The Odyssey


Rigoberta Menchú
Picture of Rigoberta
Rigoberta Menchú became well-known after her first biography, I, Rigoberta Menchú was published in 1983 when she was merely 23 years old. Her fame took the world by storm, however, after she was nominated for and then awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, the youngest person to ever receive the Nobel.

Her own achievements in pursuing peace and justice for indigenous and poor people are all the more remarkable in light of the extremes of poverty and violence that she suffered growing up. By the time she was 21 both her parents and a brother had been tortured and killed, and another brother had died of malnutrition.

Life on the Finca
Life in the Altiplano
The Ladinos Arrive
The Violence Increases
Rigoberta's Family Killed
The Nobel Peace Prize
Post-Nobel Life
Recommended Links

However, as she emphasizes repeatedly in her book, her story is the story of a people, and the Nobel Peace Prize was given to her to acknowledge and draw attention to the struggles of the indigenous people throughout Latin America that she represented. It is also noteworthy that it was awarded in 1992, the 500th anniversary of the first significant arrival of Europeans to the Americas, and the beginning if a period of massive death and destruction for the indigenous of the Americas.

The following brief biography is based almost exclusively on Rigoberta Menchú's own biography, I, Rigoberta Menchú.  


There are 22 indigenous ethnic groups in Guatemala, Rigoberta is Quiché. Her home was in the beautiful altiplano, or highlands, of Guatemala, inaccessible by car. The land her family lived on was first claimed and cultivated by Rigoberta's parents in 1960 as they moved, leaving their old community as ladinos, that is, white and mixed Guatemalans who have since the times of the Spanish conquest held economic and political power in Guatemala. Other indigenous came soon thereafter, and they formed a community, which began to see productive harvests some eight years after they first began farming.

"There are twenty-two indigenous ethnic groups in Guatemala... Where I live is practically a paradise..." more...  

While this was the place she considered home and where they had a humble place to live and land to farm, she spent about half of each year with her family working on coffee and cotton fincas, or plantations, nearer the coast. This was necessary because they were not able to cultivate enough food for themselves or to sell to cover expenses.

  "Most of what I remember is after I was five..." more...
Life on the finca

Life on the finca was very hard.They worked for a master who had considerable economic and political powe. He was of the very different and dominant ladino culture. He did not speak the indienous languages of Rigoberta and the others working there — in fact, the indigenous could rarely speak with each other since they were from different ethnic groups. They were paid very little, and they were forced to buy supplies from the landowners at high prices. They also had to work amongst the chemicals being sprayed on the plants. Under these harsh conditions one of her younger brothers died of malnutrition and Rigoberta's mother lost her job for taking a day off from work to bury him — and she wasn't paid for the time she had worked.

"We'd been in the Finca for fifteen days, when one of my brothers died from malnutrition..." more...  

Yet the landowners made sure that Rigoberta's parents and the indigenous people were part of the political process, so the landowners could control their voting and take the credit for helping their allies win.

  "So the overseer told us, 'The owner is coming today...' " more...
Life in the Altiplano

The Quiche is a unique culture, unique from those of other indigenous in Guatemala, but quite markedly different from non-indigenous cultures beyond Guatemala, as well as from the dominant ladino culture in Guatemala. As a people very dependent on and rooted to the land, they have a great respect for nature; indeed, according to Maya legend, the first people of the region were created from corn after the gods failed to create people of mud and wood. Among three of the customs Rigoberta shares in her book, are those of sowing crops, birth rituals, and the steps to getting married.

When sowing and harvesting crops, they take good care to show respect for the seeds and plants that sustain them, and for the earth that shares with them. These are times of celebration and respect.

"The time we spend up in our village are happy times..." more...

When a Quiche woman is pregnant, great respect must be given to the pregnant woman, including one should never eat in front of a pregnant woman without offering to share, for fear the baby will grow up hungry or lacking in something. Even before the baby is born the mother must begin explaining the world to it, telling it that it must be respectful of other people, and taking it for walks in nature.

  "So, a mother, on her first day of pregnancy..." more...

The courting and marrying process has many rituals associated with it, and can take a long time, though traditionally Quiche women marry quite young, at the age of 14, and are expecting babies at age 15.

"We have four marriage customs to respect..." more...

The Ladinos Arrive, Violence Begins

Rigoberta did go to live in the city with ladinos once, but she was greatly humiliated and was paid almost nothing. She was treated worse than the dog, and returned to her home when trouble began in her home community and her father was put in jail.

Ladinos had begun to come even so far as her mountain village. They were looking for land and wanted to extend their control. They began measuring the land and trying to use their own laws to control the indigenous. They even brought papers for the indigenous to sign and lies about what the papers contained. Because most of the indigenous had not been educated, they could not read, and were tricked into signing away their land.

When they wouldn't leave, the new "landowners" began to harass them and pay soldiers to go and attack them.

"The first time they threw us out of our homes…" more...
The Violence Increases, the Community Responds

As the community began to organize to resist and protect their land, the ladinos became more abusive. At one point they kidnapped Rigoberta's father. They beat and tortured him. "They had torn off the hair on his head on one side. His skin was cut all over and they'd broken so many of his bones that he couldn't walk."

