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The Truth About Rigoberta Menchú

1.

In 1983, Editions Gallimard in Paris brought out the original French edition of a book published the following year in English as I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian woman in Guatemala. I, Rigoberta is the first-person story of Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a young Maya Indian woman whose family and village had been virtually destroyed by the violence then sweeping Guatemala. The book was soon translated into twelve languages and has since sold more than half a million copies.

Guatemala is a country of eleven million people that had been in a state of intermittent civil war since 1954, when the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown by a right-wing military coup. During this period perhaps two hundred thousand Guatemalans were killed through political violence. By telling her story in a strong personal voice, Rigoberta Menchú (universally known as Rigoberta) did much to publicize the violence in Guatemala, particularly during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it was directed largely at the country’s Maya Indian population. Eventually, in December of 1996, the government and four opposition guerrilla groups (by then joined together in the organization known as the URNG) signed a peace accord. Rigoberta’s book and the international attention it attracted had no small part in bringing about this result.

What made Rigoberta’s message so important was that she was a Maya Indian. Half of Guatemala’s population is Maya, and during the late Seventies and early Eighties—the period in which Rigoberta’s book is set—the Maya suffered violence on an enormous scale. As part of the peace accords, the government and the guerrillas agreed to establish a Commission for Historical Clarification—commonly referred to as the truth commission—which issued its report last month. Compiled under the supervision of a distinguished German jurist, the report, released this February, described the government’s counter-insurgency policy as “genocidal” as well as “racist” and noted that “the massacres, scorched-earth operations, forced disappearances and executions of Mayan authorities, leaders, and spiritual guides, were not only an attempt to destroy the social base of the guerrillas, but above all, to destroy the cultural values that ensured cohesion and collective action in the Mayan communities.”

Most of Guatemala’s Maya live in the country’s mountainous highlands, where they speak a variety of closely related but mutually unintelligible languages and are tied to a desperately poor farming economy based on corn, beans, and squash. In the late 1970s, many Maya became engaged in social activism—they founded cooperatives, started unions, agitated for land. The government felt threatened enough by these movements to begin systematically assassinating their leaders. At the same time, several antigovernment guerrilla groups established themselves in the highlands, and when large numbers of the Maya began to join the guerrillas—often less as a result of political sympathy (although many sympathized) than out of the need to save their lives—the government further increased its violence.

Beginning around 1980, the government initiated a policy of “draining the sea in which the guerrillas swim,” driving people out of large regions of the Maya highlands, killing tens of thousands of Indians, displacing hundreds of thousands of others, and entirely eradicating several hundred villages—including Rigoberta’s. All this eventually proved successful in separating the guerrillas from their social base and thus undermining them politically and militarily. But the cost to the Maya was staggering, and because of the remoteness of the most brutally affected regions, this ruthless policy was little noticed outside Guatemala. As one of the few Indians willing to recount firsthand experience of the violence, Rigoberta, then twenty-three, suddenly became the spokesperson for its victims.

Rigoberta described herself in her book as someone who had grown up in a remote village, had no education to speak of, and had only recently learned Spanish. But she proved an astonishingly effective public speaker. Marcie Mersky, currently a member of the Guatemalan truth commission, who once helped organize Rigoberta’s early speaking tours of the United States, recalls that “Rigoberta had an uncanny ability to stand on a stage and figure out who was in front of her. She’d give her testimony as if she were living it. She’d have everyone crying, everyone in the palm of her hand.”

The horrifying experiences Rigoberta recounted were made all the more vivid by her small size, her open smile, and the fact that she always appeared in the colorful dress of her region. She described the death of her father, a well-known peasant organizer who was burned to death when Guatemalan security forces stormed the Spanish embassy which he and twenty-six others had occupied as a protest over the militarization of the Indian highlands. She told of how her mother had then been arrested by the army, tortured, raped, and left on a mountainside to die. “They left her there dying for four or five days,” she wrote, “enduring the sun, the rain and the night. My mother was covered in worms, because in the mountains there is a fly which gets straight into any wound.”

Finally, she told of the kidnapping of her sixteen-year-old brother, Petrocinio, snatched by the army on his way to the market to buy sugar, wrongly accused of being a guerrilla, and then tortured, doused with gasoline, and burned alive along with other army captives before a crowd of Indians that had been forced to watch. (“This is what we’ve done with all the subversives we catch,” she quoted a soldier as saying, “because they have to die by violence.”) An American journalist, Paul Goepfert, remembers Rigoberta moving a California audience to tears with her account of Petrocinio’s death. After listening to her, he traveled to Guatemala to write about the violence, married a Guatemalan, and still lives there today. “It changed my life,” he told me. “A whole generation of us came here because of Rigoberta.”

