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The Truth About Rigoberta Menchú

While Stoll was establishing that Rigoberta’s version of the violence was at odds with what actually happened, moreover, he kept running into Guatemalans who didn’t care about Rigoberta’s inaccuracies and outright inventions because they felt her book presents an essentially correct image of the horrors that the Guatemalan Maya had experienced. He concludes that Rigoberta’s story “meets certain needs so well that the question of whether it is true or not is almost beside the point.” She may, he writes, have put stories she heard into the first person in order to “represent as many of her people as she could.” One man from Rigoberta’s region told Stoll, “There are many things that she took as her own that happened to the people. What happened to the people she wrote as if it…happened to her…. She speaks of the reality. She speaks of real things, of the massacres, of the tortures. I suppose that if they give her the [Nobel] prize, she will not take it for herself,…but for her people.”


The truth, however, is that even without Stoll, the guerrillas have been coming in for criticism in Guatemala. The URNG, the umbrella organization made up of the four formerly independent guerrilla groups, has formed a political party, but, two years after the peace agreement, it hasn’t yet announced a program or elected a single representative to Congress. The URNG doesn’t seem well suited to take part in elective democracy. A member of the Frente Democrático Nueva Guatemala, the leftist party of the “popular groups” allied with the former guerrillas, told me that the FDNG leaders had no ideological differences with the URNG but felt they might have differences in practice. “We have a different experience from the political-military leaderships. We have to organize from the base up, not the other way around.”

The guerrillas negotiated the final peace accords with PAN, the party of neoliberalism and big business. The two groups were able to work together partly because the private secretary to President Arzú, a former guerrilla named Gustavo Porras, was able to act as a go-between. The guerrillas have thus wound up in what seems to many Guatemalans a contradictory alliance with the advocates of the international capitalism they used to denounce. “The guerrillas did well considering their military weakness,” Frank LaRue told me. “They wanted to come in through the big door, not as ragged supplicants. But they’re basically walking behind PAN. You’d think that after thirty-six years of conflict, they’d have some more political initiative.”

Other Guatemalans I talked to argue that after all the calls for sacrifice, after all the struggle, the guerrillas not only failed to obtain much by way of reparations but also seemed excessively concerned to protect their own interests. It is true, for example, that the truth commission concludes that in cases where the sources of human rights violations can be identified, approximately 93 percent are attributable to the army and only 3 percent to the guerrillas. (The REMHI figures are almost identical.) The guerrillas, however, have been no more interested in having that 3 percent exposed than the army their 93 percent. “Their reaction to the truth commission was very negative,” Edgar Gutiérrez told me. “It showed me that they didn’t have moral character. And when REMHI started, they didn’t cooperate any more than the army did. They didn’t like the fact that they couldn’t control the outcome. They’ve always had a vision of society with themselves on top.”

Nothing has given the guerrillas so much of a bad reputation, however, as what is known as the Mincho case. In late August 1996, after years of delicate negotiation and only four months before the peace accords were to be signed, Señora Olga Alvarado de Novella, the eighty-six-year-old matriarch of a rich Guatemalan construction family, was kidnapped as she left Sunday mass at a church in a Guatemala City suburb. The guerrillas at first denied any involvement, but in mid-October a prominent guerrilla comandante known as Isaías, a former medical doctor, was captured by government security forces while he was trying to collect a six-million-dollar ransom.

The security forces—members of the Presidential Guard—severely beat Isaías, broke his collarbones, then exchanged him for Señora Alvarado and deported him to Mexico. Isaías belonged to the Organización del Pueblo en Armas, or ORPA, one of the four guerrilla groups making up the URNG, and he was known to be close to ORPA’s head, Rodrigo Asturias. Rumors began circulating that Asturias had ordered the kidnapping in order to raise money for the URNG party, which was about to enter elective politics. Asturias and the other guerrillas claimed Isaías was acting on his own and that they had no connection with the kidnapping.

Following the capture of Isaías, however, there were repeated rumors that another guerrilla named “Mincho” had been captured by the security forces during the exchange and “disappeared.” The government, the guerrilla command, and even the United Nations representatives who were sponsoring the peace talks all denied Mincho’s existence. However, Guatemalan reporters soon turned up a photograph of Mincho’s corpse in a morgue and identified him as a low-level ORPA militant. He had apparently been struck in the head with a baseball bat and killed instantly. Jean Arnault, the chief of mission of the United Nations negotiating team, was soon accused of orchestrating a cover-up of Mincho’s murder. It was hard to resist the conclusion that ORPA and Asturias, not Isaías, had in fact plotted the kidnapping and that for the sake of the accords all the parties had conspired to cover it up. The Guatemalan public was left with the impression that truth was to be a victim of the peace process.

