MARGINAL SOULS AND MISUNDERSTANDINGS.

Author:Mujica, Barbara
Position:Review
 
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Crossing Borders, by Rigoberta Menchu. Trans., Ann Wright. New York: Verso, 1998.

Fifteen years have passed since the publication, in 1983, of I, Rigoberta Menchu [Me llamo Rigoberta Menchu], by the Guatemalan activist who focused world attention on government abuse of the indigenous populations of her homeland. Since then, Menchu has worked incessantly on behalf of the Maya-Quiche and other Indian groups, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. Crossing Borders is the second installment of her autobiography.

In her introduction, Menchu describes the stressful period during which she was nominated for and received the Nobel Peace Price. Her candidacy provoked opposition not only from establishment politicians, but also from Indians who felt that she was not their elected representative and did not articulate their views. However, most Indians came to see the prize as an important symbol that would bestow legitimacy on their struggle for justice. Eventually, her victory initiated a healing process, bringing together Guatemalans of diverse backgrounds and political tendencies, united in national pride.

The story begins in 1995. As in her first book, Menchu paints an idealized picture of her household, although instead of in a remote village, she now lives in Guatemala City with her son, her husband, his brother and sister, and a host of nieces and nephews. Menchu's description of daily life is replete with examples of ethnic customs, foods, and expressions, creating the impression of an exotic, paradisiacal enclave. References to earlier violence reinforce the notion of a utopia constantly menaced by corrupt, outside forces. Suddenly, in the midst of a wedding celebration, Kalito, the three-year-old son of Menchu's niece, is kidnapped. The incident is full of symbolic overtones, since Kalito, the first grandson of Menchu's elder brother, is heir to a position of great respect. Menchu cannot help but think that the attack is directed at her. When the child's mother and her husband are convicted of the kidnapping and the whole thing turns out to be a hoax, Menchu concludes that they have been suborned by enemy political forces bent on discrediting and destroying her.

Menchu believes that Kalito's kidnapping would not have happened if she hadn't returned to Guatemala after a long period of exile. She had fled Guatemala to Mexico in 1981 after a period of intense violence that had left her parents and brother dead. When she had attempted to return in 1988, she was arrested at the airport on orders of President Vinicio Cerezo. The affair had attracted international attention, and dignitaries such as French president Francois Mitterand put pressure on the Guatemalan government to secure Menchu's release. Once out of jail, she again left the country and did not feel it was safe to return until after she had won the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1993 she decided to transfer the headquarters of the Rigoberta Menchu Foundation--a development organization that promoted projects combining native wisdom with modern technology--from Mexico City to Guatemala.

Yet, Guatemala was still in a state of turmoil. On October 5, 1995, an army patrol entered the Indian community at Xaman and opened fire on people preparing for a festival. The Rigoberta Menchu Foundation had been instrumental in helping Guatemalan refugees living in Mexico resettle at Xaman. The founders had been filled with enthusiasm and high hopes for the new community, which was flourishing in spite of several disasters, including a terrible hurricane. Menchu, fearful that the public prosecutor would not fully investigate the massacre, became a co-accuser in the case and undertook a private prosecution, circumstances that she believes led to Kalito's kidnapping. At the time of her writing, the case was still in process.

Much of Menchu's book consists of reminiscences of village life--popular festivals that combined...

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