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By Irwin Abrams

Published in The Nobel Prize Annual 1992 (New York: IMG, 1993, pp. 77-85).

Very early in the morning of October 16, l992, in the town of San Marcos in Guatemala, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a tiny Mayan Quiché Indian, was awakened to take a long-distance telephone call. The Norwegian ambassador to Mexico was calling from Mexico City to tell her she had won the Nobel Peace Prize of 1992. The Norwegian Nobel Committee had made its decision "in recognition of her work for social justice and ethnocultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples."

Menchú was in San Marcos from her exile in Mexico to take a leading role in the demonstrations in Indian towns and villages on October 12, the 500th anniversary of the day when Christopher Columbus disembarked at an island in the Caribbean Sea and discovered what was for Europeans a New World.

In the capital, Guatemala City, the anniversary had been celebrated in a ceremony at the National Theater, attended by ministers of state and foreign ambassadors. But for the Indians, descendants of the people who had been living in the area for centuries before Columbus arrived and who were to be subjugated by the Spaniards, the date marked the beginning of five hundred years of oppression.

The participants in the various demonstrations carried placards and banners protesting the loss of their lands to the invaders and affirming their own cultural identity. In a solemn ceremony in the ruins of the ancient Mayan capital of Gumaarcaj, to the music of marimbas and drums, Mayan priests moved slowly around the fire, murmuring prayers in Quiché, but crossing themselves ever so often, and the event concluded with a Catholic mass celebrated in the Quiché language.

The announcement from Oslo, coming just a few days later, sent a wave of pride through the Indian population. At an mpromptu press conference, held at dawn in San Carlos in a church building on the 16th, Menchú said the prize was "an honor for the people of Guatemala, joy for indigenous peoples in the Americas, for women, and an honor for human rights organizations." While she expressed her "hope that this prize will ensure that the Indian peoples of the Americas will live forever," she also insisted that it was for all the people of Guatemala, both Indians and mestizos. The Indians made up the majority of the population, but the prizea's prize was widely applauded in the whole country.

Except by the Guatemalan government. Menchú received congratulations from all over the world, from most of the presidents of American states, and telephone calls from dignitaries such as King Juan Carlos of Spain and Mme. Danielle Mitterand, Guatemalan government officials were embarrassed by her prize. From the beginning the government had supported the candidacy of an upper-class Guatemalan social worker, and in the days before the announcement government and army spokesmen had publicly criticized Menchú's candidacy, declaring that her campaign for human rights had tarnished the image of Guatemala. It was suggested that far from working for peace she had ties with the armed rebellion of the guerrillas.

Finally President Serrano received Menchú at the National Palace to give her his congratulations, just before she went to the airport to return to Mexico, where President Salinas had declared a national holiday in her honor.

An incident which occurred just after Menchú left Guatemala indicated her real standing in the minds of the ruling elite. Two teenage girls who had been taking part in activities with the new peace laureate at the offices of the association of widows, her base during her stay in the capital, were set upon as they were leaving by two men and a woman who accused them of being guerrillas and of supporting Menchú. The attackers dragged the young women by the hair, pulled off their clothes and beat them, then left them lying naked in the street. The police did nothing.

Guatemala used to be called "the land of eternal spring" because of its great natural beauty, but such everyday violations of human dignity and the continued oppression of the Indians are giving it the name of "the land of eternal tyranny." Over 60% of the fertile land is owned by 2% of the population. For the last thirty years the ruling mestizos have fought a brutal civil war with a revolutionary movement, the longest and some would say "the dirtiest" civil war in Central America, in which more than 120,000 have been killed.

In an effort to keep the Indians from aiding the guerrillas, the army generals have tried to repress all signs of a popular movement, killing thousands of Indians and leveling their villages. Guatemala has one of the the worst records in the Americas in the violation of human rights. It is estimated that some 42,000 have disappeared, more than in any other Latin American country. In 1991 there were more than 2,000 murders and disappearances.

Rigoberta Menchú says her life "is the reality of a whole people." She was born on January 9, l959, to a family of poor peasants. At age eight she had to work with her family at harvest time in coffee, sugar cane and cotton plantations on the Pacific coast. The Indians were badly exploited but could make just enough to subsist along with what they raised in their home fields in the western highlands. "I started thinking about my childhood," she has said, "and I came to the conclusion that I hadn't had a childhood at all. I was never a child. I hadn't been to school. I hadn't had enough food to grow properly. I had nothing. I asked myself: 'How is this possible?'"

Rigoberta's mother, Juana Tum, helped in the community as a midwife and a healer. From her Menchú learned the ways of the ancient Mayan culture, to which she feels a strong loyalty. At the same time, Menchú has drawn inspiration from her Catholicism. At the age of twelve she became a catechist in the local church, showing an early talent for leadership.