Until the Mincho case, Rodrigo Asturias seemed the one guerrilla leader who might have had a future in national politics. From a socially prominent family, he had helped to found and run Siglo XXI, a successful publishing company, while in exile in Mexico. Asturias’s father, moreover, was the Guatemalan novelist Miguel Angel Asturias, the 1967 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, who was known for his interest in Guatemala’s Indian heritage. Not only had his son, Rodrigo, taken the nom de guerre Gaspar Ilom from the name of a Maya hero in one his father’s novels, but Rodrigo Asturias’s group, ORPA, had made the most successful efforts to incorporate Maya members. However, after ORPA’s role in the kidnapping became apparent, the peace negotiations were suspended for three weeks and the price of their resumption was the removal of Asturias from the guerrilla team.

The URNG party headquarters are in a middle-class suburb on the edges of the city center in a neighborhood of neat, pastel-painted, semidetached houses with small lawns and wide sidewalks. When I went to see Asturias there, I found no marking on the headquarters building, only a heavy metal door with a small window through which a guard peered out at me. Inside, the guard, a young Maya, tried to keep an eye on the street while also watching a Spanish-language version of Power Rangers on a portable TV.

Asturias is sixty years old, a tall, youthful-looking man with thinning, long white hair, an athlete’s slouch, and a disarming grin. He was wearing jeans and a red-and-white checked shirt. A Mont Blanc pen protruded from his pocket. When he gave me his card, it read “Rodrigo Asturias Amado” and, underneath, “Gaspar Ilom.” “I’ve legalized ‘Gaspar Ilom,”’ he said. “Now I have two names.”

Asturias told me that after his parents separated, when he was eight, his father became a diplomat and moved away to Argentina, leaving young Rodrigo to be raised by his grandparents. He’d been educated at Catholic schools by priests whom he referred to as “Franquistas, and practically fascistas,” and had been rebellious from an early age, always more interested in “political struggle” than in literature. In March of 1962 he took part in a guerrilla insurrection in the eastern part of the country which turned into a disaster. His group was ambushed. Of the twenty-three guerrillas, thirteen were killed, and two escaped. The others were imprisoned, including Asturias. Shortly afterward, Asturias was deported to Mexico, where he was to spend the next seven years. The police drove him to a river marking the border and ordered him to swim across.

According to Asturias, ORPA opposed the traditional Marxist idea that Indians were backward and gave positions of high responsibility to Maya, including Efraín Bamaca, who was later captured and presumably murdered by the army. As for the accords, they were, he argued, the best the URNG had been able to obtain after ten years of negotiating, mostly with PAN, which he saw as “an expression from the right, but much more modern.” The URNG, Asturias told me, was not planning to run a presidential candidate in the upcoming 1999 elections, but it seemed apparent to me that despite his disastrous entry into civilian politics, Asturias himself was considering the prospect of running for election in 2003.

What about Mincho?” I asked. His expression suddenly changed. “I was not involved in the kidnapping,” he said, “although people in my organization were. I take political but not personal responsibility.”


When I was in Guatemala, despite my repeated requests for an interview Rigoberta declined to speak with me. After David Stoll’s book made the front page of The New York Times in December, however, Rigoberta gave press conferences, first in Mexico City and then in New York, at which she addressed several of the issues raised by Stoll. In Mexico City in January, she explained she had heard the story of Petrocinio’s death that she had used in her book from her mother. Ignoring the evidence of Stoll’s witnesses, she said that if there was a choice between accepting Stoll’s story and her mother’s, she chose her mother’s. Rigoberta also said that she’d been at the Colegio Belga under a special arrangement whereby in exchange for four hours of instruction a week—she called it “alphabetization”—she’d worked cleaning dormitories and classrooms. Partly in order to protect the nuns at a time when she was being hunted by the police, she said, she’d used the experience as the basis for her chapter about having worked as a maid. Rigoberta also insisted that she had a brother who had died of malnutrition on a coastal finca; it just so happened that he had the same name as the surviving brother Stoll had talked to. In this case she produced the birth certificate of the deceased brother, though he turned out to be ten years older than her, not younger.

