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The Truth of Rigoberta Menchú's
A Note to Teachers
In 1999 David Stoll, in Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans,
claimed that Rigoberta Menchú, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, had falsified
facts about herself in her 1983 testimony, the account that first brought her
to world attention. Moreover, Stoll argued that liberal university professors
who supported the Guatemalan resistance movement had embraced Menchú's story
without question. When Stoll's book was publishedThe New York Times ran
a front page article questioning Menchú's integrity and the controversy entered
the popular press. Although many editorial writers picked up the tone of Stoll's
criticism, a collection of essays, by established experts on Guatemala and Menchú's
testimony, titled Properties of Words: Rigoberta Menchú, David Stoll, and
Identity Politics in Central America, was published before the year was
over and seriously challenged Stoll's data, inferences, and conclusions. (I
have written a chapter in that book describing the skepticism, difficulties,
and critical reflections that Menchú's testimony often evokes in the classroom.)
In considering the public controversy it is important to carefully examine
the charges David Stoll has actually made. An attentive reading of Rigoberta
Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans makes it clear that the initial
press reports on Stoll's research were sensationalistic. While The New York
Times claimed that Rigoberta Menchú "fabricated," "seriously
exaggerated," and told "one lie after another" in her testimonial,
the surprising fact is that Stoll's research, on the contrary, actually serves
to affirm the truth of Menchú¹s story in all of its major points, certainly
those points that are most relevant to the vast majority of American teachers
and students who have worked with Menchú's testimonial.
David Stoll is a professional anthropologist who, over the course of ten years,
interviewed Guatemalans and undertook archival research focused on identifying
errors, exaggerations, shortcomings, and bias in Menchú's testimony. In contrast,
Menchú gave her testimony without notes in twenty-four hours of taped conversation
over an eight-day period when she was twenty-three years old, not long after
the murder of her father, mother, and brother and her escape to Mexico. Her
testimony was recorded, transcribed, reorganized, and published by Elizabeth
Burgos Debray, another anthropologist, who is the book's legal author (and who
receives the the substantial royalties the testimony has generated). In the
course of his research Stoll never interviewed Menchú herself.
Stoll begins the preface of his book by asserting that there is "no doubt
about the most important points" Menchú makes (viii). Moreover, despite
press reports about requests to the Nobel Prize Committee to rescind the Peace
Prize after the Times article, in his book Stoll states that he believes awarding
the Nobel Prize to Rigoberta Menchú was a "good idea" and that "she
has been the first to acknowledge that she received it, not for her own accomplishments
but because she stands for a wider group of people who deserve international
support." (ix) (The prize was awarded to Menchú not for her testimony but
for her subsequent political work and peace organizing.)
Specifically, Stoll's research leads him to corroborate the following information
in Menchú's testimony:
- Rigoberta Menchú's father was burned alive when the army attacked the Spanish
Embassy he was occupying to protest human rights abuses, an occurrence that
is widely known in Guatemala. Stoll believes Menchú¹s account of the events
at the embassy is more balanced than most others (80).
- Rigoberta Menchú's mother was detained, raped, tortured, killed, and her
body was mutilated by the Guatemalan army. Rigoberta Menchú's gruesome description
of what happened to her mother is corroborated by independent sources. (127)
- Rigoberta Menchú¹s 16 year-old brother Petrocino was seized, tortured, and
shot by the army and his mutilated body was left in the street of the town
of Chajul. Rigoberta Menchú reports that her brother was burned alive; Stoll
argues he may have been burned after he was killed, but that it ³was not rare²
for the army to humiliate, torture, and burn people alive in front of their
- Rigoberta Menchú's village, Chimel, was attacked by the army, and the villagers
used self-defense strategies to protect themselves, much as Menchú describes
- Rigoberta Menchú's two younger sisters did join the guerrillas after the
murder of their mother (130).
- Ladinos in the highlands near Menchú's village were, at least during the
war, closely associated with the army and attacks on indigenous people and
Menchú's family (136).
- Guatemalans regard Menchú's testimonial as a ³truthful portrayal of their
David Stoll's research also adds information Rigoberta does not include in
- The military coup in Guatemala in 1954 was "organized" by the
US government, through the CIA, to overthrow a popularly-elected government.
This military coup can be held directly responsible for a loss of political
development and the country¹s economic collapse, military violence, and the
revolutionary movement. Had the coup not taken place Stoll believes Guatemala
"could have evolved in the direction of Costa Rica. which leads Latin
America in per capita income and political stability." (46)
- Rigoberta Menchú's village was completely destroyed by the Guatemalan army
not long after her testimony was recorded.
- Rigoberta Menchú's brother Victor was shot and killed by the army after
peacefully turning himself in. (135)
- Rigoberta Menchú's sister-in-law was killed and her nieces, age three and
five, were starved to death while in army custody. (134-6)
- Rigoberta Menchú's closest friend at school, Bernadina Us Hernández, was
killed by the army as were Bernadina¹s father, her brother (in front of the
family) and six other male family members (46).
- Stoll documents many other violent murders of innocent indigenous people
in the region Menchú comes from, frequently using words such as "slaughter,"
"massacre," and "holocaust."
