The teacher who uses this unit should know that there is a very serious debate about the worthiness of Rigoberta Menchú in receiving the Nobel Peace Prize because of possibly credible accusations of fraud and misrepresentation. I have no decided view on this matter. Third-graders need not be concerned with this serious, ongoing debate. That we will leave to scholars. I have presented Rigoberta Menchú as she herself and her supporters would.
A perfect way to introduce Rigoberta Menchú to my students is through the book, Barrio, Jose’s Neighborhood, by George Ancona. This book depicts the life of an eight-year-old Mexican-American boy in a barrio in San Francisco. As Jose walks past public buildings covered with murals “that sing out the stories of the neighborhood” he comes to one drawn of Rigoberta who “spoke out against the killing of her people, the Maya of Guatemala” (p. 8). After sharing this book with the class, I would ask them, “Just who is this Rigoberta Menchú and what did she do to help her people?”
finca - a plantation or large farm controlled by the landowners.
ladino - Guatemalans whose parents are both Mayan and Spanish or Mayas who reject Mayan customs and ways.
strike - a situation when workers stop their work in order to get better wages and working conditions.
altiplano - the highlands of Guatemala.
campesinos - the farmers and farm workers that live in the countryside of Guatemala.
indigenous - a group of people who are native to the particular country.
Popol Vuh - the sacred book of the Mayas.
exiled - forced to leave one’s country.
fiesta - a celebration or festival.
1959 Born Rigoberta Menchú Tum on January 9 in Chimel, Guatemala.
1967 Picks coffee on finca. Sees a lot of children suffering from malnutrition.
1969 Initiated into adulthood by family and village.
1971 Became maid in Guatemala City. Her father goes to prison for the first time. Chimel residents are expelled from their homes by the rich landowners.
1973 Her best friend dies on a finca from pesticide exposure. Decides to devote her life to improving conditions for her people.
1980 Her father is killed in an army attack on the Spanish Embassy. Her mother is later killed by the army.
1981 Flees to Mexico and goes into hiding.
1982 Invited to Europe as representative of Guatemalan indigenous people. Dictates her autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman In Guatemala.
1988 Returns to Guatemala, where she is arrested and then released.
1992 Receives the Nobel Peace Prize for her valiant effort to improve the lives of indigenous peoples.
1996 Assists in the negotiation of a peace treaty ending Guatemalan civil conflict that had begun 42 years earlier.
Oh no! The soldiers recognized her and would quickly arrest her if she didn’t get away! Rigoberta, along with a friend, slipped into a nearby church and knelt down at the railing next to two other people who were praying. She quickly untied her scarf, letting her hair down, hoping this would disguise her. She was lucky. Walking right behind her, the soldiers searched the church and to her great relief they soon gave up and left to hunt for her in the marketplace.
WHAT DO YOU THINK WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
Rigoberta realized that her homeland, Guatemala, was no longer a safe place for her to stay. She had to leave or eventually they would find her and kill her just as they had her parents and brother. She escaped to Mexico with a heavy heart. Exiled from her country, Rigoberta promised herself that she would return some day.
HOW DO YOU THINK RIGOBERTA FELT THEN?
As dear as Guatemala was to Rigoberta, life there had never been easy for her and her family. Born on January 5, 1959 in the small village of Chimel, she remembers the mountainous region where she worked and played as being like a paradise with colorful birds and rivers that flowed down mountain slopes. But her family, like so many other Mayan Indians in Guatemala, were poor and struggled to make enough money just to eat. In her family there were nine little mouths to feed so for eight months out of the year her family had to leave their village home in the altiplano to go work on the fincas which were coffee, cotton and sugarcane plantations owned by rich landowners. At the age of 8 Rigoberta began working on these large farms picking coffee beans. The work was hard and the hours were long. For all their work the Indians earned very little money, many times not even enough to buy medicine when they were ill. Very sadly, because of this, many Indians, especially children died.
WHAT ARE YOU PICTURING IN YOUR MIND?
The living conditions on the fincas were horrible. As many as 400 campesinos and their families were forced to live in a building with only one room. People couldn’t understand each other because they spoke different languages. Flies flew all around, babies cried and people argued. Working on the fincas also was unsafe. One year, very sadly, Rigoberta’s best friend, Maria, died because of poisonous pesticides. How did it happen? One morning without any warning, while Maria was picking cotton, an airplane came and sprayed the field with pesticides. The spray fell on Maria too and she died soon after. From that day on, Rigoberta promised herself that her life would be different. She planned to work hard to improve the working conditions of her fellow workers in the fields.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT LIVING ON A FINCA?
