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Rigoberta Menchú: 1959—: Activist, Author

Spoke On Behalf Of Her People

By 1981 the situation in Guatemala had become too dangerous for Menchú and, like many of her countrymen before her, she went into exile. Eventually more than 200,000 people, mostly Indian peasants, lost their lives in the fighting. Another million lost their homes. Menchú, meanwhile, found her voice. The Nobel Foundation website noted that her exile "marked the beginning of a new phase in her life: as the organizer abroad of resistance to oppression in Guatemala and the struggle for Indian peasant peoples' rights." She began speaking out against the atrocities in Guatemala. People Weekly wrote, "Menchú traveled to the United Nations to lobby for Indian rights—and became a familiar figure there, walking the halls in traditional Quiché garb and bare feet, even in winter." In 1982 she met Venezuelan anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray on a speaking engagement in Paris. In 26 hours of taped interviews, Menchú relayed the story that would become I, Rigoberta Menchú. Its subsequent publication in 1983 captivated audiences worldwide and made Guatemala synonymous with human rights abuse. The military government threatened Menchú with arrest if she returned home.

I, Rigoberta Menchú was eventually translated into more than a dozen languages and became required reading at universities worldwide. Meanwhile Menchú continued to work on behalf of her people. She was active in the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations and the International Indian Treaty Council, and soon proved herself to be a persuasive public speaker and efficient organizer. In 1992, despite death threats, Menchú returned to Guatemala to help organize protests on the anniversary of Columbus's conquest of America. It was there that she received the news that she had won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. The political significance of the award's timing did not go unnoticed. "On the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's voyage to America, the winner was a woman who fought for the rights of an indigenous people ruled by a group composed mostly of descendants of European settlers," wrote the Bergen County Record. Though still an exile, she flew to Guatemala city that day and, according to Scholastic Update, "Thousands of supporters—Indians who had long kept quietly to themselves—lined the streets from the airport, cheering and shouting, 'Viva Rigoberta!'"

With the $1.2 million cash prize from the award, Menchú founded the Rigoberta Menchú Tum foundation with its main offices in Mexico City, where she resided in exile. The organization actively worked for indigenous peoples' rights and promoted peace. She also used her newfound celebrity to pressure political leaders to intervene in Guatemala. In June of 1983 she used her influence to help install Ramiro de León Carpio, a human rights advocate, as president of Guatemala. He and Menchú became deeply involved in the United Nations negotiations that led to the 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accord, which put an end to the 30-year-old civil war. The accord recognized the rights, languages, and cultures of the country's indigenous groups. It also called for disarmament of the guerrillas and a reduction of the military. Leftist parties were allowed to participate in politics again. The accord also called for a commission to investigate human rights violations. The report issued by the commission in 1999 revealed that the military government had long enjoyed the financial backing of the United States government. President Clinton made a public apology to the people of Guatemala.

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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