Teaching the I, Rigoberta Menchu Controversy
Rare is the indigenous woman who receives a Nobel Prize; rarer still that she should do so without controversy. Most controversies dissipate when both sides lose interest or weary of arguing-however, the controversy over Rigoberta Menchu's testimonio has been waged now for over a decade and shows no signs of abating. Any mention of Menchu will inevitably lead one to David Stoll, the anthropologist who accused Menchu of fabrications in the text of I, Rigoberta Menchu. Stoll first made his doubts known in 1990 at the Western Humanities Conference held at Berkeley; however it was not until the New York Times (December 1998) article that the general public became aware of Stoll's accusations against Menchu's testimony. Stoll published his book, Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, the result of ten years of research on the Menchu text, in 1999.
Stoll's main allegation is that Menchu distorted facts, thus weakening her account and making it obvious that her testimony is a political propaganda piece for the Marxist guerilla cause. Stoll suggests that Menchu's voice was "colonized" by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray to further a flagging political. Behind the romantic picture of the poor Mayan peasant farmers bravely defending their land from the evil, greedy ladino landowners, Stoll reveals what he considers to be the real Menchus-guerrilla sympathizers who provoked the Guatemalan Army's arrival in Chimel and brought their own disaster on themselves.
Spinning off from the heart of the controversy, Stoll's challenge to the veracity of Menchu's story, are many unanswered questions for educators. Is this a political or a cultural text? What is the nature of the genre of testimonio? How should Menchu's text be read? Should the Menchu/Stoll controversy be taught in the classroom or ignored? Mary Louise Pratt says that "Scholars face an opportunity and a responsibility to work through the issues the controversy raises, which include a series of important epistemological, methodological, and ethical questions" (29-30).
As Pratt points out, privileged students are often made uncomfortable upon first encountering Menchu's testimony (39). Student reactions will vary but typically may fall into three categories-immediate empathy and acceptance of the text; rejection of the text; or cautious examination of the text. Introducing students to the Stoll/Menchu controversy can be done by having them read Stoll's text followed by Arturo Arias' examination of the controversy in The Rigoberta MenchuControversy. Arias' book is divided into three sections-an introductory background of Menchu and the controversy; primary documents from newspaper articles, interviews, and official statements; and scholarly responses to the controversy analyzing its cultural, political, and historical implications.
Anyone contemplating teaching I, Rigoberta Menchu needs to be aware of the controversy, if, for no other reason, than to allow students to question and resist texts as an appropriate and productive activity which leads to the development of critical, analytical skills. Students need to be allowed to question texts without being made to feel politically incorrect, culturally insensitive or a social elitist. Stoll raises some serious questions that situate the teaching of Postcolonial texts as a political activity. Some students will accept the text as a true and powerful narrative detailing cultural repression, but others will view the text as a political ploy and experience its power as emotionally manipulative. A student may experience this reaction while still being empathetic to the plight of culturally oppressed people.
In our classrooms we must create an atmosphere that invites inquiry and encourages the critical examination of cultural texts, rather than enshrining them as sacred documents. We can also admit that the ideological values of other cultures are open to be questioned and resisted-such as the Taliban's burka and Muslim female circumcision rites. As educators, we can give our students permission and encouragement to interrogate any and all texts and develop the skills necessary to scrutinize the author's motives. We can model ways to question while upholding and respecting the author's right to his cultural values and opinions.
My interpretation of Stoll is that while he believes it is ethical to teach respect and empathy for colonized third world cultures, it is just as important ethically to help our students be able to "read" a text and understand its construction and creation of power. To ask, "How does this book create meaning?" "How does this book influence the reader?" In other words, a text like I, Rigoberta Menchu can be taught both sympathetically and critically. In fact, Stoll argues, it must be taught that way or else we fail our students.
My suggestions for teaching this text include pre-teaching. Familiarize students with the genre of testimonio-a Latin American genre in which the experience of one person may represent or symbolize the experience of a whole group of people. Familiarize students with Guatemalan geography. As Eduardo Galeano said, "Most American don't have a clue where this country, Guatemala, with its exotic name so hard to pronounce, is located" (100). Familiarize students with Guatemalan history so that they will understand the political causes behind Menchu's emotional rationalizations for insurgency. Also, familiarize students with the connection between language and the creation of ideology-specifically how this particular text creates an unconscious reification of indigena cultural values while encouraging students to harshly judge their own.
