Distinguished Women of Past and Present

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Rigoberta Menchu

Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan activist for the rights of the indigenous people and a winner of Nobel Peace Prize, was born in 1959 in a small Guatemalan village of Chimel located in the northern highlands. Her family was Quiche Indian and very poor. The small plot of land that the family owned did not produce enough to feed everyone. Like their neighbors, who were in the same predicament, they traveled to the coast to work as laborers on large coffee or cotton plantations, working up to fifteen hours a day for eight months a year.

Life on a plantation was harsh. People lived in crowded sheds with no clean water or toilets. Children had to start working at an early age or else they were not fed. Rigoberta started working on the plantation at the age of eight. She did not have an opportunity to attend school. Two of her brothers died on the plantation, one as a result of poisoning from pesticides sprayed on coffee plants and another from malnutrition.

Native Indians in Guatemala had no rights of citizenship, which were restricted to people of Spanish descent and were, therefore, vulnerable to abuses by those in power. When the military-led government and the wealthy plantation owners started taking Indian-occupied lands by force, Rigoberta's father, Vincente, became a leader in the peasant movement opposing this action. He began a series of petitions and then, protests, to secure these lands for the indigenous people who had been living on them until now. He was arrested and imprisoned many times for his activities.

In 1979, Rigoberta's sixteen-year-old brother, Petrocinio, was kidnapped by soldiers, tortured and burned alive while his family watched. In 1980, Vincente, along with thirty-eight other Indian leaders, died in a fire at the Spanish embassy, while protesting violations of Indian human rights abuses. Rigoberta's mother, also a leader in her community and a healer, was kidnapped, raped, tortured and killed the following year.

Rigoberta was likewise active in her father's movement, the United Peasant Committee. She was wanted by the Guatemalan government, but after her mother's death, she fled to Mexico. While in Mexico, she dictated her autobiography, I...Rigoberta Menchu (1984), telling the world not only her own story, but also about the lives of her fellow Indians. Her book and the campaign she led for social justice brought international attention to this conflict between indigenous Indians and the military government of Guatemala.

In 1992, Rigoberta Menchu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She used the $1.2 million cash prize to set up a foundation in her father's name to continue the fight for human rights of the indigenous people. Due to her effort, the United Nations declared 1993 the International Year for Indigenous Populations.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1996.

1. Herstory. Women Who Changed the World, edited by Ruth Ashby and Deborah Gore Ohrn, Viking, 1995. Rigoberta Menchu profile by Deborah Gore Ohrn.
2. Heroines: Remarkable and Inspiring Women/An Illustrated Anthology of Essays by Women Writers, Crescent Books, 1995. Rigoberta Menchu profile by Ellen Williams and Annie Roberts.

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