Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I, Rigoberta Menchu

Title: I, Rigoberta Menchu
Author: as told to Elizabeth Burgos-Debray
Year: 1983
Country: Guatemala
Pages: 251pgs
Rating: A- Book From: Personal collection (obtained from Freecycle)

I read I, Rigoberta Menchu for a few challenges. Technically, I have read this book before. Some may consider that cheating, but I don't, and here's why. I first read about Rigoberta Menchu for a South American anthropology class when I was 18 and a freshman undergrad. I read the story at a time when I couldn't really concentrate on it, as my father was critically ill in the hospital, and he was not expected to survive (he did, and he's still going strong). Her story struck me at the time, and I meant to come back to it someday when I could give it the attention that it deserves. Ten years later, I am a completely different person than that 18 year old, with more life experiences. Although I have not yet been to Guatemala, I have travelled to both Central and South America. I have worked with refugees, asylum seekers, including many political and human rights activists that have been persecuted. I have a much firmer grasp on the turmoil of Central America in light of the Cold War and American foreign policy during that time. And now, I have delved into Rigoberta's story once more.

When I first read about her in 1997, the controversy over fabrications in her story had not yet broke. Although I am aware of the controversy, it is not worth the time to delve into that here. Yes, she admits that she included the stories of other peasants in her own life story. But that does not detract from her goal of highlighting the struggle of the Guatemala resistance movement. As the subtitle says, her story is truly one about An Indian Woman in Guatemala. It is ironic and powerful to note that most of David Stoll's research into Rigoberta's life validated all of the main parts of her story.

I, Rigoberta Menchu, told orally to Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, tells the story of Rigoberta's childhood and early adulthood, in which her family divided their time between working in the fincas (plantations) as peons, and harvesting maize, beans, and other plants in their village in the Altiplano (highlands area in which the residents are mainly from indigenous ethnic groups). Rigoberta grew up during Guatemala's civil war, which spanned from 1960-1996, with the story largely taking place from the 60's-early 80's. Interspersed with chapters about indigenous traditions: marriage ceremonies, coming of age rites, village life, and subsistence farming; is a harrowing story of the persecution and oppression of hundreds of thousands of people. Some of the most explicit and terrible torture scenes I have ever read or heard about occur to her family members. Yet, in this tale of brutal repression, stems a story of hope and survival, a demonstration of the power of unity and working together to make a difference. Some of the most poignant parts of her story show the comraderie of the people in her village.

On preserving her culture and preventing cultural exploitation:
This is part of the reserve that we've maintained to defend our customs and our culture. Indians have been very careful not to disclose any details of their communities, and the community does not allow them to talk about Indian things. I too must abide by this. This is because many religious people have come among us and drawn a false impression of the Indian world.
This is what hurts Indians most. It means that, yes, they think our costumes are beautiful because it brings in money, but it's as if the person wearing it doesn't exist.

Life working in the finca:
After my first day picking cotton, I woke up at midnight and lit a candle. I saw the faces of my brothers and sisters covered with mosquitos. I touched my own face, and I was covered too. They were everywhere; in people's mouths and everywhere. That was our world. I felt that it would always be the same. It hadn't ever changed.
When my parents came back from work, they were very tired...Even more so with the noise of all those people living together, thousands of people we don't know all living together. So it's a very difficult atmosphere to live in and children are often not looked after very well. Mothers are very tired and just can't do it. This is where you see the situation of women in Guatemala very clearly.

A girl's marriage vows:
The girl says: "I will bea mother, I will suffer, my children will suffer, many of my children will die young because of the circumstances created for us by white men. It will be hard for me to accept my children's death but I will bear it because our ancestors bore it without giving up. We will not give up either." This is the girl's promise.

Living under oppression:
What do they know about hunger when they suck the blood of our people every day?
I didn't know then the same system which tries to isolate us Indians also puts up barriers between Indians and ladinos. I knew that all ladinos rejected us but I didn't know why. Soon afterwards, I was with the nuns and we went to a village in Uspantan where mostly ladinos live. The nun asked a little boy if they were poor and he said: 'Yes, we're poor but we're not Indians.' That stayed with me.

Rigoberta Menchu announced in February 2007 that she plans to stand as a presidential candidate in the upcoming elections. If elected, she will be the first Guatemalan indigenous president.

1 comment:

cess said...

Sounds like a very interesting book! I love reading about foreign cultures and learn so much from books like this. Thanks for sharing.