Suggested classroom activities could include a candid discussion of the Menchu/Stoll controversy and its implications. I also suggest introducing other texts about Mayan culture and the Civil War such as Montejo's Testimony: Death of a Guatemalan Village, Mario Payeras' Days of the Jungle and James Sexton's Son of Tecun Uman: A Mayan Indian Tells His Life Story. There are many activities suggested in Teaching and Testimony for teaching Menchu's story sans the controversy. Some include having students write their own testimonio, role playing, dramatic presentations of scenes, preparing food. One that particularly interested me was a teacher who had his class compare and contrast various reports from newspapers and magazines on the Spanish embassy take-over with Menchu's description. The idea is not just to read and discuss the book, but to actively engage students through pedagogical strategies to deepen their awareness and experience of cultural texts.
Whether or not to teach the controversy is a divided issue among educators. As a compositionist, I think it should be. I want to examine how Menchu's language of polarity creates and promotes the identity of victimization. I want to know if the polarization so evident in this text (us vs. them; good vs. evil) is accurate or exaggerated. I want to know if I am being manipulated to accept unthinkingly another person's political opinions (Marxism) disguised as romantic cultural rhetoric. I want my students to raise their own questions as they encounter this text. The last thing I want them to do this with this or any text is to passively accept it . If, after challenging and examining it, the student accepts it completely then well and good, but at least they had practice in comparing, contrasting, questioning, and analyzing-skills we need to encourage our students to develop. I agree with Victor D. Montejo who says, "I think the two books and many more on these issues should be consulted in order to see that history is reconstructed with multiple voices and not by a single voice or truth" (390).
It is inescapable that critical pedagogy of cultural texts, and especially this text, will be controversial. In "Her," Rosa Montero says, "It would seem that those who denounce Menchu, obsessed by small details, have lost sight of the big picture" (76). Those that unquestioningly defend Menchu are often guilty of the same thing or else have never read Stoll's book. Stoll is the first to admit that the "big picture"-thousands of Mayans murdered by the Guatemalan Army is accurate. What Stoll stubbornly directs attention to is something beyond the surface facts of cultural oppression (of which there is no dispute). Stoll's argument is about meaning-how it is created and maintained and passed on in the classroom. While Stoll believes it is ethical to teach respect and empathy for colonized third world cultures, he also believe it is just as important to help students be able to "read" a text and understand its construction and creation of power. To ask, "How does this book create meaning?" "How does this book influence the reader?" In other words, by introducing students to the Menchu/Stoll controversy we can teach cultural texts both sympathetically and critically. In fact, Stoll argues, they must be taught that way or else we fail as educators.
Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans
By DAVID STOLL
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The Story of All Poor Guatemalans
My name is Rigoberta Menchú. I am twenty three years old. This is my testimony. I didn't learn it from a book and I didn't learn it alone. I'd like to stress that it's not only my life, it's also the testimony of my people.... The important thing is that what has happened to me has happened to many other people too: My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.
—I, Rigoberta Menchú, p. 1
Gingerly, I was feeling my way into the Ixil Maya town of Chajul, in the western highlands of Guatemala. Except for the occasional fiesta, it was a quiet place of white-washed adobe and red-tiled roofs, where children played ingenious games with pieces of junk and adults were more polite than friendly. The majority spoke a bit of Spanish, but their own language was Ixil (pronounced ee-sheel), one of the twenty forms of Maya spoken by Guatemalans descended from the pre-Columbian civilization. In the early 1980s, the Guatemalan army burned down all the surrounding villages in order to defeat a Marxist-led guerrilla movement. Occasionally the army still brought in prisoners from the surrounding mountains, to be trucked off to an unknown fate. Or it flung down a corpse in the plaza as a warning of what happened to subversives. Under the circumstances, I had no right to expect that anyone would be willing to talk about what had happened—not while peasant guerrillas continued to fight, certain villages remained under their control, and the rest of the population was under the army's suspicious eye.