In New York in mid-February, I attended Rigoberta’s press conference in a midtown United Nations office tower. She is so small that when she sat in a chair her feet barely touched the ground. The combined effect of her very large head and the traditional costume she wore was to make her look disconcertingly like a doll. She seemed irrepressibly talkative and curious about her audience and also, in view of her difficult situation, surprisingly unconcerned with details. The campaign against her book, she said, was a campaign to “decontextualize it” from Guatemalan history. When she’d written the book, she continued, she’d been completely alone—a survivor trying to convince the world to pay attention to the atrocities that she and other Maya had experienced. By now her testimony had merged with the testimonies of thousands of others who’d told equally horrible stories to REMHI, and she was intent on concentrating the public’s attention where it should be—on the guerra sucia, the dirty war that had been pursued in Guatemala.

Seated behind Rigoberta as she spoke was a tall man with a dark beard, a dark suit, and a dark blue shirt. This was Gustavo Meoño, a former Christian radical, former head of “mass organizations” for the EGP—the guerrilla group with which Rigoberta had been affiliated and which Meoño left in 1993—and now the head of the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation. As Rigoberta responded to queries and sometimes got the details wrong, the intense-looking Meoño would quietly correct her. “No,” he would say, “the brother who died on the coastal finca was born in 1949, not 1959,” or, “No, Rigoberta had been paid twenty quetzales a month, not a day, when she’d worked as a maid at the Colegio Belga.” As he did so, Rigoberta cheerfully explained that her foundation was conducting an inquiry into Stoll’s allegations and that reporters should speak to Meoño about the details. But many of Stoll’s findings remained unrefuted.

In Guatemala City, several people told me that if I was interested in the issues that had arisen over Rigoberta’s book, I should speak with Arturo Taracena, a Guatemalan historian who had played an important part in getting it published. In 1981, Taracena had been a doctoral student at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and also European director of the EGP. His old friend and fellow EGP member, Gustavo Meoño, contacted him and told him about a Maya refugee named Rigoberta Menchú who had fled Guatemala and whom Meoño had met while she was staying in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. She was then a guest of Samuel Ruíz García, the bishop of the diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas and an advocate of liberation theology.

Meoño had previously known Rigoberta’s father. In fact, I was told in Guatemala City that he’d driven Rigoberta’s father and other protesters to the Spanish embassy, which they occupied before they were burned to death. Meoño had been impressed by Rigoberta’s remarkable ability to stand before a crowd and graphically describe the violence being inflicted on Guatemala’s Indians. He arranged for Rigoberta to join a European tour to publicize their plight and he asked Taracena if he could put Rigoberta up while she was in Paris.

Through his academic connections, Taracena knew a doctoral candidate, a Venezuelan anthropologist named Elisabeth Burgos, who was interested in writing a magazine story about the violence against Guatemala’s Maya. Burgos is the former wife of Régis Debray, the French journalist who was caught in Bolivia some years before, trying to carry a message from Che Guevara’s soon-to-be-exterminated band, and was thrown in jail. Burgos, who had been Debray’s companion for years and had undergone military training with him in Cuba, married him while he was in jail, and led a successful international campaign to win his release. In Cuba, moreover, Burgos had become friends with Ricardo Ramírez, a Guatemalan exile and friend of Che Guevara’s, who was soon to found the EGP. She became fascinated by Guatemala, she told me in a telephone interview, although she’d never been there. To Taracena, Burgos seemed the perfect person to write about Rigoberta.

Shortly after Rigoberta arrived in Paris, Taracena claims, he and a Canadian psychiatrist named Cécile Rousseau (Rousseau was also a guerrilla supporter, using the name Marie Tremblay) took Rigoberta to Burgos’s apartment and discussed what might be done to help her. In Burgos’s account of her first meeting with Rigoberta, however, published in her introduction to I, Rigoberta, she makes no mention of either Taracena or Rousseau and simply describes Rigoberta appearing at her door one evening, wearing traditional Guatemalan dress in the January cold. Burgos acknowledged to me that Rousseau did accompany Rigoberta on her first visit, but claims that Taracena didn’t appear until Rigoberta came a second time. “He was very preoccupied with his thesis,” she told me. “Plus he had family at risk in Guatemala. He didn’t want to show his face. He didn’t want to get burned.”

Whoever actually introduced Rigoberta and Burgos, however, the two apparently hit it off and Rigoberta moved into Burgos’s flat while Burgos conducted the interviews. Rigoberta stayed for a week and recorded eighteen hours of conversation.

According to Burgos’s account, just the two of them talked with each other—no one else was involved. Each day began with Rigoberta making tortillas by hand, which reminded Burgos of watching arepas being made in her Venezuelan youth. Afterward, Rigoberta told the story of the destruction of her village and family. Like virtually everyone else, Burgos apparently found Rigoberta mesmerizing. Listening to Rigoberta, Burgos wrote in her introduction to I, Rigoberta, “every gesture has a preestablished purpose and…everything has a meaning…. As we listen to her voice, we have to look deep into our own souls for it awakens feelings and sensations which we, caught up as we are in an inhuman and artificial world, thought were lost for ever.”

