The Truth of Rigoberta Menchú's Testimonial

A Note to Teachers                   

The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy

In 1999 David Stoll, in Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, claimed that Rigoberta Menchú, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, had falsified facts about herself in her 1983 testimony, the account that first brought her to world attention. Moreover, Stoll argued that liberal university professors who supported the Guatemalan resistance movement had embraced Menchú's story without question. When Stoll's book was published The New York Times ran a front page article questioning Menchú's integrity and the controversy entered the popular press. Although many editorial writers picked up the tone of Stoll's criticism, a collection of essays, by established experts on Guatemala and Menchú's testimony, titled Properties of Words: Rigoberta Menchú, David Stoll, and Identity Politics in Central America, was published before the year was over and seriously challenged Stoll's data, inferences, and conclusions. (I have written a chapter in that book describing the skepticism, difficulties, and critical reflections that Menchú's testimony often evokes in the classroom.)

In considering the public controversy it is important to carefully examine the charges David Stoll has actually made. An attentive reading of Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans makes it clear that the initial press reports on Stoll's research were sensationalistic. While The New York Times claimed that Rigoberta Menchú "fabricated," "seriously exaggerated," and told "one lie after another" in her testimonial, the surprising fact is that Stoll's research, on the contrary, actually serves to affirm the truth of Menchú¹s story in all of its major points, certainly those points that are most relevant to the vast majority of American teachers and students who have worked with Menchú's testimonial.

David Stoll is a professional anthropologist who, over the course of ten years, interviewed Guatemalans and undertook archival research focused on identifying errors, exaggerations, shortcomings, and bias in Menchú's testimony. In contrast, Menchú gave her testimony without notes in twenty-four hours of taped conversation over an eight-day period when she was twenty-three years old, not long after the murder of her father, mother, and brother and her escape to Mexico. Her testimony was recorded, transcribed, reorganized, and published by Elizabeth Burgos Debray, another anthropologist, who is the book's legal author (and who receives the the substantial royalties the testimony has generated). In the course of his research Stoll never interviewed Menchú herself.

Stoll begins the preface of his book by asserting that there is "no doubt about the most important points" Menchú makes (viii). Moreover, despite press reports about requests to the Nobel Prize Committee to rescind the Peace Prize after the Times article, in his book Stoll states that he believes awarding the Nobel Prize to Rigoberta Menchú was a "good idea" and that "she has been the first to acknowledge that she received it, not for her own accomplishments but because she stands for a wider group of people who deserve international support." (ix) (The prize was awarded to Menchú not for her testimony but for her subsequent political work and peace organizing.)

Specifically, Stoll's research leads him to corroborate the following information in Menchú's testimony:

  1. Rigoberta Menchú's father was burned alive when the army attacked the Spanish Embassy he was occupying to protest human rights abuses, an occurrence that is widely known in Guatemala. Stoll believes Menchú¹s account of the events at the embassy is more balanced than most others (80).
  2. Rigoberta Menchú's mother was detained, raped, tortured, killed, and her body was mutilated by the Guatemalan army. Rigoberta Menchú's gruesome description of what happened to her mother is corroborated by independent sources. (127)
  3. Rigoberta Menchú¹s 16 year-old brother Petrocino was seized, tortured, and shot by the army and his mutilated body was left in the street of the town of Chajul. Rigoberta Menchú reports that her brother was burned alive; Stoll argues he may have been burned after he was killed, but that it "was not rare" for the army to humiliate, torture, and burn people alive in front of their families. (70)
  4. Rigoberta Menchú's village, Chimel, was attacked by the army, and the villagers used self-defense strategies to protect themselves, much as Menchú describes (129).
  5. Rigoberta Menchú's two younger sisters did join the guerrillas after the murder of their mother (130).
  6. Ladinos in the highlands near Menchú's village were, at least during the war, closely associated with the army and attacks on indigenous people and Menchú's family (136).
  7. Guatemalans regard Menchú's testimonial as a "truthful portrayal of their country" (246)

David Stoll's research also adds information Rigoberta does not include in her testimony:

  1. The military coup in Guatemala in 1954 was "organized" by the US government, through the CIA, to overthrow a popularly-elected government. This military coup can be held directly responsible for a loss of political development and the country's economic collapse, military violence, and the revolutionary movement. Had the coup not taken place Stoll believes Guatemala "could have evolved in the direction of Costa Rica. Which leads Latin America in per capita income and political stability." (46)
  2. Rigoberta Menchú's village was completely destroyed by the Guatemalan army not long after her testimony was recorded.
  3. Rigoberta Menchú's brother Victor was shot and killed by the army after peacefully turning himself in. (135)
  4. Rigoberta Menchú's sister-in-law was killed and her nieces, age three and five, were starved to death while in army custody. (134-6)
  5. Rigoberta Menchú's closest friend at school, Bernadina Us Hernández, was killed by the army as were Bernadina¹s father, her brother (in front of the family) and six other male family members (46).
  6. Stoll documents many other violent murders of innocent indigenous people in the region Menchú comes from, frequently using words such as "slaughter," "massacre," and "holocaust."
  7. The international pressure that Menchú and her testimony created led, eventually, to negotiation between the guerrillas and the government and a reduction in the power of the army. In Stoll's words, "quite an achievement." (278)
  8. In the 1990s' Rigoberta Menchú had become a powerful leader for reconciliation between a wide cross-section of constituencies in Guatemala and considered a possible candidate for presidency of the country.

