Rigoberta's Testimonio

September 25, 2007

Two recent news items on Guatemala have made headlines in North American papers. One is the publication of the report of the UN Commission for Historical Clarification, which found the Guatemalan army overwhelmingly responsible for the political massacres that left some 200,000 Mayans dead or missing in the course of that country's 36-year civil war. The other comes from reports questioning the veracity of the biography of the best-known spokesperson for Guatemala's indigenous peoples, Rigoberta Menchú.

Clearly, the present airings of doubt about Rigoberta Menchú's life story is emblematic of the political skepticism of the 1990s—a decade that witnessed the collapse of really-existing socialism, the failure of Sandinismo in Nicaragua and the retreat of progressives everywhere from any semblance of a radical engagement or a global vision. We have to understand the present zeitgeist to understand why such stories now show up on the front pages of The New York Times.

The present controversies surrounding I, Rigoberta Menchú also require an understanding of how its literary-polemical form, the testimonio, or testimony, emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. The testimony grew out of the unique relationship between popular movements in Latin America—especially Central America—and solidarity movements in the United States and Western Europe. The goal of the testimony was to didactically convey salient sociological facts to a Northern audience through an exemplary life history, and to thereby solicit moral, political and economic support for local struggles.

Revolutionary upheavals in Central America were in no small part struggles over basic material resources. These conflicts acquired horrific scale and brutality owing to the racist legacies of colonialism and the entrenchment of landed elites in authoritarian governments and abusive militaries. Communicating complex historical lessons like these has always been difficult, but it proved well-nigh impossible to convey the salient facts against a Reagan propaganda offensive demonizing Communist aggression in "our backyard."

The testimony offered an end-run around these obstacles. It attempted to convey an analysis of indisputable facts of scale—inequality, racism, repression and struggle—through the details of an individual life. Like its antecedent—the ethnobiographies collected by Oscar Lewis—the testimony condensed a life history into a single argument about a big picture. Therein lay the polemical strength but also the analytical weakness of the form. The testimony is convincing, not because it offers a studied, exhaustive analysis of social structures or historical developments, but because it weaves a narrative of discovery as an autobiographical tale: The author comes to the Truth simply by knowing his or her own experiences, by claiming his or her own voice, by possessing his or her self. The appeal of the story is thus based on the authoritative voice of the speaker, who stands as a representative of larger social groups.

Rigoberta Menchú's life story was more successful than myriad other testimonies of the period because, in the circulation of meanings on a global scale, it better reflected the tastes and interests of its intended audience in the United States and Western Europe. Page by page, Menchú's life appears as a straightforward morality play about the coming-to-consciousness of a poor Indian peasant woman. As with didactic Hollywood movies, nothing complicates the picture, where poor Indians struggle against rich Ladinos. Menchú's struggles are those of Everywoman, her story is the story of all poor Guatemalans.

But individual life history seldom dovetails so clearly with the larger course of social history, much less with the demands of an audience craving clear-cut tales of unmediated authenticity. Individuals cannot really exemplify the singular experiences or uniform interests of larger groups. Poor Indian peasant women invariably turn out to have varied experiences, opinions and interests.

What was long whispered in solidarity circles and suspected by academics who used I, Rigoberta Menchú now appears to have been empirically documented: Some of the narrator's details do not quite square with the facts, at least the facts as recalled by other eye-witnesses. With a middle-school education, Menchú was undoubtedly better educated than her story lets on. Three of Menchú's siblings died, apparently under circumstances bearing some resemblance to but not quite identical with events she describes. The central land struggle in Menchú's autobiography undeniably happened in the context of a highly stratified social system in which Spanish-speaking Ladinos wield power and wealth, but this particular conflict occurred not between poor Indians and rich Ladinos but, as is so often the case, between related indigenous families, neither of whom could be described as wealthy or powerful. And so on.

In short, Menchú appears to have told her story in a manner that force-fits her and her family's experiences into the social analysis she wished to dramatize. The narrator thus becomes Exemplary Rigoberta, the very personification of Maya struggles, edited and air-brushed into an icon who stands outside the course of real-life events (which are always complex) to embody a simplified lesson, a clear purpose, a Pure Idea.

Narrative devices like these—the use of composite personas, shadings of events—would have scarcely raised an eyebrow in a properly qualified ethnographic work or in an historical novel. But they undercut the authority of a text that purports to tell us the unvarnished truth—indeed, that reports to embody the truth, in a singular persona—without proviso or caveats. It cannot be said that anyone has come out very well in the ensuing brouhaha.