After Rigoberta Menchú left Paris on her tour, Burgos took Rigoberta’s tapes and turned them into a book with herself as the author and thus holder of the book’s rights. For years, she sent the royalties to Rigoberta, but when Rigoberta began her Nobel campaign she asked Burgos not only to replace Burgos’s name on the book with her own, but also to allow her to draw up new book contracts. Burgos refused. The two fell out, and in 1993, Burgos ceased sending Rigoberta royalties. Rigoberta, after the first of Stoll’s allegations began to surface, accused Burgos of having made up the passages that Stoll was disputing—an accusation Burgos denies. Stoll, for his part, said he traveled to Madrid (where Burgos was then living) and heard the first two hours of Burgos’s tapes, enough, he felt, to convince him that the book was an accurate reflection of what Rigoberta had told Burgos.

I met Taracena one morning at ASIES, a study center in the well-to-do suburbs of Guatemala City. Taracena had left the EGP in 1993, he told me, partly because of “certain differences” (he would not elaborate except to say he and the EGP had not entirely been in agreement ideologically) but mostly, he said, because he wanted to resume his life as a historian. He took me to the ASIES library and proudly showed me a book he had just published about a region of the Guatemala highlands around Quetzaltenango that had in the early nineteenth century briefly set up its own independent republic. “A paternal ancestor of mine was chief of state,” he told me.

Taracena and I went to a nearby restaurant for breakfast. He seemed nervous, formal, professorial. I remembered hearing that he came from a prosperous family but had been disinherited when he’d joined the guerrillas.

Look,” he said as soon as we sat down, “I’ve kept my mouth closed for sixteen years, but everything has its limits. Cécile Rousseau and I introduced Rigoberta to Burgos. At that point, Burgos didn’t know anything about Guatemala. We planned the agenda with her and took part in the first two days of the interviewing. We left partway through the third day only because we could see that it was going well. At the end of the week, I went back to Burgos’s and picked up Rigoberta. Later, when the manuscript was ready, I edited it, tied the themes together, and made changes of fact and of grammar. I made a glossary of Guatemalan words and made suggestions for chapter breaks.”

Taracena told me that after he’d edited the manuscript, he’d gone off to Nicaragua. On his return, he learned that Burgos had had the book translated into French and had signed a contract with Gallimard in which she—not Rigoberta—was listed as the author. After the Gallimard edition appeared, he discovered that neither he nor any of the others involved in the project were acknowledged. “She wanted,” he explained to me, “to erase any trace of anyone else who helped her with the book.” Taracena, as he has put it, had a “great polémica” with Burgos and, as a result, his name as well as that of Rousseau and several others were added to the acknowledgments of the Spanish edition when it appeared late that same year.

For her part, Burgos claims that Taracena sat in only on the tail end of several of the interviews and that he read the manuscript and prepared the glossary and did not do not much else. She also claims that Gallimard dropped the acknowledgments from the original Spanish manuscript without ever consulting her. (Gallimard released a paperback edition this winter which, at Burgos’s request, included them for the first time.) For whatever reason, the acknowledgments were not carried over into the English or German editions or most of the other languages into which the book was translated.

In Taracena’s view, Burgos and Stoll had converging interests. “She was in the process of breaking with the Latin American left and he wanted to prove his thesis at any cost—that Rigoberta lied and that behind her was a Communist plot. She was an Indian woman manipulated by Communist forces and the Communist politico in this case is me.” He pointed at his own chest. “You don’t see anyone else attacking autobiographies like this; there’s a hidden racism. If Stoll is an anthropologist and doesn’t know that Indian people speak collectively, that she expressed the voice of the collective conscience, then I don’t know what he knows. If he has a point of view about Guatemala, he should write it.”

What he said about collective conscience raised an obvious question. “Do you mean,” I asked, “that the claims Stoll made about Rigoberta not having personally experienced everything she claimed to have experienced are true?”

Of course,” he said. He waved his hand dismissively. “She came to Europe by herself when she was twenty-two years old. The magic of her book is the first-person narrative. There are things that she heard from other militantes, things that she didn’t see, things that she put in her own voice. What she was narrating,” he told me, “was the life of the Maya.”

March 11, 1999


I, Rigoberta Menchu’ October 21, 1999

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