Gabriela Rodriguez
Latin American History
R. Grossman

I, Rigoberta Menchu

An Analysis by: Gabriela Rodriguez

I, Rigoberta Menchu is a book written by Venezuelan anthropologist Elisabeth
Burgos-Debray, which used audio recordings and transcribed Menchu’s “testimonio”
to tell her story. Menchu pours it all out in this transcribed testimony, the hardships
she endured with her family in a small village in Guatemala to spearheading the CUC
in defending the Indian communities in protecting their rights and land. In this
analysis we will explore Rigoberta Menchu’s life, the political situation in Guatemala
of past and present day and the overall composition of Burgos-Debray’s book. Is this
testimony a true depiction of Menchu and the people of Guatemala during the 1980’s
or are all the controversies tied to this narrative have veracity?
Rigoberta Menchu is a writer, activist, humanitarian, Nobel Prize winner and
Guatemalan hero known best for her lobbying of indigenous rights and political
involvement. Her story in “I, Rigoberta Menchu” comes from a personal narrative,
which is what makes this book a “testimonio” rather than an autobiography.

Transcribed from an audio recording and made into a memoir, a lot of the facts are
blurred, she goes between past and present and as a reader, you may tend to get lost
between what is truly real and what are the conviction of her emotions in regards to
the occurrence of events. This memoir was made possible by an interview conducted
in 1983 by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. “D’Souza thought it suspicious that Menchú met
her “feminist translator”—Elisabeth Burgos, once married to Che’s comrade Régis
Debray—”in Paris, not a venue to which many of the Third World’s poor routinely
travel,” and that her “rhetoric employs a socialist and Marxist vocabulary that does
not sound typical of a Guatemalan peasant.” This quote is extracted from an analysis
titled “It Was Heaven That They Burnt” by Greg Grandin. The medium, author and
historical timeframe of when the interviews for this memoir were conducted have
stricken controversy and in my opinion, within reason. When conducting research on
Menchu and this particular interview, it was surprising that they did it Paris but when
explained, I thought it was justified. It wasn’t until Grandin brought up the point about
her eloquence that it raised a brow. If she speaks about how her family, who were all
lower class, politically inclined peasants had so many hardships, readers find a
disconnect between her stories and how they are told, which is why I believe people
question the validity and accuracy of this book.

