The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy: Does the Truth Ruin Everything?

Credit: Oswaldo Guayasmín
I, Rigoberta Menchú opens with a disclaimer that eerily foreshadows David Stoll’s polemical analysis of her book, “This is my testimony.  I didn’t learn it from a book and I didn’t learn it alone.  I’d like to stress that it’s not only my life, it’s also the testimony of my people”(1).  Right away the reader is faced with the ambiguity of the term “testimony.”  In John Beverley’s definition “testimonio is a narrative…told in the first person by a narrator who is also the real protagonist or witness of the events he or she recounts,” (John Beverley Against Literature, 70).  While Menchú Tum claims that her book is written in the genre of the testimonio, she does not agree to play by its rules of being a direct witness to the events that she recounts.  

In “What Happens When the Subaltern Speaks” John Beverley points out that Menchú was trained to be a catechist of the word and, instead of being a naïve narrator, she was accustomed to telling bible stories in a way that was suited to her audience.  Don Abbott points out, for example, how missionaries since the conquest such as José de Acosta stressed the differences of the New World and the Old.  According to Acosta, Old World methods of conversion are not suitable for the New World because the audiences are fundamentally different and the Indian audience is much more limited in what they can understand.  Acosta argues that the technique for conversion must depend on the degree of “barbarism” of the population and this is measured by the degree of illiteracy and the distance between a given aboriginal language and Latin (Rhetoric of the Americas Abbot).  Menchú’s “testimony” was shaped rhetorically for her audience much in the same way that Catholic missionaries have traditionally shared, and have been trained to share, the gospel. 

I agree with John Beverley who concludes that “What, I, Rigoberta Menchú forces us to confront is not someone who is being represented for us as subaltern, but rather an active agent of a transformative cultural and political project that aspires to become hegemonic in its own right: someone, in other words, who assumes the right to tell the story in the way she feels will be most effective in molding both national and international public opinion in support of the ideas and values she favors, which include a new kind of autonomy and authority for indigenous peoples (“What Happens When the Subaltern Speaks” Beverley, 233). 

David Stoll notes that, “books like I, Rigoberta Menchú will be exalted because they tell academics what they want to hear…What makes I, Rigoberta Menchú so attractive in universities is what makes it misleading about the struggle for survival in Guatemala.  We think we are getting closer to understanding Guatemalan peasants when actually we are being borne away by the mystifications wrapped up in an iconic figure (227). 

So what do Western academics want to hear about Guatemalan peasants?  In my opinion there is evidence that suggests that a hunger for the “exotic” underlies Burgos’s work.  In comparison with other “testimonials” such as Roque Dalton's Miguel Mármol, for example, Elizabeth Burgos-Debray’s at times National Geographic style of recording ethnography in I, Rigobert Menchú is striking.  In chapters such as Birth Ceremonies, Marriage Ceremonies, Death, Fiestas and Indian Queens, the book documents the culture of Guatemalan Indians as “others.” Since Burgos Debray explains that she organized and pieced together the transcribed interviews by major themes into chapters, we can see Burgos-Debray’s authorial voice in deciding what was important and what was less so.  Also, this book arguably emerges as part of Western academics' drive to identify a victim that Alain Badiou proposes in his Essay on the Ethics of Evil.  Burgos explains that the idea behind the book came from a Canadian friend of hers sympathetic to the cause of Guatemalan Indians (Debray/ Menchú xiv). According to Arturo Taracena in an interview by Luis Aceituno for El períodico de Guatemala, Guatemala City on January 3 1999, Burgos Debray was interested in publishing a testimony by a Guatemalan Mayan woman.

Still, as Beverley and Stoll point out, in the end, Menchú Tum defies being pigeonholed into the position of a passive “native informant,” who lends herself to Burgos-Debray’s (and Western academia’s) purposes.  Instead, Menchú can be thought of as an “organic intellectual” who has her own agenda (“What Happens When” Beverley, 222).  Rigoberta Menchú’s agenda ends up upsetting Western academia’s construction of an indigenous subject and positioning of Menchú as a symbol of Indigenous Guatemalans through the testimonial genre.

Although David Stoll says that Rigoberta Menchú’s testimony is “obviously the truth, in a national sense if not a personal one” (Interview by Dina Fernández Garcia “Stoll: I Don’t Seek to Destroy Menchú” 69), Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans points out key inconsistencies in Menchú’s telling of the events of her life.  Among these inaccuracies, Stoll points out that Menchú did not lack an education; she was in fact educated at private Catholic boarding schools.  Also she did not witness the death of her brother Petrocinio as she claimed and others in her village contend that he was not burned alive, but was killed by the military in other circumstances.  The territorial dispute with landowners that Menchú claims to have sparked her father’s political awakening was, in fact, a dispute for land with members of her own family.  More than 600 pages of government records backing up this version of events are on file at the National Agrarian Transformation Institute of Guatemala City.

Stoll absolves Burgos-Debray of blame for the inconsistencies in Menchús narrative because he heard a few of the taped testimonies and says that she essentially only made superficial changes to Menchú’s version.  Next Stoll argues about the “truth” of Rigoberta Menchú’s testimony.  He discusses collective memory and argues that her testimony can be said to be “true” because many Guatemalans identify with it.  Particularly compelling to me was his argument that what is imagined has a true dimension.  This is the case in theories of post-memory where even though an event may not be witnessed directly, the memories of family members are “inherited” and, in a way, “remembered.”  Stoll proposes that standard concepts of “remembering” are too limited and ends the chapter with the conception of Menchús account as an “explosion of memory and imagination”(200).  Later in the book Stoll suggests that even if her testimony is not true that it is in the process of becoming true.  He cites Zygmunt Baumann who says that what society chooses to remember is the only thing that counts.  

On another level this book is in itself the testimony of David Stoll.  He explains what happened to him when she stumbled upon an “inconvenient truth” and tried to publicize his findings.  Stoll says that he was accused of being an apologist for the Guatemalan army and describes how difficult it was to publish his book.  Colleagues in the field such as John Beverley, Arturo Arias, and Eduardo Galeano attacked him.  One of his books, in fact, was not published and has been banished to the abyss of the Internet.  He tells the story of the repression of his research and of his disillusionment with his field which he came to see as dogmatic and lacking in critical thinking.  

David Stoll argues that Rigoberta Menchú is a convenient symbol of indigenous resistance for North American academics who want to see themselves as “intellectual rebels.”  At the end of his book Stoll writes, in regards to what Latin American Historians want to “know” about Guatemala, that “the truth would ruin everything.”