An Indian Woman In Guatemala: Without A Trace Of Bitterness In Her Voice
November 11, 1996
Guatemala is the land of Eternal Springs and the home of the richly cultured
historic Mayan people. It it also the country of Rigoberta Menchu, an
illeterite farm worker, turned voice of oppressed people everywhere.
also has the sad distinction of being home to Latin America’s oldest civil
“For more than three decades, left-wing guerrillas have fought a series
rightist governments in Guatemala. The war has killed an estimated 140,000 in
the country, which has 11 million people.” (N.Y. Times June 14, 1996 pA4
This is a story of a people in crisis, and one woman’s struggle to use truth,
a means of setting her people free.
The majority of the population are Indians, and much of the struggles arise
of the ashes of the past. Spain conquered Guatemala in 1524, which was the
start of the oppression of the native people of Guatemala. Since this time
native people have been ruled by the Spanish speaking minority, the Ladinos,
many of which are descended from the Spanish colonists.
Beginning in 1954, when Guatemala’s elected government was overthrown by the
army, the military began a brutal war against the Indian people. This type of
torture and oppression continued, and during the 1970’s the repression was
especially harsh; during this time more and more Indians began to resist. It
was during this time that Rigoberta Menchu’s family became involved in the
The situation in Guatemala is similar to South Africa, where the black
are ruled with absolute power by the white minority. Like South Africa, the
Indians in Guatemala are lacking in even the most basic of human rights.
“Indeed the so-called forest Indians are being systematically
the name of progress. But unlike the Indian rebels of the past, who wanted to
go back to pre-Columbian times, Rigoberta Menchu is not fighting in the name
an idealized or mythical past.” (Menchu xiii) Rigoberta is working
drawing attention to the plight of native people around the globe.
Once an illiterate farm worker, she has taught herself to read and write
the language of her oppressor, as a means of relating her story to the world.
She tells the story of her life with honesty and integrity in hopes of
impressing upon the world the indignation of the oppressed. In addition to
Spanish language, Rigoberta borrows such things as the bible and trade union
organization in order to use them against their original owners. There is
nothing like the bible in her culture. She says, “The Bible is written,
that gives us one more weapon.” ( Menchu xviii ) Her people need to base
actions on the laws that come down from the past, on prophecy.
Her own history and the history of her family is told with great detail in
book I, Rigoberta Menchu. Not only does one learn about the culture of her
people and about the community in which she lives, but an understanding is
gained as to impetus to react against ones oppressor. Born the sixth child to
an already impoverished but well respected family, Rigoberta remembers
up in the mountains on land that no one else wanted, spending months at a
going with her family to work on the fincas (plantations).
A lorry owned by the finca would come to their village, and the workers,
with their children and animals, would ride together, in filthy and
conditions. Each lorry would hold approximately forty people, and the trip to
the finca took two nights and one day, with no stops allowed for the
it is easy to imagine the unsanitary condition that resulted. Each worker
take with them a cup and a plate and a bottle for water when they worked in
fields. The youngest of the children that were not yet able to work had no
for their own cup and plate since, if they did not work, they would not be
by the finca. These children’s mothers would share with them their own ration
of tortilla and beans, though many of the children were severely
and two of Rigoberta’s own brothers died while on the finca.
At the tender age of eight Rigoberta was earning money to help her family,
as proof of her own personal fortitude, by age ten she was picking the quotas
an adult and was paid as such. Her first experience in the city was at twelve
years old in the capital of Guatemala where she worked as a maid. She