external image menchu.jpgTeaching I, Rigoberta Menchu: an Indian Woman in Guatemala

Inherent Challenges, Ideas and Helpful Resources

I, Rigoberta Menchu is the captivating narrative of Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan Quiche (Mayan) peasant woman, who fights for the rights of the indigenous people of Guatemala. Told orally to Elisabeth Burgos-Debray in a series of interviews, Menchu’s story conveys the intense violence in Guatemala in the 1980s, a story that is one chapter of the long story of genocide of native peoples in the New World. This book not only details the everyday life of the Quiche Indian, but it also enlightens the reader as to the precious cultures of Menchu’s people and the persecution and discrimination they’ve faced since the Spanish conquest.

Menchu’s purpose: “As a popular leader, her one ambition is to devote her life to overthrowing the relations of domination and exclusion which characterize internal colonialism” (Brugos-Debray xiii). To do this, she must learn Spanish, the language of her oppressors, in order to “use it against them” (xii) and renounce marriage and motherhood, an important facet of her culture, to pursue her political commitment (chapter XXXI), and stand by as her brother, mother, and father all suffer torture at the hands of the Guatemalan government. Her story is one of courage and commitment as she fights to defend the rights of the Guatemalan peasant.

Menchu continues to fight against the injustices against the peasant people of Latin America and, rightfully so, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. The transcript of her speech is a great companion piece to the book. Currently, she is running for president in Guatemala, the election to be held on September 9, 2007. Students and teachers alike may be interested in seeing a current campaign ad.

Menchu stands among our female world leaders as one of the most effective. Our students deserve to learn from her example. In a time when the world, especially the United States, is so focused on assimilation and world/male/partisan dominance, it is imperative for our students to recognize what is happening to the indigenous people of the Americas and the world. It is our job as educators to make our students more aware—as knowledge often fosters change—of the world beyond the classroom. Teaching I, Rigoberta Menchu is one much needed starting point.

However, teaching this text is not without some challenges. One challenge in itself is that there are so many different teachable directions this narrative can take you. When faced with the many avenues I could travel with the book, I relied heavily on a variety of online resources and the book: Teaching and Testimony: Rigoberta Menchu and the North American Classroom edited by Allen Carey-Webb and Stephen Benz. According to the back cover: "Teaching and Testimony tells teachers' stories of using Menchu's testimonial in their classrooms, and invites reflection on the transformative possibility of integrating previously marginalized voices." It speaks to both high school and college-level teachers in a variety of disciplines. In the back of the book, readers will find a specific section of timeless teaching resources such as journal topics, discussion questions, and lists of movies/texts for pairing with Menchu's.

It is my hope that the following ideas and resources can help us, as educators, bring this Menchu's story to our students.

Challenge: Contextualizing For Our Students--Not an Easy Task, Especially in the Classroom of Privileged Students

Challenge: Contextualizing For Our Students--Not an Easy Task, Especially in the Classroom of Privileged Students. Undoubtedly, understanding Menchu's culture, language, and location are vital to truly grasping the text. It is safe to assume few students will know Guatemalan history. Therefore, it is important to familiarize them with Guatemala, before during, and after the time Menchu recounts. This will help students see the importance and urgency of Menchu's text and help them be affected by it. Given the dramatic differences between life in Guatemala and life for middle class American students it may be hard for them to understand her narration without this background and many, in their lack of understanding, may dismiss Menchu's story or consider it "boring." In order to help students through this text, teachers must prepare themselves as well.

Mary Louise Pratt, in her article, "Me Llamo Rigoberta Menchu: Autoethnography and the Recoding of Citizenship," featured in Teaching and Testimony, breaks the idea of contextualizing into two parts: 1) historically--in terms of Guatemala then and now, and 2) generically--in terms of the testimonio genre (58). Her article is a wonderful resource for obtaining pages on the history (largely summarized from The Battle for Guatemala by Suzanne Jonas) and information on the genre of testimonio. Breaking this down into two specific categories makes the undertaking of context much more organized and feasible. Here are some ideas of how to do this in the classroom:

