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from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1999

Oh, Rigoberta!

William J. Bennetta

Rigoberta Menchú
1959 -

Nobel Peace Prize 1992
Violence is no stranger to Guatemala's Rigoberta Menchú.
Her brother was burned to death. Her father was killed
by hand grenades while leading a peaceful sit-in. Her
mother was kidnapped and killed by Guatemalan soldiers.
These wrongs against her family made Rigoberta Menchú
more dedicated to preventing human rights abuses of her
people, Maya Indians. Beginning in the late 1970s, she
helped set up community organizations to speak for Indian
rights. She organized marches and protests against unfair
government actions.
Francis Sejersted, who presented the Nobel Prize stated,
"By maintaining a disarming humanity in a brutal world,
Rigoberta Menchú appeals to the best in us. She stands as
a uniquely potent symbol of a just struggle."

            from McDougal Littell's textbook World History:
            Patterns of Interaction
(1999)

Rigoberta Menchú's ascent to fame began in the early 1980s, when a book titled I, Rigoberta Menchú was published in Spanish and then in English. The book purported to be Menchú's autobiography. Menchú soon became a living icon in leftist political circles -- and in 1992, when she acquired a Nobel Peace Prize, she was transformed into an international celebrity. Throughout her ascent, she traded on the personal image and the personal story that she had fashioned in I, Rigoberta Menchú. Both the image and the story are reflected faithfully in the gushy little passage, from McDougal Littell's Patterns of Interaction, that I have quoted above.

In the past few months, however, a new story of Rigoberta Menchú has emerged. Menchú has been discredited, her book has been exposed as a fraud, and her most memorable narratives (including her accounts of the grenading of her father and the incinerating of her brother) have been found to be lies. Moreover, the image that Menchú built for herself and her family has been demolished. In I, Rigoberta Menchú, she said that she had been born into poverty and that her father had struggled continually against the oppression inflicted on local Mayas by wealthy ladino landowners -- but the truth is that her father was himself a landowner who struggled against other Mayas for control of a small parcel of land that he wanted to add to his holdings. In I, Rigoberta Menchú, Menchú claimed that she had been deprived of any education -- but the truth is that she had received an unusually good education, for her father had sent her to private schools operated by Roman Catholic nuns. And so forth.

Menchú was unmasked by David Stoll, an anthropologist, who conducted a ten-year investigation into Menchú's claims and who interviewed some 120 Guatemalans who had first-hand knowledge of Menchú, of her family, and of the alleged events that she recounted in her "autobiography." Stoll has put his findings into a book -- Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans -- that was issued recently by Westview Press (Boulder, Colorado). Since then, Stoll's information has been extensively confirmed by Larry Rohter, a reporter for The New York Times.

Menchú has reacted by making various odd statements, sometimes contradicting herself. First she tried evasion, declaring that it wasn't her "job" to comment on what other people wrote about her -- but later she made an explicit comment about Stoll's book, and she got her facts wrong. On another occasion she announced that she wasn't the author of I, Rigoberta Menchú, and that the book had been concocted by an editor. Then she claimed that the book wasn't a biography anyway. And so on.

This affair is wonderfully rich material for history teachers who would like their students to understand something about what history is, about how it emerges, and about how historians must try to extract real history from all sorts of claims and counterclaims -- including claims put forth in "primary sources" that are outright hoaxes. Teachers who want to build lessons about the toppling of Rigoberta Menchú should begin, of course, by reading David Stoll's book. Other useful sources include:

"Rigoberta Menchú: Tarnished Laureate," by Larry Rohter, in The New York Times for 15 December 1998

"Nobel Winner Denies Fabrications in Book" in the Chicago Tribune for 21 January 1999

"I, Rigoberta Menchú, Liar," by David Horowitz, in the December-January issue of Heterodoxy

"Menchú Says Critics Harbor Political Aims," by Deborah Tedford, in the Houston Chronicle for 4 February 1999

"Menchú Admits Inaccuracies in Her Book," by the Associated Press, in the Seattle Times for 12 February 1999


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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