Is There A Truth About Rigoberto Menchu


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

    operated them;

  • 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

told Larry

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

    government, aided and abetted by the United States. In their review in The Nation of David Stoll’s book, Greg Grandin

    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.

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