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Lady With a Lance
By Mildred Boyd
In her photographs she looks like any pleasingly plump, gentle but none-too-bright Mayan matron wearing traditional native clothing and a winning smile. That appearance is a lie. This woman is no ignorant peasant. By rights she should be shown in full armor with a banner on her lance reading “Peace at Any Price” She has been the driving force of an ongoing battle for indigenous rights for most of her 60 years and is certainly not yet prepared to yield the field.
Rigoberta Menchú was born on January 9th, 1959 to a K’iche’ Maya peasant family in war-torn Guatemala. Although she received her education up to the 8th grade in Catholic schools she was also taught the culture of her ancestors. In her early years she helped on the family work, either the northern highlands farm where they eked out a bare existence, or picking coffee on the big plantations along the coast for a little cash.
Seeing and experiencing the gross injustices suffered by her people, Rigoberta soon became involved in social reform activities through the Catholic Church. She was an ardent and highly visible activist for women’s rights while still a teenager. Such reforms were not popular with the ruling class and when, during the early days of the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), a guerilla organization became active in the area, she and her family were immediately suspect. Rigoberta’s father, Vicente, was imprisoned and tortured for allegedly having participated in the execution of a local plantation owner. After his release, he became a member of the recently founded Committee of the Peasant Union (CUC).
In 1979, Rigoberta, too, joined the CUC. That same year her brother was arrested, and tortured to death by the army. The following year, her father was killed when security forces in the capital stormed the Spanish Embassy where he and other peasants were staying. Shortly afterwards, her mother died after having been arrested, tortured and raped. Bereft and embittered as she was by the loss of her whole family, Rigoberta did not retreat. Instead, she became even more actively rebellious.
She figured prominently in a strike for better conditions for farm workers on the Pacific coast and was active in large demonstrations in the capital. She joined the radical 31st of January Popular Front, in which, since she had taught herself Spanish as well as other Mayan languages, her main role was in teaching the Indios how to resist military oppression.
In 1981, these radical activities forced her into hiding in Guatemala, and shortly thereafter into exile in Mexico one step ahead of government pursuit. That flight marked the beginning of a new phase in her life: as the organizer abroad of resistance to oppression in Guatemala and the struggle for indigenous peoples’ rights. In 1982, she took part in the founding of the joint opposition body, The United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition (RUOG). In 1986, Rigoberta Menchú became a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the CUC, and the following year she performed as the narrator in a powerful film about the struggles and sufferings of the Maya people.
It was called When the Mountains Tremble. On at least three occasions, Rigoberta Menchú has returned to Guatemala to plead the cause of the Indian peasants, but death threats have forced her to return into exile each time.
Over the years, Rigoberta Menchú has become widely known as a leading advocate of Indian rights and ethno-cultural reconciliation, not only in Guatemala but in the Western Hemisphere generally, and her work has earned her several international awards. In 1991, Menchú participated in the UN preparation of its Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In 1992 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of native Guatemalans. Her biography, I, Rigoberta Menchú, had already brought her international acclaim in human rights and academic circles, but the Peace Prize and the Prince of Asturias Award won in 1998 made her a full-fledged hero for oppressed people everywhere. Later, she wrote an autobiography called Crossing Borders
In 2006, she and sister Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Wangari Maathai, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire decided to combine their experience and skills. It is the goal of the Nobel Women’s Initiative to help strengthen and support the cause of women’s rights around the world.
Since the Civil War ended, Menchú has campaigned to have members of the Guatemalan political and military establishment tried and punished. In 1999 she filed a complaint before a Spanish court because prosecutions of such crimes are practically impossible in Guatemala. In 2006, after many delays, Spain’s highest court ruled that cases of genocide committed abroad could be judged in Spain, even if no Spanish citizens have been involved. Spain then called for the extradition of seven former members of Guatemala’s government on charges of genocide and torture against the Mayan people.
In 2007 Menchú announced both the formation of an indigenous Guatemalan political party and her own candidacy as their nominee in that year’s presidential election. Since she could not even enter the country to campaign, this was surely only a symbolic gesture of defiance. Several of her supporters were threatened and two of them were actually killed. Needless to say, on September 9, 2007, Menchú received only a miserable 3% of the vote.
Menchú is currently traveling all over the world as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. In her spare time she runs the Mexican pharmaceutical company Salud para Todos, dedicated to providing low-cost generic medicines for everyone and acts as goodwill ambassador for Mexico. If all else fails she is not above grabbing her lance and riding full tilt against any minor windmill that happens by.
If I were you, I wouldn’t bet on the windmill.