Rigoberta Menchú: Crossing Borders

Rigoberta Menchú
Crossing Borders

"MY MOTHER WAS kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered. My father and little brother were burned alive." So writes author and activist Rigoberta Menchú of her earlier life in Guatemala, where the military government tortures its citizens at whim and has systematically wiped out entire families and communities. Writing about her homeland was no casual act for Menchú; her 15-year-old memoir, I, Rigoberta Menchú, and the political activism that informed it, won her the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. It also put her life in danger. "Scorched-earth" military campaigns--in which entire villages were massacred so as to leave no survivors who might testify--inspired Menchú to become a witness for her people; these same killers targeted Menchú.

Telling these tales is now Menchú's act of protection. She has spent the years since her first book traveling around the world, meeting with other countries' governments in an attempt to help the Guatemalan people. She recounts these experiences in detail in Crossing Borders. Moving between present and past, between Central America and Europe, Menchú tells the hair-raising, heartbreaking tales that rarely appear in the American press (perhaps as a function of the United States' complicity with the Guatemalan military). Yet she remains optimistic, holding on tightly to the family members she still has--even when they publicly embarrass her, as one shady brother-in-law memorably does in a false kidnapping debacle.

Menchú also works to preserve the indigenous Mayan culture, and writes about her bond with indigenous peoples across the Americas. She recounts travels to the United States to meet with native leaders in an often awkward, yet moving, summit of heirs to ancient cultures. This small woman in traditional Mayan dress also visits prisons, European embassies, and the corrupt Earth Summit in Brazil, and in each place her role is powerful and valuable.

Yet in these memoirs, Menchú reveals herself to be somewhat lost and befuddled in the world. She is especially jarred by materialism, inconceivable in her culture, where one has little to value beyond self and family, and often not even that. Menchú moves like a time traveler, enlisting the help of so-called enlightened people to help her bring back a past in which peace reigned, the rain forests were undisturbed, and children lived to become adults. "My greatest dream is to have the white hairs my mother never had," she says. For many, Menchú's efforts have made that newly possible.

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