Indigenous Style Icon of the Week: Rigoberta Menchú (K’iche’ Maya)

Rigoberta Menchú Tum is an indigenous Guatemalan, of the K’iche’ ethnic group. Menchú received a primary-school education as a student at several Catholic boarding schools. After leaving school, she worked as an activist campaigning against human rights violations committed by the Guatemalan armed forces during the country’s civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996.

Her father, Vicente Menchú was a member of the guerrilla movement Guerrilla Army of the Poor and died in 1980 during the Burning of the Spanish Embassy. In 1981, Rigoberta Menchú escaped to Mexico. In 1982, she narrated a book about her life to Venezuelan author and anthropologist Elizabeth Burgos, “Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia” (My Name is Rigoberta Menchu and this is how my Conscience was Born), which was translated into five other languages. The book made her an international icon at the time of the ongoing conflict in Guatemala. She received the Nobel Peace Prize (1992), served as the presidential goodwill ambassador for the 1996 peace accords, and received the Prince of Asturias Award (1998).

Since the Guatemalan Civil War ended, Menchú has campaigned to have members of the Guatemalan political and military establishment tried in Spanish courts. In 1999 she filed a complaint before a court in Spain because prosecutions of crimes committed during the civil war are practically impossible in Guatemala. On December 23, 2006, Spain called for the extradition from Guatemala of seven former members of Guatemala’s government on charges of genocide and torture, including former military rulers Efraín Ríos Montt and Óscar Mejía. The most serious charges include genocide against the Mayan people of Guatemala.

In February 2007, Menchú announced that she would form an indigenous political party called Encuentro por Guatemala and that she would stand in the 2007 presidential election. In the election, Menchú was defeated in the first round, receiving three percent of the vote. Several candidates of her party were threatened and two of them were killed. 

Menchú has become involved in the Indian pharmaceutical industry as president of the company Salud para Todos (Health for All) and the company Farmacias Similares, with the goal of offering low-cost generic medicines. She is also one of the founding members of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which works to help strengthen work being done in support of women’s rights around the world.

Menchú has dedicated her life to publicizing the struggles of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples during and after the Guatemalan Civil War (1960–1996), and to promoting indigenous rights in the country. She is the subject of the testimonial biography I, Rigoberta Menchú (1983) and the author of the autobiographical work, Crossing Borders

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