- The international pressure that Menchú and her testimony created led, eventually,
to negotiation between the guerrillas and the government and a reduction in
the power of the army. In Stoll's words, "quite an achievement."
- In the 1990s' Rigoberta Menchú had become a powerful leader for reconciliation
between a wide cross-section of constituencies in Guatemala and considered
a possible candidate for presidency of the country.
There are several points which Stoll continues to dispute with Menchú's 1983
testimonial. Menchú herself has responded to several of these points:
- Testimonies from other Guatemalan's indicate that Rigoberta Menchú's brother
was not burned alive (after being tortured and before being killed) and that
Menchú herself was not present when his body was dumped in the street outside
Chajul. Menchú responds that her testimony repeats the first-hand account
her mother gave her and that, until she is presented with the evidence of
her brother's body itself, she will continue to believe her mother. Independent
human rights records do record the public burning of indigenous people by
the army in Chajul at roughly the same period. (See Guatemala: The Horror
and the Hope).
- Based on conversations with neighbors and archives in the national land
office, Stoll argues that Rigoberta Menchú's father was not involved in a
land dispute with Ladinos but with relatives of Rigoberta Menchú's mother,
the Tums. Rigoberta Menchú responds that her family believed that Ladinos
had secretly bought the land from some of the Quiche and were using their
Quiche names in the dispute as a front for land they owned. While Stoll elaborates
disputes between indigenous Guatemalans over land, he does not mention that
the vast majority of land in Guatemala is in the hands of a tiny minority
of Ladino elite and that only 10% of rural families have enough land to live
on (Pratt 62, in Teaching and Testimony).
- Stoll argues that Rigoberta Menchú was a student in a junior high boarding
school for three years, an experience she does not mention in her 1982 account.
Menchú responds that she did not speak about the school in 1982 to protect
it from reprisals by the army. (Stoll mentions that the school was surrounded
at various times by the army, that students were interrogated, and that Menchú's
best friend at the school was killed by the army-thus making Menchú's silence
credible.) Menchú also explains that she was on a charity scholarship at the
school that only allowed her three hours of classes per day and the rest of
her time was spent cleaning the school as a servant.
- Stoll claims that Rigoberta Menchú's brother Nicholas could not have died
from malnutrition as she claims in her testimonial because he met her brother
Nicholas alive and well in Guatemala. Rigoberta explains that her father was
married twice and named two different sons "Nicholas," a common
tradition among native Guatemalans. She maintains that it was the first Nicholas
who did, indeed, die of malnutrition.
- Stoll can find no evidence of the death of "Petrona Chona" on
the coffee plantation he believes that Rigoberta Menchú might have worked
on (Rigoberta Menchú reports Petrona Chona's killing by the landowner's son
when she refuses his amorous advances). Stoll does find evidence of a the
death of a "Pascuala Xoná Chomo" whose husband was accused of killing
her based on rumors of a relationship with the landowner's son.
- Stoll can find no specific evidence supporting Rigoberta Menchú's claim
of having worked on coffee or sugar plantations or as a maid in the capitol.
Aside from wondering how Menchú could have fit these activities in with everything
else she was doing, Stoll offers no evidence to refute Menchú's account.
He corroborates that many indigenous Guatemalans do work in these plantations
and that Menchú's description of working conditions is accurate. Menchú describes
these conditions as abject, exploitative, abusive, and violent.
- Stoll blames the revolutionary guerrillas for the violence of the army.
He sites several instances where the Guatemalan army was helpful to native
Guatemalans, yet he doesn¹t dispute human rights reports that blame the army
for the murder of 100,000 innocent indigenous Guatemalans.
- Stoll believes that Rigoberta Menchú's testimonial portrays indigenous Guatemalans
as more sympathetic to the guerrilla movement than they actually were. He
bases his belief on interviews nearly ten years after the events Menchú describes.
This is a point of contention that scholars more qualified than I am respond
to in Rigoberta Menchú, David Stoll, and the Politics of Identity.
Yet, it seems obvious to me that after ten years of unbelievably harsh repression
of indigenous people by the Guatemalan army-a period during which any mention
of sympathy or support for guerrillas lead to almost certain death not just
of individuals, but also of entire families and villages-that it is not surprising
that Stoll does not interview many indigenous Guatemalans who tell him of
their support for armed rebellion.
In conclusion, though David Stoll argues that Rigoberta Menchú "romanced"
her story to favor the guerrillas, an examination of his book and the evidence
on this question reveals Stoll¹s position as a matter of narrow, unbalanced,
and even bizarre interpretation. While Stoll raises issues that may be appropriate
to take up in particular classroom contexts, given Menchú's and other scholars'
responses to his arguments, and the minor points of factual disagreement that
remain, it is, frankly, hard for me to see how David Stoll's book could have
relevance to the vast majority of American teachers and students. An examination
of the controversy it stirred up might, perhaps, be useful as a study of the
mass media's fascination with personalities, character assassination, and its
failure to address fundamental social, political, historical, and economic realities.
In contrast is Rigoberta Menchú's testimony itself, still a most valuable classroom
text and resource for encountering and exploring some of the most profound and
disturbing realities of our time.
[Western Michigan University]
WMU English Department [WMU
Created by: email@example.com
Revised Date: 11/99