by Lydia Ratna

Centrum Voor Mundiaal Onderwijs
1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú thinks of herself, first and foremost, as an indigenous woman, even though her Mayan heritage puts her in disadvantage in Guatemala, her home country.

The indigenous people, with their multi-colored Huipils, are the native dwellers of the Americas for thousands of years. European explorers, or conquistadors, came to America in the 15th century, bringing with them diseases and guns. They also exploited the gold found in America to build majestic buildings in Europe. Because of the European explorers, the cultural artifacts of the indigenous people were ruined; their people died of European diseases. The Europeans also married the indigenous people, producing children who were culturally orphaned. Thus, the Europeans almost completely wiped out the indigenous civilization. In Guatemala, the government is made up of Ladinos, one of the various ethnic groups. Indigenous people bore most of the brunt from both the Ladino government and the guerrillas.

photo courtesy of the United Nations Cyber School Bus - Indigenous Peoples
Rigoberta Menchú, as so many other indigenous people did, lost members of her family from murders orchestrated by the Ladinos government. Her father, Vincente Menchú, was involved in a protest against the government before the government kidnapped and murdered him. Following the murder of her father, Rigoberta’s mother was raped, tortured and killed. The army also assassinated Rigoberta's brother, Petrocinio.

Rigoberta's family is only another sad example of the Ladinos government's oppression towards indigenous people. Since they are not acknowledged as citizens, they receive no protection from the government, and have to constantly bribe the corrupt government to stay out of jail. The government also intentionally looks for the people’s faults to create lawsuits against them in order to receive bribes. Further, the poor Guatemalans are not entitled to their lands; once they die, the land reverts to the government and not their children.

photo courtesy of
Menchú became involved with various groups in their struggle for the indigenous people out of personal conviction and sense of justice. Because of her fight against the government, Menchú was labeled an enemy, and had to flee Guatemala for her life. During her time abroad, she met many people who were sympathetic to the indigenous people's plight. Her friends persuaded her to write a book about her life.

For a week she was interviewed by a French anthropologist who then produced the book I, Rigoberta Menchú. The book won much acclaim from the international society and brought focus to Guatemala. It lifted Menchú's status from an indigenous peasant to a living legend.

When Menchú wrote her book, I, Rigoberta Menchú, the guerrilla movement was at its peak. By the following decade, however, the movement had lost much support becaus the indigenous people did not benefit from the movement and only wanted the fighting to end. The guerrillas and the government soldiers occupied tyrannical positions, and the indigenous people felt caught in the battle between the two hostile groups.

A decade later, Menchú received a surprise call from a friend congratulating her for winning the Nobel Peace Prize. An hour later word came out that she had indeed won the prize, provoking mixed reactions from many sources. Some were glad, since the prize means more exposure for the struggle of indigenous people. Others griped that they never appointed Menchú as their leader and spokesman. She was both the first indigenous person and the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. People all over Guatemala lit firecrackers, and toasted Menchú, who held a celebration for all her supporters

Written by Lydia Ratna
Last changed on: 9/15/2010 2:20:49 AM Biography of this Nobel Peace Prize winner

Heroines of Peace From the Nobel Prize E-Museum