Fortunately, some Chajules were willing to help me. Among them was an elder named Domingo. Now that he had related the town's sufferings, I was asking about other incidents in human rights reports, to see if he could corroborate them. Suddenly Domingo was giving me a puzzled look. One of my questions had caught him off guard. The army burned prisoners alive in the town plaza? Not here, he said. Yet this is what I had read in I, Rigoberta Menchú, the life story of the young K'iche' Maya woman who, a few years later, won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Domingo and I were on the main street, looking toward the old colonial church that towers over the plaza. It was the plaza where, according to the book that made Rigoberta famous, soldiers lined up twenty-three prisoners including her younger brother Petrocinio. The captives were disfigured from weeks of torture, their bodies were swollen like bladders, and pus oozed from their wounds. Methodically, the soldiers scissored off the prisoners' clothes, to show their families how each injury had been inflicted by a different instrument of torture. Following an anticommunist harangue, the soldiers soaked the captives in gasoline and set them afire. With her own eyes, Rigoberta had watched her brother writhe to death. This was the climactic passage of her book, reprinted in magazines and read aloud at conferences, with the hall darkened except for a spotlight on the narrator. Yet the army had never burned prisoners alive in the town plaza, Domingo said, and he was the first of seven townsmen who told me the same.
Quiché Department, where Chajul is located and Rigoberta was born, is inhabited by peasants with a seemingly unshakable dedication to growing maize. There is an epic quality to its mountains and valleys, and Quiché strikes many visitors as beautiful. But up close the mountainsides are scarred by deforestation and erosion. Many of the corn patches are steep enough to lose your footing. They would not be worth cultivating unless you were short of land, which most of the population is. The terrain is so unpromising that after the Spanish conquered it in the sixteenth century, they turned elsewhere in their search for wealth. Instead of seizing estates for themselves, they handed the region over to Catholic missionaries. Only a century ago did boondock capitalism come to Quiché, in the form of outsiders who used liquor to lure Indians into debt and march them off to plantations. By the 1970s the descendants of several heavily exploited generations were defending their rights more effectively than before. But if the worst had ended, there were still plenty of accumulated grievances.
Arguably this is why a group called the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) suddenly became a popular movement at the end of the 1970s. The brief liberation it effected was followed by a crushing military occupation. Like other guerrilla strongholds of the 1980s—such as Chalatenango and Morazán Departments in El Salvador and Ayacucho Province in Peru—Quiché became a burned-over district. In 1981-1982 the war here and in other parts of the Guatemalan highlands killed an estimated 35,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands of others. Afterward, one item not in short supply was the horror story. In Chajul, for alleged contacts with guerrillas, soldiers hung dozens of civilians from the balcony of the town hall. Others had their throats cut and were left to be eaten by dogs. Still others died inside houses that soldiers turned into funeral pyres. And this is not to mention the widows (645) and orphans (1,425). To defeat an invisible enemy, the army killed thousands of civilians in Chajul and the two other Ixil municipios. Hundreds more were killed by the guerrillas to keep their wavering followers in line.
The most widely read account of the Guatemalan violence came from a twenty-three-year-old woman who grew up in the nearby municipio of Uspantán. Rigoberta Menchú was born in a peasant village where Spanish was a foreign language and nearly everyone was illiterate. Instead of reciting massacres and death counts at numbing length, Rigoberta told the story of her life into a tape recorder, in Spanish rather than her native language of K'iche' Maya, for a week in Paris in 1982. The interviewer, an anthropologist named Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, transcribed the results, put them into chronological order, and published them as a testimonio, or oral autobiography, running 247 pages in English.
Rigoberta's story includes warm memories of her childhood in an indigenous village living in harmony with itself and nature. But her parents are so poor that every year they and their children go to Guatemala's South Coast, to work for miserable wages harvesting coffee and cotton. Conditions are so appalling on the fincas (plantations) that two of her brothers die there. Back in the highlands Rigoberta's father, Vicente Menchú, starts a settlement called Chimel at the edge of the forest north of Uspantán. The hero of his daughter's account, Vicente faces two enemies in his struggle for land. The first consists of nearby plantation owners, nonindigenous ladinos, who claim the land for themselves. On two occasions plantation thugs throw the Menchús and their neighbors out of their houses. Vicente is also thrown into prison twice and beaten so badly that he requires nearly a year of hospitalization.