Being descendants of the ancient people called the Maya, Rigoberta’s family continued to speak a Mayan language called Quiché and to follow Mayan practices as described in their holy book, the Popol Vuh. True to their Mayan heritage, they believed that each person, when of age, needed to share in the responsibilities of the community in which they lived. Therefore, on her tenth birthday, Rigoberta’s family and community held a special ceremony to welcome her into adulthood. Family and friends talked with her about their experiences in growing up, hoping they would help her as she grew into an adult. A second fiesta was held on her twelfth birthday and Rigoberta was given a special responsibility of caring for two chickens, a pig and a lamb. This was a job she took very seriously. Her days became a lot busier. Now, after working all day in the fields, she would come home to do her chores and then weave pieces of cloth that she could sell in order to buy food for her animals. She felt very proud of being able to handle her new responsibilities.
TELL ABOUT A NEW RESPONSIBILITY YOU HAVE NOW THAT YOU ARE OLDER.
But Rigoberta wanted to do more to help her family earn money so at the age of 13 she decided to work as a maid for a rich ladino family in Guatemala City. For four months she worked very hard, cleaning the house and washing clothes. She was not treated well by the family and was given only a mat without a blanket to sleep on and beans and stale tortillas to eat. One advantage she did have was that of learning to speak and understand Spanish better as this was the language that the family spoke. This is also the official language of the country and the one spoken by the wealthy landowners and government people and military men. Rigoberta knew that if she was going to defend her people against the Spanish-speaking ruling class she would have to learn the language of those in power. In addition, knowing Spanish would help her to tell those around the world of the unfair ways in which the poor in Guatemala were treated. As time went on, she began to realize more and more the power of the spoken word. Words would become her weapons as she sought to pressure the government into stopping it cruel treatment of the Indians.
WHY DO YOU THINK RIGOBERTA STAYED SO LONG WORKING FOR THAT FAMILY?
Upon returning to the altiplano, Rigoberta found that serious trouble was brewing. The wealthy landowners were forcing people of her village to leave their homes and were taking the land that they had worked so hard to cultivate. Her father, Vincente, a leader in the village, tried to help them hold onto their land. Because of this, he was arrested and put in prison. Her father was to be arrested again and again for his actions in organizing the people of his village to fight for their land and for their rights. Eventually, he was murdered when soldiers set fire to the embassy building that he and other protesters were in. Later that same year Rigoberta’s mother, Juana, was also killed by the army. Rigoberta was determined to carry on the work of her parents in helping the Indians to fight for their rights in a nonviolent but nevertheless determined way. For one thing she helped organize strikes against the landowners.
HOW IS RIGOBERTA LIKE DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.?
The Guatemalan government was on the landowners’ side and used the army to murder and scare people who, like Rigoberta, disagreed with them. After her parents deaths and because of her continued activism, Rigoberta knew that her life was in danger so, with the help of friends she escaped to Mexico.
Rigoberta became a powerful speaker on behalf of indigenous people not only in her country but in others as well. She told her story to a writer who took her words, wrote them down and turned them into a book that was to be read by millions of people entitled, I, Rigoberta Menchú, An Indian Woman in Guatemala. More and more people around the world began to learn of Rigoberta and her story of poor Guatemalans. In 1992 she was given a very important award for her efforts in trying to improve the lives of indigenous peoples. It is called the Nobel Peace Prize. With the large sum of money she received with this prize, Rigoberta set up an organization to help promote education and basic rights for indigenous people in Guatemala and elsewhere.
TELL ABOUT SOMEONE YOU KNOW WHO HELPS OTHER PEOPLE?
Years have passed and some improvements have been made for the Mayan in Guatemala but there are still many problems that prolong their suffering and so the struggle continues. Rigoberta has not given up. She strongly believes that the world can be changed through courage. love, imagination and responsibility. And she is determined to continue her fight for the rights of her people. She said in her book... “I know that I can only hold my parents’ banner high if I dedicate myself to the struggle that they left half finished” (p. 242).
HOW DID RIGOBERTA’S PARENTS HELP HER TO BECOME STRONG AND BRAVE?