Rigoberta Menchú: Indigenous Rights Activist and Nobel Laureate | Rock & Art

Rigoberta Menchú: Indigenous Rights Activist and Nobel Laureate

An insight into the life of a rebellious and courageous woman.

Before becoming a Nobel Peace laureate in November 1992, neither the Guatemalan Indigenous rights activist Rigoberta Menchú, nor her fight against the brutal Guatemalan civil war, were known on an international stage. Overnight, Menchú’s struggles for Indigenous rights in Guatemala were headlining newspapers worldwide. Today, her achievements and accounts are recognised as monumental contributions to the global human rights and social justice movements. 

Rigoberta Menchú, her Early Life

Rigoberta Menchú was born on January 9, 1959, in Chimel, a small village in the Guatemalan highlands. As one of six children in her family, she was raised in the Indigenous Quiche culture, which in pre-colonial times was a deeply rooted and powerful branch of the Maya culture. From an early age, she experienced the abuse and discrimination that came with the systemic exploitation of Indigenous peoples. Living in extreme poverty, Menchú’s family, like many others in the area, relied on subsistence farming as well as seasonal work on plantations to survive.

Rigoberta Menchú: Indigenous Rights Activist and Nobel Laureate | Rock & Art

From an early age, Menchú had to help her family, either on their farm in their small village Altiplano in the Northern highlands, or on the plantations, also referred to as fincas, on the Pacific coast. Life in Altiplano revolved around the traditions of her Indigenous community according to their Maya heritage, while life on the plantations was characterised by discrimination and inhumane working conditions.

Malnutrition and starvation, as well as exposure to toxic pesticides, were part of everyday life on the fincas. In her autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú, the Nobel laureate describes how her younger brother, Nicolas, died of malnutrition while at a finca. For Menchú, they were like completely different worlds, which she travelled between twice a year. Her family would spend up to eight months on the fincas each year, working for comparably wealthy landowners, often of Spanish descent. 

Activism and Advocacy: Becoming a Human Rights Defender 

Against this background of marginalisation and hardship, Menchú’s activism began to take shape. Menchú’s father, Vicente, joined the indigenous labour organisation Comité de Unidad Campesina (Committee for Peasant Unity, or CUC), after being arrested and tortured by the government for allegedly being involved in the murder of a plantation owner.

The organization fought for land rights and social justice for Indigenous farmers, and exposed Menchú to the principles of political resistance. Menchú herself joined the CUC at a young age and participated in various forms of protest and advocacy. In her teens, Menchú began to crave change—and education, teaching herself Spanish as well as other Mayan languages.

Historical Background: The Silent Holocaust 

From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala was in the grip of a violent civil war. The right-oriented military government was backed by the USA, which feared a spread of communism in Latin America. The country’s political landscape was characterised by increasing repression of Indigenous peoples and violence. Sparked by social injustice and the unfair distribution of land, leftist guerrilla movements emerged around Guatemala in the 1960s. Indigenous peoples became the centre of suspicion in the eyes of the government, since it was assumed that they helped the guerrilla groups.

Indigenous people were systematically targeted, kidnapped, tortured and murdered. The military’s brutality reached a climax in the 1970s and early 1980s. Throughout the war, 626 massacres were committed against Mayan people by military forces. Around 200,000 civilians were killed – more than 170,000 of them were of Indigenous Mayan descent.

The targeting of Indigenous people reached genocidal levels in the northern provinces, where the so-called Guerrilla Army of the Poor operated. Historians refer to this as the Guatemalan or Mayan genocide. This systematic murder of Indigenous people is also referred to as the Silent Holocaust, reflecting on the lack of international attention and awareness at the time.

Menchú’s family was not spared the brutality of the changing military regimes. She and her family had taken on leadership positions in the effort to help the Indigenous population to defend themselves and their rights.

Between 1979 and 1984 Menchú lost four family members to the conflict. Her brother Patrocino was kidnapped and killed by the Guatemalan army. Her mother was abducted, raped, tortured, mutilated and murdered. Her sister-in-law was decapitated. During the Burning of the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City in 1980, her father Vicente was killed. In 1984, her brother Victor was shot after surrendering to the military.

Exiled but Active: Defending Human Rights from Abroad

Menchú was forced to flee Guatemala after joining the 31st January Popular Front, a radical anti-government activist group, and participating in a major agricultural strike in 1981. Her main contribution to the activist group had been educating other Indigenous people in resistance to oppression. With the help of friends and compatriots, Menchú was smuggled out of the country via plane and found safety in Mexico.

Even from outside of Guatemala, Menchú’s activism could not be silenced. Instead, she became a significant string-puller from abroad. One year after her escape from Guatemala, she took part in founding the United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition (RUOG), the joint opposition body. In 1982, she recounted her experiences in the documentary “Where the Mountains Tremble.” One year later, Menchú met the Venezuelan anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray and shared her life story.

Rigoberta Menchú: Indigenous Rights Activist and Nobel Laureate | Rock & Art

For several days, Burgos-Debray intensively interviewed Menchú in Spanish about her life. From hours of recorded material, Burgos-Debray assembled the now-famous work “I, Rigoberta Menchú.” The book was published in the same year, bringing Menchú and the injustices of the Silent Holocaust considerable international attention.

The book has since been translated into 20 languages. In 1986, Menchú also became a leading member of CUC from within Mexico, following in the footsteps of her father. In 1996, a peace agreement between the Guatemalan army and guerrilla groups was finally signed and after 36 years, the civil war came to an end.

“A sign of hope” – Winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 

In 1992, Menchú was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and became not only the youngest laureate at that point in history, but also the first of Indigenous heritage. “I consider this Prize not as a reward to me personally, but rather as one of the greatest conquests in the struggle for peace, for Human Rights and for the rights of the Indigenous people, who, for 500 years, have been split, fragmented, as well as the victims of genocides, repression and discrimination”, Menchú explained in her Nobel lecture, which she also delivered “on behalf of all those whose voice cannot be heard or who have been repressed for having spoken their opinions”.

She advocated for the fundamental reorganisation of Guatemalan society and the necessity of social justice to fight what she described as “frightening statistics on infant mortality, of malnutrition, lack of education, analphabetism [and] wages insufficient to sustain life.” 

Not only did she advocate for change in Guatemala, but generally demanded freedom for Indigenous peoples “wherever they may be in the American Continent or elsewhere in the world.” Recognising the symbolic value of the Nobel Peace prize, she concluded: “There is no doubt whatsoever that it constitutes a sign of hope in the struggle of the Indigenous people in the entire continent.“

Menchú’s Activism Today 

With the money from the Nobel Peace Prize, Menchú founded the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation to support Mayan communities and survivors of the Silent Holocaust, helping them to claim justice. Her foundation has played a key role in several high-profile Guatemalan cases, including the trial against the former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. In 2013, Ríos Montt was found guilty for his crimes committed against the Maya population between 1960 and 1996. He was sentenced to 50 years in jail.

Since 1996, she has also served as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. The Nobel Laureate ran for president In 2007 and 2011. Although she did not find success either time, she still wields considerable political influence and is a member of the political party WINAQ, the first Guatemalan Indigenous-led party.

This year, Rigoberta Menchú celebrated her 65th birthday. The human rights advocate now lives in Guatemala, with her husband and son, still fighting for a better future for Indigenous people.