Rigoberta Menchú (b. 1959) is Quiche human rights activist who was born into a poor indigenous family in rural Guatemala. Menchú's community was perenially exploited and oppressed by the country's right-wing, Spanish-speaking military dictatorship which arose in the aftermath of the overthrow of the popular leftist reformer Jacobo Árbenz in 1954. The ensuing Guatemalan Civil War lasted several decades, and saw the Guatemalan government defend its policies with mass arrests, torture, and the "disappearances" of hundred of thousands of citizens at the hands of death squads. Among those murdered by the regime were Menchú's politically active parents. She dictated her life story, which is excerpted below, to the anthropologist Elizabeth Burgos in Spanish, a language she had only begun to learn three years earlier. Menchú received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, and continues to be a forceful advocate for women's, indigenous, and human rights in Latin America in the 21st century.


Excerpts from the Memoir of Rigoberta Menchú, 1983


XV. CONFLICT WITH THE LANDOWNERS AND THE CREATION OF THE CUC (Comité de Unidad Campesina–United Peasant Committee)

‘Gather in your grain and seeds and collect the young shoots, because times of drought and hunger are approaching. Sharpen your weapons because it will not be long before enemies, hidden behind mountains and hills, will espy with greed the expanse and richness of these lands.’
—Popol Vuh

This was the first time my father went to prison. My brother said, ‘We don’t know what to do for him because the lawyers say Papá will be in jail for eighteen years. We need money to get educated people to help us.’ In Guatemala this is what happens with the poor, especially Indians, because they can’t speak Spanish. The Indian can’t speak up for what he wants. When they put my father in jail, the landowners gave large amounts of money to the judge there. The judge in El Quiché, that is. There are several levels of authority. First, there is the military commissioner. He sometimes lives in the villages or is based in the town, and he tries to impose his own law. Then there is what we call the mayor who represents the authorities that administer justice when they say someone has broken the law. Next come the governors who govern the whole region, each province. And finally, there are the deputies–God knows who they are! To get to see the military commissioner, you first have to give him a mordida, that’s what we call a bribe in Guatemala. To see the mayor, you have to get witnesses, sign papers and then give him a mordida so he will support your case. To see the governor you need not only witnesses from the village, and money, but also lawyers or other intermediaries to talk for you. The governor is a ladino and doesn’t understand the language of the people. He’ll only believe something if a lawyer or educated person says it. He won’t accept anything from an Indian. The mayor is a itoo. But he’s a ladino who’s come from our people. The military commissioner is also a ladino although this varies a bit, because in some places the commissioners are Indians who have done military service and lived in the barracks. There comes a time when they return to their village, brutalized men, criminals.

My father fought for twenty-two years, waging a heroic struggle against the landowners who wanted to take our land and our neighbours’ land. After many years of hard work, when our small bit of land began yielding harvests and our people had a large area under cultivation, the big landowners appeared: the Brols. It’s said there that they were even more renowned criminals than the Martínez and García families, who owned a finca there before the Brols arrived. The Brols were a large family, a whole gang of brothers. Five of them lived on a finca they had taken over by forcibly throwing the Indians of the region off their land.

