Rigoberta Menchú Tum: Fighting for Indigenous Rights

And here we have the next article of our timeline for you. This one’s on the Guatemalan human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú. 📝

During her life she faced many social injustices and felt the impact of discrimination against indigenous people first hand. The Guatemalan activist was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for the work she does to fight the discrimination against indigenous people everywhere. During the Guatemalan civil war Menchú was actively fighting the terrors of the government and the army. Later she ran for head of the first indigenous party. Without a doubt Menchú played a very important and memorable role. Until this day Menchú is committed to fighting for indigenous rights.✊🌎

Get to know this activist better by reading the full article here!

Rigoberta Menchú Tum | * 09-01-1959 | Guatemala | Human Rights Activist

Rigoberta Menchú is a Guatemalan human rights activist of Mayan descent that fought for the rights of indigenous people during the Guatemalan civil war. Even after the war, Menchú never gave up fighting for Mayan people to be treated as equal. In 1992 she was awarded the Nobel Peace prize and between 2007 and 2011 she ran for president as a party leader of the first indigenous political party WINAQ. 

Menchú was born in an indigenous family in Laj Chimel, Quiché, Guatemala. Her family was both catholic and mayan and Menchú has always described herself as a mix of the two cultures. The Mayan side was mainly brought to her by her mother, who was a very spiritual person. She thought Menchú to be in harmony with nature. The family descended from the K’iché, a Mayan folk that lives in the HighLands of Guatemala. Born in a farmer family, she was used to harsh conditions. Many farmers suffered from extreme heat, poverty and attracted diseases. Her father, a farmer himself, was an activist for the indigenous farmers guerrilla army of the poor and introduced the young Menchú to activism. 

The Guatemalan civil war had a tragic impact on her family’s life; both her parents and two of her brothers died through the horrors of the war. Her mother, Juana Tum Kótoja, was murdered by the government army, while her father was taken hostage in a church that was set on fire. The deaths of her parents show the brutality towards indigenous people during the war. 

The Guatemalan civil war was the longest war of Latin America and was closely intertwined with colonization mechanisms. Its history started when the CIA helped overthrow a democratically elected, left government led by Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. Arbenz showed interest in the farmers of the country and had reformed policies that benefited local farmers, rather than private interests such as the US-based United Fruit Company. His views made Arbenz suspicious and he was overthrown in an ‘anti-communist’ military coup led by the CIA. Many of the lands of Guatemalan farmers were taken over by big landowners and the right-wing government killed everyone that seemed to be sympathizing with the leftists. 

In 1960 the war started, and it left a trace of destruction. Many farmers and indigenous people were killed by the government, because they sided with the leftists. There were 200.000 casualties during almost 40 years of war. Furthermore, many women were physically and sexually abused by the military. It left a trail of distraught. In 1999, Menchú campaigned to have Fernando Romeo Lucas García, Ángel Aníbal Guevara, Efraín Ríos Montt and Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores Suedon the grounds that they were responsible for the genocide on indigenous people. It took six years to put out an arrest warrant for the four former presidents. In the 2010’s trials took place that evicted the former presidents that were in power during the Guatemalan war. 

During the war, Menchú actively advocated human rights. It led to her being exiled in 1981 and she fled to Mexico. While she was in Mexico, she narrated her story to writer Elisabeth Burgos. In 1982 the book Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia was published. The autobiographical showed the horrors of the civil war. While it was labelled as an autobiographical book, anthropologist David Stoll criticized it for not being the activist’s own experience. He did not deny that the events in the book had not happened, but they did not all happen to Menchú herself according to him. The Guatemalan activist has said about the book: ‘This is my testimony… I’d like to stress that it’s not only my life, it’s also the testimony of my people… My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.’ The book was translated in twenty languages and gained international recognition. 

After the war, Menchú got married to Ángel Canil, a fellow Guatemalan. They had both a Mayan and Catholic ceremony. They adopted a son and named him Mash Nahual J’a, meaning spirit of water. In 1992 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1998 the Prince of Asturias award. She was also elected as the Goodwill Ambassador of UNESCO. More recently, in 2006, Menchú was one of the founders of the Nobel Women’s Initiative along with five other women. All six of them represented the continents of the world indicating a worldwide movement to help strengthen women’s rights. Another notable experience in Menchú’s life is that she ran for president between 2007 and 2011. Her party, called WINAQ, was the first indigenous political party.

Rigoberta Menchú has been strong and devoted throughout her life. She was a committed activist and always fought for her own place, even if she was often left out by her male counterparts. In 2013 the Autonomous National University of Mexico appointed her as a special investigator within its Multicultural Nation Program. Menchú continues to fight for indigenous rights and has been an inspiration to women and indigenous people all around the world.


Author: Annika Eskes
Image: John Mathew Smith


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