change."

Yet in recent months, cautious anticipation has been in the air. Promise comes with challenges to the justice system, the extraordinary accords bringing peace to El Salvador next door, wider freedom of the press, and not least, Menchu's prize itself, which animates and creates a space--even if just for a moment--where debate begins to flower as if death squads and thought police never existed.

We meet in Guatemala City at the headquarters building of the National Committee of Widows of the Violence, but can't find an empty room because so many well-wishers have arrived. The visitors--men, women, and children--are dressed in the woven designs of their home villages. In a quiet celebratory mood, they chat, sleep, or eat, occupying every spare inch of floor space. Finally, we find a corner where chairs have been placed on the flat roof.

Rigoberta Menchu wears a typical skirt, called a corte, an embroidered blouse, her hair plaited with bright blue ribbon. Somebody brings a beer, which she sips gratefully in the heat. Beyond her is the crooked skyline of the fast-growing capital, centuries-old church domes among tall new buildings, and Pacaya volcano, sending up a plume of white smoke in the blue distance.

Q: What will you do better, or differently, with the Nobel Peace Prize?

Rigoberta Menchu: I have aspirations that will never be fulfilled if they are only mine. The widows of those who died in the violence, the displaced, the popular movements in general, and the refugees have begun to open spaces, to undertake initiatives that would not be possible if they were mine alone.

Q: In your book you said that the "just war" was the only path open to you. Now what do you feel is the place of violence and arms?

Menchu: I always go to antecedents. Of what I know of conflicts the world over, but especially in Central America, no war has surged forth all by itself Internal conflicts erupt from very deep causes. It is important to work so that armed conflict never exists. But armed internal conflict is the culmination of processes that incubate over long years of history. That is what happened here in Guatemala. If the origins of conflict are not resolved, parties may sign a peace accord, but how much time will that accord last?

The conflict in Guatemala is a very delicate thing, because if it is declared over without results for civil society, without inaugurating real mainstays of peace, it could erupt strongly again. And it may not necessarily be the kind of fight that exists now, but much more sophisticated, much more complicated. And it could include the participation of the indigenous. I am afraid of the conflicts.

There is a political attitude here that is very denigrating toward the people. When the people feel that attitude, they react by forming a certain kind of conviction about what they are doing. It is a strong and firm conviction, like faith.

Q: In Guatemala, then, is it your point that taking up arms might feel justified?

Menchu: I believe there is a conflict which must be resolved. I do not like to justify, or invalidate, a conflict that already exists because that puts one in an intransigent position instead of providing hopes for dialogue and a negotiated way out. If there is a future solution, our greatest task will be to prevent the conflict from returning again.

Q: Did the indigenous people suffer and die because of the rebels' lack of preparation, or because rebels could not protect them? One hears peasants say, "We felt abandoned. We were with the guerrillas, we believed in them, but we felt abandoned by them."

Menchu: Possibly. But the truth is that here in Guatemala it has been very difficult to know the real base of the guerrilia throughout the thirty-three years of war. An enormous mystification surrounds them. It is not always known where they reach, with whom they relate, what their structure is, how they work, where they don't reach. A watchword of [the former dictator, General Efrain] Rios Montt has been used by army and security forces: "Well, since we don't know if this bunch of fifty people are Indians or guerrillas, we need to kill all fifty." If among the fifty, ten guerrillas die, the operation is a success. Who is really going to say here that he sympathizes with the guerrilla? Becuase he thinks he will die if he does....

Q: So the people in the highlands are lying now?

Menchu: In a way, yes. Much of what you are hearing was the doctrine urged upon those captured and kept in the "model villages." There are many others [with different things to say] in the Communities of Population in Resistance. Also, I have recorded the testimony of refugees who lived through those early times.

Look, methods have been very sophisticated. People are cautious, no one suddenly confesses his life story. To know the true lives of people here will take many more years.

Q: What has been your relationship with the guerrillas?

Menchu: I joined the Committee of Peasant Unity [known by its Spanish initials, CUC] above all because of the work of my father, who was a founding member. I always had great sympathy for his struggle. The struggle was difficult given the excited atmosphere of the time. In 1979 there was practically an insurrection in Guatemala, before the scorched earth, before the massacres. The country was on the verge of a popular uprising.

An immense number of people sought out a relationship with the guerrillas. They sought sympathy, they sought strength, because they saw no other way out. It was a very intense moment, but even in the midst of it, after father's death, we founded what we called "Revolutionary Christians Vicente Menchu" named after him.

Q: Was that group armed?

Menchu: I believe that in no country of the world has there existed a Christian guerrilla force. At least it has not happened so far on this continent. I have never understood that priests, nuns, catechists, and others might make a Christian armed movement. It doesn't fit in my head.