Vicente's other enemy is the government's National Institute for Agrarian Transformation (INTA). In theory INTA helps peasants obtain title to public land, but according to Rigoberta what it really does is help landlords expand their estates. There ensues a purgatory of threats from surveyors, summons to the capital, and pressure to sign mysterious documents. To pay for the lawyers, secretaries, and witnesses needed to free Vicente from prison, the entire family submits to further wage exploitation. Rigoberta goes to Guatemala City to work for a wealthy family who feed their dog better than her. Her father becomes involved in peasant unions and, after 1977, is away much of the time, living in clandestinity and organizing other peasants facing the same threats. After years of persecution, he helps start the legendary Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC), a peasant organization that joins the guerrilla movement.
In the course of these events, the adolescent Rigoberta acquires a profound revolutionary consciousness. Like her father, she becomes a catechist (lay leader) for the Catholic Church. When the army raids villages, she teaches them to defend themselves by digging stake pits, manufacturing Molotov cocktails, even capturing stray soldiers. But self-defense fails to protect her family from being devoured by atrocities. First there is the kidnapping of her younger brother Petrocinio, who after weeks of torture is burned to death at Chajul. Then her father goes to the capital to lead protesters who, in a desperate bid for attention, occupy the Spanish embassy on January 31, 1980.
In a crime reported around the world, riot police assault the embassy. Vicente Menchú and thirty-five other people die in the ensuing fire, which is widely blamed on an incendiary device launched by the police. International opinion is outraged. But that is no protection for Rigoberta's family. Next the army kidnaps her mother, who is raped and tortured to death. In homage to her martyred parents, Rigoberta becomes an organizer for the Committee for Campesino Unity. Never having had the chance to attend school, she learns to speak Spanish with the help of priests and nuns. As she becomes a leader in her own right, the security forces pick up her trail, and she escapes to Mexico.
Ten years after telling her story to Elisabeth Burgos, Rigoberta received the Nobel Peace Prize, as a representative of indigenous peoples on the 500th anniversary of the European colonization of the Americas. The Nobel Committee also wanted to encourage the stalled peace talks between the Guatemalan government and its guerrilla adversaries in the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG). In theory Rigoberta's homeland had returned to democracy, but the army still imposed narrow parameters on what could be said and done. Perhaps international recognition for one of its victims would encourage the army to make concessions.
An International Symbol for Human Rights
We won the Nobel for literature for a country that is illiterate, and now we win the Nobel for peace for a war that never ends.
—Old man in the street, 1993
When I, Rigoberta Menchú appeared in 1983, no one imagined that the narrator would become a Nobel laureate. Soon it was clear that this was one of the most powerful narratives to come out of Latin America in recent times. The book had quite an impact on readers, including many who know Guatemala well. Because it was effectively banned from Rigoberta's country during the 1980s, most readers were foreigners, who could pick up the book in any of eleven languages into which the original Spanish was translated. Rigoberta became a well-known figure on the human rights circuit in Europe and North America, served on UN commissions, and was showered with honorary doctorates. A few months before the Nobel, she was sorting through 260 international invitations, including one from the prime minister of Austria and another from the queen of England. Two years later she said there were more than seven thousand.
One reason Rigoberta's story achieved such credibility is that, to anyone familiar with how native people have been dispossessed by colonialism, it sounded all too familiar. Her experiences were an amazing microcosm of the wider processes that over the past five hundred years have taken the land of indigenous people, exploited their labor, and reduced them to second-class citizens in their own countries. Standing in for European colonizers were their contemporary heirs, the Spanish-speaking whites and mestizos known as ladinos.
As the chronicle of a woman belonging to an oppressed racial group, I, Rigoberta Menchú spoke to wider concerns in intellectual life. In North American universities, it became part of a hotly debated new canon at the intersection of feminism, ethnic studies, and literature known as multiculturalism. For conservatives, the book exemplified the displacement of Western classics by Marxist diatribes. To their ears, Rigoberta's references to cultural resistance, liberation theology, and armed struggle sounded like an improbable pastiche of politically correct jargon. Even well-wishers could find her sanctimonious, a fountain of hard-to-swallow ideology whose virtuous peasants and villainous landlords were all too reminiscent of several centuries of the Western literary imagination. In Rigoberta's own country, the upper classes regarded her as a dupe for the comandantes, the URNG's exiled ladino leaders in Mexico. Many ordinary Guatemalans were uneasy, too, over her ties to a guerrilla movement that, even after she received the peace prize, rejected calls for a cease-fire.
