When I visit a new country, I like to know a bit about it beyond what places are beautiful and where the good restaurants are – I like to be able to understand a bit of its history and politics, to give some context to the things I’m seeing. And although I had done some research about Colombian literature, I realised when I reached Guatemala that I had just not thought at all about this other country that I was visiting. So at the first point that I had working Internet, I jumped onto Google and tried to get some book recommendations.
The main one was I, Rigoberta by Rigoberta Menchú, a book written by an indigenous Guatemalan woman who had been involved in the Guatemalan civil war.
At this point I knew so little about Guatemala that I didn’t even know it had had a civil war. I soon learnt that it had indeed had a civil war, and a particularly violent one at that, especially towards the indigenous communities in Guatemala. I learnt that the war ran for almost 40 years, from 1960 to 1996, and that, like a lot of conflicts in this period, especially in Latin America, it, at least initially, fell into the narrative of the fight against communism – whether rightly or wrongly is still hotly contested.
The roots of the civil war came from the American-sponsored overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. He had won a free election on the promise of agrarian reform, a restructuring of the land tenure system to benefit the peasants and a prohibition on the use of “unpaid and borrower peasant, migrant, and tenant farm labour” (from the text of the law). Over half a million people in a nation of 3 million ended up benefitting from these reforms, but many of the powerful who did not benefit began to back movements associating the government with communism. This drew the attention of the US which devised and executed a plan to overthrow Arbenz. A later US president even apologised for this act – the importance of its impact in destabilising Guatemala is pretty well established.
So – I, Rigoberta – a true story written by an indigenous woman who fought in the civil war. First I was worried it might be a bit dry and difficult – I was exhausted when I began it and wanted an engrossing book that would keep me from mindlessly playing minesweeper over and over again.
Anyway, my fears were quickly proved baseless. Rigoberta’s voice was arresting and gripping right from the start, intertwining really interesting sections on modern Maya culture with her life story, lifting the lid on a culture and a world I knew literally nothing about. She writes about their horrendous life circumstances, the poverty, the brother who died of starvation, being treated basically like slaves on the coffee plantations, the extremely little they owned.
One thing that particularly interested me given my own strong feelings on gender equality was Rigoberta’s presentation of gender relations within the indigenous Maya community. She initially tries to claim that men and women are treated equally and that there is no real sexism within the Maya communities, while at the same time saying that baby boys are prized much more highly in Mayan culture as they have to work harder in the fields and therefore have more responsibilities. However, a few paragraphs later, when no longer talking specifically about gender relations, Rigoberta tells the reader that women tend to work with the men in the fields, and that usually only one woman in the household will stay at home to tend to the babies and the animals. It is also hard to see how anyone could work much harder than she had to!
Rigoberta also elaborately describes marriage ceremonies (this was a really interesting section of the book), saying only briefly that girls are often married at 14, with a first child by age 15 (but she does say the girls have choice in which suitors they accept – so at least there’s that!). As girls start growing up, Rigoberta says that they are given a talk by their parents, firstly about puberty and periods etc, and then telling the young girls that while they might have ambitions and dreams, there is nothing they can do about them, life will never change, and so they should get married as soon as possible and get on with being a grown up.
I thought this was interesting – on the one hand, at that time there was very little to suggest that life would ever change for these indigenous girls, and that it would always just been horrendously hard with no opportunities to do anything different than their parents. So you can argue it’s good to tell them to stop dreaming about things that will never happen and just get on with it. Then, on the other hand, if everyone were told that, nothing would ever change in the world. So many of the great figures in world history, politically, artistically, scientifically, great explorers… you name it… have been people that have defied their origins. And if they had listened to people telling them that they couldn’t achieve their ambitions so should just put them aside, the world would be a very different place.
The book gradually moves forward in time as Rigoberta grows up, and the Guatemalan civil war begins. There are incredible descriptions of the torture inflicted on indigenous people in Guatemala in the civil war. Particularly, Rigoberta’s descriptions of watching her tortured 16 year old brother be burnt alive, or her tortured mother be eaten by dogs, will stay with me.
However, the book is not without controversy, which can be quite confusing if you’re not aware of the sheer force of anti-communism in the US during the cold war. The book’s increasing popularity, for example, being prescribed for American college courses, meant that Rigoberta began to fall foul of American politics. In order to understand the controversy more, I read Who Is Rigoberta Menchú by Greg Grandin, which includes text from the UN Commission set up to investigate the civil war, and most of the below is taken from his book (but not all!).
For anti-communists in support of America’s actions in Latin America, of which there were many, acknowledging Menchu’s legitimacy would “indeed indict the whole of the West and all of its works” – because the depiction of the civil war in her book did not include a communist element influenced by outside forces, but instead attributed the indigenous support of the guerillas to a fight against Guatemalan racism and the horrendous social and economic situation of the indigenous groups in Guatemala.
A writer called David Stoll wrote an entire book (which I haven’t read, so am merely repeating other reviews rather than positing my own opinion!) entitled Rigoberta Menchú and the story of all poor Guatemalans, in which Stoll claimed that many of the events in Rigoberta’s memoir were exaggerated or distorted. Ten years of research went into this book which was a full take-down of Rigoberta’s memoir, disputing even some of her most minor and off-hand comments.
Stoll highlighted two main inaccuracies. Firstly, Rigoberta did receive some education, despite saying she did not, and secondly, that she was not actually present at her brother’s death, so forcefully depicted. Having said that, Stoll found that the account of the execution was correct, but just that it was unlikely that Rigoberta witnessed it firsthand. He also made several other assertions which have since been proven to be false.
Stoll’s book then took on a life of its own, leading to some to say that “virtually everything Menchu has written is a lie” (Stoll did not say that). Stoll attempted to distance himself from these critics, saying that his main purpose had not been to discredit Menchu’s entire memoir but rather to posit a different theory in relation to the start of the civil war: that the quality of life of the Maya had been improving and so they joined the fight led by the guerillas to escape state terror, rather than for idealistic reasons motivated by social conditions. Stoll argued that the revolution was actually begun and led by “middle-class radicals” ideologically motivated by the Cuban revolution.
Since this controversy, a UN truth commission investigated what had happened during the civil war, basically finding in Menchú’s favour rather than Stoll’s. More importantly than an academic controversy, the truth commission found that the Guatemalan military had been responsible for 93% of the human rights violations that occurred during the war, and that there had been an actual genocide (applying the terms of the law, rather then just using inflammatory language) of the indigenous communities in Guatemala. The truth commission found that between 1982 and 1983, there had been 626 army massacres, describing it as a campaign of “total destruction“.
The UN Commission said
“In the majority of cases, massacres were not limited to the mass execution of individuals. They included barbarism that is difficult to believe upon first reading… Beheaded corpses; mutilated bodies; pregnant women with their bellies slashed open by machete or bayonet; impalement; “the smell of burnt flesh”; cadavers devoured by dogs.”
With those horrible images I will leave it here, but I would very much recommend reading I, Rigoberta if you are going to visit Guatemala.