THEIR VOICE | Rigoberta Menchú was one of the first clear voices to reveal the extent of the army’s slaughter against the indigenous population in Guatemala. Here, relatives carry the remains of victims executed during the country’s civil war in a 2001 burial ceremony outside Guatemala City. PHOTO: JAIME PUEBLA, SCANPIX/AP

In his 1999 book, ‘Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans’, Stoll claims to be able to prove that events described in Menchú’s 1984 book ‘I, Rigoberta Menchu’, did not happen exactly the way she described. Furthermore, he accuses her of romanticising her story in order to gain stronger support for the Guatemalan guerrilla movement.

In 1982, then 23-year-old Guatemalan Maya woman Rigoberta Menchú told her life story to writer Elizabeth Burgos. The story became a book, published around in the world in more than 12 languages. It was one of the first eye-witness accounts of the on-going genocide against the indigenous people of Guatemala, and led to great international interest.

The story Menchú told was one of growing up in a poor Quiché peasant family, without sufficient land to live off. When she was a child, her family had to migrate each year to the big plantations on the coast to join the coffee harvest. There they found themselves discriminated against and treated badly as migrant workers. Her father did not send her to school and she only learned Spanish much later. Two of her brothers died from malnutrition. In the late 1970s, her family was accused of taking part in the guerrilla movement that was established in the Quiche area. In 1979, her brother was arrested, tortured and killed by the army. Her father was killed the year after by security forces in Guatemala’s capital. Not long after this, her mother died after being tortured and raped. Menchú fled to Mexico in 1981. There she became active in the organising of Guatemalan opposition from abroad.

Nailing down the truth

But how poor really were Rigoberta and her family? Did she in fact go to the coffee plantations at all? Was her brother burned alive or ‘just’ tortured and killed by the army? And was Rigoberta there to witness it for herself? These were some of the questions raised by Stoll after he interviewed neighbours of the Menchú family in Quiché.

Stoll’s claims were published in newspapers around the world and subsequently debated. Some academics and political activists answered the severe criticism raised (1). Some claimed that the stand taken by Stoll, was a positivist and Western-biased one, not taking into account the testimonial history of storytelling traditions in the non-Western, Mayan culture. It was not only her family and herself that Rigoberta Menchú represented – it was her people. Furthermore, her story contributed towards a greater good: revealing to the world the atrocities committed to the Guatemalan civil society for decades.

Menchú herself responded to the criticism. She admitted that some of her assertions were not 100 per cent accurate. For instance, she had had some schooling while growing up. She herself had not in fact witnessed her brother being tortured and killed – her mother had. She also said that she held back details in her story to protect neighbours and friends still living in Guatemala. The story, being told in 1982 – during the worst period of human-rights abuses in Guatemalan history – supports this point.

Debated history of perpetrators and victims

The near history of Guatemala is politically loaded and debated. The Central-American country was, during the 20th century, repeatedly blighted by land disputes and violence. The reason why – and who is to blame – is still disputed. Whatever you believe is the answer will reveal all about your political standpoint, and hence also might reveal your origin, education and economic standing. It is therefore complicated to represent the ‘facts’ in Guatemalan history.

After a 36-year period of conflict between the Guatemalan army and its civil patrols on the one hand, and the armed subversive movements (2) on the other, peace accords were signed in 1996. Civilian losses during the conflict were immense. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, approximately 200,000 people were killed and approximately one-million displaced.

There are (at least) two ‘master narratives’ of Guatemalan history. The chasing of the guerrilla and the killing of civilians were legitimised by the danger these groups represented to the state and the people – the peasants being regarded as providing support to the subversive groups (by giving them food, shelter and recruits). The CIA supported the Guatemalan government in its endeavours to destroy the left-wing forces in the country. The ‘opposite’ master narrative is one of the Mayan being oppressed for centuries by European ancestors in Guatemala, the internal conflict representing a continuum of the colonial tradition. The guerrilla movement was, in this version, a legitimate opposition.

In the years to follow the peace agreements, the Esclaracimiento de la memoria historica – clarifying the historic memory started – the work of the United Nations truth commission in Guatemala. Based on testimonials and case studies, the Commission finally published its report in 1999, laying the main responsibility (93 per cent) for the atrocities on the armed forces that were acting on behalf of the Guatemalan government, and three per cent on the guerrilla movement. The main purpose of the commission was to establish a history that all could agree upon.

Making everything worse?

David Stoll, in the preface of his book, actually supports the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Rigoberta Menchú. Furthermore, he questions the need to dissect the life of Menchú, and even takes into account that the Mayan storytelling tradition could be different than the Western one. He even admits that the events she describes did take place (even though not exactly how she described, and even if she did not witness them). His issue with her story is that she describes a peasant movement and support to the guerrilla that, in Stoll’s view, does not represent the reality. He goes on to question whether her representation could have led the Guatemalan army to believe that the guerrilla threat was more powerful than it really was, making the army’s actions towards the guerrilla and the civil population even harsher.

Guatemala’s armed internal conflict was extensively about land and rights to riches. But it was also, and became increasingly, a struggle between different versions of history. The story of Rigoberta Menchú was a long-needed eye-opener for the world to the situation in Guatemala. It gave a voice to a people that never had one before, and awareness of the atrocities that had happened was raised internationally.

Stoll’s claims started a public debate on the right of Rigoberta Menchú to the Nobel Peace Prize. Professor Geir Lundestad, the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said that the award was given to Menchú on the basis of a decision that ‘was not based exclusively or primarily on the autobiography’, and he refused to reconsider the rightfulness of the prize.

(1) Latin American Perspectives, Vol 26, No.6, If Truth Be Told: A Forum on David Stoll’s “Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans” (Nov., 1999).
(2) Four different movements, which in 1982 merged into one: URNG (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca – The National Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity).

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