But for the Guatemalan left, its allies in the rest of Latin America, and their North American and European sympathizers, I, Rigoberta Menchú was a stirring example of resistance to oppression. They regarded it as an authoritative text on the social roots of political violence, indigenous attitudes toward colonialism, and debates about ethnicity, class, and identity. That it took place in Guatemala was no coincidence, because this is a country that has long attracted foreigners out of proportion to its size. What they find is a rich culture and a political tragedy, the latter of which many date to 1954, the year the United States overthrew an elected government and replaced it with an anticommunist dictatorship. When Rigoberta told her story, a credible presidential election had not been held for thirty years. At the start of 1982, nonetheless, a coalition of Marxist guerrilla organizations seemed on the verge of changing everything. Victory was within reach because the army officers running Guatemala had gone berserk, to the point of alienating their own upper-class allies. Indignant over government kidnappings and massacres, more Guatemalans were looking to the guerrillas for liberation, especially in the indigenous-populated highlands northwest of the capital.
Taped in Paris, Rigoberta's testimony captured the terror and hope of the revolutionary apogee in Central America. Like the guerrillas in neighboring El Salvador, the Guatemalan rebels wanted to repeat the 1979 Sandinista victory in Nicaragua. They wanted to dismantle a repressive military apparatus, distribute landed estates, and turn a capitalist society into a socialist one. But the rebels expanded too quickly, beyond their capacity to organize supporters. Weapons failed to arrive from revolutionary Cuba, leaving villagers at the mercy of an army on the rampage. Just as the various guerrilla organizations coalesced into the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union, the tide turned against them. Their civilian infrastructure failed to hold up under the army's slaughters. By mid-1982 they were in headlong retreat. To all but their staunchest supporters, it was clear that the army had won the war.
A decade later the guerrillas were still a nuisance, but they never recovered the support they had in the early 1980s. Without hope of seizing power, the URNG kept up a bush war to obtain "peace with justice"—major concessions in negotiations that dragged on for six years. Guatemala returned to civilian rule in 1986, but it was still dominated by the army, which saw no reason to be generous with an enemy that was only a shadow of its former strength. This was the stalemate behind one of the longest internal conflicts in Latin America. As international pressure mounted on the belligerents, debates over human rights became a more decisive arena than the battlefield.
When Rigoberta told her story in 1982, she was straightforward about her relation to the guerrillas. Unlike her two younger sisters, she was not a combatant in the Guerrilla Army of the Poor. But she did belong to two organizing fronts, the Vicente Menchú Revolutionary Christians and the Committee for Campesino Unity, which were openly committed to the EGP. Although cadres like herself usually did not carry weapons, they were as good as dead if caught by the security forces. At the time, Rigoberta's candor about her revolutionary affiliations was not a liability because the enemy was a dictatorship that had lost all legitimacy. The guerrillas seemed to have a good chance of winning and enjoyed wide sympathy abroad. Within a few years, however, it was clear that armed struggle was going nowhere. The guerrillas lost credibility with most Guatemalans; the army transferred power to civilians in a supposed return to democracy. Around this time Rigoberta's relation to the URNG and the EGP became murky. It turned into a delicate subject that could not be raised without counteraccusations of red-baiting.
Still, Rigoberta remained an obvious asset for the guerrillas because she focused all the blame for the violence on government forces. Never did she criticize her old comrades. Her story was so compelling that she became the revolutionary movement's most appealing symbol, pulling together images of resistance from the previous decade. She put a human face on an opposition that still had to operate in secret. She was also a Mayan Indian, validating the revolutionary movement's claim to represent Guatemala's indigenous people, who comprise roughly half the country's population of ten million. Although they were not free to speak their minds, she was, and she clearly supported the revolutionary movement even if it was led by non-indians.