Q: There are different theories about that, right?

Menchu: Ah, but theirs is a different mother. When we founded Revolutionary Christians Vicente Menchu, there were many religious brothers, nuns, ex-nuns, and priests among us, and above all catechists--lay persons who preached the Bible. We felt everything the Bible said was coming to pass, with Christ crucified, Christ attacked with stones, Christ dragged along the ground. One felt the pain of that Christ, and identified with it.

We understand "revolutionary" in the real meaning of the word: transformation. If I had chosen the armed struggle, I would be in the mountains now.

Instead, we started the struggle at the United Nations. [The Unitary Representation of the Guatemala Opposition, known by its Spanish initials RUOG, of which Rigoberta Menchu is a member, has pushed for U.N. support for peace talks an demnation of Guatemala for human-rights abuse.] Before, the government and the military never cast a glance our way, and the URNG [the Spanish acronym of the guerrilla movement Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity] never came to the U.N. But lately the Guatemalan embassy has sought us out there, and so have the military's advisers. So do the representatives of the URNG.

Q: You criticize the government, but not the URNG. Why?

Menchu: Because 440 villages here were razed to the ground by the government army And about 200 clandestine cemeteries are thought to exist in Guatemala. We are investigating this now. An immense number of people know who was responsible for them. It was not necessarily always the military high command, although in some cases that was true. Some say the massacres were over land disputes, others that the army was responsible--but there is testimony about that. At the same time a great deal of repression came from mid-level and regional authorities. Some were extorting the people who did not speak Spanish. There is a tremendous amount of abuse of those who do not speak Spanish, an impressive amount. Perhaps the next goal will be the establishment of a neutral commission of verification.

Q: Before peace accords?

Menchu: To facilitate the peace process. Why not say this or that was the fault of the army, or of the guerrillas? An absolutely neutral mechanism is necessary to investigate, to be a white space in the conflict; if we here took part, we might be swayed to one side or another by our sadness, by the pains we have lived through. A neutral commission to determine who is violating human rights would push the possibilities for ending the conflict. Could guerrillas put down their arms and come back into the population with total confidence, after they have been fighting the army? Could the army change its attitude, and retire from certain functions it exercises which are not normally assigned to an army? There simply needs to be a trust established, just trust.

An enormous number of people here applaud the Nobel Prize, but it does not create the confidence for a new process. Nothing has happened in Guatemala, simply a Nobel Prize which gives one perhaps the possibility of pushing along some of the work of the civilian society.

Q: You speak of the long history of oppression of Indians by Ladinos, or persons of mixed blood. Why then join forces with them?

Menchu: In no country of America today can we have a nation that is solely indigenous. It would be a dream totally outside reality. We would have to erase frontiers; we would have to wage a racist fight to be able to divide indigenous from Ladinos. Also, no one can now assume the right to say who is indigenous, who is not indigenous.

I believe that in Guatemala the solution is not confrontation between indigenous and Ladinos. Rather, we need a country where we can live together with mutual respect. Until now, the Ladino has dictated everything. Not a single indigenous person participated in the elaboration of the constitution, for instance, or of national instititutions, even though the Maya are 65 to 70 per cent of the population. What indigenous populations understand as education has never been taken into account. If we had been able to implement a mixed history of Guatemala, Ladinos would be very proud of their Maya roots.

It is not necessary to dispossess Ladinos to urge a politics of national unity. We must make Guatemala a plural nation, multiethnic and multicultural, a nation that does not have to eradicate peoples who have their own identity in order to have development. People can use science and technology and obtain the goods of society without stripping themselves of their culture to do it.

Q: Is there genuine danger of extermination of indigenous peoples?

Menchu: Definitely. But not in Guatemala, and that is the hope of Guatemala. I think the Guatemalan process is going to unfold in a giant way, with no danger of extermination, because here the indigenous people are the majority, conscious of their situation, and they have organization. Here indigenous people hold local and regional office in some places alongside Ladinos.

Among other countries of the Americas the one that worries me most is the United States. Canada concerns me less, because in the struggle there the indigenous have obtained some concessions; they have some force in society and are economically active. But in the United States there are areas where I believe the indigenous suffer great agony. I have been in various places, for instance in Dakota, where people live in terrible conditions. Yet there are other regions, for example Oklahoma, which for me is a place of interchange of cultures, and pride in the indigenous culture is strong.

Argentina concerns me. Part of the indigenous population exists at the level of bare survival; I hope they do not exterminate them by the end of the Twentieth Century. Recently I was in various zones of Argentina, where the indigenous culture is incredibly ruined, where a high percentage of those who died of cholera were indigenous. The epidemics are massive. In Brazil, Costa Rica, and El Salvador there are very difficult areas for the indigenous.

