Celebrity Tuesday: Rigoberta Menchu


My mother migrated to the States the same year Rigoberta Menchu was on exile. My mother heard the news of the genocide in Guatemala the same week Rigoberta Menchu found out about her brother’s death. The genocide killed 200,000 people in Guatemala, maybe even more. The genocide continues to haunt ethnic groups in the 21st century. Genocide of all definition: cultural, physical, and mental. My mother talked to me about Rigoberta Menchu and her people. I was four years old, a time I had no idea what genocide meant and how it affected my people, my family, and even myself an Ecuadorian-American citizen.

Rigoberta Menchu, a member of the ethnic group K’iche’, went through the worst genocide in the history of Guatemala and Central America. In her autobiography, she recounted the horrid experience her people went through. Guerillas breathed behind their backs and took advantage of their low-income inferior status. This racist attitude came from the rich class in Guatemalan society-especially.

In urban areas, the rich hired Indigenous women and men to clean their homes, do the beds, cook the meals, mop the floors, iron the shirts, and prune the flowers. What was the pay per hour?  What kind of treatment did they get? Indigenous people had no beds to sleep on. Indigenous people ate leftovers, if they were lucky. Indigenous people won a meager salary of 50 cents per day. And many experienced first-hand racism and abuse from the rich class. Rigoberta was one of them. In rural areas, it gets worse. If an Indigenous woman did not consent to the sexual needs of her boss or his sons, she was dead that day. Rigoberta heard the screams in the forest. She was eight years old then.

Her people worked twice as hard to keep their traditions alive and defend the land from thieves, terrorists, and guerillas. In her autobiography, she talked a lot about her traditions. It’s important to know where you come from. It’s important to understand why the sun comes up and why the river flows into the sea. It’s important to celebrate the first snow or commemorate a newborn. She emphasized that traditions tie people to the first ancestor and all the stories mean something personal and communal to all Indigenous people. Oral tradition, one of the most important tools in our culture, tells people a history of how things came to be and how every person plays a crucial role in life. In order to practice tradition, people need land, air, food, and water. Without these basic human needs, how else will tradition survive?

In her teen years, Rigoberta worked for her family and village. She went to the haciendas to plant seeds, take care of the crops, and pull out the weeds under the hot sun. In her leisure time, she observed her environment and learned many things. She realized that not all Ladinos were mean people. Only those in power were. She saw that it does not matter what race people came from. If people were poor, they suffered the most. In one of her chapters, one day she noticed the rich evicted poor Ladinos out of their land. She asked, “Are you Indigenous?” They shook their head disapprovingly and said they were Ladinos. She thought, ‘They look just like me. But it’s not about race, it’s about poverty. It’s about their disadvantage to speak out for their rights.’She wanted to integrate the mixed-Indigenous people in her protest because everyone was going against the same enemy.

In her escapades, the Guatemalan armed force rampaged homes, towns, and crops in the countryside. They kidnapped Indigenous people and killed them in the forest. They held some hostage till Indigenous people surrendered their lands. Rigoberta lost her father in an explosion, her brother in a massacre, and her mother in hostage. But she was not the only one who lost relatives. Her village, her family clans, and her K’iche’ people lost their families, too, in the genocide. They all knew this was going to happen, but they continued their protest. They had one goal in mind: to protect the rights of her people, land, and culture for the future generation.

Rigoberta mentioned this in her autobiography: Indigenous people work together because everything in this life is interconnected. Indigenous people stand up for not one person, but for an entire community.

In the 1980s, about 250,000 Guatemalan Indigenous and mixed-Indigenous people died in the genocide. Rigoberta became an activist t fight for the rights of her people. She spread awareness worldwide of the violations committed by Guatemalan armed force. She interviewed with Elizabeth Burgos and wrote Menchu’s autobiographical story to talk about the importance of treating each other with respect, dignity, and love. From what I understand, Rigoberta makes a valid point in talking about how racism, stereotypes, misunderstandings, and ignorance contribute to genocide of all levels. There is no respect towards a people because media portrays them as stupid or ignorant. There is no love towards a people because society views them as undeserving or dirty. There is no dignity in a two way street because two groups of people do not understand one another.

When you think about it, what gives people the right to maintain the Washington football team Redskins in 2013? They are taught that us Indigenous people do not exist in the United States. They think it offends nobody. This is exactly what Menchu means. No respect and no love equals “cultural” genocide and appropriation. Redskins is as offensive as cholo, indio salvaje, “feathered” Indian, and so forth. These words were used back then to offend a people and are used now for jokes and casual conversations. But there are 5-7 millions of us in the States and we find it offensive. We protest the change. Not because we are “sensitive,” but because out of respect for our people and our ancestors.

What about the “illegal” people coming in and out of the United States? Again, people target the brown people of Mexico and Latin America. They say that Mexicans are taking away jobs, homes, and space. Mexicans do not belong here. But what are Americans talking about? Where did your ancestors come from? Where are your roots and your culture? Surely, those roots are in another continent. The culture is on the other side of the Atlantic. The Mexicans have roots in Turtle Island. Their tradition and culture stretches to Central American all the way to Washington State in U.S.A. We also protest change not because we are “insensitive” but because out of resect for out people and ancestors, too.


How do genocides come to life? One of them is out of ignorance. That has to change.

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