Rigoberta also became the most widely recognized voice for another movement that was distinct from the insurgents. By the early 1990s, Pan-Mayanists were starting dozens of new organizations to overcome the barriers between Indians from different language groups, defend their culture, and achieve equality with ladinos. Unlike fellow Mayas who were already in URNG-aligned "popular organizations," the new wave of activists was critical of the guerrillas as well as the army. On the subject of Rigoberta, they had doubts about her apparent career with the URNG. But they could identify with her story of persecution, even if they did not know who she was until the revolutionary movement began publicizing her as a Nobel candidate. For this large audience, Rigoberta and her story represented what they had suffered.
Following the peace prize, one of my colleagues came across a man who told him: "All those things that happened to Rigoberta, they happened to me. I even wrote everything down, just like she did. And then I buried what I'd written. I buried it in the ground. But Rigoberta didn't bury what she wrote. She actually published it in a book, and now everybody can read what happened!" "She is working for our people," a relative told me. "She is our representative for the indigenous people, who are somewhat backward, not for people with power. What a miracle that someone like us who eats tortillas and chili arrived at the Nobel Prize. How I would like to know how that happened! She is speaking out for all of our people, not just for herself. I wish the blessings of God upon her."
Until the Nobel nomination allowed Rigoberta to tour Guatemala, her main audience was international. That was where she began to tell her story and where it vouched for the revolutionary movement's claim to represent Guatemalan Indians. Once the guerrillas had been defeated in most respects, their military activities declined to the level needed to maintain their claim as a national bargaining partner. The more important war became the international one, of images, and that is the war the guerrillas won with the help of I, Rigoberta Menchú. By telling the story of her life, Rigoberta translated easily ignored crimes into powerful international symbols that could be used against the army.
Most of the pressure that forced the army and the government to negotiate came from abroad, and it was generated by human rights imagery. In a recurring chain of events, the Guatemalan army would be accused of an atrocity, which human rights groups would then broadcast abroad. Obliged to respond, foreign governments and international bodies would then demand accountability from the Guatemalan government, on pain of withholding the next human rights certification or trade package. The country's elites learned that the only way to normalize relations with the rest of the world was to accept UN-sponsored peace talks. Without that transmission belt, which turned often complicated local situations into dramatic international symbols, a peace agreement probably would not have been signed at the end of 1996 between a civilian government, the still powerful army, and a rather vestigial guerrilla movement.
Taking Another Look at I, Rigoberta Menchú
When I began visiting northern Quiché in 1987, to interview peasants about the violence and reconstruction, I had no reason to doubt the veracity of I, Rigoberta Menchú. Nor did anyone else as far as I knew. What Rigoberta said about the Guatemalan army, the most important point of the book for most readers, rang true to other testimony. I recall being surprised when a routine atrocity check, described at the start of this chapter, failed to corroborate the immolation of her brother and other captives in the Chajul plaza. Since I was able to corroborate that the brother had died at Chajul, if not in the precise manner described, I did not feel obliged to call a press conference. My interviews were confirming so many of the accusations against the Guatemalan army that the problem seemed minor
Only after becoming very familiar with what peasants had to say did I realize that their testimony was not backing up Rigoberta's in two significant ways. Not at issue was the record of the Guatemalan army—in that respect her picture of the violence was true enough. Nor were the feelings of peasants toward the army. Most seemed just as bitter toward it as she was, even if they spoke in low tones because they were still under military occupation. What most peasants did not share with Rigoberta was, in the first place, her definition of the enemy. Unlike I, Rigoberta Menchú, which describes the guerrillas as liberation fighters, my Ixil sources tended to lump soldiers and guerrillas together as threats to their lives. Instead of being popular heroes, the guerrillas were, like soldiers, people with guns who brought suffering in their wake.
"They look for trouble, not the needs of the family," an ex-combatant told me, explaining why he accepted a government amnesty. "Both the guerrillas and the army like trouble. But we're a civilian population; we just want to cultivate our maize." An Ixil civil servant said, "It's not a problem between the people and the guerrillas, nor between the army and the people, but between [the army and the guerrillas].... They're using us as a shield because, when there are confrontations, the army sends patrollers [Ixil militiamen] to fight. And when the guerrillas attack, they bring civilians to fight with other civilians."
Obviously, the contrast with Rigoberta's testimony could be one of time. She was telling her story, in 1982, at the height of revolutionary mobilization, when more peasants supported the guerrillas. Back then, many more peasants might have echoed her statements. Perhaps I was simply arriving too late to hear how they felt, and how they might express themselves in the future. Yet my interviews with Ixils also raised a second, more troubling contrast with Rigoberta's portrait of the violence that could not be explained as the result of disillusion with once popular guerrillas.