In 1992, the year of the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World, Rigoberta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This was the second Nobel Prize ever given to a Guatemalan (the first, for literature, went to the novelist Miguel Angel Asturias in 1967), and it made Rigoberta a potent, and controversial, figure inside Guatemala. Guatemala has long been a country where Maya Indians are treated with scorn by the country’s non-Indian population. Rigoberta’s achieving such international recognition was thus something of an embarrassment to many Guatemalans. The president at first declined to meet with her and racist jokes immediately began circulating around Guatemala City. (For example: One day Rigoberta goes to heaven and knocks on the gate. “Hey Jesus,” Saint Peter calls out, “the tortillas are here!”)

Dina Fernandez, a columnist for the Prensa Libre, one of Guatemala’s leading newspapers, told me she thinks that Guatemala is gradually changing its attitudes toward Indians. When I mentioned to her that I’d seen Rigoberta’s name in the papers for one reason or another nearly every day I’d been in Guatemala, she said, “My mother runs the style and social section of Prensa Libre. A year or two ago, she commissioned a poll which showed that Rigoberta was the most recognized woman in Guatemala. In the middle classes, people are beginning to accept that Rigoberta is entitled to meet European leaders and royalty. You couldn’t say this about people from the upper classes, but little by little the Maya are beginning to become integrated.”

In the aftermath of the peace accords, however, what Guatemala seems to be experiencing is not so much integration as a strange kind of postwar explosion—economic, psychological, political, a succession of changes that seem simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. The current president, Alvaro Arzú, was elected in 1996 and is the leader of the PAN party, the party of big business. Under his administration Guatemala has experienced not only considerable foreign investment but what people nervously refer to as an opening of “political space.” But as befits a country that is credited with inventing the concept of “disappearing” people for political purposes, and where government-sponsored death squads until recently killed with complete immunity, this seems tentative, and quite possibly temporary—something like a flower that blooms only once every few decades.

Ironically, moreover, many Guatemalans are calling for the one thing that seems most likely to narrow that political space—an accounting that would show who caused the deaths and how. An outsider might wonder why Guatemalans can’t leave the past behind; inside Guatemala it seems clear to many that examining the past is the only way to leave it behind. As one human rights activist put it to me, “The war created fear, a lack of communication, a lack of confidence, an inability to resolve conflicts. You can’t reconcile with the living if you can’t reconcile with the dead.”

Just how perilous an undertaking this can be was demonstrated by the murder last spring of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, the chief sponsor of the human rights report supported by the Catholic Church and produced by a group called REMHI, or Recuperación de la Memória Histórica. REMHI took testimony from some fifty-five thousand victims of political violence, three quarters of whom were Maya. Many of these statements were collected by Maya interviewers in their native languages; the organizers hoped that the cathartic experience of remembering would help restore unity to torn communities.

By simply providing a forum in which the victims of the past had a chance to speak out, however, REMHI was on dangerous ground. The REMHI report was released on April 24, 1998. Two days later, on April 26, Bishop Gerardi was ambushed in his parish-house garage and bludgeoned to death with repeated blows from a cinder block. “We never expected such a strong reaction,” Edgar Gutiérrez, a former economist who is the REMHI project’s coordinator, told me. “We expected an effort to discredit the report psychologically but never this. It had a big impact, it was a big blow to us. But it also made us realize that the report was important for the country, that even if the cost was human life we had to proceed.”

The idea of the REMHI report arose in 1994 during an early stage of the negotiations between the army and the guerrillas. When human rights organizations in Guatemala proposed establishing a truth commission to investigate the violence, they met with opposition from both the army and the guerrillas. “We looked at the negotiations and weren’t optimistic about the truth commission,” Edgar Gutiérrez told me. “Neither party wanted it. We wanted to open the way.” At the insistence of human rights organizations, the truth commission was nevertheless established. The government consented to it, however, only on the condition that its report would both contain a general amnesty (except in cases legally established as genocidal) and that it not include specific names. In other words, as Marcie Mersky put it to me, the contents of the report couldn’t be used to prosecute individual crimes.

REMHI, by contrast, was bound by no such restrictions. Although the REMHI report itself mentions only a few of the names of those responsible for the violence, its files are open. Indeed, one of the reasons proposed to explain the bishop’s murder is that he returned home to find someone seeking the project’s unpublished computer files. If so, the effort would have been to no avail. “We had already sent the sensitive material overseas,” Edgar Gutiérrez said to me. “But if people want to prosecute, REMHI will open its archives.”

