Return to Rigamarole Over Rigoberta

© 1999 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
              Responses to the Discussion Forum on I, Rigoberta Menchu
Some defenders of Ms. Menchú have argued that whether or not her book is strictly factually accurate is largely irrelevant, because even if it isn't, it still educates the reader on certain "realities" of life in Central America during the early 1980's.  But how does one derive insights about such realities from a false account?  No reasonably educated/informed person needs a book such as hers to learn about the fact that the Guatemalan military committed atrocities in its attempts to suppress leftist insurrections--that is well documented by many sources.  No, the distinctive educational "value" of Ms. Menchú's work can only lie in the truthfulness of the specific acts of barbarism she claims to have witnessed, because such events are not "common" knowledge. ... Unless, of course, one finds it politically useful to use exaggerated or outright false stories as the basis of propaganda--which, sadly, seems to be the case with those who find "value" in her book as an emotion--stirring "call to arms."

Indian people tell their own stories, and bear witness to events, to history, which happened to them and their family members.  The concept of an inner circle of knowledge is alive and well among many Native American people.  Oral histories and visual arts are means for remembering.  Denial to outsiders is a means of keeping information intact, and often, to ensure safety of witnesses, or privacy.  Rigoberta Menchú's story is the story of indigenous peoples of the Americas; the forcible taking of land and subsistence by others for their material gain.  Her story tells the truth of a contemporary Maya, and other Native Americans, who are trying to resolve the events of the past (most of which have yet to be recognized and believed by mainstream society and academia).  Her story is about the history of the fledgling and current United States, as a statement of the wars waged against indigenous people for the cause of capitalism, which of course, needs resources and people to exploit in order to function. ... As a collective, as intellectuals, and as human beings, we need to examine U.S. political policies of the past and the present.  To do so means believing what seems unbelievable:  stories of genocide, torture, rape, and mass emigration to flee an unlivable situation; whether eastern bands fleeing to the Plains and the Great Lakes, or Mayas fleeing to the garment factories of Los Angeles.
I am one of the many North Americans who traveled to Central America in the mid 80's to learn more about political conditions in those countries.  I have a copy of Rigoberta Menchú's book along with other writings of that time period from El Salvador and Nicaragua.  I also was actively involved in the Sanctuary movement when Central Americans were fleeing to the United States.  I heard many stories during that time with some overlap of events recalled and seemingly obvious attempts to elicit sympathies mixed with facts of actual oppression.  I learned to note the similarities, yet not discount the thread of common truths.  I believe that this book should continue to be used as an excellent example of the time period and its conditions.  At the same time I also believe it should be viewed as oral history rather than literal fact.  Students should be taught to consider the messages of the books they read as a means of understanding the human condition.  We do not teach the writings of the Bible as literal documents; neither do we throw away the importance of its message.  I, Rigoberta Menchú is not the Bible, but it is an example of stories from the history of humanity that is worth knowing.

After having lived in Guatemala for several years, one has a broader scope on the cultural norms.  Menchú may be telling the truth about her life or she may not.  This does not dismiss the impact that Menchú has made on the lives of many indigenous people.  Any Gringo who enters Guatemala researching any story will receive misinformation.  Guatemalans, from my experience and those of many colleagues, must gain trust in you before they will share accurate details.  This period may take anywhere from two years to ten years, depending on the person.  Typically when Guatemalans are asked a question, and especially about a popular figure that is so controversial as Rigoberta Menchú, people have a tendency to give you what you want to hear.  Leading questions get the results you want.  They do this out of respect and the desire to give you the right answer that you want to hear.  I severely question the validity of the research.  I will continue to support Menchú and respect her for all the hard work she has done for her people and her country.

I am struck, in this list of responses, by those who continue ingenuously to propagate a concept of Rigoberta's book as "true" according to a "non-Western" "ontology" or "epistemology."  One must perform Oedipian feats of intellectual self-mutilation in order to continue to believe that Rigoberta is not a well-educated woman fluent in Western language and culture and that her book is not a Western text.  Certainly there is much of value in the work, but this does not require the erection of a critical scaffolding of dishonesties and evasions to rival and compound any exaggeration in the original book.  No amount of jargon or appeal to phantom "traditions of testimony" can eradicate the fact that Rigoberta is an intelligent, conscious, modern woman, and that her book falls directly and demonstrably within a Western literary tradition, with precedents in North American ethnography. ... I continue to be amazed, not by how some can still see value in a text whose truth-value is (as it has always been) tainted, but by how some think their ideological correctness justifies any lack of reason.

