THE name Rigoberta Menchu is unfamiliar to most North Americans, other than Latin American specialists and the students in multicultural undergraduate literature courses, where Ms. Menchs powerful autobiography has become a staple. But the recent awarding of this year's Nobel Peace Prize to Menchu, a Guatemalan Quiche Indian, the same week all Americans, North and South, observed the 500th anniversary of the meeting of the old and new worlds should resonate throughout the hemisphere.
The Peace Prize - one of Western culture's highest accolades - went this year to a poor Indian woman whose resume, by itself, hardly merits such an award. She has not led a revolution or a social movement; she has brought about no peace accord.
Menchs achievement is her determination. She symbolizes the resolve of marginalized and brutalized peoples throughout the world. Living in self-imposed exile in Mexico for 11 years, she taught herself Spanish, learning how to read and write at age 19.
Her significance is that there are so many like her. As Menchu says in her autobiography: "The important thing is that what has happened to me has happened to many other people too ... my personal experience is the reality of a whole people."
In her international public appearances, Menchu dresses in traditional Maya traje, the vibrantly colored and patterned costume worn by women of her Indian community. She thus serves as a visual reminder that, in various, often remote pockets of the continent, centuries-old cultures indigenous to this hemisphere continue to exist and evolve.
Over half the Guatemalan population is Mayan. The country's Indian communities, once largely autonomous, have resisted pressure to bow to government dictate and assimilate into Guatemalan society. The result has been a cycle of violence.
Though the tiny armed insurgency in Guatemala has always been separate from the Maya's larger political resistance, the military's counterinsurgency policy seeks to relocate and sometimes physically liquidate Indian communities in order to deprive the guerrillas of possible support. This also suits the larger political strategy of breaking up the stubbornly autonomous community units in order to incorporate the Maya into Guatemalan society.
Upon Menchs nomination for the Nobel Prize, the Guatemalan government denounced her as a communist guerrilla - a charge she denies. But she is, in fact, a threat to the Guatemalan state, because there are millions of Rigoberta Menchus in Guatemala whose cultural distinctiveness, as Guatemalan scholar Carol Smith points out, is a "visible repudiation" of the state's attempt to forge a nation, or a national culture, through force.
But Menchs sudden ascension to international renown should resonate beyond her tragic country. In virtually every country in Latin America, indigenous cultures are challenging the legitimacy of nation-states that exercise dominion over their ancestral territory. They challenge not just the state's disposition of their lands, languages, resources, and heritage, but the very concept of national identity and national culture.
Throughout the history of Latin America, governments have wrestled with the "Indian question." Policy recommendations have basically split between assimilation and separate development. Current indigenous political ideology clearly favors the latter course.
In Bolivia and Ecuador, federations of Indian peoples have challenged the legitimacy of the Hispanicized state, demanding that their governments acknowledge the local autonomy and cultural separateness of the indigenous peoples.
As these nations and others in Latin America struggle to consolidate recent democratic gains, they must also address indigenous groups' assertion of a variety of nationalisms, an assertion that requires a more tolerant and pluralistic model of democracy.
When the award was announced a few weeks ago, spontaneous celebrations and marches occurred all over Guatemala. But as Menchu prepared to leave Guatemala, wire services reported that two indigenous women with whom she had been staying in Guatemala had been picked up and released naked - without their traditional traje with which the authorities can identify the women's home villages. In contrast to press coverage of Menchs award, this incident received almost no notice in the United States press.
Menchs fame will return Latin American policymakers once again to the "Indian question," give added attention to the cause of cultural survival, and inspire other Indians throughout the Americas.
It remains to be seen, however, whether this will lead to change in Guatemala.