There are several points which Stoll continues to dispute with Menchú's 1983 testimonial. Menchú herself has responded to several of these points:

  1. Testimonies from other Guatemalan's indicate that Rigoberta Menchú's brother was not burned alive (after being tortured and before being killed) and that Menchú herself was not present when his body was dumped in the street outside Chajul. Menchú responds that her testimony repeats the first-hand account her mother gave her and that, until she is presented with the evidence of her brother's body itself, she will continue to believe her mother. Independent human rights records do record the public burning of indigenous people by the army in Chajul at roughly the same period. (See Guatemala: The Horror and the Hope).
  2. Based on conversations with neighbors and archives in the national land office, Stoll argues that Rigoberta Menchú's father was not involved in a land dispute with Ladinos but with relatives of Rigoberta Menchú's mother, the Tums. Rigoberta Menchú responds that her family believed that Ladinos had secretly bought the land from some of the Quiche and were using their Quiche names in the dispute as a front for land they owned. While Stoll elaborates disputes between indigenous Guatemalans over land, he does not mention that the vast majority of land in Guatemala is in the hands of a tiny minority of Ladino elite and that only 10% of rural families have enough land to live on (Pratt 62, in Teaching and Testimony).
  3. Stoll argues that Rigoberta Menchú was a student in a junior high boarding school for three years, an experience she does not mention in her 1982 account. Menchú responds that she did not speak about the school in 1982 to protect it from reprisals by the army. (Stoll mentions that the school was surrounded at various times by the army, that students were interrogated, and that Menchú's best friend at the school was killed by the army-thus making Menchú's silence credible.) Menchú also explains that she was on a charity scholarship at the school that only allowed her three hours of classes per day and the rest of her time was spent cleaning the school as a servant.
  4. Stoll claims that Rigoberta Menchú's brother Nicholas could not have died from malnutrition as she claims in her testimonial because he met her brother Nicholas alive and well in Guatemala. Rigoberta explains that her father was married twice and named two different sons "Nicholas," a common tradition among native Guatemalans. She maintains that it was the first Nicholas who did, indeed, die of malnutrition.
  5. Stoll can find no evidence of the death of "Petrona Chona" on the coffee plantation he believes that Rigoberta Menchú might have worked on (Rigoberta Menchú reports Petrona Chona's killing by the landowner's son when she refuses his amorous advances). Stoll does find evidence of a the death of a "Pascuala Xoná Chomo" whose husband was accused of killing her based on rumors of a relationship with the landowner's son.
  6. Stoll can find no specific evidence supporting Rigoberta Menchú's claim of having worked on coffee or sugar plantations or as a maid in the capitol. Aside from wondering how Menchú could have fit these activities in with everything else she was doing, Stoll offers no evidence to refute Menchú's account. He corroborates that many indigenous Guatemalans do work in these plantations and that Menchú's description of working conditions is accurate. Menchú describes these conditions as abject, exploitative, abusive, and violent.
  7. Stoll blames the revolutionary guerrillas for the violence of the army. He sites several instances where the Guatemalan army was helpful to native Guatemalans, yet he doesn't dispute human rights reports that blame the army for the murder of 100,000 innocent indigenous Guatemalans.
  8. Stoll believes that Rigoberta Menchú's testimonial portrays indigenous Guatemalans as more sympathetic to the guerrilla movement than they actually were. He bases his belief on interviews nearly ten years after the events Menchú describes. This is a point of contention that scholars more qualified than I am respond to in Rigoberta Menchú, David Stoll, and the Politics of Identity. Yet, it seems obvious to me that after ten years of unbelievably harsh repression of indigenous people by the Guatemalan army-a period during which any mention of sympathy or support for guerrillas lead to almost certain death not just of individuals, but also of entire families and villages-that it is not surprising that Stoll does not interview many indigenous Guatemalans who tell him of their support for armed rebellion.

In conclusion, though David Stoll argues that Rigoberta Menchú "romanced" her story to favor the guerrillas, an examination of his book and the evidence on this question reveals Stoll¹s position as a matter of narrow, unbalanced, and even bizarre interpretation. While Stoll raises issues that may be appropriate to take up in particular classroom contexts, given Menchú's and other scholars' responses to his arguments, and the minor points of factual disagreement that remain, it is, frankly, hard for me to see how David Stoll's book could have relevance to the vast majority of American teachers and students. An examination of the controversy it stirred up might, perhaps, be useful as a study of the mass media's fascination with personalities, character assassination, and its failure to address fundamental social, political, historical, and economic realities. In contrast is Rigoberta Menchú's testimony itself, still a most valuable classroom text and resource for encountering and exploring some of the most profound and disturbing realities of our time.


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