That was what happened to us. We lived in a small village. We cultivated maize, beans, potatoes and all sorts of vegetables. Then the Garcías arrived and started measuring the land in our village. They brought inspectors, engineers and Heaven knows who else; people they said were from the government. In Guatemala if it’s to do with the government, there’s no way we can defend ourselves. So they came and started measuring our land. My father went round collecting signatures in the village, and they held meetings. Then he went to the capital, to the INTA, Institute Nacional de Transformación Agraria de Guatemala: Guatemalan National Institute for Agrarian Transformation. But the landowners and the government had made a deal to take the peasants’ land away from them. When my father went to protest about the way the landowners were forcing us off our land, the people in the INTA asked the landowners for money to be allowed to go on measuring. On the other hand, they gave the peasants a piece of paper which, according to them, said they didn’t have to leave their land. It was a double-sided game. They called my father in. Papá used to be…well, I don’t mean foolish exactly because it’s the thieves who steal our land who are foolish…. Well, they asked my father to sign a paper but he didn’t know what it said because he’d never learned to read or write. In fact, the paper said that the peasants confirmed, once again, that they would leave their land. This gave the landowners power, since he, the community’s representative, had signed the paper. My father went back again to protest, this time through some lawyers. The INTA people and the lawyers started getting fat off us. Many lawyers wanted to help us and offered us different sorts of help. They said we were doing the right thing. The peasants trusted them but realized afterwards that they made them pay through the nose, even for a simple signature. My father dedicated himself entirely to our community’s problems. The INTA told my father: ‘You must get engineers to measure the land and then you’ll be the owners of the land you live on. Don’t worry, grow what you want. Don’t worry, go ahead and clear the undergrowth because the land is yours.’ With this encouragement, my father went home and called meetings in the village.

We were very happy and went on working until the landowners arrived with their engineers again. Our little bit of land has probably been measured something like twenty times, if I’m not mistaken. Engineers after engineers. What I can’t forgive, and this is something that has contributed to my hate for these people, is that they said they came to help us. My father, mother, all the community, were very distressed. They were ladinos. They couldn’t eat our food, our tortillas with salt. If we didn’t feed them well they would probably favour the landowners. So we treated them very well, out of fear. We gave them our best, our fattest animals. We’d kill chickens for them to eat. Our community, which never bought so much as a bottle of oil, had to buy them rice, oil, eggs, chickens, meat. We had to buy coffee and sugar, because they couldn’t eat panela. Our community never ate these things. We all had to go to town. The village got together, gave in their ten centavos and with this collection we bought what was needed. Earning ten centavos is hard for us, it’s earned by a lot of sweat. It was worse when the inspectors stayed a whole week. When they left, the village breathed a sigh of relief and we were much poorer. We didn’t eat meat. They did. They got their information with no difficulty. They went to the further points of our land and, of course, needed someone to go with them. But our people have no time to spare. It was my father who gave up his time because he loved the community, even if it meant we often had nothing to eat at home. My mother felt responsible for looking after these men. She saw how in need our neighbours were. So my mother stayed at home and said to us, ‘You children go and work because I have to attend to these men.’ My parents attended to them because, as leaders of the community, it was their responsibility–they were the most important people in the village. They looked after them very well. My mother even made them small tortillas because they couldn’t eat our large ones. She had to make ones to suit them. So neither of my parents could work while those men were there. Our neighbours contributed what they could, but they didn’t have very much. We couldn’t speak Spanish. My father spoke a little, just enough to understand the inspectors. The INTA used to send for him. They sometimes made him go to Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, El Quiché or to the capital just to sign a piece of paper. You can imagine the cost of those journeys in food and transport. And on top of all this, we had to pay the lawyers who shuffle the papers.

The government says the land belongs to the nation. It owns the land and gives it to us to cultivate. But when we’ve cleared and cultivated the land, that’s when the landowners appear. However, the landowners don’t just appear on their own–they have connections with the different authorities that allow them to maneuver like that. Because of this, we faced the Martínez family, the Garcías, and then the Brols arrived. This meant we could either stay and work as peónes or leave our land. There was no other solution. So my father travelled all over the place seeking advice. We didn’t realize then that going to the government authorities was the same as going to the landowners. They are the same. My father was tireless in his efforts to seek help. He went to other sectors, like the workers’ unions. He asked them to help because we were already being thrown off our land.

