Rigoberta Menchú Tum was born on January 9, 1959 to a poor peasant family in Chimel in north-western Guatemala. She was raised in the traditions of the Quiche, a branch of the Maya people. Her father, Vicente Menchú, was a community leader and her mother, Juana Tum, was a midwife and a traditional healer.
Rigoberta was the sixth of nine children. Her childhood memories are of a small homestead in the beautiful mountains of Guatemala, an untouched paradise that could only be reached by horseback. However, the Mayan people were poor and they could not grow enough food in the mountains to survive. So most years, Rigoberta’s family had to leave their community for six months to work on cotton and coffee fincas, or plantations that lined the southern coast of Guatemala.
The Mayan workers were treated very poorly by the plantation owners. They worked fourteen hours a day in the hot sun and were paid only pennies. Even as an adult Rigoberta was haunted by her childhood memories of what it was like to work on the plantations. One year, she watched her two-year old brother die from starvation. She never forgot the injustices that were created by the gap between the rich and the poor.
Thirty Years of War
While her family struggled to survive, Rigoberta’s country struggled also. In 1954, the CIA caused the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala. They supported an invasion and then urged the Guatemalan army to take power. This sparked over 30 years of dictatorship, war and violence, during which 200,000 Guatemalans were murdered. One of the main targets of the military was the Mayans. They launched a campaign that destroyed 450 Mayan villages, creating 1 million refugees.
This wave of violence hit Rigoberta’s village. The army began by setting houses on fire, destroying property and killing animals. The soldiers tried to scare the Mayan people off of their land so that the military and other wealthy people could have it. In spite of the danger, Rigoberta’s father organized the community to resist.
Rigoberta supported and helped her father in his organizing. Soon the entire family was accused of being part of an armed guerilla movement. They claimed her father had murdered a plantation owner and he was kidnapped, tortured and jailed for 14 months. When he was released he joined a new organization called the Committee of the Peasant Union (CUC) that worked to secure basic rights for the Mayan people, including fair wages and protection of their land.
The military rulers of Guatemala were ruthless. Rigoberta’s family suffered terribly for daring to stand up for their rights. In 1979, her younger brother was kidnapped, tortured, and killed by a military death squad. Then her father was killed during a street protest. Just months later her mother was kidnapped, tortured, raped, mutilated and killed. In total Rigoberta lost both of her parents, two brothers, a sister-in-law, and three nieces and nephews to violence in Guatemala.
Refusing To Quit
In the name of her brother, father, mother, and all the Mayan people, Rigoberta vowed to continue working non-violently for the rights of her people. In 1980 she played a major role in a farm worker strike for better conditions. She also participated in large demonstrations in the capital in 1981 and helped educate Mayan peasants in ways to resist to military oppression.
It was only by constantly moving, hiding, and staying with trusted friends that Rigoberta escaped torture and death herself. Finally it became impossible for her to remain in Guatemala since everywhere she went she endangered those who protected her. In 1981 she fled to Mexico.
In exile she became the world spokesperson for the Guatemalan poor, and a powerful voice against the terrible oppression they suffered at the hands of the right-wing military. In 1983 she told her life story to Elisabeth Burgos Debray in a series of interviews. The interviews were translated into English and published as “I, Rigoberta Menchú.” and the book drew international attention to the horrors occurring in Guatemala.
The Nobel Prize
In 1992 Rigoberta Menchú Tum was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work for the rights of the Maya of Guatemala and native people everywhere. She was the first indigenous person ever to receive the award and one of only a handful of women.
In 1996, all of Rigoberta’s non-violent work, along with the struggles of so many other activists, helped lead to a peace accord in Guatemala. This agreement ended Guatemala’s 36-year civil war and gave many rights back to the Mayan people.
After the civil war ended, Rigoberta fought to have the Guatemalan political and military establishment tried in a court of law. She knew the trial would never happen in Guatemala, so she took the case to Spanish courts. In December 2006 the Spanish courts called for the extradition of seven former members of the Guatemalan government on charges of torture and genocide against the Mayan people of Guatemala.
In 2007 and 2011, Rigoberta Menchú Tum ran for President of Guatemala, campaigning around the country for the rights of all Guatemalans. Although she did not win, she continues to work for justice and peace for her people.