Is There A Truth About Rigoberto Menchu
My friend the anthropologist says there is no such thing as truth. She says that shes interviewed people in the field who completely contradict each other. One says the volcano erupted and the other says it didnt. They both say it with equal conviction.
I say: one of them is wrong. Either the volcano erupted or it didnt. Not that perspective isnt important. Our two observers may have had different vantage points from which they viewed the volcano; they may not be speaking about the same volcano; they may have different definitions of what volcano means, likewise for eruption. But, I argued, it is possible to define volcano eruption, and know for sure if it happened or not.
Of course, it may not matter in the slightest whether the volcano erupted. What my anthropologist friend might really be interested in is the perspectives of the folks who interpret volcano activity. She may learn a great deal about people by listening to what they have to say about nature, the passage of time, the meaning of natural disasters, etc. Focusing strictly on the question of whether the volcano technically erupted or not would lead her away from more interesting ideas and perspectives. She is not there to uncover the truth about a one-time volcano eruption; she is there to understand more about a people.
As most people are now aware, the powerful testimony I Rigoberta Menchu -- by a 23-year old Mayan woman, which told the riveting story of the injustice, oppression and massacres experienced by her people at the hands of the Guatemalan military, was not true in all of its details. According to David Stoll in his book Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, these falsehoods include writing that:
Menchus life was a triumph over childhood illiteracy and lack of schooling, but in fact she attended Catholic boarding schools, according to nuns who operated them;
the brother she said was set on fire while she and her family watched was probably shot and then set on fire later;
another brother, said to have starved to death, is in fact still alive and the owner of a homestead;
a land battle that Rigoberta Menchu says her father waged against rich Guatemalans of European descent was actually a dispute between her father and his in-laws.
Menchu has not offered detailed responses, choosing instead to focus on the fact that she never meant her story to be strictly personal. Indeed, in the book itself, I, Rigoberta Menchu, she writes, Id like to stress that its not only my life, its also the testimony of my people. She told Larry Rohter of the Times that her autobiography is part of this historical memory and patrimony of Guatemala, and recently, as reported by Associated Press, Menchu says, I was a survivor, alone in the world, who had to convince the world to look at the atrocities committed in my homeland.
Does it matter whether Rigoberta Menchu told the truth throughout her book? It depends who you ask.
Most of the professors who use the book in their courses will continue to do so because they believe Menchus story speaks to a greater truth about oppression in Central America, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The Nobel Committee that honored her with the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize is not revoking her award because their decision to give it to her was not based on the book, but on her peace work. Besides, says a member of the Nobel Committee, All autobiographies embellish to a greater or lesser extent.
Those concerned with peace and justice in Guatemala believe that Menchus slight prevarications are meaningless compared to the ongoing lies and disinformation campaigns perpetrated by the Guatemalan government, aided and abetted by the United States. In their review in The Nation of David Stolls book, Greg Grandin and Francisco Goldberg remind us that the year before I, Rigoberta Menchu came out, the Guatemalan army committed 400 massacres, killing over 100,000 and leaving more than a million homeless. Perhaps Menchu did not witness her brother being burned to death. But he was brutally murdered. And there were many whose executions were witnessed by relatives. Does it really matter which Mayan was executed by which method, with which witnesses in attendance? For those who want to reverse the pain and oppression experienced by the Mayans in their homeland, the much more relevant lies are the ones told by our own government with mainstream media support.
To the mainstream U.S. media, it seems to matter a great deal that Menchus memoir includes inaccuracies. David Stolls book has been widely reviewed and reported on, and the New York Times sent Larry Rohter to Guatemala to confirm Stolls story. The media thus walks away from the whole affair seeming to be hell bent on uncovering the truth. Would that they dispatched investigative reporters to dissect Kissingers recent memoir.
While activists, academics and reporters debate the truth about Rigoberta Menchu, the New York Review of Books boasts proudly on the cover of its April 8, 1999 edition that we need look no further. Their lead essay is: The Truth About Rigoberta Menchu, by Peter Canby, who consistently refers to her by her first name only in his lengthy article (while he refers to all others by their last names), and who has this to say about Menchu after a brief personal encounter:
In New York in mid-February, I attended Rigobertas press conference in a midtown United Nations office tower. She is so small that when she sat in a chair her feet barely touched the ground. The combined effect of her very large head and the traditional costume she wore was to make her look disconcertingly like a doll. She seemed irrepressibly talkative and curious about her audience and also, in view of her difficult situation, surprisingly unconcerned with details.
I can only imagine what Menchu might have been feeling sitting in the annoyingly large UN chair, surrounded by giants with small heads, wearing severe, monochromatic costumes.
Ultimately, there do appear to be inaccuaracies in I, Rigoberta Menchu, and I believe the book is weaker for them. The atrocities being perptrated against the Mayans by the military were bad enough. No need to fabricate anything for affect. Once you start seeing and reporting only the evidence that supports your story, then pretty soon you cant see the whole picture. Menchus father may have been having an intra-Mayan (even intra-family) land dispute, but that does not mean that the racist patterns of land ownership in Guatemala did not provide a meaningful context to land struggles amongst the Mayans. Our job is to try to uncover and report the truth in all its nuance and complexity. I believe it is important to do this even if it temporarily weakens our cause whatever it may be. Furthermore, and more importantly, we must rank the relevance and importance of the evidence we uncover. In the case of Menchus memoir, the falsehoods are insignificant compared to the U.S. role in the economic exploitation and mass murder of Guatemalan peasants. About the latter, we can actually do something. And any change we bring about would have benefits that would be widely felt.