e-mail us


In the end, the poor may decide

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Guatemala City

The people of this country have gone to some painful lengths in trying to decipher why 150,000 died during three decades of recently ended guerrilla war and state terror. Now they have to witness a challenge to the veracity of one of the primary voices for those who suffered under brutal military regimes.

Those determined to get at the historical truth have opened countless mass graves to detail what happened to the tens of thousands of murdered and who disappeared during the years of brutality.

Guatemalans also are awaiting an extensive report from a United Nations-supervised truth report. And they are still awaiting the outcome of an investigation into the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, who oversaw the exhaustive Interdiocesan Project to Recover the Historic Memory.

The new wrinkle in Guatemala’s woes is a challenge to the testimony of Rigoberta Menchu, the K’iche’ Maya woman who won the 1992 Nobel Peace prize and who became an international icon for those struggling against military repression.

Menchu, whose autobiography provides an insider’s view of the era, is engaged in a dispute with a U.S. anthropologist who challenged the veracity of her account, published in 1993.

I, Rigoberta Menchu is based on a series of recorded conversations in Paris in 1982 between Menchu and the leftist Venezuelan anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos. It became an instant hit among solidarity activists in the North looking for a window into the life of an indigenous woman who had suffered at the hands of Latin America’s homicidal military. Yet even before Menchu won the Nobel a decade later, rumors had begun to surface in Guatemala that her real story wasn’t quite the same as what she told Burgos.

Tracking contradictions

Among those who began to track down the contradictions was David Stoll, a Stanford University anthropology student researching a book about the effects of counterinsurgency violence a few kilometers away from where Menchu grew up.

In previous books, Stoll debunked the assumptions of leftist academics in the United States. His first major book, Is Latin America Turning Protestant?, challenged popular explanations about the growth of evangelicals in the South. He later wrote Between Two Armies, blaming the Guerrilla Army of the Poor for convincing Ixil Maya peasants to rise up against the Guatemalan military and then abandoning them when the military started massacring everyone in sight.

In his most recent book, Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (Westview Press, 1999), Stoll takes on one of the most revered figures of liberal activists.

He details the differences between Menchu’s published memoirs and the reality of her childhood in a small village outside of Sab Miguel Uspantán where the young K’iche’ Maya woman grew up. Stoll reports that Menchu’s father, Vicente, rather than the oppressed peasant turned indigenous activist that his daughter describes, was instead a village leader who cooperated with non-revolutionary outsiders including Peace Corps volunteers and Heifer Project staff.

Stoll describes how a major conflict over land, which got Vicente jailed and beaten, was not with European-descended landbarons -- as his daughter describes -- but rather with his indigenous in-laws. The discrepancies continue, including details of how and where Rigoberta’s brother Petrocinio was killed, and the details surrounding her mother’s and father’s violent deaths.

Stoll also describes Menchu’s years of Spanish-language studies in Catholic boarding schools in San Miguel Uspantán and Chiantla -- all experiences Menchu had denied when she told Burgos she had only recently learned Spanish. Stoll’s research also leaves the reader doubting that Menchu ever worked on the coastal export plantations, a backbreaking labor she eloquently describes in her book, or as a maid to a hardhearted wealthy woman in the capital.

Stoll acknowledges that Menchu was not fabricating history out of thin air. What the 23-year-old Menchu related in 1982 was indeed experienced by thousands of her fellow Maya, and her family members had indeed been killed by the military.

Yet if Menchu was to become a Mayan everywoman, if her personal saga was to include all the important details of indigenous oppression at the hands of European descendants and foreigners, and, most important, if her story was to motivate foreign readers to support the Guatemalan guerrillas, it was necessary for her story to become more than what she had personally experienced.

She exaggerated, producing a dramatic testimony that cut through global indifference and mobilized tens of thousands of people abroad to speak out against Guatemala’s repressive military. That was almost two decades ago. In the Guatemala of today, obsessed as it is with whose version of history -- rich or poor, indigenous or outside -- will prevail, Stoll’s book and Menchu’s emerging admissions of literary license have only fueled the feud over who owns the past.

Knee-jerk reactions abound on both sides. The same is true among Latin American experts in the North, where Stoll is alternately praised for working hard at the thankless job of digging out the truth or damned for applying inappropriate investigative journalistic techniques to understand how indigenous peoples construct their reality.

In Guatemala, few have actually read Stoll’s book. That’s not surprising since it is only in English and because it ultimately has more to do with his fight with leftist academia in the North than with the Nobel laureate.

But Menchu has been caught in the crossfire and wounded in the process. Coupled with a financial scandal that plagued her foundation last year, as well as the faked kidnapping of her nephew before that, analysts say it has left her debilitated as a political leader and significantly weakened her ability to run for president in the next millennium.

Beyond what the book may mean for Menchu, many worry it adversely affects organized efforts to reconstruct the past. “Read here in Guatemala, the message of Stoll’s book is that Indians are excellent narrators, they tell a lot of stories, but they lie and exaggerate,” said Gutierrez. “Yet much of the interpretation of history as carried out by REMHI [Interdiocesan Project to Recover the Historic Memory] or the U.N. truth commission is based on those stories, on the memory of the Indians. So the natural conclusion is that while some of the things may have happened, the story has been symbolized, exaggerated and lied about, so maybe history wasn’t as bad as we say.”

Even more afraid

Otilia Lux de Coti, a K’iche’ Maya like Menchu and the only indigenous member of the three-person commission, gets angry at the mention of Stoll. “How can a foreigner come here into our culture and try to show us what we’ve been living for centuries? His study is invalid. People were too afraid to tell him the truth. If they’re still afraid today, they were even more afraid then,” she told NCR. “There’s an agenda behind this book. We in the commission interpret this as a message to delegitimize the commission’s report.”

Rosario Pu is also a K’iche’ Maya woman and a member of the board of directors of the Committee for Peasant Unity, a guerrilla-linked organization that Menchu, in 1982, claimed her father helped found (another item disputed by Stoll). Pu told NCR that Stoll’s book is “an offense to the dignity of Rigoberta,” but argued that it is “Rigoberta’s own people who will have the last word, who will pronounce judgment on whether her story is true or not.”

Pu may be right. In this blood-soaked land, it may ultimately be ordinary people who have the last word about history. Whatever official commissions, criminal courts or even U.S. anthropologists declare, it is the majority of Guatemalans who are poor and who were the victims of the conflict who will ultimately declare judgment. And to them will fall the final decision of whether to forgive.

That truth was brought home to President Alvaro Arzu on Dec. 29, the second anniversary of the peace accords, when he spoke before a mostly indigenous crowd in Santa Cruz del Quiché and asked forgiveness for the government’s complicity in violence against civilians during the war. Arzu spoke in Spanish without a translator; the message, however, was obviously for external consumption. Pu was present that day and called Arzu’s speech “a sham.”

Mario Higueros, a Mennonite theologian in Guatemala City, called it an attempt at “cheap grace.” He told NCR, “Pardon is only possible when you know who committed the violence. What the people who rule this country don’t realize is that only the victim can liberate the offender. The victim can’t begin that process of liberating themselves from their bitterness until they know who killed their loved ones, who ordered the torture. That means naming names, it means military leaders confessing their sin. Until that happens, no political speech is going to begin to cure the open wounds of our history.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 1999