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In the summer of 1990, I blundered into a bloody civil war that few people outside of Guatemala knew or cared about. I was in the country to learn Spanish, but after finding the beautiful colonial town of Antigua choking with gringos and Anglophones – not the cultural experience I had in mind – I made my way to the out-of-the-way hill-town of Huehuetenango, the last stop before the Mexican border.
There, I found myself in the heart of the Guatemalan Highlands, home to indigenous Mayan villages, each one a different orgy of color thanks to the residents' traje, or local dress. In addition to its own homespun costume, each village had a unique agricultural tradition, whether harvesting salt to growing maize to managing livestock to cultivating garlic. They traded amongst each other on designated market days of mostly women and children – able-bodied men were notably few. I vowed to visit every village I could in the three months I would be living there. I wanted to discover everything about the indigenous Maya and their way of life.
What I learned, right away, was that their way of life was on the verge of extinction. For over 30 years, the indigenous people of Guatemala had suffered violence under a succession of repressive, dictatorial governments – all propped up and trained by the United States of America.
That’s also when I learned how today’s hero accidentally brought three decades of crimes against humanity to the attention of the international community. She was only three years older than me, but she'd already witnessed extremes that most of us may never even imagine.
Here’s her story, and the context in which her journey would eventually lead to the Nobel Peace Prize…
It started in 1954, five years before Rigoberta Menchú was born. That’s when the US Central Intelligence Agency overthrew the democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz and installed a military dictatorship under Carlos Castillo Armas. This would be the first of many US-backed authoritarian regimes in Guatemala, all of which served capitalist interests, such as United Fruit, as well as the Guatemalan oligarchy.
The vast majority of Guatemalans then lived in misery. There was no middle class; few had access to education. Illiterate and without healthcare, most were forced to work for subsistence wages on the plantations of the uber-rich. Age didn't matter — even children labored to help their families barely make ends meet. Arbenz ran for election on a campaign of reform. He promised to bring balance to a nation – the Land of Eternal Spring – rich in natural resources that were owned by less than 5% of the population. The people brought him to power by free and fair popular democratic vote.
But instead of becoming a showcase for democracy under Arbenz, Guatemala grew increasingly repressive under each US-supported anti-communist dictator. This led to activism which, when stomped out, progressed to radicalization which, when stomped out, advanced to popular insurrection. The Guatemalan government had only one reaction: terror. Their methods of killing become increasingly more creative. By the late 1970s, more than two decades after the overthrow of Arbenz, things had gone from bad to ugly to horrific.
Between 1976 and 1980, government-sponsored security forces killed or disappeared as many as 1000 politicians, Church leaders, trade unionists, university professors, and students — anyone who dared to call for reform. By 1980 death squads were running rampant in the capital, Guatemala City, as well as in the countryside. Mutilated bodies piled up on the streets and in ravines. Soldiers destroyed ceremonial sites and sacred places; they turned churches into torture chambers. They raped women in front of their husbands and killed children in front of their mothers. They tore fetuses from the wombs of pregnant women. They impaled their victims; amputated their limbs; doused them in gasoline and burned them alive.
In the indigenous highlands, violence against Mayan peasants reached a fever pitch in the early 80s. The government's “scorched-earth” campaigns took place deliberately during the agricultural season, leading to hunger and widespread deprivation as people hid in mountains and jungles, forced to scavenge for roots and wild plants to survive. A million and a half people, up to 80% of the population in some areas, were driven from their homes. Whole-scale massacres left entire villages abandoned.
The first of many assaults on Rigoberta’s village, Chajul, located in Guatemala’s Quiché Department, took place on Christmas Eve of 1979. Soon after, Rigoberta lost her brother Petrocinio, her mother, and her father to the violence. All were tortured before being killed. Her father, Vincente, was trapped in the Spanish Embassy which was then deliberately set alight. He burned to death alongside other indigenous community leaders.
By the age of 20, Rigoberta was one of the country’s many refugees. She fled first to Guatemala City, then traveled to Mexico, and then to Paris, France. There, in March 1982, at the age of 23, suffering depression and PTSD, she gave a now-famous interview that would turn into a published memoir: I, Rigoberta Menchu. Launched in 1983, her testimonio, dictated and transcribed per oral tradition, recounted in gruesome detail the terror the Guatemalan people had suffered since 1954.
Rigoberta could not have known the international furor her testimony would foment. She was merely seeking solace from a caring psychiatrist. But her story was that of a nation. It put a human face on a genocide that had claimed the lives of an estimated 35,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands of others. It exposed the realities of staggering inequality: Guatemala’s health, education, literacy, and nutritional indicators were among the most unjust in the world despite the country’s abundance of natural wealth. It revealed how any authoritarian state founded on racist principles is capable of excluding the majority — in this case, the poor, and the Maya, as well as those who fight for a just and more equitable society — while serving the interests of a small, privileged elite through state-supported violence.
I read Rigoberta's book as soon as I got back to the States in fall of 1990 — it was banned in Guatemala at that time, censored by the regime of then-President Cerezo Arévalo. Most Guatemalan's didn't know it existed. But it is directly responsible for the peace accord that brought the Guatemalan Civil War to an end in 1996. Though never formally educated, Rigoberta Menchú would go on to become an internationally renowned author and receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.
Some tried to discredit Rigoberta’s testimony, calling into question certain events that she could not have witnessed. But the fact of an unjust Civil War and US-funded genocide can never be disputed. Rigoberta herself states, on page 1 of I, Rigoberta Menchú:
“My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.”
Despite being terrorized, scarred, and heartbroken, Rigoberta gave voice to a basic human right: that of all cultures to exist in peace within a larger, global community. For this reason, we are proud to name her a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero, nominated on behalf of oppressed peoples everywhere, in particular, those caught in the madness that prevails on the US-Mexican border today.