It seems strange to me that so many eminent scholars insist that the Mayan culture should be identical to the Euro-American, science-based, linear one to be valid.  Maya is a very old culture, much battered in the last centuries, but its world view is quite different from the one in which most of us were raised.  What is your family?  Blood relatives?  Siblings and parents?  Or the community?  Your linguistic "relatives?"  Is time always linear, or does it move in multiple ways?  It seems to me we are cheating our students if they only have linear, factually proved things to read.  By the way, does factually proved mean recorded in the newspaper?  Students need to see things that are different, world views that are radically different from theirs.  If they never see anything outside their own narrow culture, where we are far surer of "fact" than ever we should be, they will have no perspective, no judgment and little learning.  Ask them to find the "truth" in such a book, not just the historical narrative.  That should keep them hopping for a while.
This is an amazing and embarrassing discussion.  Is it a paroxysm of white liberal guilt that is causing so many presumably intelligent people to tie themselves up in such knots?  If Menchú lied, she lied.  If she intended her book to be taken as factual truth, it was a lie (apparently); if she was telling a story, as story-tellers have for millennia, and the tale was mistaken for factual truth, then lots of people ought to feel silly.  This is a simple issue.  There's no need to obscure it with blather about "telling her truth."  Regardless, as several have pointed out, the horrors of what has gone in Central America need addressing, and if her book helps do that, more power to it.  But present it as what it is:  a work intended to stir people to action, not a factual account.

The region Rigoberta writes about in her autobiography, including Chajul, was the most intensively terrorized population by the military's counterinsurgency efforts during the eighties.  It also was the region Pedro de Alvarado pillaged in the 1520's, burning the library of Uspantan and pillaging all of its villagers.  They have seen plenty over the centuries to suspect outsiders.  Yet Stoll appears to objectify the Maya who live there, assuming they will give him a full account, yet naively overlooking the "politics of testimony." ... Never mind that most of the Elders and sympathizers with Maya revitalization have been killed or fled.  Never mind that the [area] has been inundated with evangelists and missionaries attempting to bring the population out of its cultural religious roots.  Never mind that survivors of the scorched earth campaign and "model-villages" of the eighties who stuck around in Civil Patrols are still very inclined toward saying what the government/outsiders want to hear.  Many need to deny the past to survive into a modern political state.  Facing their experience is real psychological pain, and the courage shown by Maya communities in the exhumations and truth commission investigations is a far more significant story than discrediting survivors' "testimonios."  The real story is about the atrocities these people have endured and the Revindication of a culture that has resisted conquest for centuries.  To this story Rigoberta's autobiography rings true.  One of the issues raised by Stoll's book is how we may understand "testimonio" and the voices of indigenous peoples when telling us their experiences.  A "participant observer" must know that the stories of a person's life are fraught with memories mixed into the multivalent life of one's community.  The communitarian experience of Maya communities problematizes any possible "objective" account.  Indigenous Maya are not objects, and their ways of voicing their stories cannot fit our categories.  We are fortunate to have the powerful voice of Rigoberta in her autobiography, which from the outset is a young survivor's personal recollection of a child that endured unimaginable horrors, and lived to tell her story.
In 1838 the American Anti-Slavery Society published The Narrative of James Williams by an American Slave.  This was the first narrative by a fugitive slave published under the auspices of organized abolition.  The story was soon challenged by a newspaper editor from Alabama.  Like Rigoberta Menchú, Williams apparently fudged the details of his story for political effect.  The controversy over his book bears a strong resemblance to the current debates over Menchú.  One group of abolitionists--those based in Boston--were willing to stand by Williams and his story, arguing that even if he had "resorted to artfulness" he had captured the truth of the "foundations upon which slavery rests."  As Lydia Maria Child put it, "it is not the slightest consequence whether James Williams told the truth or not."  A group in New York, however, saw the matter differently, and insisted that the book be withdrawn from circulation.  Even if Williams captured the larger wrongs of slavery, abolitionists James Birney and Lewis Tappan wrote, his fabrications undercut the political value of his story.  Like Menchú, Williams had based his authority on an account of personal experience.  For the poor and powerless, personal experience is often the foundation of a political claim.  And it is here that problems with fabricated experience begin.  In altering the details of her experience, Rigoberta Menchú risked underming the political efficacy of her story, for like the fugitive slave, she asked readers to act on her story because she was a believable narrator.  Menchú may well capture the deepest truths of the oppression of poor people in Central America, but in inventing the details of her story, she violated the principles that gave authority to her voice.  Perhaps we need to grant Menchú the right to invent details and to make rhetorical arguments.  We can read her book, then, not as literal truth, but as polemic in the struggle for human rights.  James Williams, I think, wanted to be read the same way.

I am a native from Guatemala. Although I have many doubts concerning Rigoberta's veracity, I am inclined to defend her status, since very little has been done to recognize minorities in this world.  I have heard Rigoberta speak on more than two occasions, her speech seems to me to be that of an intellectual.  Therefore, it led me to believe that she knew Castillian before she became a leader that represents the many voices of Indian life.  Besides, she is capable of writing intellectual poetry, which she does very well.  Nevertheless, she deserves the recognition, even though her testimony may be somehow false.  If her testimony is false, it, however, is based in true facts, for many of the events that she narrates, one can confirm it in any international newspaper. (Note:  some of these responses have been edited for length; this is but a sampling of the many responses submitted in this debate.  Feel free to look at more of the discussion.  Also, you can read the preface to David Stoll's book where he lays out his argument).
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