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1999 NCC News Archives

NCC, UMC Bring Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu
to New York to Answer Her Critics

Sees Debate as Struggle Over Who Writes History

By Wendy McDowell

February 19, 1999, NEW YORK -- Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú clarified details of her personal history and continued to lift up the harrowing story of her people during a three-day visit to New York sponsored by the National Council of Churches (NCC) and the United Methodist Office for the United Nations.

Ms. Menchú, the Mayan Indian from Guatemala whose work for indigenous peoples' rights in her own land and worldwide earned her the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, met with church leaders, media and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan during her Feb. 9-11 visit. In each meeting, she stressed the significance of the report from the Truth Commission in Guatemala, due out at the end of this month, and expressed concern about the fate of the peace process in Guatemala.

"The report, and what is done with it, is very important," Ms. Menchú said, particularly since it comes at a time when there is a "great deal of uncertainty regarding the fate of the peace process." Because the peace accords, out of which the Truth Commission was set up, are "political agreements and not legal agreements," they need continued vigilance to keep the momentum going, she said. Meanwhile, she added, the fruits of the peace process, like the Commission's report, need to be disseminated to all the people including the victims of violence.

Keeping the Guatemalan peace process and the upcoming report in the eyes of the world and supporting its most prominent symbol were precisely the reasons the NCC and UMC invited Ms. Menchú to visit New York at this time.

"Issuing this document has already cost the Commission's president, Bishop Gerardi, his life," said the Rev. Dr. Rodney Page, Deputy General Secretary for the NCC, who introduced Ms. Menchú at a Feb. 10 luncheon. "Beyond the accusations, we want to affirm that Rigoberta Menchú is an indigenous woman who is the symbol of a long and painful struggle for her people. Through Rigoberta we honor the more than 150,000 dead, 50,000 'disappeared,' 200,000 orphans and 40,000 widows, as well as the larger indigenous majority in Guatemala."

"We supported Rigoberta Menchú's nomination for the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, and we support her continued work for peace not only in Guatemala but around the world," said the Rev. Oscar Bolioli, Director of the NCC's Latin America and the Caribbean Office. "This should be a time to be highlighting the Truth Commission's upcoming report."

Guatemalan Commission Hears Much Testimony from Indigenous People

Like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, the Historical Clarification Commission in Guatemala has heard horrific accounts of violence from thousands of victims. "The thousands of testimonies represent the collective memory of the victims, and 80 percent of those accounts come from Mayan, indigenous people of Guatemala," Ms. Menchú said. Thousands of Mayan Indians were massacred, "disappeared" and tortured by the ruling military regime during the 1970s and 80s, including many members of Ms. Menchú's family.

"Some of the victims have kept a piece of bone of their family member who was killed to say, 'Here is my pain' and to ensure that it will never happen again ," Ms. Menchú said, adding, "In 1982 I was one, lonely voice, but now the voices of over five thousand people are raised."

It is in the light of this collective history, which is not being disputed by any of her detractors, that Ms. Menchú defended herself against recent criticisms. Anthropologist Dr. David Stoll has published a book entitled Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans alleging that there are inconsistencies in the book I, Rigoberta Menchu. An article about Stoll's book appeared on the front page of the New York Times in December, turning what was primarily an academic debate into a media-driven controversy.

Ms. Menchú was clear that she considered the reporting of the critique, both in its timing and its character, to be a personal and a collective attack. "I have had a special meeting with Mayan organizers and leaders (in Guatemala) who feel that we are collectively under attack," she said. "We feel this is a dangerous precedent, because if the most 'civilized' Indian who won the Nobel Peace Prize is called a liar, then the other leaders can be said to be liars, too."

Ms. Menchú said she was willing to answer the points of contention during this visit to clarify some facts but said that her pride and her continuing work on the peace process will propel her to leave the debate behind and to stop answering questions about it in the future. "I don't want to lose myself in this debate," she declared. "And that is what happens - I get lost."

Explains Book was Not an Autobiography, Clarifies Details

Ms. Menchú said that her 1982 testimony, based on taped oral interviews by another anthropologist, Elizabeth Burgos, came at a key and sensitive time in her country. The book based on that testimony was published in 1983. The explicit purpose of the published account was to "convince the world to look into the atrocities." To protect others and to convey a collective history, Ms. Menchú readily acknowledged that she included accounts of violence she did not personally witness.

