Rigoberta Menchú’s book is a harrowing but inspiring account of resistance in the Guatemalan civil war.

Of all the passages in Rigoberta Menchú’s taut, beautiful and tragic book, one in particular captures the essence of her life story:

‘I told myself that I wasn’t the only orphan in Guatemala. There are many others, and it’s not my grief alone, it’s the grief of a whole people. It’s the grief of a whole people, and all of us orphans who’ve been left must bear it.’

From her desperately impoverished upbringing in the Guatemalan altiplano, to the horrific deaths of her closest loved ones, to her decision to join the popular struggle against her country’s genocidal military regime, Menchú’s story is one shared by many people like her. It is this which gives I, Rigoberta Menchú its compulsive power as a vital account of Guatemala’s civil war.

Menchú’s story is not simply her own, but that of every indigenous woman, every campesina, every political activist and every revolutionary in Guatemala at the peak of the dictatorship’s scorched earth campaign to destroy the Mayan population. The challenge to simply end each day alive was one they had prepared for all their lives, with starvation and high infant mortality rates the constant realities for the majority rural poor. Even that wasn’t enough for the country’s landowning elites, as any form of agricultural collectivisation would see land appropriated and communities returned to their historic state of abject misery.

These are the conditions under which Menchú recounts her people’s struggle. Anyone seeking an analysis of the Reagan administration’s role in the Guatemalan killing fields of the early 1980s, when Washington ploughed military aid into the state terror apparatus, will need to find another book. This is a highly personalised account as seen through Menchú’s eyes and is by turn bewildering, stomach-churning and inspiring in its portrayal of suffering and the resistance this engenders within her people.

Menchú was born in the Quiché region of Guatemala. Her family were ethnic K’iche’, a Mayan-descendant indigenous group. Her childhood was spent alternating between the struggle to survive in her mountain community and the backbreaking seasonal labour on large lowland coffee estates. These passages recount the cruelty with which Guatemalan ladino elites treated the indigenous population, with one woman fired for taking a day off to bury a dead child and plunged into even greater economic hardship. Two of Menchú’s older brothers succumbed to starvation.

By her teens she was a social organiser. As she grew more politically active, the state began enacting its most repressive period. Her younger brother, mother and father all died in the most terrible ways at the hands of security forces. Yet rather than destroy opposition to military rule, as was the intention, such brutality catalysed isolated struggles into an international human rights movement that eventually saw Menchú awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.

Her life story is not merely a political biography: it relates in detail the indigenous traditions which underpinned resistance to tyranny. For Menchú and her people, these customs were crucial to determining their capacity to confront the military war machine. The bond with land and environment meant they could not abandon their homelands, leaving no alternative other than resistance. Other key elements of her identity, especially Christian Catechism and feminism, developed her intense purpose as a warrior of social justice.

Meanwhile, Menchú drew on her life experiences to summon strength in the face of adversity. Never is the book more harrowing than when Menchú recounts her decision not to visit her tortured mother on the point of death, knowing that this will ultimately benefit the regime.

Having only learnt Spanish – the book’s original language – a few years before its 1984 publication, Menchú’s account is vivid in its simplicity, maintaining a rhythm that never deviates whether describing ancient wedding customs or the murder of entire communities. Her story is an essential first-hand document in engaging with the horrors of Guatemala’s civil war and in defining the cohesive force that drives social struggle. Few books manage to find light amid the darkness like this one does.

I, Rigoberta Menchú, An Indian Woman in Guatemala

Rigoberta Menchú, Verso, 1984

This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue three (Winter 2016/17)