The first time they threw us out of our homes was, if I remember rightly, in 1967. They turned us out of our houses, and out of the village. The Garcías’ henchmen set to work with ferocity. They were Indians too, soldiers of the finca. First they went into the houses without permission and got all the people out. Then they went in and threw out all our things. I remember that my mother had her silver necklaces, precious keepsakes from my grandmother, but we never saw them again after that. They stole them all. They threw out our cooking utensils, our earthenware cooking pots. We don’t use those sort of…special utensils, we have our own earthenware pots. They hurled them into the air, and, oh God! they hit the ground and broke into pieces. All our plates, cups, pots. They threw them out and they all broke. That was the vengeance of the landowner on the peasants because we wouldn’t give up our land. […]

Those few days confirmed my hatred for those people. I saw why we said that ladinos were thieves, criminals and liars. It was as our parents had told us. We could see that they were doing the same to us. They killed our animals. They killed many of our dogs. To us, killing an animal is like killing a person. We care for all the things of the natural world very much and killing our dogs wounded us very deeply. We spent more than forty days in the fields. Then the community held a meeting and said, ‘If they throw us out again, we will die of hunger.’ We had no utensils for cooking our tortillas, and no grinding stones. They’d been thrown away into the undergrowth. We organized ourselves, all of us, and said, ‘Let’s collect our things together.’ We went looking for any of our things that were still more or less all right. My father said, ‘If they kill us they kill us, but we’ll go back to our houses.’ Our people looked on my father as their own father, and so we went back to our houses. There was another village quite near ours and they helped us. People brought cooking pots and plates so that we could cook our maize and eat. So we went back to our houses. And the landowners came back again for what they called ‘collective negotiations.’ They told us we should resign ourselves to working as peónes because the land belonged to them. We could stay in our houses, but the land was not ours. If we didn’t agree, they would throw us off again. But my father said: ‘We were the first families to come and cultivate this land and nobody can deceive us into thinking that this land is theirs. If they want to be the owners of more land, let them go and cultivate the mountains. There is more land but it is not land where
things grow.’ […]

We love our land very much. Since those people tried to take our land away, we have grieved very much. My grandfather used to cry bitterly and say: ‘In the past, no one person owned the land. The land belonged to everyone. There were no boundaries.’ We were sadder still when we saw our animals going hungry because of us. If our animals went near our crops, they were killed by the Garcías’ henchmen who were guarding them. (I remember that the wickedest landowner was Honorio García. The other was Angel Martínez.) My grandfather said, ‘If they kill our animals, we must kill them.’ That was the idea that came to my grandfather. We spent about fifteen days away from our house, after the second raid and our elders advised us to burn them and leave. But where to? We didn’t know whether it was better to go to the finca or agree to be labourers on the landowners’ estate. We couldn’t decide. We discussed it with all our neighbours. Among the whole community. During all this time we couldn’t celebrate our culture; none of our ceremonies. That’s when my father took his stand. He said, ‘If they kill me for trying to defend the land that belongs to us, well, they’ll have to kill me.’ […]

My father went on travelling. He was hardly ever at home now. He didn’t pay us much attention, or talk to us like he used to. He’d arrive, call a meeting of the community, talk to them and then sometimes leave the next day. We began to lose contact with him. When the landowners saw my father working so hard to save our land, they started threatening him. So he said, ‘The best guardians, the best protection a man has, are his animals. Our dogs must learn to defend us.’ We had some good dogs, they were very fierce. We spent time  teaching the dogs to bite those men when they came to our houses–sometimes in the middle of the night.

Our life was now such that we couldn’t go down to the finca because if we did our houses probably wouldn’t be there when we got back. The community decided to eat plants or whatever they could find in the fields rather than go down to the finca. Or part of a family would go and the other part would stay and watch over the house. We became much more united. When the landowners came we’d unite so that they either had to throw us all off, kill us all or leave us alone. We began teaching the children to keep watch and tell us when the landowners were coming. We lived for quite a while like this–with all this tension. I kept on going down to the finca with my brothers and sisters. My mother always stayed in the house. Or my father was there. My father never went down to the fincas because the landowners would take advantage of this and go into the village. Then they started trying other things. We had maize and beans but we had to carry all our produce down from the village to the town which was a long way away. So the landowners set up a temporary market, a place to sell produce, and tried to isolate us from the town even more, so that they could take over our land more easily.