Such a method of storytelling is considered not only appropriate but admirable in her culture, she explained. "For common people such as myself, there is no difference between testimony, biography and autobiography. We tell what we have lived (collectively), not just alone."

"The book was not an autobiography as you understand autobiographies," she stressed. "Someday, I will write an autobiography and will recount all of my personal memories then."

In the meantime, Ms. Menchú elected to answer what she considered the unfair claims made against the oral testimony she gave in 1982.

Ms. Menchú was particularly vehement about the issue of whether or not she had attended several "elite" schools. Dr. Stoll claimed that Ms. Menchú attended two private boarding schools on scholarship, going against her claims of being "self-taught." Explaining that she had worked as a maid at a school run by Belgian nuns, she said she received some literacy classes which were held two days a week for two-hour sessions in a separate room. "As far as I know, no school grants a degree for being a maid," she joked, and also stressed that the Catholic-run schools in the area cannot be called "elite." "The elite in Guatemala send their children to schools like Harvard," she said. "The convent schools were very important in the peasant communities but 99 percent of the girls who went there were poor."

Dr. Stoll and the New York Times said a land dispute between peasants and wealthy landowners actually was a family dispute between Ms. Menchú's father and his in-laws. Ms. Menchú explained that there are in fact seven parties in the ongoing dispute including local communities, landowners and a part of her family. As in other land disputes involving indigenous people and their political rights, resolving them is an enormously complex process. "We hope that the peace accords will lead to some of these cases being resolved," she said.

The accusation that a brother she said was dead was actually alive is cleared up by the understanding that there were two brothers named Nicolas in her family, one of whom died of malnutrition as a baby.

Most of the omissions cited by her critics were intentionally omitted out of a desire to protect others who had protected and helped her, she said. "If I could do it over again, I would still leave those people out," she said, because "I could never live with myself if someone had been hurt or killed because of my words."

Larger Issues About Doing and Telling of History Are At Stake

It is this concern for others as well as her emphasis on the collective history and memory of indigenous people that earned Rigoberta Menchú the Nobel Peace Prize and continues to be the basis of her work for peace.

She wryly commented that maybe her detractors got the Nobel Prize for Literature mixed up with the Nobel Peace Prize, but she wanted to assure them that "the Nobel Peace Prize is not given for writing a book." This is essentially the line of argument the Nobel Committee has taken to reply to the challenge that Ms. Menchú's prize should be revoked over the controversy.

The larger issue behind the controversy, Ms. Menchú believes, has to do with who gets to write history and not the details of the account given in I, Rigoberta Menchú. "Throughout history, the victimizers and conquerors have been the ones to write history. This is the first time we are getting to write our own history and we are going to defend it. Some people are not going to like that."

The debate also concerns where history should be done, whether in the "Ivory Tower" or among the people. Moving not only the writing but the telling of history from the halls of academia to the grassroots level is one of Ms. Menchú's passions. Throughout her visit, she repeatedly stressed the need for the Truth Commission's report to be "owned by people, not only in Guatemala but throughout the world."

"The report should not be shelved in a library, but really be a study guide for the entire human rights community," Ms. Menchú said.

Meanwhile, politically her country is going through the growing pains of a peace process wherein "groups who used to have a common denominator in whom they were fighting against now need to come together around reconstruction and development. This is never easy. If war is complicated, then a peace process is even more complicated!"

With elections coming up this year in November, the country is at another crucial moment. "Whether greater gains will be obtained in the peace accords depends on the party who comes into power," Ms. Menchú explained.

"Members of the armed forces rejoice over crises and controversies," she said, because they divide those who would work together to keep the peace accords alive.

Her steadfast commitment to the peace process and to making sure that her community has a voice in that process and in the political system continues to earn Ms. Menchú support locally and internationally, in spite of the criticisms.

"Without even being a candidate, she already has 4 percent in the opinion polls of Guatemala," Rev. Bolioli said. "Her work in Guatemala earns her respect and support the world over. As an indigenous woman from the United States said at the luncheon, 'Rigoberta Menchú has made it possible for all indigenous women to hold their heads higher.'"

-end-

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