(b. Jan. 9, 1959, Guatemala)
The Guatemalan Indian-rights activist Rigoberta Menchú was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in Menchú, of the Quiché Maya group, spent her childhood helping with her family’s agricultural work; she also likely worked on coffee plantations. As a young woman, she became an activist in the local women’s rights movement and joined with the Catholic church to advocate for social reform.
The activism of Menchú and her family led to persecution by Guatemala’s military government. When a guerrilla organization became active in their region, her father, a leader of a peasant organization opposed to the government, was accused of guerrilla activities. During Guatemala’s ensuing civil war, he died in a fire while protesting human rights abuses by the military. Menchú’s younger brother was kidnapped, tortured, and killed by a military death squad in 1979, and her mother was kidnapped, raped, mutilated, and murdered by soldiers the following year.
Menchú fled to Mexico in 1981 and was cared for there by members of a liberal Roman Catholic group. She soon joined international efforts to make the Guatemalan government cease its brutal counterinsurgency campaigns against Indian peasants, becoming a skilled public speaker and organizer in the course of her efforts.
Menchú gained international prominence in 1983 with her widely translated book I, Rigoberta Menchú, in which she tells the story of her impoverished youth and recounts in horrifying detail the torture-murders of her brother and mother. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her continuing efforts to achieve social justice and mutual reconciliation in Guatemala; she used the prize money to found the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation, an Indian advocacy organization.
In the late 1990s her autobiography became the centre of controversy after its veracity was questioned, most notably by David Stoll in Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (1999). Despite alleged inaccuracies in her story, Menchú continued to earn praise for bringing international attention to the situation in Guatemala. In 2004 she accepted President Óscar Berger’s offer to help implement the country’s peace accords.
Menchú created the Indian-led political movement Winaq (Mayan: “The Wholeness of the Human Being”) in February 2007. That September, as the candidate of a coalition between Winaq and the left-wing Encounter for Guatemala party, she ran for president of Guatemala but earned less than 3 percent of the vote. The following year Menchú began the legal process of creating a formal Winaq political party. If formed, it would be the first Guatemalan political party to represent indigenous groups directly.