The story of Rigoberta Menchú, a Quiché Mayan from Guatemala whose autobiography catapulted her to international fame, won her the Nobel Peace Prize and made her an international emblem of the dispossessed indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere and their attempt to rebel against the oppression of European conquerors, has now been exposed as a political fabrication, a tissue of lies. It is one of the greatest hoaxes of the 20th century.
Equally remarkable, and also indicative of the cultural power of the perpetrators of this hoax, is the fact that the revelation of Menchú’s mendacity has changed nothing. The Nobel committee has already refused to take back her prize, the thousands of college courses that make her book a required text for American students will continue to do so and the editorial writers of the major press institutions have already defended her falsehoods on the same grounds that supporters of Tawana Brawley’s parallel hoax made famous: Even if she’s lying, she’s telling the truth.
The 1982 autobiography that launched the hoax “I, Rigoberta Menchú,” was actually written by a French leftist, Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, wife of Marxist Regis Debray, who provided the focostrategy for Che Guevara’s failed effort to foment a guerrilla war in Bolivia in the 1960s. Debray’s misguided theory got Guevara and an undetermined number of Bolivian peasants killed, and as we shall see is at the root of the tragedies that overwhelmed Menchú and her family.
As told in her autobiography, the story of Rigoberta Menchú is a classic Marxist myth. The Menchús were a poor Maya family living on the margins of a country from which they had been dispossessed by the Spanish conquistadors whose descendants are known asladinos, and who try to drive the Menchús and other Indian peasants off unclaimed land that they had cultivated. Rigoberta was illiterate and her peasant father, Vicente, refused to send her to school because he needed her to work in the fields. So poor is the Menchú family because of their lack of land that Rigoberta has to watch her younger brother die of starvation. Meanwhile, Vicente is engaged in a heroic but ultimately hopeless battle with the ladino masters of the land for a plot to cultivate. Finally, Vicente organizes a resistance movement called Committee for Campesino Unity. Rigoberta becomes a political organizer too. The resistance movement links up with a Guatemalan revolutionary force, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor. But the ruling class’s brutal security forces enter the fray and prevail. Vicente Menchú is killed. The surviving members of the family are forced to watch as Rigoberta’s brother is burned alive. Rigoberta’s mother is raped and killed.
As told by Rigoberta, the tragedy of the Menchús is a call to people of good will all over the world to help the good but powerless indigenous peoples of Guatemala and other third world countries to their rightful inheritance. Made internationally famous by the success of her book and by the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1992, Menchú, now head of the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation for Human Rights, is a powerful spokeswoman for the cause of “social justice and peace.”
Unfortunately for her case, virtually everything that Menchú has written is a lie — and the lies are neither incidental nor accidental. They are lies about the central events of her story and have been concocted for specifically political purposes, in order to create a specific political myth. And they begin on the first page, where she writes:
When I was older, my father regretted my not going to school, as I was a girl able to learn many things. But he always said: ‘Unfortunately, if I put you in school, they’ll make you forget your class; they’ll turn you into a ladino. I don’t want that for you and that’s why I don’t send you.’ He might have had the chance to put me in school when I was about fourteen or fifteen but he couldn’t do it because he knew what the consequences would be: the ideas that they would give me.
To the unsuspecting reader, this looks like an all-too perfect realization of the Marxist paradigm, in which the ideas of the ruling class become the ruling ideas through its control of the means of education. But, contrary to her assertions, Menchú was not uneducated. Nor did her father oppose her education because he feared it would indoctrinate her in the values of the ladino ruling class. Her father, in fact, sent her to two prestigious private boarding schools, operated by Catholic nuns, where she received the equivalent of a middle-school education.