Then the INTA came and told us that the problem was solved. They said: ‘We’re going to give you a title to the land for you to sign and the land will be yours. No-one will bother you on your land. You can sow your crops, clear the undergrowth and go further into the mountains. This proposal comes from the government.’ We signed it. I remember even the children signed it. We can’t sign with a pen or a pencil. We signed it in ink with our fingerprints on the paper. My father insisted they read the paper out even though we didn’t understand it all. We did understand some. But they didn’t want to read it. The INTA inspectors said we could rely on the paper, it was the title to the land. So we signed it.

They left us alone for two and a half years, I think it was, to let us calm down. Our people went on working. We hardly ever went down to the finca now so that we could cultivate more land. We tried to clear large areas of the undergrowth, into the mountains. We had a dream, a real dream. In five or eight years our land would yield its fruit. Two and a half years went by when we saw the engineers on our land again, shouting, measuring, with the landowners’ guards. Now, not only the Martínez and the Garcías, but the Brols were all measuring part of our land. This time the problem was more complicated because they brought with them the document we had signed, which said we had agreed to stay on the land and live off its produce for two years only; that when the two years were up, we had another place to go to and would leave the land. This wasn’t true. We didn’t know what it was we had signed. My father said, ‘This is unjust, because we were deceived.’

This is how my father started getting more deeply involved with the unions. I remember my father asked some unions in the FASGUA, Federación Autónoma Sindical de Guatemala–Guatemalan Federation of Independent Unions–to help us because they were unions for workers, for labourers, and we were peasants–agricultural labourers. The unions helped us a lot. They said they would denounce the fact that we were being thrown off our land. My father was continually going to see the unions, the INTA, the lawyers. It nearly drove him mad. He told us, ‘My children, you must get to know the places I go to because otherwise, if they kill me the community will lose its land.’ Very well. One of my older brothers began to travel with my father and began learning Spanish. The community had to contribute to my father’s fares. He very often had no money at all and my mother had to sell our animals to pay for his trips. But at least we didn’t leave our land. My mother thought about us more and more because, of course, they were growing up. They wondered how much their children would suffer afterwards. The whole community wondered.

When my father started going to the unions and getting their support, the landowners offered a great deal of money to the judge who dealt with land claims, and my father was arrested. They accused him of ‘compromising the sovereignty of the state.’ He was endangering the ‘sovereignty and the well-being of the Guatemalans’! They put him in prison. I remember that I’d been working as a maid for a year. I’d saved a little money to take home as a surprise for my family, especially my mother. I’d saved it so that my mother wouldn’t have to go to the finca for a couple of months. My brother told me: ‘They’re asking for money. We don’t know what to do.’ I decided to leave my job and go back to the finca. From the money I’d saved and my brothers’ wages in the finca, we had to pay for witnesses, lawyers, documents, secretaries. There were so many things we had to pay for to be able to get to see the authorities. Since we didn’t speak Spanish, we had to find an intermediary to translate my mother’s statements. The lawyer was a ladino and didn’t understand our language, so we had to get an intermediary to interpret for him. From the beginning the landowners paid the interpreter not to say what we said. The interpreter ‘sold himself’ to the landowners and, instead of our statements, he said something else. They played so many tricks on us. The result was that our lawyer had nothing to do because, according to the interpreter, we ourselves acknowledged that the land belonged to those landowners. They had paid us to cultivate the land. That wasn’t true. We were very afraid that they would send my father to the state prison. As long as he was in the local prison, his case wasn’t so serious, but once he got to the state prison, the one in El Quiché, we’d have no way of preventing him from having to carry out the sentence he’d been given.  If he went to the criminals’ prison, as the authorities in Quetzaltenango said, it meant he would be in jail for eighteen years or more. […]

[…] They made my father make an endless stream of statements. Every five days they took him before the judge and asked him the same things to see if he’d changed his mind or changed the statement justifying his case. That is to say, the judges had no valid justification, so they were looking for something to appease the landowners. The landowners arrived with more and more money to pressurize the judges into ‘selling’ my father and keeping him in prison like a criminal. We were very unhappy because we didn’t see our mother or our father as we were working all the time in the finca.

