My friend the
anthropologist says there is no such thing as truth. She says that she’s interviewed
people in the field who completely contradict each other. One says the volcano erupted and
the other says it didn’t. They both say it with equal conviction.
I say: one of them
is wrong. Either the volcano erupted or it didn’t. Not that perspective isn’t
important. Our two observers may have had different vantage points from which they viewed
the volcano; they may not be speaking about the same volcano; they may have different
definitions of what volcano means, likewise for eruption. But, I argued, it is possible to
define “volcano eruption,” and know for sure if it happened or not.
Of course, it may
not matter in the slightest whether the volcano erupted. What my anthropologist friend
might really be interested in is the perspectives of the folks who interpret volcano
activity. She may learn a great deal about people by listening to what they have to say
about nature, the passage of time, the meaning of “natural disasters,” etc.
Focusing strictly on the question of whether the volcano technically erupted or not would
lead her away from more interesting ideas and perspectives. She is not there to uncover
the “truth” about a one-time volcano eruption; she is there to understand more
about a people.
As most people are
now aware, the powerful testimony – I Rigoberta
Menchu — by a 23-year old Mayan woman, which told the riveting story of the
injustice, oppression and massacres experienced by her people at the hands of the
Guatemalan military, was not “true” in all of its details. According to David
Stoll in his book Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of
All Poor Guatemalans, these falsehoods include writing that:
Menchu’s life was a triumph over childhood illiteracy and lack of
schooling, but in fact she attended Catholic boarding schools, according to nuns who
the brother she said was set on fire while she
and her family watched was probably shot and then set on fire later;
another brother, said to have starved to death, is in fact still alive and
the owner of a homestead;
a land battle that Rigoberta Menchu says her father waged against rich
Guatemalans of European descent was actually a dispute between her father and his in-laws.
Menchu has not offered detailed responses,
choosing instead to focus on the fact that she never meant her story to be strictly
personal. Indeed, in the book itself, I, Rigoberta
Menchu, she writes, “I’d like to stress that it’s not only my life, it’s
also the testimony of my people.” She
Rohter of the Times that her autobiography
is “part of this historical memory and patrimony of Guatemala,” and recently, as
reported by Associated
Press, Menchu says, “I was a survivor, alone in the world, who had to convince
the world to look at the atrocities committed in my homeland.”
Does it matter whether Rigoberta Menchu told the
truth throughout her book? It depends who you ask.
Most of the professors who use the book in their courses will continue to do
so because they believe “Menchu’s story speaks to a greater truth about
oppression in Central America,” according to an article in the
Chronicle of Higher Education.
The Nobel Committee that
honored her with the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize
is not revoking her award because their decision to give it to her was not based on the
book, but on her peace work. Besides, says a member of the Nobel Committee, “All
autobiographies embellish to a greater or lesser extent.”
Those concerned with peace
and justice in Guatemala believe that Menchu’s slight prevarications are meaningless
compared to the ongoing lies and disinformation campaigns perpetrated by the Guatemalan
and Francisco Goldberg remind us that the year before I, Rigoberta Menchu came out, the Guatemalan army
committed 400 massacres, killing over 100,000 and leaving more than a million homeless.
Perhaps Menchu did not witness her brother being
burned to death. But he was brutally murdered.
And there were many whose executions were
witnessed by relatives. Does it really matter which Mayan was executed by which method,
with which witnesses in attendance? For those who want to reverse the pain and oppression
experienced by the Mayans in their homeland, the much more relevant lies are the ones told
by our own government with mainstream media support.
To the mainstream U.S.
media, it seems to matter a great deal that Menchu’s memoir includes inaccuracies.
David Stoll’s book has been widely reviewed and reported on, and the New York Times sent Larry Rohter to Guatemala to
confirm Stoll’s story. The media thus walks away from the whole affair seeming to be
hell bent on uncovering the truth. Would that they dispatched investigative reporters to
dissect Kissinger’s recent memoir.
While activists, academics and reporters debate
the truth about Rigoberta Menchu, the New York Review of
Books boasts proudly on the cover of its April 8, 1999 edition that we need look no
further. Their lead essay is: “The Truth About
Rigoberta Menchu,” by Peter Canby, who consistently refers to her by her first
name only in his lengthy article (while he refers to all others by their last names), and
who has this to say about Menchu after a brief personal encounter:
“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
I can only imagine what Menchu might have been
feeling sitting in the annoyingly large UN chair, surrounded by giants with small heads,
wearing severe, monochromatic costumes.
Ultimately, there do appear to be inaccuaracies in
I, Rigoberta Menchu, and I believe the book is
weaker for them. The atrocities being perptrated against the Mayans by the military were
bad enough. No need to fabricate anything for affect. Once you start seeing and reporting
only the evidence that supports your story, then pretty soon you can’t see the whole
picture. Menchu’s father may have been having an intra-Mayan (even intra-family) land
dispute, but that does not mean that the racist patterns of land ownership in Guatemala
did not provide a meaningful context to land struggles amongst the Mayans. Our job is to
try to uncover and report the truth in all its nuance and complexity. I believe it is
important to do this even if it temporarily weakens our cause – whatever it may be.
Furthermore, and more importantly, we must rank the relevance and importance of the
evidence we uncover. In the case of Menchu’s memoir, the falsehoods are insignificant
compared to the U.S. role in the economic exploitation and mass murder of Guatemalan
peasants. About the latter, we can actually do something. And any change we bring about
would have benefits that would be widely felt.