Despite the government’s almost comically inept inquiry into the Bishop’s murder, most people in Guatemala believe the army was responsible. Gutiérrez agrees with this and feels that the message the army was conveying was that the truth commission, with all its restrictions on prosecution, was as far as the army was willing to go. “The army was saying the model on which the peace is based has been negotiated,” he said to me. “The truth commission was the limit. If you want to go beyond it, the punishment is death.”1

If so, the army was in for a shock. When the truth commission released its report in late February, it concluded that the “many massacres and other human-rights violations” against the Maya population between the years 1981 and 1983 constituted a deliberate state-driven policy of genocide as defined by a United Nations convention that the Guatemalan government had become party to in 1949. (It also concluded that the US had supported Guatemalan forces that had committed acts of genocide.) This essentially canceled the amnesty not just for ordinary soldiers but also for the Guatemala high command and its civilian collaborators and left them all open to future prosecution.

2.

It is not only the military that is being challenged, however. Accusations against Rigoberta herself have caused increasing consternation. In the late 1980s, the anthropologist David Stoll, who is now teaching at Middlebury College in Vermont and is the author of a 1993 book on Guatemala, Between Two Armies: In the Ixil Towns of Guatemala, was collecting accounts of the violence in the town of Chajul, just over the mountains from the hamlet of Chimel, in which Rigoberta had been raised. Stoll asked one of his Chajul informants about Rigoberta’s account of how she and other members of her family were forced to stand silently by while her younger brother Petrocinio was tortured, doused with gasoline, and burned alive.

To his surprise, his informant—as well as several others from Chajul whom Stoll subsequently interviewed—told him that he did not remember any such event having taken place. Eventually, Stoll arrived at his own view of what he believed happened and he presents it in his recently published book Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. According to him, a group of prisoners from Rigoberta’s region (presumably including Petrocinio) were flown in by the army in a helicopter. The army dressed up the prisoners in olive-green so as to make them look like guerrilla soldiers, prodded them down a path toward Chajul, and shot them from an ambush. The soldiers then threw old shotguns next to their bodies and pointed the corpses out to residents of Chajul as an example of what would happen to guerrillas who dared defy the army. The corpses were left in the sun for several hours before one of them was burned, and they were then all buried in a common grave in the town cemetery.

Stoll went on to examine other aspects of Rigoberta’s book and soon found other claims that were not true. In her book, Rigoberta describes herself as an uneducated peasant girl. In interviews with Rigoberta’s relatives and former classmates, however, Stoll discovered that she’d spent several years at convent schools—first at the Colegio Belga in Guatemala City and then at the Colegio Básico Nuestro Señor de Candelaria in Chiantla, Huehuetenango, where she finished seventh grade—a remarkably high level of education for an Indian girl in Guatemala. Because she’d been in convent school, moreover, Stoll argues that Rigoberta can’t have been employed—as she claims to have been—as a maid for a rich family in Guatemala City, and can’t have worked in abusive conditions on coastal plantations—where she claims a younger brother Nicolás died of malnutrition. Stoll, in fact, found a living brother, Nicolás, who successfully resettled the family’s land long after the war had finished.

The central story of I, Rigoberta has to do with Rigoberta’s father’s life-long struggle to defend his community’s land against the claims of his greedy and corrupt non-Indian neighbors. In fact, by investigating petitions filed by Rigoberta’s father in the government land-claims office, Stoll discovered that Rigoberta’s father’s struggle had not been primarily against ladinos, as Guatemalans of mixed ancestries are known, but rather against another group of Maya led by his own in-laws. Stoll also discovered that, from what he could tell, the cycle of violence in Rigoberta’s region had been set off not by the army but by a guerrilla force that had assassinated two neighboring ladinos—one well-liked by his farm workers. The army then began retaliatory attacks against Rigoberta’s village because the guerrillas had visited there a few months before.

Stoll does not deny that Rigoberta’s village was destroyed and that half her family was killed, including her father, her mother, and her brother Petrocinio. But he points out that many of the other events in Rigoberta’s book are either distorted, fabricated, or claim to be eyewitness accounts of events which Rigoberta herself cannot actually have seen. The reason for all this, Stoll argues, is that after Rigoberta fled to Mexico in 1980, she allied herself with guerrilla groups there and “drastically revised the prewar experience of her village to suit the needs of the revolutionary organization she had joined.” In other words, when she wrote her book, Rigoberta was essentially serving as a propagandist.