After casting himself as the Matt Drudge of anthropology, David Stoll has insisted that he never intended to attack or discredit Menchú. This is not very convincing. Stoll suggests in an interview in the March/April 1999 issue of NACLA that his real aim is to contribute to a critical reassessment of the guerrilla struggles of the 1970s and 1980s. But poking holes in Menchú's autobiography does not demonstrate his by-now familiar refrain that violence only begets more violence. If one's goal were a balanced assessment, it would be far more logical to suggest that whatever semblance of formal democracy that now exists in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua owes its existence to the very revolutionary movements Stoll now disparages.

Menchú, for her part, has responded by questioning the timing of Stoll's book and The New York Times reporting it stimulated. She has suggested that such unflattering reportage is part of a conspiracy designed to cast doubt on the findings of the Guatemalan truth commission. In NACLA, the Times, and other vehicles, Menchú falls back on two standard defenses: Are you saying my brother isn't dead? Are you saying Indians are all liars? Once again, Menchú conflates her own persona with the people and with the movement.

Perhaps most disappointing have been the responses coming from the North American academic left. "I don't care whether it's true or not," huffs one scholar in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Others insist that Menchú's account is, in effect, still true, even if it is not. The Guatemala Scholars Network insists that Menchú was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize not because she watched her brother being burned alive or because she was eye-witness to horrific violence, but because of her role as a public spokesperson for the indigenous rights movement. Such a statement evades the obvious. Menchú was awarded the Prize precisely because she wove a convincing narrative about the deaths of her family members into a story about ethnic, class and political conflicts. Her family indeed met gruesome deaths at the hands of the state. But would her tale have had the same force, would it have received the same accolades, had it begun in the real-life complexity of land conflicts between related indigenous families?

Although Menchú's testimony has never much affected the course of indigenous rights or political mobilization inside Guatemala, her impact on solidarity politics, higher education and multiculturalism in the United States and other Northern countries has been more profound. For a time, she stood as an object lesson on the truth of identity and the power of authentic voices. Her testimony was touted as a new model of writing, one that superseded the traditional canon, standards of argumentation, and demands for ethnographic verification. She was appropriated as the most accessible of the postcolonials, and an image of Menchú was shaped that compounded the bases of identity politics—poor, Indian, peasant, woman. On this count, the left, in effect, fell prey to its own worst impulses—a tendency to romanticize noble natives and to oversimplify the nature of social struggles in stratified societies.

It is not just for academic reasons that editorial airbrushing and oversimplification are bad practices. Iconization is a bad practice for the left because it offers a fake resolution for the real complexities and dilemmas of history. The emotional work performed by icons is good for rallying the faithful, but proves incompatible with effective struggle. Halos illuminate nothing. The facts matter. Details matter. Complexity matters. Any left incapable of working through the facts in all their complexity will be by definition inadequate to the task it poses.

This is no small point. Accuracy about the shape of local struggles is of critical importance, as Alejandro Bendaña's study of demobilized Contras, Una Tragedia Campesina: Testimonios de la Resistencia, illustrates. When the triumphant Sandinistas brought the revolution into remote areas of Nicaragua after their 1979 victory, they were drawn into pre-existing land feuds between contending campesino kin groups and political factions—disputes much like those to which Menchú's relatives were party. Preaching the gospel of redistributive justice and class empowerment, inexperienced cadre took an oversimplified approach to the crazy-quilt patchwork of alliances they encountered in the countryside. In consequence, they sometimes took land from poor peasants to give to other poor peasants. Such mistakes, repeated wherever the FSLN had shallow roots or failed to understand local conflicts, embittered a section of the rural poor and created the Contra base that was so effectively mobilized by Washington.

But mistakes in practice and interpretation notwithstanding, some basic facts remain: Large numbers of people in Central America joined revolutionary struggles in the 1970s and 1980s not because they were deceived by clever storytellers who wielded details in a slippery manner, but because gross inequalities and political repression led them to the conclusion that only revolutionary movements could implement the desired changes.

Who is telling that story in a plausible, methodical manner today?

Roger N. Lancaster is director of cultural studies at George Mason University and is author of Life is Hard: Machismo, Danger, and the Intimacy of Power in Nicaragua (University of California Press, 1992) and co-editor (with Micaela di Leonardo) of The Gender/Sexuality Reader (Routledge, 1997).

Tags: Guatemala, Rigoberta Menchu, memory, civil war, media

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