The peasants of I, Rigoberta Menchú have been pushed to the wall by plantation owners and soldiers hunting down dissidents. Her village has little choice but to organize for self-defense and look to the guerrillas for help. The insurgency therefore springs from the most basic need of peasants, for their land. This is the socioeconomic explanation for insurgency, the immiseration or oppression thesis, which is how guerrilla organizations and their supporters customarily justify the cost of armed struggle. If the people face ever worsening conditions, then they have no choice but to confront the system, whereupon the guerrillas show up to provide leadership.
These were not the prewar conditions I heard about in my interviews with nearby Ixils. Certainly they were living under a military dictatorship, some ladinos had evil reputations, and at least a few Ixils were eager to become guerrillas at an early date. But this was not a population that could defend itself only by force. Instead, Ixils were learning to use local elections and the courts. The 1960s and 1970s were for them, as for many Guatemalan peasants, an era of modest gains. The first armed groups in their accounts were usually guerrillas, whom many blamed for the subsequent arrival of soldiers. Army kidnappings began not in reaction to peaceful efforts by Ixils to improve their lot but to guerrilla organizing and ambushes. If anyone ignited political violence in Ixil country, it was the Guerrilla Army of the Poor. Only then had the security forces militarized the area and turned it into a killing ground.
Had nearby Uspantán been different? Or was I, Rigoberta Menchú voicing a rationale for insurgency that did not really come from peasants, that instead came from someone claiming to speak for them? No one had ever interviewed Rigoberta's old neighbors to compare their stories with hers. In June 1989 I went to Uspantán for the first time. My visit confirmed the basic outline of I, Rigoberta Menchú—that she came from the village of Chimel and that her father, mother, and younger brother died early in the violence. Yet a single day in Uspantán raised other problems with Rigoberta's account. At this point I did what any sensible graduate student does with a controversial discovery. I dropped the subject and scuttled back to my doctoral dissertation. It was only later, back in the United States, that I realized that I would have to face the authority of Rigoberta's story. An unimportant discrepancy, over how her brother died in Chajul, was the first sign of a more significant one: the considerable gap between the voice of revolutionary commitment incarnated by Rigoberta and the peasant voices I was listening to.
My findings in Ixil country raised broader issues, debated wherever men with guns claim popular support. Did armed struggle begin as a defensive response by oppressed peasants? Or was it a strategy launched by some outside group? Does the rapid spread of a guerrilla movement demonstrate that it has wide backing? Or could it thrive on the basis of a small vanguard, with repression and polarization forcing inhabitants to choose sides? When peasants provide food, shelter, and fighters to rebels, do they want to accomplish more or less what the rebels want to accomplish? Finally, do guerrilla strategists achieve what they claim to? Does armed struggle protect peasants from repression and empower them, or is it a high-risk strategy that usually ends in defeat and disillusion, after sacrificing peasants to romantic images of resistance?
Judging from Ixil stories about the violence, I decided that debates in sociology and political science about why peasants join insurgencies were not taking into account the elementary facts of life in such situations. According to Ixils, once the EGP moved into the area and started holding village rallies, they were on the horns of a dilemma. If on the one hand they cooperated with the guerrillas, the army would kill them. If on the other hand they cooperated with the army, the guerrillas would kill them. "Estamos entre dos fuegos," they told me—"we're between two fires" or "we're caught in the crossfire." Since the guerrillas were less homicidal and more appealing than the soldiers, for a time many Ixils looked to them for protection against an enraged army. But most had not joined the guerrillas as a way of meeting their own needs. Instead, they did so to survive the repercussions of the EGP's own strategy. What resulted was not a deeply rooted popular movement, which helps explain why most peasants soon became disillusioned with it.
By the time my dissertation turned into a book, in 1993, the title had become Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala. It was not well received by many of my peers in the overlapping solidarity movement (which organizes support for the Central American left), the human rights movement (which is supposed to operate on principles of international law rather than political loyalties), and the scholarly community (many of whose members are activists or defer to them). The prevailing view was that the Ixils, and by extension the Guatemalan people, were not "between two armies." That was to draw a false equation between two forces with very different levels of credibility, one of whom the majority of Guatemalans saw as liberators and the other of whom they saw as oppressors. If fifteen percent of the population had died in the area where I was interviewing, how on earth did I know that survivors were telling me how they really felt?
