Latin Indian Activist Wins Nobel Prize


Guatemalan Indian rights activist Rigoberta Menchu Tum, whose parents were among tens of thousands of Indians killed in her country’s ongoing civil war, won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.

The award, worth $1.2 million, comes on the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. Menchu, a 33-year-old Mayan Indian, called it a tribute to all Indians throughout the Americas.

“It is a symbol for Indians and for poor victims,” she said upon learning the news in the northern Guatemalan provincial town of San Marcos. “This is a responsibility, before the Guatemalan people, before our costly history and for the peace that we must forge for the future.”

The Guatemalan government and armed forces accuse Menchu and her Peasant Unity Committee of supporting leftist rebels who have been fighting a guerrilla war against the military for 30 years.


Last weekend, an army spokesman, Capt. Julio Alberto Yon Rivera, said that Menchu “does not deserve the peace prize (because) she has only disparaged this country.” After the announcement Friday, Foreign Minister Gonzalo Menendez Park said Menchu “is tied to certain groups that have endangered Guatemala.”

But President Jorge Serrano issued a more conciliatory statement of congratulation, urging Menchu to use the “influence and moral authority” of the prize to seek peace in Guatemala and the rest of the Americas.

The five-member Nobel Committee acknowledged that Menchu was a controversial choice but said she had worked for national reconciliation in a politically and racially divided country.

“Today, Rigoberta Menchu stands out as a vivid symbol of peace and reconciliation across ethnic cultural and social dividing lines, in her own country, on the American continent and in the world,” the committee said.

Although a majority of Guatemalans belong to one of 22 Indian groups, most of them are poor, and the country is governed by a mixed-race, so-called Ladino minority.

Menchu is a member of the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations and the International Indian Treaty Council. She received international backing for the award, including support of the 1984 Nobel Peace laureate, Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, and Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina, who won in 1980. Danielle Mitterrand, wife of French President Francois Mitterrand, also backed the nomination.

Menchu’s prize was the second to a woman in as many years. Last year’s laureate, the Burmese democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, is still kept under house arrest by her country’s military rulers.

It was also the second Nobel won by a Guatemalan. Writer and journalist Miguel Angel Asturias won the prize for literature in 1967.

Menchu, on her third trip back to Guatemala after going into exile in 1981, was visiting San Marcos province Friday to talk about peace and celebrate Indian resistance to the European conquest that resulted from Columbus’ exploits. She received news of her award in a 4 a.m. telephone call from the Norwegian ambassador to Mexico.

“I wish that my parents could have been here to share in the dream of the Guatemalan people,” she told reporters with tears in her eyes.

At midday, Menchu marched through the mountain town with about 5,000 Indians who were clapping and chanting, “We don’t want war.” Dressed in a traditional black woven skirt and embroidered huipil , or blouse, she spoke to the crowd at the central plaza. “We don’t want there to be a first class, a second class or a third class” of Guatemalans, she said. “We are going to show that we are for unity.”

Accompanied by bodyguards, she moved on to the next town, San Pedro Sacatepequez, and to a growing crowd of about 10,000 Indians. “Long live respect between Ladinos and Indians,” she said.

Menchu, the sixth of nine children, grew up in the highlands of Guatemala speaking a Mayan dialect. After reaching her teens, she taught herself Spanish.

She began work at the age of 8, picking coffee and cotton on coastal plantations. In her autobiography, “I, Rigoberta Menchu,” she describes a slavish system in which workers bought food and medicine from the landowner’s store, drank at the owner’s cantina and where, at the end of the harvesting season, they owed their employer most of what they had earned. She tells of her first meeting with a landowner, who wore a fancy watch while she had never owned a pair of shoes.

Two of her brothers died on plantations, one of pesticide poisoning and another, at 2 years of age, of malnutrition. When the family took a day off to bury the toddler, they were fired.

“Since then I have had, I don’t know, a rage and a fear of life, that I am going to have the same life with many children who will then die,” she wrote.

Menchu’s family lived in a cane house with a thatched roof. They slept on woven mats on a dirt floor and ate a diet of chilis , wild plants and tortillas. She wrote of the humiliation of having to work and sleep in the same, dirty clothes: “I have suffered marginalization most profoundly, to the deepest of my being, because they say we Indians are dirty, but it is our situation that makes us so.”

At 14, Menchu went to work in Guatemala City as house servant. There she was fed a bit of beans and hard tortillas while the family dog, “a pretty, fat, white dog” ate pieces of meat and rice. “They treated me as if I were, I don’t know what, not even a dog because they treated the dog well,” she wrote.

Menchu’s father, the leader of their Indian community, fought to prevent regional landowners from kicking the Mayan families off the virgin lands they had cleared to farm. Her father was jailed as a political agitator in 1977, after which he joined the Peasant Unity Committee (CUC), then a clandestine but unarmed peasant organization. Menchu and her brothers soon followed.

About 40,000 people--most of them Indians--were killed or “disappeared” at the height of the military’s war against leftist guerrillas in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Entire villages were burned, the residents killed or driven into exile. Today 45,000 Guatemalans live in refugee camps in Mexico and more than 100,000 others are believed to live illegally in the country.

Menchu’s 16-year-old brother, Petrocinio, was detained by soldiers in 1979, tortured and publicly burned to death by soldiers demonstrating what happens to “Communists.” Two months later, her father joined a CUC march on the capital to denounce abuses against Indians in the highlands and occupied the Spanish Embassy. He was one of 22 people who died when security forces torched the mission.

Her mother was captured a few months later: “My mother was kidnaped, and in the first days of her kidnaping she was raped by the military officials of the village . . .,” Menchu wrote later. “On the third day of her kidnaping they cut her ears. They cut her whole body, part by part.”

After her parents died, Menchu says she decided not to have children, although she says it goes against her culture and the need for people to preserve their culture: “It was clear that I was fighting for a people and fighting for many children who have nothing to eat. . . . I think that my principle task is my people. I think that first come my people and later my personal happiness.”

Menchu’s CUC went above ground in the mid-1980s and has been fighting for Indian land rights and better wages for farm workers. Menchu denies any connection to the armed guerrillas, known as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union, although she has two sisters in the rebel army. She supports peace negotiations that began in April, 1991, but which are deadlocked.

On Thursday, the U.S.-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law issued a report charging that the military and right-wing death squads continue to kill and torture with impunity. In the first four months of 1992, the report said, there were 175 extrajudicial executions, 80 attempted executions, 30 reported death threats and hundreds of civilians subjected to aerial bombardments and artillery attacks by government forces.

The Peace Prize Winner

Who: Rigoberta Menchu Tum, 33, outspoken Indian rights activist from Guatemala. (Pronounced men-CHU)

Award: $1.2-million prize, which Menchu said she would use to further her work for the rights of Guatemalan Indians.

Selection: The award came on the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, and the committee indicated this played a role in its selection. Guatemala’s military says Menchu supports leftist guerrillas and denounced her nomination.

Background: Menchu went into exile in 1981 after her father, mother and brother were killed by security forces. She lives in Mexico.

Writings: Menchu won international notice with the 1983 publication of “I, Rigoberta Menchu,” a book translated into 11 languages that recounts Indian persecution as she grew up during the civil war.