Her father, Vicente Menchú, was a well-respected leader among the peasants, an early member of the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC). When mestizo landowners began to seize peasant lands, he organized the villages in resistance. For the security forces this marked him as a rebel, and he was jailed and tortured. In reprisal for his actions the army killed Menchú's younger brother and her mother with indescribable cruelty.

In 1980, Vicente and a group of peasants came to the capital to protest the army massacres of their people. When they peacefully occupied the Spanish embassy, the army set fire to the building, killing the embassy staff as well as the peasants. Vicente was burned to death.

Rigoberta Menchú was then twenty-one. From the age of fifteen she had begun to work in community organizations and had later joined the CUC. To prepare herself for leadership she worked on teaching herself Spanish. By 1980 she was able to describe her family tragedy in halting Spanish to the Conference of Bishops of the Americas in Mexico: "perhaps people understood my message through the anguish and despair that I was suffering."

The bishops were so impressed that each one offered to give her shelter in his own country. But Menchú returned to take up her activities in Guatemala, participating in the May Day demonstration in the capital in 1981 and then going into hiding, hunted by the army. "The decisive event that forced me to make certain choices about my life," she has said, "was the death of my parents."

The reponse of her two sisters had been to join the armed struggle of the guerrillas in the mountains, but Menchú chose to work politically with the CUC and then also as a member of the Vicente Menchú Revolutionary Christians, named in memory of her father.

Revolution means "transformation," she said, "If I had chosen the armed struggle, I would be in the mountains now." As a Christian, she explained, "my work is just like being a catechist, except I'm the one who walks on the Earth, not one who thinks that the Kingdom of God only comes after death. . . . The work of revolutionary Christians is above all to condemn and denounce the injustices committed against the people."

In 1981, Menchú went to Nicaragua to speak at a Christian conference. The repressive measures of the army had become more severe than ever, and it was too dangerous for her to return home, and she had to decide to remain in exile. In 1982 she went on her first tour of Europe to interpret the Guatemalan struggle more widely. While in Paris she dictated her life story to the tape recorder of Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, who edited the material into the book published in Spanish in 1983 with the title: "My name Is Rigoberta Menchú and this is how my consciousness was born" (in English: I, Rigoberta Menchú. An Indian Woman in Guatemala ). The matter-of-fact manner in which she describes her own tragic experiences and those of her people only heightens the impact. The reader must also ask, "How is this possible?"

In 1982 Menchú first visited the United Nations in New York. Remembering that occasion when she recently spoke to the Third Commission of the U.N. Assembly, Menchú told of her first visit ten years before as a shy twenty-three year-old refugee: "At that time I spoke with delegates in the corridors of this building, always apprehensive that someone would ask me to leave the premises." Now, she said with a smile, she could speak with "the magic of the Nobel Prize."

In those ten years Menchú has become the leading international champion of the human rights of Guatemalan and other indigenous peoples. At the U.N. where she has represented the Guatemalan opposition movement, she has fought vainly for a resolution on Guatemala. She has made many speeches in the United States and elsewhere, and she has been received by heads of state and by the pope.

Her book has been translated into a dozen languages, and she has been honored with several international awards, including UNESCO's Education for Peace prize. Four times she tried to return to Guatemala to plead the case of her people, only to face serious death threats which made a stay there impossible. On one occasion she was arrested and released only after an international outcry.

Within human rights organizations, a movement began as early as 1990 to propose Menchú for the Nobel Peace Prize. It gathered strength both in Europe and in Mexico City, and 1992, the year of the 500th Columbian anniversary, seemed the most appropriate timing. Among the many nominations was one from Adolfo Pérez Esquivel of Argentina, the 1980 peace laureate.

Letters in support of the Menchú candidacy were still arriving at the Norwegian Nobel Committee long after the January deadline had passed. Committee members are sworn to secrecy, but there are journalists who claim to know that it was the international campaign that won her the prize. It has even been reported that she owes the award to the "extraordinary diplomatic and organizational skills" exercised in her behalf.

But the Oslo committee cherishes its independence and is resistant to special pressures. Campaigns in the past have appeared to be counter-productive, turning the committee away from a candidate. Moreover, what seemed like timeliness to the campaigners might well have led committee members to fear that a Menchú prize would lead critics to claim that they were following a "politically correct" line.

The committee had 130 candidates this year, an all-time high. Among them were strong candidates such as Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and Jimmy Carter. Favoring Menchú, along with her personal merits, were such factors as the committee's recent string of human rights prizes, its known desire to keep some geographic balance, and what must be a sensitivity among its five members (two of whom are women) to the fact that of the 91 previous prizes, only eight had gone to women. Such factors may also have helped Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma win the 1991 prize.

Committee Chairman Francis Seyersted acknowledged when making the announcement to the press that the prize was somewhat controversial, chiefly because of the charges that Menchú supported the armed struggle of the Guatemalan guerillas, of which she had never said she disapproved. "I don't say that each single action she has taken in itself expresses peace," Seyersted explained. "She has been in so many difficult situations. It is our conclusion that her long-term goal is peace."