Rigoberta herself has made it clear that she had joined popular front organizations close to the guerrillas. In 1980, after the army had killed her father, her mother, and Petrocinio (the army killed still another brother a few years later after he surrendered to prevent his three children’s starving to death), her village was attacked and destroyed and she fled to Mexico with the help of nuns. There she was eventually reunited with two of her younger sisters who had since joined the guerrillas. In early 1981, she became a member of FP-31, a guerrilla popular front organization named for the day on which her father was killed in the Spanish embassy fire.

What troubles Stoll about Rigoberta is not that she joined the guerrillas—at one point he suggests that she may have been “responding to the loss of her family by taking refuge in a new system of coherence”—but that the invented history in her book made her into what he refers to as a “composite Maya,” a propagandistic guerrilla stereotype intended to illustrate what he considers a simplistic and self-serving explanation of the violence. For the purposes of the guerrillas, he argues, all ladinos had to be evil, all the Maya had to be oppressed, and the army had to have initiated the violence. Rigoberta’s actual story—in which her father quarreled with other Maya, the guerrillas initiated the killing, and Rigoberta was safely in a convent school—would not have demonstrated any of these points and therefore wouldn’t have been useful.

It was essential to the guerrillas, Stoll argues, that they portray themselves as responding to the local needs of Indians and their desire to resist oppression; they wanted to be seen as representing popular aspirations during a time of steadily worsening economic circumstances. Stoll, however, is not at all impressed by this self-portrait. He maintains that before the violence things were getting better for the highland Maya and that what set off the killing was the very presence of the guerrillas, a presence that provoked a brutal, oppressive, and racist reaction from Guatemala’s armed forces. Stoll claims the guerrillas followed a disastrous strategy of forcing peasants to choose sides by infiltrating their movements, mobilizing them against the army, and creating the conditions for ferocious army retaliation. “Their guerrilla columns grew temporarily from village survivors who had nowhere else to turn,” Stoll writes, “but the ‘popular base’ from which they expected a steady flow of maize and youth was shattered.”

This argument presents some difficulties. Stoll doesn’t support his assertion that things were getting better for the Maya before the arrival of the guerrillas with either statistics or even anecdotal information. His view is contradicted by carefully documented studies by such historians as Susanne Jonas, who convincingly describes worsening land shortages among the Maya and an increasing dependence on underpaid seasonal Maya laborers by coastal agribusiness plantations.2 Stoll, moreover, seems to believe that because he has found evidence that the guerrillas started the violence in Rigoberta’s region, it follows that they must have started the violence everywhere. This might or might not be the case. In his book the issue is entirely unexplored.

Stoll is right, of course, to insist that the guerrillas accept their share of the responsibility for initiating the killing. But establishing who exactly started the violence is not as simple as he makes it seem. While the truth commission, for example, acknowledges the guerrilla tactic of armed provocation, it concludes that the government’s response was “totally disproportionate to the military force of the insurgency.” More important, the commission argues that the government lumped “all opponents under one banner, democratic or otherwise, pacifist or guerrilla, legal or illegal, communist or non-communist,” and knowingly exaggerated the threat posed by the guerrillas in order to justify the “physical annihilation or absolute intimidation of this opposition.”

During the dictatorship of General Fernando Romeo Lucas García between 1978 and 1982, for instance, government-sponsored death squads killed a great many trade unionists, peasant organizers, and Catholic “catechists,” or activists. For their own protection, some of the opponents of the government joined what had been, until that time, an insignificant guerrilla force. It seems clear, however, that an army that had already been assassinating its political opponents for well over a decade would not have hesitated to attack members of such opposition groups even if the guerrillas had never emerged in the countryside. Other than his account of Rigoberta’s region, Stoll presents no evidence to the contrary.

In Guatemala City I met with Frank LaRue, a prominent human rights lawyer and former labor union activist who narrowly escaped being killed in 1980 when he was late for a meeting from which twenty-seven of his colleagues were kidnapped and disappeared. “Under Lucas García,” LaRue said to me, “three hundred catechists, fourteen priests, one nun, eighty journalists, and five professors from my own law school alone were murdered. How can you say the guerrillas were responsible for this? How do you explain the army murdering them? What did they have to do with the guerrillas? The army just couldn’t abide any independent thought, that was all. They had to stamp it out.”

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.”

3.

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.”

4.

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

Letters

I, Rigoberta Menchu’ October 21, 1999

  1. 1

    For more on the inquiry into the Bishop’s murder, see Francisco Goldman, “Murder Comes for the Bishop,” The New Yorker, March 15, 1999.

  2. 2

    Susanne Jonas, The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and US Power (Westview, 1991).

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