I first learned about Rigoberta Menchú when I was getting my undergraduate minor in Spanish. I think I might’ve even read excerpts back then, but I was a few pages into this book when I realized I had definitely never read I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala.
At first, I thought it would be too painful for me to read. Lately, I’m always on the lookout for books that substantive, but aren’t too stressful–a difficult balance. But the book drew me in as a voyeur of indigenous life. I was fascinated to read about perspectives and beliefs so different from the world I live in. Like a typical imperialist, I even felt nostalgic for some of the rituals, customs, family, and deep commitment to and love of community (I write this all self-critically). I was also moved by the extreme poverty and suffering these people endured.
As Menchú grows up, the political climate in Guatemala becomes increasingly violent. Unbelievably violent. Once I was committed to the book, I was also committed to reading through the deaths, gruesome tortures, and murders of her loved ones. I was also struck by how recent this history is. Menchú is still alive today, and Guatemala doesn’t seem so far away. These human rights violations felt real and close to me as I read. I couldn’t help but think of the protests and violations that have played out over the last year here at Standing Rock. I couldn’t help but think of the political discord in our own country and the fear surrounding the newly elected leader and how quickly political systems can turn.
To have the firsthand account of someone who lived through this struggle is an unbelievable gift to humanity, so that we all might be to be able to understand how politics, governments, war, and economies can change and be changed.
The political influence is clear in the retelling of her story. She becomes much more radicalized throughout her life as a direct response to her incredible suffering. As I read, I thought of the power in naming something. She doesn’t really learn Spanish until she is in her 20s. That kind of illiteracy makes a person vulnerable to radicalization from a church or a government. In this case, the reader can see how Menchú was exposed to the language of Communism while acquiring the Spanish language. At the same time, the ancient way of her home culture has some very…communist…ideals. The community is the family. Family and community are prioritized over all else. Each family has their own land and their own food, but they share very generously with the community, even when their own livelihoods suffer. This is their ancient way, but her literacy also emerges as Communism takes hold in South America, and the reader is left wondering where the community mindedness ends and the political influence of Communism begins.
I’m not exactly sure how I ended up reading two books back to back with such a clear connection between Catholicism and Communism, but I did, and it was fascinating, and heartbreaking, and Rigoberta Menchú’s story is a “must read” for all informed citizens of the world.