Another objection was, "That's not what we read in I, Rigoberta Menchú." Rigoberta's 1982 story, produced while she was on tour for the revolutionary movement in Europe, had become the most accepted perspective on the relation between Guatemalan guerrillas and peasants. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the aura around Rigoberta's version of events extended far beyond her hometown, to encompass the entire war in the western highlands. Any analysis that contradicted her claims and those of the revolutionary movement that she validated was sure to raise hackles. In the solidarity and human rights milieu, as well as in much of the scholarly community, many still felt that Rigoberta's account deserved to be interpreted literally, as a monument to the popular roots of the guerrilla movement in its northern Quiché heartland. Or if the story had to be taken with a grain of salt, it was not the business of a North American anthropologist to confront it.
Actually, there were two arguments against challenging Rigoberta's 1982 account. One was pragmatic. Since her testimony had generated international pressure, which was finally forcing the government to negotiate with the guerrillas, it might not be the best time to question its credibility. This was an argument I could not dismiss. It was one of the reasons I decided to withhold my findings, in the hope that a peace agreement would be signed. I was less impressed with the second argument—that an anthropologist did not have the right to contradict Rigoberta's story because that would violate the right of a native person to tell her story in her own way.
Anthropologists have long collected life histories from people. Ordinarily we do not dwell on whether the results are true or not. The very idea of refuting a life story sounds journalistic. More important is the narrator's perspective and what this tells us about the culture. Aside from being a life story, however, I, Rigoberta Menchú was a version of events with specific political objectives. It was also the most widely hailed example of testimonio, the Latin American genre that has brought the lives of the poor into scholarship in their own powerful words. Everyone concedes that testimonios reflect personal viewpoints. But advocates also regard them as testimony—reliable sources of information and representative voices for entire social classes. "My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans," Rigoberta said, and her claim has been taken very seriously, by everyone from supporters of guerrilla movements to the Nobel Committee.
Although the laureate's reliability is a legitimate issue, the nature of my findings is inopportune for many scholars. Sociocultural anthropologists like myself are classified as social scientists, but much of our research belongs in the humanities. Recently we have been much affected by literary theory and postmodern skepticism about the very possibility of knowledge. Like other scholars influenced by these trends, we increasingly doubt our authority to make definitive statements about subordinate groups. Recoiling from the contribution of Western thought to colonialism, worried about our right to "represent" or depict the victims of this process, we wish to relegitimize ourselves by deferring to the perspective of the people we study and broadcasting their usually unheard voices.
As a believer in this project myself, I was trying to do just that, by complementing one indigenous voice with others that were not being heard. But not all such voices have been created equal. Some, like Rigoberta with her attractive politics, have been more welcome than others. Mayan peasants who reject the left tend to be dismissed as sellouts. Or perhaps they have been too repressed to say what is really on their minds, therefore what they say does not reflect their true feelings. In any case, identifying with certain kinds of marginalized voices has become a powerful new standard of legitimacy in scholarship, and Rigoberta Menchú is an obvious symbol of it. Sometimes she is invoked as if she were a patron saint, authorizing an otherwise illegitimate excursion into the affairs of her people. To some scholars, therefore, challenging the reliability of I, Rigoberta Menchú is little short of outrageous. It casts doubt on the entire project of bestowing authority on the voices of the oppressed—and on the authority that they themselves derive from it.
In Europe and the United States, I, Rigoberta Menchú has been one of the touchstones for widespread assumptions about Guatemala. If Rigoberta's portrait of how the violence started in Uspantán is true, then my interpretation of events in Ixil country could not be extended to a nearby area. It could mean that I was wrong about Ixil country. But if Rigoberta's version of events was misleading, then the acclaim for her 1982 story was encouraging misapprehensions about the problems facing peasants. It could also prop up a dubious standard of responsibility for outsiders—that it is enough to identify some person or group as representing the oppressed, then refrain from contradicting them.
(C) 1999 Westview Press, A Member of the Perseus Books Group All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-8133-3574-4