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Rigoberta Menchú: 1959—: Activist, Author Biography

Early Life Consumed By Poverty And War, Spoke On Behalf Of Her People, Remained Peace Advocate Through Controversy

Rigoberta Menchú: 1959—: Activist, author.

Rigoberta Menchú soared to international fame in 1992 when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of native Guatemalans. I, Rigoberta Menchú, her 1983 memoir detailing the abuses her people suffered under Guatemala's vicious military dictatorship, had already brought her international acclaim in human rights and academic circles, but the Peace Prize made her a full-fledged hero for oppressed people everywhere, as well as an inspiration to the world. However, in 1999 David Stoll, an anthropologist from Connecticut, challenged the accuracy of I, Rigoberta Menchú raising questions as to whether many of the events that were described in the book were exaggerated or even real. This sparked a great deal of controversy in both the realms of academia and human rights activism, forcing not only the issue of fake-reality in non-fiction, but also the need for world attention to certain situations no matter how that attention is gained. While many people feel that Menchú abused the position of non-fiction writer, debasing her work as a whole by printing fiction as fact, many more have purported that the purpose of Menchú's story was mainly to capture the feeling of oppression and tyranny on civilians, and that the real world reaction to the work was the most important thing.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum was born on January 9, 1959, to Vicente Menchú and Juana Tum, in the tiny village of Chimel in the northwestern mountains of Guatemala. Her father was a laborer and sometime preacher. Her mother was a midwife and practiced traditional healing. The family were Quiché Indians, descendents of the Mayan Indians who had ruled the region long before the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century, and Chimel was located in the Quiché province of the country. At the time of Menchú's birth, Guatemala was led by a right-wing military dictatorship. Under this rule the Quiché, like the 21 other indigenous groups native to the country, had no rights. All power—economic, social, and political—was concentrated in the hands of the minority Spanish-speaking Ladino population, descendants of the Spanish settlers. At just about the time of Menchú's birth, the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR) was formed. An outlaw group of guerrilla fighters, FAR sought to overthrow the military dictatorship, thus launching the Guatemalan civil war. The rebels hid in the mountains and rural areas of the country—the same areas where most of the indigenous population resided. As a result, the government unleashed a wave of oppression and terror against the Indians in an attempt to oust the rebels. The military regime practiced a "scorched earth" policy, burning and destroying villages in their entirety to get at the rebels or, quite often, to promote their own financial interests.

At a Glance . . .

Born on January 9, 1959, in Chimel, El Quiché, Guatemala, daughter of Vincente Menchú (a laborer and activist), and Juana Tum (a midwife and healer); married Angel Camile, 1998; children: Max. Politics: Liberation theology; Marxist revolutionary. Religion: Roman Catholic.

Career: Human rights activist, 1979–; author, 1983–.

Memberships: Guatemalan Opposition in Exile, National Committee for Reconciliation, founder, 1987; American Continent's 500 Years of Resistance Campaign Against 500th Anniversary of Arrival of Columbus in Americas, coordinator, 1992; UNESCO, Goodwill Ambassador, 1993–; United Nations International Indian Treaty Council; Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation, founder.

Awards: Nobel Peace Prize, 1992; Freedom Award, National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, TN, 2002.

Addresses: Office—Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation, 8 W. 40th St., Suite 1610, New York, NY, 10018-3902. Website— www.rigobertaMenchú.org.

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