Rigoberta Menchu: From peace prize to controversy

By , Special To The Christian Science Monitor

Rigoberta Menchu, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, has long championed basic rights for indigenous peoples in Guatemala and around the world. She has fought to preserve the Mayan culture, of which she is an integral part.

Born in 1959 in a northwestern village of Guatemala, Ms. Menchu is a member of the Quiche, a subgroup of the Mayan people who constitute 60 to 80 percent of the country's population. Like many families in the mountainous region who subsisted on beans and corn grown on small plots, the Menchus migrated seasonally to the coast to pick coffee beans or cotton on large plantations.

But in the 1970s her family was swept up in the long struggle between wealthy landowners, indigenous peoples, and US-supported government forces in Guatemala that, according to human rights groups, eventually took the lives of 200,000 people in a country of 11 million. Victims of the war included Menchu's brother, mother, and father, who was killed during a 1980 occupation by activists of the Spanish Embassy.

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As tensions in Guatemala continued to boil in the early 1980s, Menchu was forced into exile. It was during a trip to Europe in 1982 that she recounted her stories of terror, later translated into the internationally known, "I, Rigoberta Menchu."

The book generated controversy last year when an anthropologist challenged the veracity of some of her facts, such details as those surrounding her brother's death and Menchu's education.

The Nobel Peace Prize committee, however, assured her that they would not reconsider the award.

Menchu used her award money to set up a foundation, the Rigoberta Menchu Tum Foundation, dedicated to "contributing to the recovery and enrichment of human values in order to construct a global peace ethic based on ethnic, political, and cultural diversity." She currently holds the position of Goodwill Ambassador of UNESCO and presides over the Indigenous Initiative for Peace, an international indigenous leadership network.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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