Perceptions of Truth in I, Rigoberta Menchú

In 1992, a twenty-three year-old Guatemalan Indian Woman achieved international renown for one of the most influential autobiographies of all time, I, Rigoberta Menchú (1984). Rigoberta Menchú won the Nobel Peace Prize for opening the world’s eyes to the horrors that the Guatemalan government committed against its people.  The narrative generated international pressure on the Guatemalan government to engage in peace talks with the United Nations, which served to eventually improve the situation.  However, in the years since Menchú won the Nobel Peace Prize, many critics have called into question the validity of her account and have accused her of exaggeration and blatant lies in order to serve political aims.

Truth and autobiography become such problematic terms the very second we begin to add social justice and universal truth to the mix.  It is easy to hold celebrities and athletes accountable to the notion that an autobiography should remain faithful to the exact details of their lives.  However, what if someone such as Rigoberta Menchú aims to open the world’s eyes to the injustices that an entire people experience at the hands of a corrupt government?  Even though her “autobiography” became a mix of personal, shared experiences, and perhaps even figurative experiences, should we discredit its message?  David Stoll (1999) posits this fundamental question in Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans: “If part of the laureate’s story is not true, does it matter?”  (p. 11).  I would argue that not only does it not matter if factual inaccuracies exist, but that focusing on the truthfulness of factual details robs the narrative of the greater truths it tells us.

The story, or perhaps better termed stories, that she tells are about living in El Quiché, a small rural village in Guatemala whose people struggle daily for survival. Almost before Menchú could walk, she joined her mother working on a plantation where the landowners subjected them to horrible abuses.  She describes two particularly disturbing events in which these abuses resulted in the death of her baby brother and of her best friend.  She vividly tells about all the horrors that she and her family endured: “My brother was tortured for more than sixteen days.  They cut off his fingernails, they cut off his fingers, they cut off his skin, they burned part of his skin” (174).  She then goes into the capital city to be a maid for a wealthy family, suffering a great deal because this abusive family literally treats their dogs better than they treat her.  During this period, beginning in 1979, her family had become important leaders in organizing for Indian rights.  In the years that followed, the government sought to silence her family because of its subversive ideas.  Menchú had to watch while they tortured and then murdered her mother, father and brother for their involvement in the revolutionary movement.

David Stoll was the first to challenge the truthfulness of Rigoberta Menchu’s narrative in his book Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (1999) disputes several key facts of her autobiography.  He discredits a climactic passage in her book:

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“With her own eyes, Rigoberta had watched her brother writhe to death. This was the climactic passage of her book, reprinted in magazines and read aloud at conferences, with the hall darkened except for a spotlight on the narrator. Yet the army had never burned prisoners alive in the town plaza, Domingo said, and he was the first of seven townsmen who told me the same” (p. 9).

David Stoll’s answer to his own question about whether or not it matters that factual details might have been fabricated, is that it does matter.  Why else would someone write and publish a book about it?  However, for Stoll, it is not so much the fact that she fabricated experiences, it is the fact that Menchú has become an untouchable and authoritative symbol of the violence in Guatemala: “In Guatemala much of what needs to be debated about the last half century of revolution and counterrevolution, bloodshed and peacemaking, is still wrapped up in symbols that prevent frank discussion” (P. 11).

Stoll argues that frank discussion is needed in regards to the often venerated Guerilla movements.  While Menchú glorifies the leftist guerillas, other peasants that Stoll interviewed suggest that guerillas at times terrorized the people as well: “Unlike I, Rigoberta Menchú, which describes the guerrillas as liberation fighters, my Ixil sources tended to lump soldiers and guerrillas together as threats to their lives.  Instead of being popular heroes, the guerrillas were, like soldiers, people with guns who brought suffering in their wake” (p. 10).  He also suggests that the guerillas did have and should have used alternatives to violent conflict.  I believe that Stoll makes valid points about the necessary discussions we need to have about the Guerilla’s roll in Latin American history, but Menchú still has her own opinion and story to tell about governmental oppression that deserves to be included as part of this discussion.

            Dinesh D’Souza’s “I Rigoberta Menchu?… Not” (1999) uses much more simplistic reasoning to assert that factual discrepancies in her narrative do matter.  He says that factual discrepancies make her entire narrative worthless: “If what she has to say is neither accurate nor representative, there can be no possible case for teaching the book, unless one wants to include it in a survey of celebrated hoaxes” (p. 14).  He then goes on to argue that the reason the text is still celebrated in Academia is because “She is in fact a mouthpiece for a left-wing critique of the West that is all the more powerful because it seems to come from an “authentic” Third World source” (p. 15).  D’Souza is unable to look past factual discrepancies to see any value in Menchú’s narrative, and assumes that anybody who does value her work is merely using her as a spokesperson for leftist ideas.  It is one thing for D’Souza not to assign Rigoberta Menchú in favor of other literature that meets his criteria for good literature, but to rebuke any colleague for seeing sufficient value in the narrative is reprehensible.  I find this to be such a dangerous perspective, because by denying that Menchú’s criticism of the government is significant in any way, he in effect suggests that her criticism of government atrocities does not matter.

