October 2, 2023
Rigoberta Menchú was born on January 9, 1959 to a poor Indian peasant family and raised in the Quiche branch of the Mayan culture. In her early years she helped with the family farm work, either in the northern highlands of Guatemala where her family lived, or on the Pacific coast, where both adults and children went to pick coffee on the big plantations
Over the years, Rigoberta Menchú has become widely known as a leading advocate of Indian rights and ethno-cultural reconciliation, not only in Guatemala but in the Western Hemisphere generally, and her work has earned her several international awards.
Menchú gained international prominence in 1983 with her widely translated book I, Rigoberta Menchú, in which she tells the story of her impoverished youth and recounts in horrifying detail the torture-murders of her brother and mother. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her continuing efforts to achieve social justice and mutual reconciliation in Guatemala; she used the prize money to found the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation, an Indian advocacy organization.
In 1992 the western world celebrated that it was 500 years since Columbus reached America. In the same year, the Guatemalan indigenous woman Rigoberta Menchú was awarded the Peace Prize for her work for the rights of indigenous peoples and reconciliation between ethnic groups. Indigenous organizations lobbied for her nomination, they wanted to draw attention to the fact that the European discovery of America had entailed the extermination and suppression of indigenous populations.
In 1996, Menchú was appointed as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in recognition of her activism for the rights of Indigenous people. In this capacity, she acted as a spokesperson for the first International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (1995–2004), where she worked to improve international collaboration on issues such as environment, education, health care, and human rights for Indigenous peoples. In 2015, Menchú met with the general director of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, in order to solidify relations between Guatemala and the organization.
As part Guatemalan and having Mayan ancestry, I am proud to be able to highlight Rigoberta Menchu for Hispanic Heritage month, as a true inspiration of what can be done despite hardship and to represent people who sometimes have no voice.