Elevate Difference

Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans

For those unfamiliar with 1983’s I, Rigoberta Menchu, or the controversy that surrounded the initial publication of David Stoll’s contentious academic countering in 1998, it would be best to revisit the debates that have raged for the last ten years. Rigoberta Menchu, an indigenous Guatemalan woman who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her now twenty-five-year-old testimonio and subsequently found her book added to the multicultural canon in colleges around the world, has drawn sharp criticism from both scholars like Stoll and her own country’s people, who do not believe their stories have been represented by hers.

As Stoll is a white, Western, male academic, his initial deconstruction of her story felt problematic for many. Yet, after conducting nearly 120 interviews with Guatemalan people who refute some of Menchu’s base claims, it becomes hard to remain optimistically objective, even if her story speaks to a wide range of real and existing experiences of oppression and revolution in Latin America and the Global South. In this case, Stoll’s criticisms also feel particularly significant as Menchu’s book has been lauded for its supposed authenticity, rather than as a literary masterpiece.

For the tenth anniversary reprinting of Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, Stoll solicited a new foreword by Menchu’s original biographer, Elizabeth Burgos. Estranged from Menchu after Menchu’s dismissal of the book and Burgos in the years following Stoll’s criticism, Burgos does an admirable job of explaining her side of the story while remaining neutral about Stoll’s accusations and findings. Perhaps the best reason for buying this updated version of the book, Burgos’s introduction is an appropriate report of a story within a story—a deeply moving recount of the events leading to her help with I, Rigoberta Menchu and the fallout in her own life following accusations of inaccuracies in the narrative.

Despite appreciating Stoll’s in-depth analysis and research, and the supplementary back-story from Burgos, I caution anyone not already deeply familiar with the Guatemalan people’s revolutionary history or Menchu’s story to find better ways to ease into discussions about the legitimacy of her work. Having read I, Rigoberta Menchu nearly five years ago for the first time, I struggled with the details Stoll calls into question, and at times, I felt only a Guatemalan scholar would be able to keep up despite Stoll’s reasonable, clear explanations, maps, and timelines. The fault of Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans is not about Stoll or the actual text. It’s about what’s either a personal mental lapse of important details or the way our culture collectively misunderstands indigenous stories that we believe have no weight on our own existence.

A solid academic analysis of a once (and in some circles, still) widely accepted story about Guatemalan history, violence, oppression, and uprising, Stoll’s book is an excellent and necessary wake up call for privileged academics too ready to validate stories of oppression as total truth. Understanding how and why we readily accept the stories of the subaltern is its own interesting debate, and concerns about Menchu’s credibility aside, this book speaks to a host of issues including Western privilege, class bias, academic credibility, and what testimonio and memoir really mean.

Written by: Brittany Shoot, July 6th 2008