The community responded by implementing plans to protect themselves and avoid the soldiers. They had people posted outside the village to warn when the soldiers would come, they had secret exits from their huts and evacuation routes for the whole village. They also dug pits for the soldiers to fall into, and managed to capture them on occasion. Once when the soldiers visited, they distracted the last soldier to leave by having a pretty, young woman from the community flirt with him. When the other soldiers were sufficiently removed, the villagers jumped on the solider and disarmed him.

"We took the disarmed soldier to my house…"

Rigoberta's mother, father, brother and sister were among those that occupied the Guatemalan Congress at one point to protest the kidnappings and tortures. When they first entered the Congree, the soldiers there raised their rifles. The person at the head of the procession was one of Rigoberta's brothers. When he began to speak they took aim. But then her little sister approached the soldiers holding a white flower. The soldiers didn't dare shoot her and the group managed to enter and occupy the Congress for a time.

Rigoberta's Family Killed

The army did not listen to the advice of Rigoberta and her community, quite the contrary. The early 1980s saw a massive increase in the violence, to the point where 1,000 people were being killed a month, the majority of them indigenous. In two short years, 1979 and 1980, Rigoberta's father, brother, and mother would all be killed quite brutally. Her brother was kidnapped and after having been missing for 2 weeks an announcements was made in Rigoberta's and neighboring villages that all locals were commanded to attend a meeting to be held in a nearby town. At the outdoor meeting, many kidnapped indigenous were shown to the crowd in their tortured states - her brother's "head was shaved and slashed. He had no nails. He had no soles to his feet. The earlier wounds were suppurating from infection…" After lecturing the indigenous, the soldiers poured gas on their prisoners and burnt them all alive.

Rigoberta's father was burnt alive along with numerous others who occupied the Spanish Embassy to call attention to the plight of the indigenous. Rigoberta was able to accept his death because he had been at risk for so long and at least the way he died was much better then if he had fallen into the hands of the government. Indeed, she remarks that "This reinforced my decision to fight."

Her mother's death was perhaps the most brutal of all. She suffered the same tortures Rigoberta's brother had suffered, plus she was raped. The soldiers told her that if she would tell them where her children were, they would let her go. But she knew they were lying and would kill all of them so she never said a word.


"When they saw that none of her children were coming..."

Rigoberta at this time was heavily involved in resistance activities. She and her colleagues would shut down streets with barricades for brief moments and then retreat before the military arrived. They would make bomb threats to factories so the workers had to be let off for a day. They would boycott anything they could, or destroy a coffee estate or a cotton estate, or tamper with machines in factories to economically weaken the society killing them. 


Rigoberta eventually was forced to leave her country and seek exile in Mexico. She was reunited with some of her family there, recouped from the ordeal of losing so many in her family, and recommitted herself to the struggle in Guatemala. She returned to Guatemala for only a very short time and then left for Nicaragua, Mexico, and the US. In the US she met with indigenous leaders who awoke her to the idea of going to Europe as an ambassador for indigenous people, which she did, spending a great deal of time at the United Nations. It was during her time in Europe that she recited the narrative that formed the basis for her first book, I, Rigoberta Menchú. After twelve years away from Guatemala, she returned to Guatemala at one point for only a short period of time, but was immediately arrested, and feared for her safety and once again fled to Mexico.  

The Nobel Peace Prize

In the months prior to being given the Prize, Rigoberta's life began to change in that the media began to follow her everywhere, and massive numbers of people increasingly met her wherever she went. Everyone knew she was a top contender for the Prize, and the attention and preparations were overwhelming. As the frenzy of excitement and anticipation continued to build, Rigoberta returned to Guatemala to participate in demonstrations around the 500 year anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Americas. She spent the night the Award was announced in a Catholic Church in San Marcos after the boarding house they were heading to received threats.

"I slept peacefully for a couple of hours, and was awoken by the telephone..." more...

Post-Nobel Life

As of the time of this writing, February of 1999, Rigoberta has continued her struggle for peace and justice in Guatemala and abroad. She and her Foundation, the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation have been actively involved in pressing the case against the soldiers involved in the Xamán Massacre. On October 5, 1995, these soldiers killed eleven people and injured 27 at a celebration for a community of Guatemalan refugees that had returned from their exile in Mexico. The massacre was a brutal reminder of what Guatemala had been, and what it has not been able to put behind it.

Recently Rigoberta has been in the news not only for the ridiculous manner in which the Xamán case has been handled by the government, but also because some people have questioned whether everything she recounts in her first book is true.

Rigoberta has since acknowledged that she used the testimony of other victims to help construct her own story of Guatemala's civil war. The reality of Rigoberta's book as a testimony of the experiences of Guatemalan indigenous people has not been questioned, and the admirable struggle that she represents continues unabated.  

Recommended Links

The Rigoberta Menchú Foundation

For a thorough review of the claims around Rigoberta's book:
Rigoberta Menchu's Testimonial: A Guide for Teachers.

For a much fuller treatment of Rigoberta's life and the controversy around her book: It Was Heaven That They Burned

Rigoberta's Story
Rigoberta Home | Guatemala
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