In the end, we managed to get him out. Papá was in prison for a year and two months. His enemies were furious when he came out. He came out so happy and determined to fight. He said: ‘Our ancestors were never cowardly. And prison doesn’t eat people. Prison is a punishment for the poor, but it doesn’t eat people. I must go home and go on fighting.’ He didn’t rest for a minute. That’s how he maintained his contacts with the unions and gained their support. […]

My father was away travelling for three months after he got out of prison. Then they kidnapped him and we said, ‘They’ll have finished him off.’ In those days, they were criminals, but a different sort. The landowners’ henchmen kidnapped my father near our house on the path going to town. One of my brothers was with him as we hardly ever let him go alone after they’d threatened so often to kill him. We were worried. So even if it meant less work, it was better for the community if someone went with him. He always went with a neighbour or one of his children. My brother escaped and immediately mobilized the whole village. They couldn’t take him very far because we cut off the paths right away. We used weapons, our everyday weapons, for the first time. The people took machetes, sticks, hoes and stones to fight the guards. They would have beaten or killed any of them, they were so angry. Around midday we found my father. He’d been tortured and abandoned. There was no sign of the torturers but we knew they were the landowners’ guards. My father was on the ground. They had torn off the hair on his head on one side. His skin was cut all over and they’d broken so many of his bones that he couldn’t walk, lift himself or move a single finger. He looked as if he was dying. It was almost unbearable for us. The community made him one of those chairs the people use for carrying their wounded and we took him down to the town. He was almost cold. He was almost dead when we arrived at the health centre but they wouldn’t attend to him there because the landowners had got there before us and paid them not to look after my father. They’d given the doctors money so none of them would see my father. All the doctors were ladinos. So my mother had to call an ambulance from Santa Cruz del Quiché, which took him to a hospital called San Juan de Dios in El Quiché. He arrived there half dead. They gave him serum and said he’d have to stay there for about nine months for some of the very badly damaged parts of his body to heal. They’d broken many of his bones and he was an old man so they wouldn’t mend quickly. More bitterness for my mother. She had to go to El Quiché and look after my father. She worked there to pay for his medicine and some special care.

My brothers and sisters decided not to go down to the finca now. They said: ‘From now on we’ll stay here, even if we starve to death, because we have to cultivate our land. We’ll try and grow enough crops to live on and not go to the finca.’ My mother used to come once every fifteen days perhaps. She’d stay a day and then go back. We had a little sister and we looked after her so that my mother didn’t have to take her with her. Some neighbours had a little goat which gave milk. We gave her goat’s milk because we didn’t have any cows. My little sister was about one and a half then. Later on we received another threat. A message came saying that they were going to kidnap my father from the hospital. The community was frightened and said it would be better for him to come home and be looked after here where they couldn’t kidnap him. We told my mother straight away. One of my brothers went to El Quiché to warn her about the message we’d received. With the help of the priests and nuns, who gave us money, we put my father in a secret place where the landowners couldn’t find him. He was in the hospital of San Juan de Dios for six months and in the other place for another five months. After that he came home but he was in so much pain that he was never his old self again. He couldn’t carry things; he couldn’t walk very well and it was a big effort for him to walk to the town. At night he couldn’t sleep because his bones ached and all the parts where he’d been beaten hurt him. […]

Then in 1977, my father was put in prison again. They wouldn’t leave us in peace. After my father came out of hospital and returned home, they kept on threatening him because they knew as long as the community was united they couldn’t send their engineers to the villages. We would use machetes or stones. So they went on threatening my father and said they were going to catch him on the road again and kill him. But my father said: ‘They are cowards, they just talk, they never do it.’ But it worried us a lot because it would be very difficult for us if they did. That was when my father started advising us not to put our trust in him alone but in the whole community. ‘I’m your father now,’ he said, ‘but afterwards the community will be your father.’ He went on travelling and refused to keep quiet. He went on doing his work. It was in 1977 that they arrested him again and sent him to prison.

