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
Stephen Jaros, Assistant Professor of Management, Southern University (posted
2/22, 10:09 a.m., E.S.T.)
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.
Annie Ross, Professor, Institute of American Indian Arts (posted 1/20,
10:50 a.m., E.S.T.)
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
Doddie L. Stone, Unitarian Universalist Minister, Laconia, NH (posted 2/15,
4:37 p.m., E.S.T.)
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
Sauri, Program Coordinator (posted 1/21, 1:55 p.m., E.S.T.)
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.
Gareth Amaya Price, Independent Scholar (posted 2/12, 11:15 a.m., E.S.T.)
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.
Anne Ewing, Sanctuary Worker, First United Methodist Church of Germantown
(posted 1/20, 10:35 p.m., E.S.T.)
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.
H. Joel Jeffrey, Professor of Computer Science (posted 2/11, 2:38 p.m.,
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.
Brett Greider, Lecturer, Religious Studies, University of Wisconsin-Eau
Claire (posted 1/19, 1:10 p.m., E.S.T.)
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.
Ann Fabian, visitng research scholar, Graduate Center, City University
of New York (posted 1/29, 3 p.m., E.S.T.)
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).
A. Aristides Gamez, Professor of Spanish (posted 1/22, 11:25 a.m., E.S.T.)