Rigoberta Menchu Tum, the Guatemalan Indian human rights activist awarded last year's Nobel Peace Prize, voiced strong support Thursday for efforts to grant temporary protected status to tens of thousands of Guatemalan exiles living in the United States.
"Conditions are not right for many of my compatriots to return home," Menchu said during an interview in Los Angeles, home to the nation's largest Guatemalan refugee community.
Menchu, who was dressed in a traditional Mayan headdress, woven skirt and colorful huipil (blouse), was in Los Angeles as part of a whirlwind two-week tour of the United States, which also includes stops in Washington and the San Francisco area.
In informal talks and prepared addresses, Menchu has emphasized initiatives to bring peace to war-torn Guatemala, where, according to human rights groups, three decades of civil conflict have left more than 100,000 dead, 40,000 "disappeared" and 1 million displaced. Most victims were highland Indians such as Menchu, whose parents and brother were killed before she fled into exile in 1981. Her moving memoir, "I, Rigoberta Menchu," gained her international acclaim.
The $1.2-million Nobel Prize was used to set up the Vicente Menchu Foundation, named after her late father, a peasant leader who was killed in an anti-government protest in 1980. In her visit to Los Angeles, Menchu also stressed the plight of fellow Guatemalan exiles. About 300,000 to 500,000 live in the United States, according to informal estimates, including more than 200,000 in Greater Los Angeles.
Many Guatemalans in the United States lack legal status, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, arrest and deportation. Activists have been pressing Congress and the Clinton Administration to grant Guatemalans so-called Temporary Protected Status, which would allow them to remain and work legally in the United States. El Salvadoran exiles received such protection in 1990.