I was learning some Spanish at the time with the priests and nuns. I used to travel too. The priests helped me to go to the capital and stay with the nuns in a convent for a few days. When my father came out of hospital, I started travelling with him too, to get to know the circles he moved in. We were already thinking about my father’s death. They could kill him any minute, so we needed to know where it was he went. I began accompanying him all the time. The community, the priests and some friends of my father helped us. Some Europeans were helping us too. They sent us a lot of money. They were people who had worked for a time teaching the peasants how to farm. But the way they plant isn’t the way we do it. Indians reject the chemical fertilizers they tried to teach us about. They weren’t really welcomed so they left, but they were very good friends of my father and helped us. They knew the problems of our village. They went back to their country but they still love Guatemala and help my father. […]

When my father was arrested the second time, they considered him a political prisoner. The case against him was much worse this time. Now that he was a political prisoner, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was a communist, a subversive, they said. The same military commissioners as the first time came and got him from our house with clubs and took him to prison. They beat him and tied him up. He was a political prisoner. This was much worse for him. But by now the community was more aware of all these things. They had their own means of self-defence against the landowners. My brothers now spoke a bit of Spanish and my mother had also learned something from all the suffering, all the knocks, all the responsibility she’d had. We also had the support of the priests, the nuns, the unions and our community. It wasn’t just my father now, it was a whole people behind him. My father was well known and well loved in many places so there was a big protest against my father’s arrest. The unions especially pressed for his release. They still wanted witnesses, lawyers and all those things of course, but my father was soon out of prison. They started threatening him again even before he was out. They said if he continued his work, he would be assassinated and this time if they couldn’t kill him they’d kill one of his children. This was his death sentence from the authorities. Of course, the authorities didn’t exactly say that they would kill him, but they said the landowners would take care of it.

He was in prison for fifteen days. Then he came home. He was very proud and very happy because in prison he’d met another prisoner who really was a political prisoner. He was someone who defended the peasants and he told my father the peasants should unite and form a peasants’ league to reclaim their lands. He said it wasn’t our problem alone: our enemies weren’t the landowners but the whole system. This man saw things more clearly than my father. So my father came back very proudly and said, ‘We must fight the rich because they have become rich with our land, our crops.’ That was when my father started to join up with other peasants and discussed the creation of the CUC with them. A lot of peasants had been discussing the committee but nothing concrete had been done, so my father joined the CUC and helped them understand things more clearly. My father didn’t have to be told how to organize. Many peasants had been thinking of how they would form the CUC, so, in fact, the peasants had already shown they were unhappy with their situation.

My father was in clandestinity from 1977 onwards; that is, he was in hiding. He left our house so he wouldn’t involve us. He left his family and went to work with the peasants in other regions. He came back now and again but had to come via the mountains because if he passed through the town the landowners would know he was at home. It was very sad for us that he couldn’t live with us at home. He came at night and left at night. Or he spent several days at home but didn’t go out. Our community suffered a great deal because they loved him as if he were their own father. Everything in our life is like a film. Constant suffering. We began thinking, with the help of other friends, other compañeros, that our enemies were not only the landowners who lived near us, and above all not just the landowners who forced us to work and paid us little. It was not only now we were being killed; they had been killing us since we were children, through malnutrition, hunger, poverty. We started thinking about the roots of the problem and came to the conclusion that everything stemmed from the ownership of land. The best land was not in our hands. It belonged to the big landowners. Every time they see that we have new land, they try to throw us off it or steal it from us in other ways.

Source: Rigoberta Menchú, I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, translated by Ann Wright, Verso, 1984 (https://course-resources.minerva.kgi.edu/uploaded_files/mke/nAXkZr/i-rigoberta-menchu-excerpts.pdf).