            Dante Liano, a Guatemalan writer, addresses those critics such as Stoll and D’Souza in his essay entitled “I Rigoberta Menchu, The Controversy Surrounding the Mayan Activist” (1999).  Liano argues quite fervently that it does not matter whatsoever, and those who even claim that Menchú lied  Liano first of all critiques outsiders for presumptuously assuming the right to interpret Guatemalan history and culture: “We in Guatemala have always had someone come to study us like insects, write a thesis, draft a book explaining what we have been and forever will be” (p. 17).  He takes great offense to anyone even saying that Menchú has lied:

To say that Rigoberta Menchú has lied is taken to mean that no social injustice has taken place in Guatemala. It means that children do not die of malnutrition, that their worm-filled bellies do not explode. It means that most people there are not illiterate. To say that she has lied is taken to mean that everybody has lied: the church, Amnesty International, the United Nations, various human rights commissions” (p. 17).

I respect Liano’s position that many North American critics have been presumptuous, and that many critics such as D’Souza have in essence denied the injustices against the indigenous peoples of Guatelmala through their writing about Menchú.  However, his position does seem overly extreme.  It is possible to discuss factual inaccuracy in Menchú’s narrative, while still valuing the work as a whole. Furthermore, it seems necessary to compare her testimony with other testimonies, because what if Stoll is correct in his assertion that guerillas have unnecessarily contributed to the violence?

            The critic who seems to find the best middle ground between totally ignoring factual inaccuracies and discrediting her entire narrative because of them is Kay Warren (2001).  She first points out that the genre that Menchú used is the testimonio, which differs from the Western tradition of autiobiography: “Although autobiographical in their self-presentation, testimonios are for the most part compiled by literate professionals to raise international awareness about state violence, pressure foreign governments for

political leverage, and generate funding for their organizations” (p. 21).  When we use this contextual frame to interpret Menchu’s narrative, Menchú is clearly within the parameters of a testimonio.  Warren criticizes David Stoll, and other readers who focus primarily on factual discrepancies: “In effect, he [David Stoll] refuses to read Menchú’s autobiography as an instance of testimonial literature in which, by design, there is room for, maneuver between collective and individual veracities” (p. 21).  Warren suggests that readers must understand that Menchú’s narrative draws on collective realities in addition to her own realities.  For example, even if Menchu’s brother did not die in the same way that she wrote about, other indigenous peoples may have.  Warren than elaborates on the implications that the contextual frame of testimonio has on the narrative’s significance: “My larger point here is that there are a variety of ways of engaging testimonies and that seeing this instance as flawed academic history or autoethnography rather than as multiply authored transnational wartime propaganda from the onset has important repercussions” (p. 21).

Of all of the critics that have discussed the issue of truth and accuracy in Rigoberta Menchú’s narrative, I believe that the most sound is Kay Warren, who acknowledges that factual inaccuracies may exist, but can still engage in the text on a deeper level.  I agree that factual discrepancies between Rigoberta Menchú’s life and her autobiography do exist.  However, Menchú never makes any claims to the contrary.  She quite explicitly tells the reader at the onset that the story she tells is not only her life: “I’d like to stress that it’s not only my life, it’s also the testimony of my people” (1).  In this one sentence of her work, she assumes more responsibility and power for her work, because the work is about more than just her life.  She also acknowledges that she will draw on experiences from her people in addition to her own experiences.   Thus Menchú tells the collective story of her people, and I would encourage readers to engage in this testimonio, as Warren suggests, in ways which appreciate and value the tight community of Chajul for enduring such hardship, and bringing their stories to the International arena; for this is how social change occurs.

References

D’Souza, Dinesh. “I, Rigoberta Menchú? … Not.” The Weekly Standard. 1999.

Liano, Dante. “I, Rigoberta Menchú? The controversy surrounding the Mayan

activist.” Translated Will H. Corral. Hopscotch 1.3 (1999): 96-101.

Menchú, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Ed. Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. Trans. Ann Wright. London: Verso, 1984.

Stoll, David. Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. Boulder,

Westview, 1999.

Warren, Kay B. “Telling Truths: Taking David Stoll and the Rigoberta Menchú

Expose Seriously.” The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy. Ed. Arturo Arias.

Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2001.

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