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Rigoberta Menchú: 1959—: Activist, Author

Early Life Consumed By Poverty And War

Like the rest of the indigenous population, the Quiché were very poor and the Menchús were no exception. Their tiny home had no indoor plumbing and no electricity. Whatever they needed, they had to make. Women wove fabric and made clay pots, while the men worked the land, producing corn, beans, and potatoes. However it was never enough and the family had to travel each year to the coastal areas to work on coffee and cotton plantations. Life on the plantations—or fincas—was very difficult. They worked all day in the hot sun, while harsh chemical pesticides were dropped on the fields from above. When she was as young as eight, Menchú recalled picking close to 35 pounds of coffee a day. At night some 500 people would be crammed into filthy open-air sheds where many succumbed to disease and death. Menchú said in I, Rigoberta Menchú, "We'd been in the Finca for fifteen days, when one of my brothers died from malnutrition." Her mother was later fired for taking the day off to bury her child.

In Chimel, the Quiché faced constant encroachment on their land by wealthy Ladinos and government-supported businesses. By the 1970s the government was pushing families out of their homes and imprisoning those who resisted. This coincided with the creation of "death squads," military groups that exacted lethal force. Gang rape and slaughter were their hallmarks. Menchú's father, who was well-respected in the community as a religious speaker, soon turned to activism. He was one of the founding members of a group called the Peasant Union Committee, organized to resist the appropriation of their land. As a result, the Menchús were labeled subversives and worse, supporters of the guerrillas. This subjected the family to horrific harassment. In I, Rigoberta Menchú Menchú recalled one incident in which her father had been arrested and tortured: "They had torn off the hair on his head on one side. His skin was cut all over and they'd broken so many of his bones that he couldn't walk." Miraculously he survived and went on to continue his activism. Her brother Petrocinio was not so lucky. He was kidnapped in September of 1979 and endured two weeks of intense torture. "He didn't look like a person anymore," Menchú recalled in her memoir. "His whole face was disfigured with beating." Menchú claimed that he and other torture victims were paraded in front of the village and then doused with gasoline and burned alive. Stoll refutes that claim in his book. He is adamant that though Petrocinio was captured and most likely tortured and killed by the military, he was not set on fire in front of his grieving family.

Menchú joined the Peasant Union Committee in 1979. Like her father, she began actively working to undermine the government. "Rigoberta at this time was heavily involved in resistance activities," noted the Odyssey website: "She and her colleagues would shut down streets with barricades for brief moments and then retreat before the military arrived. They would make bomb threats to factories so the workers had to be let off for a day. They would boycott anything they could, or destroy a coffee estate or a cotton estate, or tamper with machines in factories to economically weaken the society killing them." Their activities resulted in increased suppression by the government. In 1980 Menchú's father went to Guatemala City to participate in a protest in front of the Spanish embassy. The military police intervened and fighting broke out. A fire started that claimed 39 lives, including that of Menchú's father. Less than three months later, Menchú's mother was kidnapped by a death squad, repeatedly raped, viciously tortured, and finally hanged.

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: Barbara Barbieri McGrath (1953–) Biography - Personal to Fridtjof Nansen (1861–1930) BiographyRigoberta Menchú: 1959—: Activist, Author Biography - Early Life Consumed By Poverty And War, Spoke On Behalf Of Her People, Remained Peace Advocate Through Controversy