What about the Columbus anniversary? This was not the main reason for choosing an Indian for the prize, Seyersted told the press. As he put it in his presentation speech, "For the Norwegian Nobel Committee it was a happy coincidence that it was precisely in the year of Columbus that she emerged as such a strong candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize." Seyersted, who is a historian, had no hesitation in referring to what happened to the Indian peoples as "genocide." For a peaceful world, he said, "there is a most urgent need to define the rights of aboriginal peoples and to respect those rights."

Seyersted praised Menchú's important contribution toward this end. But he identified an even more significant role she plays. "Violence breeds further violence and hate breeds further hate," he said. How can we break out of the vicious circle which Sissela Bok has called, "the pathology of partisanship?" What we can do "is to point to the shining individual examples of people who manage to preserve their humanity in brutal and violent surroundings, of persons who for that very reason compel our special respect and admiration. Such people give us a hope that there are ways out of the vicious circle."

"Even in the most brutal situations," Seyersted stated, "one must retain one's faith that there is a minimum of human feelings in all of us.. Rigoberta Menchú Tum has preserved that faith... By maintaining a disarming humanity in a brutal world [she] appeals to the best in us."

After he presented her with the diploma and medal, Menchú gave her words of thanks and then delivered her Nobel lecture, which this year was scheduled to follow the acceptance. She was dressed as usual in her Quiché attire, with the multicolored headband and embroidered blouse. Since she is only about five feet tall, a set of steps had been arranged so that she could look out over the podium. She was nervous before the event, fearing that she would lose her voice, but the doctor had provided the right dose of medicine or psychology, and after she mounted the steps and began to speak, her voice was clear and this little woman quite filled the great auditoriaum of Oslo's city hall with her presence.

She spoke of her deep emotion and pride for the honor and of "a deep personal feeling and pride for my country and its very ancient culture. For the values of the community and the people to which I belong, for the love of my country, of Mother Nature."

The Nobel Prize, she said, represented a banner "under which I shall continue to denounce the violation of human rights committed against the people in Guatemala, in America and in the world, and to take a positive role in the most pressing task in my country, to achieve peace and social justice."

She called the prize "the recognition of the European debt to the American indigenous people. It is an appeal to the conscience of Humanity so that those conditions of marginalization that condemned them to colonialism and exploitation may be eradicated; it is a cry for life, peace, justice, equality and fraternity between human beings."

She said that the prize would have to remain in Mexico City until there was peace in Guatemala. The medal and diploma would be deposited in a special place in the Museo del Templo Mayor, "the cradle of the ancient Aztecs."

She then spoke proudly of the Mayan civilization, which had reached such a highly sophisticated level before the conquest, referring to its great achievements in science and art. When Columbus "discovered" America, there were flourishing and strong civlilizations there, "which had discovered themselves long before the fall of the Roman Empire and Medieval Europe."

Menchú was happy to point out that later that very day, the tenth of December 1992, by coincidence the U.N. would begin the celebration of its Year of the Indigenous People, which was to last through 1993. She did not refer to her own role in helping bring this about.

She hoped that her prize would focus attention upon Guatemala of the international community, which had hitherto turned a blind eye upon its state of war and intolerable persecutions, and she urged international action.

Within Guatemala itself she talked of the need to combine creatively all the different ethnic groups, "to blend a number of colors without creating contradictions . . . We must give them brightness and a superior quality, just the way our weavers weave. A typical 'guipil' blouse brilliantly composed, our gift to humanity."

Menchú was given a standing ovation. When she returned to her seat and the band from Guatemala began to play the marimbas and beat the drums, tears flowed down her cheeks. Tears of exhaustion, tears of happiness. Later that day she was to be honored by a torchlight procession, and after the traditional evening banquet there was dancing, in which she joyously joined.

She would leave Norway after a visit to the indigenous people of the north,

announcing that she was planning to return to Guatemala for her first Christmas mass in her homeland in twelve years. She planned to use the $973,000 prize money to set up a foundation in her father's name. It was not clear whether she would be given any role in the peace negotiations between the government and the guerrillas, which had become stalled. There were a few hopeful signs: a new labor law, the government's agreement to facilitate the return of the refugees who had fled to Mexico, and of course Menchú's new prestigious status as a Nobel Peace laureate. As she declared, the ending of the civil war was urgent, but peace in itself would not solve Guatemala's problems. The very structure of Guatemalan society needed to be addressed.

In her introduction to Menchú's book, Elisabeth Burgos-Debray quotes the lines once written by Guatemala's other Nobel prize winner, Miguel Angel Asturias (Literature. 1967), which can be used to characterize the struggle of Rigoberta Menchú Tum for human rights:

Rise and demand; you are a burning flame.
You are sure to conquer there where the final horizon
Becomes a drop of blood, a drop of life,
Where you will carry the universe on your shoulders,
Where the universe will bear your hope.

Copyright 1989 by Irwin Abrams. All rights reserved.