Rigoberta Menchú Tum is a political and human rights activist from Guatemala, belonging to the K’iche’ ethnic group. Born in 1959 to a poor family in a small Mayan community, Menchú has devoted her life to defending the rights of Guatemalan indigenous feminists during and after the Civil War (1960–1996), and to the promotion of the indigenous rights in the country. Thanks to her tireless work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation, in 1992 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, while in 1998 she received the Prince of Asturias Award for improving the condition of women in Guatemala.
Rigoberta’s life has been marked by the outbreak of the Guatemalan Civil War, occurred when she was only one year old, spurring a violent repression against the Mayan people by the military dictatorship. In 36 years of war, 450 Mayan villages were destroyed, over 200,000 Guatemalans murdered and 1 million were displaced. Subsequently, Menchú was politically active from a very early age. As a young girl, Rigoberta traveled along with her father, Vincente Menchú, from community to community to teach rural campesinos their rights and encouraging them to organize. She then became involved in social reform activities through the Catholic Church, and militated in the women’s rights movement when still only a teenager.
Having witnessed the mass atrocities and human rights violations committed by the regime’s armed forces towards the country’s indigenous people, Rigoberta and her family joined the Committee of the Peasant Union (CUC) and mobilized Guatemalans during the war to protest the government’s actions. Throughout the years, Rigoberta became increasingly active in the CUC, teaching herself Spanish as well as other Mayan languages to spread her values and ideals. In 1980, she was a prominent figure in a strike organized by the CUC to ask for better conditions for farm workers. In 1981, she was active in large demonstrations in the capital, Ciudad de Guatemala. She also joined the radical 31st of January Popular Front, in which her contribution mainly consisted in educating the indigenous peasant population in resisting against massive military oppression.
However, the activism of the Menchú family aroused considerable opposition in influential circles, as they were accused of taking part in guerrilla activities. As a consequence, Rigoberta’s father was imprisoned and tortured for allegedly having participated in the execution of a local plantation owner. Moreover, at a peaceful protest held at the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City in 1980, he and thirty-seven other campesino activists were murdered in a fire. Soon after, the Guatemalan army tortured and murdered Rigoberta’s brother, as well as tortured, raped and killed her mother. Thus, at the age of 21, Rigoberta had no other choice than go into exile.
She fled to Mexico in 1981. During her self-imposed exile, she continued to struggle for indigenous peasant peoples’ rights, as well as to organize the resistance to oppression in Guatemala. In 1982, she contributed to founding the opposition body, The United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition (RUOG). On the same year, the Venezuelan author and anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray took an interest in Rigoberta’s actions and asked her to tell her story, which ended up being a book called I, Rigoberta Menchú. A few years later, she performed as the narrator in a powerful film called When the Mountains Tremble, about the struggles and sufferings of the Maya people. Both the book and documentary attracted considerable attention worldwide and made her an international icon of the resistance against the Guatemalan regime.
She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, at the age of 33, for being “a vivid symbol of peace and reconciliation across ethnic, cultural and social dividing lines”. After that, Rigoberta returned to Guatemala and established the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation (FRMT) to support Mayan communities and survivors of the genocide in their quest for justice. Once the Civil War ended in 1996, Rigoberta and the Foundation began working to have members of the Guatemala military and political élite charged for war crimes. In 2015, she succeeded in having the commander of a former police investigations unit convicted of murder and crimes against humanity for his role in the Spanish Embassy attack of 1980, in which Vincente Menchú died.
As of today, Rigoberta continues to campaign for access to pharmaceuticals for Guatemala’s poor, indigenous communities, with the goal of offering low-cost generic medicines. In 2006, she co-founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative, along with several other female Peace Prize recipients, to coordinate their work towards worldwide peace and advocate for women’s rights across the globe. As a prominent figure in Guatemalan’s indigenous political parties, Rigoberta has also run in the Guatemalan presidential elections twice. Finally, Rigoberta Menchú serves as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and a speaker for PeaceJam, as she tries to encourage young people to become social justice leaders and to commit themselves to a positive change.
By Valentina Canepa, WAVE Intern