Another important aspect of this reading is heavily based on what was
happening in Guatemala at the time and what role Menchu and her family, especially
her father and brother, played in this. Considering the interview from this memoir was
conducted when Menchu was only 23 years old, the war was still in development and
we learn that later on, things get way worse for Guatemala, the genocide and the
military holding majoritary power had not happened yet. From the reading and
knowing Menchu as we know her in present day, she was a very smart and educated
woman and amidst all the emotional testimonies in raw, vivid detail, she found a way
to hint that she knew things were developing negatively in the military and politics in
In order to understand the nature of these revolutionaries and their inkling to
revolt against governmental and military forces, we must look at the political climate
of Guatemala of then and today. “The Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH)
concludes that the structure and nature of economic, cultural and social relations in
Guatemala are marked by profound exclusion, antagonism and conflict – a reflection
of its colonial history.” This statement is particular important when analyzing and
understanding the statements made by Menchu in her testimony. The anger and
revolt of her people against colonialist ways is something that in Guatemala still
“Violence and extortion by powerful criminal organizations remain serious
problems in Guatemala. Corruption within the justice system, combined with
intimidation against judges and prosecutors, contributes to high levels of impunity. In
April 2015, a CICIG investigation uncovered a US$130 million tax fraud scandal
involving more than 50 high-ranking members of the government. This led to charges
against then-President Otto Pérez Molina, Vice President Roxana Baldetti, and 35
others.” (
Even if “I, Rigoberta Menchu” has been criticized and questioned on its veracity,
it does do a good job on laying the groundwork and helping people understand in the
emotional sense, the struggle of the poor, indigenous and the woman of Guatemala
when against a higher, oppressive power.
As previously mentioned, this critically acclaimed memoir was first received
with open arms but like all good things, they come with controversy. Many studies and
published essays claim that Menchu lies about important details in her testimony. A
particular book that unboxes these details is “Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All
Poor Guatemalans”. Stoll brings up several points as to where he claims Menchu has
lied: about her education, her father and both brother’s death to mention a few.
When in reality, Nicholas Menchu (brother) is still alive, although she claims in her
memoir that he died of malnutrition. Her brother Patrocinio, which she claims died
burned alive, did not in fact die that way. Many people defend Menchu amidst the lies
and controversies claimed by researchers because they say that although those
details may not be accurate, the suffering of her and her people and all the emotions
she poured in that interview are still valid. The problem with this is that while she
decided to bend the truth to come off as a victim and guerilla revolutionary in the
eyes of the public, these lies make the readers question her legitimateness in general.
As a reader, it is particularly a challenge to see through what is real and what is not
due to how persuasive she is in her testimonies, which is why I personally was shocked
at the fact that this book by a Nobel Prize winner which I looked up to so much had
her statements questioned this way and while her emotions during the time cannot
be unvalidated, facts are facts and that’s where the issue lies, in her decision to lie
about her education and deaths of the family, which are a very raw, emotional and
detail-filled part of the book.The amount of details provided about these occurrences
is vast, which is a double-edged sword for readers.
In the years before his death, Vicente Menchú was evicted from his land, jailed
and beaten, Stoll confirms, but those primarily responsible for his torment were his
Mayan in-laws, the Tums. He also guesses that Vicente Menchú was not as politically
active and astute as his daughter made him out to be, notwithstanding his
involvement in peasant leagues, local development projects and the catechist
movement. He speculates that Rigoberta Menchú, too, came to her “political
consciousness” late, largely in reaction to the murders of her brother, father and
mother, and perhaps spent the time her family was being persecuted enjoying life at
Catholic boarding schools.
From these conjectures, Stoll makes what he considers his most important deduction:
that the Menchús stumbled into their alliance with the insurgents, and they did so not
because they were determined to overthrow an intolerable social system but because
they hoped to gain the upper hand against their peasant rivals. In so doing, they—and
their neighbors—reaped the whirlwind. (Grandin)
To further understand the nature of this book, we must look into the type of
composition it is. One might argue that because Menchu narrated to the interviewer
anecdotes of her life, that it seems like an autobiography, when in fact, it’s a
“testimonio”, a testimony of life. Autobiographies are characterized for narrating the
life of the author, without highlighting an period of their life more than others and
usually follow a chronological and straightforward logic. Unlike “testimonios” which
generally are centered around a specific phase of the subjects life, with a central
theme that carries all throughout and does not follow a chronological order. Menchu’s
is evidently a “testimonio” due to those reasons and more, the more apparent one
being the non-chronological order. Since it does not follow a specific timeline perse, it
may be hard for a reader to follow along and make logical sense amongst all the
emotion that Menchu is trying to transpire on her testimony, thus making it a
challenge for us to discern between facts and fascination. It reads more like a
memory, which by default and human error and as time passes, the mind remembers
things leading with emotion and not fact thus tainting our memories and making it
hard even for us when telling stories, to remember what exactly happened. Going
back to the controversy, this is what makes researchers question her legitimacy and I
believe that while there may be things narrated that may be true, memory fails all of
us, giving her the benefit of the doubt.
Interestingly enough, I read this book my junior year of highschool as part of
my South American History elective and the controversies that came with it were
never mentioned in my curriculum. Upon researching again years later, academics
have decomposed and taken apart this book to unpack the concerns and validity of
Rigoberta Menchu. Menchu was an inspiration to me growing up, I looked up to her
strength, courage, a true feminist icon in my eyes. Therefore, when researching on her
life and “testimonio” 7 years later, I had a heavy heart. The lies and lack of valid facts
in this book that other writers claim the book has made me question everything I
looked up to. It goes beyond exaggerating stories of her hardships with her family,
but as Stoll (?) states, lying about the death of her brother, a very impactful and detail
filled part, to be untruthful due to him still being alive. There’s no concrete way of
knowing for sure if all the testimonies in Menchu’s book are real or not but the fact
that she was questioned and doubted on so heavily shows that even after receiving
one of the highest praises in the US, a Nobel Prize, your livelihood and activist agenda
may be questioned regardless.
“Yet as far as irreconcilables on the cultural and political right were concerned,
the Peace Prize might as well have been given posthumously to Frantz Fanon or Che
Guevara. Trapped as they are by the fallacy of consequent logic, where to admit A
would mean accepting Z, those most hostile to Menchú believed that to acknowledge
her legitimacy would indeed indict the whole of the West and all of its works. The
attacks came fast after she won her Nobel, with detractors working hard to expose
Menchú as an Indian with an agenda. They demanded that she “come clean” about her
involvement with Guatemalan guerrillas, renounce her support of the Sandinistas in
neighboring Nicaragua and denounce human rights violations in Cuba. D’Souza
thought it suspicious that Menchú met her “feminist translator”—Elisabeth Burgos,
once married to Che’s comrade Régis Debray—”in Paris, not a venue to which many of
the Third World’s poor routinely travel,” and that her “rhetoric employs a socialist and
Marxist vocabulary that does not sound typical of a Guatemalan peasant.”” (Grandin)
This excerpt from Grandin’s article on the nation hit right on the nail when addressing
the concerns I had about Menchu. Again, there is now way right now to know who’s
telling the truth or who is not, but the mere fact that her validity is questioned
tarnishes her reputation for me and many alike that once looked up to hear as such a
feminist and activistic icon.
Bibliography & Works Cited
“Guatemala.” Human Rights Watch. N.p., 12 Jan. 2017. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.
“Greg Grandin”. It Was Heaven That They Burned” The Nation 08. Sept. 2010
Menchú, Rigoberta, and Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. I, Rigoberta Menchú: an Indian
woman in Guatemala. London: Verso, 2010. Print.


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