Q: Some Miskito Indians from Nicaragua's Atlantic coast say you supported the Sandinista government against them in the 1980s. Is your support for the indigenous consistent?

Menchu: I have always been against the fact that it is only the Miskito who are spoken of, when on the Atlantic Coast there are also Sumo and Rama Indians, and criollos and mestizos with impressive histories. [Miskito contra leaders] Brooklyn Rivera and Steadman Fagoth, and Armstrong Wiggins [of the Washington-based Indian Law Resource Center] did not care for my opinions. I supported [Nicaragua's] struggle for national unity. Above all, I said this should not be a potilical game. I said autonomy was necessary, but that autonomy did not mean independence. It was a very different thing to support a struggle which was for national unity, and one which was not.

Q: The importance of your book, especially among indigenous people, is that they can read it or hear it and say, "I could not have written it myself but yes, this happened to me." What has changed in your life since those days?

Menchu: Before, I didn't know this capital, didn't know even my own home region of the country. Now I do, and these understandings give me an idea of what Guatemala is. About twelve years ago I began to discover Spanish, to speak and to read the language. Now I have read many histories. I read to understand world politics and the problems of peoples, two or three hours a day. This I did not do in Chimel.

Now I know many people who struggle, such as groups of women. Before, I never knew what it meant to be "feminist," as people say. I never knew the complexity of the demands of women from other parts of the world. At first one is surprised at certain demands, but later understands the reasons.

And then there is the Ladino. I was born in a completely indigenous town, and there we did not have many relationships with Ladinos. Today, yes, I know the subject.

I no longer work in the fields. I do not have a house. I have wandered ten years of my life. As a young girl at home, the only thing one thinks is that one is going to marry, to have a home and a family. Now I don't think that way; it is a dream far in the future, not an immediate prospect.

What I have not lost, I believe, is a certain sensibility which is impossible to quantify or explain. When I dream, it is still of my home village in Chimel. I have as my references the people there; it's terrible, because most of them are dead. I remember our small house--I could paint it exactly, even to where the fire was--but surely that house no longer exists. And I feel my poems too, as if I were confessing something that hurts. Sometimes I cannot read them because they start me crying. For many they don't mean much, but they do for me.

Q: What is your favorite poem?

Menchu: "Patria Abnegada," of those that are published. [I crossed the border carrying dignity ... I carry the huipil of colors for the fiesta when I return ... I will return tomorrow.... ]

But I wrote a poem which is called, "A Day for My Mother." That poem is for my pillow; I have not been able to read it in front of others. It is dedicated to the memory of my mother and I have it here [she touches her head and heart], protected.

Q: A Maya priest called you "the Queen of the Maya." When do you return to your country out of exile? Do you consider a political role?

Menchu: It is too soon to say. First certain processes must be completed: for dignity, for the return of the refugees. If they return successfully to society and above all to the adequate reception of Guatemalan authorities, I believe it would mark an important step, and a step for the Communities of Population in Resistance, for the displaced. There should be new projects to call the people to return to their land, to become part of regional and local commercial projects.

Let us forget Guatemala for a moment. My Navajo brothers want me to become involved a bit in their affairs, as do others in other countries, in other places. But I am going to dedicate more time to Guatemala, because it is to me an historical obligation. A Maya priest told me, "The signs of your time are very good. Perhaps this is a gift from our gods, but if so, you must maintain the purity."

Q: What do you understand by "the purity"?

Menchu: I think it means fidelity to the command to love. He told me more. He said I was born in Uspantan, but really called utz patan in Maya, which means good work of a mediating kind. "You were born in the land of utz patan and we are ending right now on the calendar a very long 500 years."

Q: So all this is something like your destiny?

Menchu: Yes. For our people such an understanding is something important. I think this is all facing toward the year 2000; what we do today is going to mean much then. I am not putting a time limit of only eight years on the effort, but we have an opportunity eight years long to see what our grandparents are going to say about us in the year 2000, and whether our children are going to say, "In the last century our fathers were bad, or they were good." Look at the resurgence in defense of our languages, and the Maya religion, which is in resurgence here in Guatemala, with its priests and priestesses.

Q: Yes, but that Maya religious resurgence carries a sense of separatism with it. Doesn't that impede the kind of unity you talk about?

Menchu: No. The indigenous cosmic vision has never combined itself with the official history Therefore, it is the greatest symbol of the existence of the indigenous at the end of the Twentieth Century.

It signifies a process of coming to understand ourselves, and it must be a real process. That is why I say we cannot frustrate its hopes.
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Title Annotation:1992 Nobel Peace laureate
Author:McConahay, Mary Jo
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:3513
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Next Article:Needed: a radical recovery.
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