Her gripping narrative of her life, her community, and their struggles for peace and justice in the highlands, coffee plantations, and cities of Guatemala was the principal impetus behind her receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.
In recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples, the prize committee stated that “ ... Rigoberta Menchú stands out as a vivid symbol of peace and reconciliation across ethnic, cultural and social dividing lines, in her own country, on the American continent, and in the world .... In her social and political work, she has always borne in mind that the long-term objective of the struggle is peace.”
In 1999 her narrative was challenged as partly fabricated. The allegations opened up a wide-ranging debate about the veracity of her account and the nature of truth in testimonial narratives.
Challenges to specific episodes in her account did not question the genocidal nature of the Guatemalan government’s anti-insurgency campaigns; the extremes of exploitation, oppression, and violence suffered by the country’s indigenous peoples; or Menchú’s moral courage or commitment to peace and justice. In response to the controversy, the Nobel Prize Committee reaffirmed its decision.
As a vast anthropological and historical literature attests, Guatemala’s indigenous population has been subject to centuries of victimization and oppression by more powerful groups. This is the context for understanding Rigoberta Menchú’s narrative, life, and struggles for justice.
In her teens she became involved in the social justice initiatives of the Catholic Church and in the women’s rights movement. Her father, Vicente Menchú, was a political activist, jailed and tortured for his alleged involvement in the death of a plantation owner.
Upon his release he joined the Peasant Union Committee (CUC), and in 1979 Rigoberta did the same. The next year Vicente was killed by security forces during a peaceful protest action at the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City.
Soon after, she became involved in a strike by farm workers on the Pacific coast and in other anti-government actions, and in 1981 was compelled to flee the country. In exile she became a leading figure in the international movement for indigenous rights in Guatemala.
In 1983 she narrated her testimony to a Venezuelan anthropologist, who published her account the following year. The book proved enormously influential, used in colleges and universities worldwide. In 1999 a U.S. anthropologist detailed numerous discrepancies in her account. Controversy has raged since.
A predominant consensus acknowledges many of the discrepancies while affirming the essential veracity of Menchú’s account. Since 1992 she has received many honors and prizes and in 2007 remained active in the struggle for the rights of indigenous peoples and women in Guatemala and Latin America.