Rigoberta Menchu

Born:January 9, 1959 (age 65)
Career:Guatemalan indigenous rights activist, author

Rigoberta Menchú has been a passionate spokesperson for the rights of indigenous peoples. She won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work on behalf of the indigenous groups of Guatemala, her native country. However, her work has made her a leading voice for the rights of indigenous peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Rigoberta Menchú was born on January 9, 1959, in Chimel, a village in the Quiché province in the mountainous northwest region of Guatemala. Menchú started working on southern coastal cotton and coffee plantations when she was eight, and at age 13, she experienced her first close contact with people of Spanish culture when she worked as a maid for a wealthy family in Guatemala City. At this time, Menchú also experienced discrimination against Indians practiced by Latinos. Her employers made her sleep on the floor, on a mat next to the family dog.

Menchú's political beliefs were shaped by Guatemala's troubled history. In 1954, a left-wing civilian president was removed from power by a coup d'état that was supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. After this coup, the country was ruled by military officers. When a guerrilla movement opposed to the military rulers began in 1962, the government responded violently. They arrested and killed not only the guerrillas, but also those who supported them or were believed to support them, especially in the countryside.

Political violence began again in the 1970s, when government pressure was applied so widely and harshly that U.S. president Jimmy Carter halted economic aid to Guatemala after repeated warnings to the government to stop human rights violations. Guatemala's Indians, who made up 60 percent of the population, were forced to move into "model villages" and to serve in the military. In this environment, movements to benefit the conditions of Indians were viewed as part of a communist plot by the government.

Menchú became politically active, inspired in part by her religious beliefs. Like many others in Central America, she was influenced by Liberation Theology, a movement that believes the Bible should be read through the eyes of the poor, and that Jesus Christ had a special message of freedom for poor people. Another important influence was Menchú's father, Vicente, who was active in the Peasant Unity Committee, a group that fought to obtain land for peasants and to protect the land they held from being seized by wealthy landowners. Rigoberta Menchú joined the committee in 1979, and was asked to organize the country's 22 Indian groups against exploitation. Later that year, her teenage brother was tortured and then killed by the army. The following year she lost her father when he, along with other representatives of indigenous groups, occupied the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City as part of a protest activity. The army attacked the embassy and burned it, killing 39 people, including Menchú's father.

The next year Menchú's mother was kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the Guatemalan army, and two of her sisters joined the guerrillas. Life in Guatemala had become too dangerous, and Menchú fled to Mexico in 1981. There she began an international crusade to represent the hardships of the Guatemalan Indians and joined the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations. In 1983, while Menchú was in Paris to promote her cause, she dictated her life story to Elizabeth Burgos. The result was the widely read book "I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala," which was translated into more than a dozen languages. It brought her worldwide attention and helped her to become the foremost spokesperson for indigenous peoples.

In 1988, Menchú's first attempt to return to Guatemala ended badly when she was threatened and put in jail. However, she later visited her country again for short periods of time. In October of 1992, when Menchú was 33, she learned she would be given the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of the rights of indigenous peoples.

The following year, the Guatemalan government and rebel leaders signed a cease-fire agreement to end their 42-year conflict, Latin America's longest civil war. It was a war that Menchú and her family had fought hard to end.

Menchú's actions and statements have been considered controversial. Conservatives have accused her of being associated with communist groups, and the story of her life in her autobiography was questioned by journalist David Stoll in 1998. In his own book, "Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans," Stoll argued that Menchú had distorted key facts in her autobiography.

In 2000, she filed charges in a Spanish court against several officials in Guatemala's former military governments, accusing them of genocide, torture, and state terrorism against some 200,000 people who had been killed in her country during the 1980s. Menchú has also been a vocal opponent of the effects of globalization, or the increasing dominance of multinational corporations in the world's economy. In early 2002, she was among the most celebrated speakers at the World Social Forum, a gathering of anti-globalization protesters in Brazil that was timed to coincide with the World Economic Forum, a meeting of politicians and corporate officers that was held at the same time in New York, New York. In 2006, she and five other Nobel laureates - Shirin Ebadi, Jody Williams, Wangari Maathai, Betty Williams, and Mairead Corrigan Maguire - created the Nobel Women's Initiative to promote peace, justice and equality for women.


The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1998, July 20). “Rigoberta Menchú” Britannica. Retrieved November 28, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Rigoberta-Menchu

Nobel Prize Outreach AB. (n.d.). “Rigoberta Menchú Tum Biographical” The Nobel Peace Prize. Retrieved November 28, 2022. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1992/tum/biographical/

Nobel Prize Outreach AB. (n.d.). “Rigoberta Menchú Tum Facts” The Nobel Peace Prize. Retrieved November 28, 2022. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2003/ebadi/facts/

Nobel Women's Initiative. (n.d.). “Rigoberta Menchú Tum” Nobel Women's Initiative. Retrieved November 28, 2022. https://www.nobelwomensinitiative.org/rigobertamenchutum