Ideas for Setting Historical Context:
  • Research project on Guatemala: This would involve students taking ownership of this task and presenting their findings to the class. Separate students into pairs that will tackle different categories (i.e. geography, Mayan history and culture, specifically the Quiche, Spanish conquest, etc.) Guide students in finding more than just facts; help them by pushing them to look for unique narratives, powerful visuals, movie clips and other "real life" evidence of this country and it's many cultures. Consider making a tribute/museum of the classroom and inviting other classes/staff to come in and visit the exhibits and talk to your students. If doing this, make sure to contact the local newspaper or district newsletter to receive community coverage; this helps students own their work and make it a priority. This may also offer some influence in the way of activism. Of course, this is more than a quick assignment. With whatever way teachers approach such a project, time must be devoted to this and teachers will need to prepare some available resources ahead of time. See list at the bottom of this page.
  • Writing activity to pictures: One way to get students thinking about the cultures and experiences of the Guatemalan peoples is to provide some visual prompting and reflective writing time. This may best happen after they've had some background on the topic. Provide students with pictures and ask them to write for 10-15 minutes in whatever mode they choose. After the time is up, allow students to share some or all of what they wrote. Or, teachers can just use the pictures to accompany specific lessons, copy and put on overhead or on posters, etc.
  • Using Movies: Two excellent movies to accompany the text are When the Mountains Tremble and El Norte. Both of these will certainly set some context for students. It is imperative that the showing of these movies are coupled with classroom discussing and/or reflective writing. See below for short movie clips.
  • Bringing in a Speaker: Getting Rigoberta Menchu herself to come into the classroom would very well be wonderful, but difficult; however, she does work with and speak at many PeaceJam events. Something else to consider is bringing in a local Native American who can address many of the issues Menchu recalls in her book. Seek out the Indian Resource Directory and Invite a local Native American into the classroom to talk with students and share experiences.
  • Keep a response journal to help students have an open mind: Many teachers will find students, especially more privileged students, indifferent to the Guatemalan history and less than sympathetic to suffering cultures endured. As a teacher of this text, this will be difficult to face. June Kuzmeskus suggests in her article "Rigoberta Menchu and Activating High School Learners" that students keep a three-column chart in their journals, allowing them to keep much of the historical context and action straight. One column was "the values and practices of Menchu's life," the next "the incidents that occurred to create, alter, and/or destroy them," and "their effects on those values and practices." Kuzmeskus claims this helped her students understand the testimony itself with a more open mind and realize the extent to which the Quiche people value their culture (127).

Contextualizing through Genre:
  • Define the testimonio for students: Discuss with students their ideas of what testimony is and the different concepts of the word (i.e. religious testimony, trial testimony, etc.) Then give students the definition of testimonio. Discuss the importance of this genre to the Latin American culture and explain that it is a collaborative mode of expression and the importance of oral tradition among the indigenous peoples.
  • Read passages out loud: Challenge students to capture Menchu's tone and discuss how reading out loud may change the way it is interpreted.
  • Discuss language and translation: The idea that this was translated into English may not seem like a big deal to students, but when comparing the original Spanish text to the translation (see if there is a Spanish speaker available), especially in the title's sense, an important classroom dialogue may ensue.
  • Read other relevant narratives and write self-reflections: Kuzmeskus pairs Menchu's testimonio with other works like Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Elie Wiesel's Night. Asks students to model these texts in their own writing. One might look at other notable authors as well like Annie Dillard, Frank McCourt, or Frederick Douglass. It may also be interesting to have them try the testimonio format where they tell their stories to another student to write through a series of interviews.

Challenge: Where Will I Find the Time?

More and more teachers are forced to follow a district and/or state curriculum. Often, when teachers see a great book that we want to teach, we ask ourselves, where will I find the time? With a book like Menchu's so forceful and relevant, it is hard to just fly through it and do bits and pieces. Honestly, a full college semester could be devoted to it. Simply, most teachers would want to do Menchu's story justice.

  • Develop a course on literature that inspired (or inspires) change: Call me an idealist, but wouldn't this be awesome? It surely solves the time issue as the teacher of said course could determine specifically how to use the semester (or entire year!). Think of all the texts available (see Kusmeskus' list above for a start) and current pairings. Of course, any teacher would need to figure out his/her district's policy, but this is something that offers great potential for expanding and activating our students' minds and the study of multicultural lit as well.
  • Using bits and pieces: Some teachers may feel uncomfortable with this, but if under severe time constraints, it may be necessary to select chapters from the book, instead of reading the book as a whole. Although students might still need some background knowledge, this book lends itself to accompanying other works. So, if doing a unit on the narrative voice, human rights, women writers, the Latin American experience, the Native American experience, or any other survey course, Menchu's voice will be a welcomed and some might say necessary addition. Teachers may also want to consider pairing this first piece with all or parts of Menchu's follow up book Crossing Borders.
  • Be Specific: When choosing to use bits and pieces, it will help students if teachers are specific in their doing so. In other words, if teachers want to discuss the Quiche tradition with the class, choosing the chapter where Menchu's brother is tortured in public would not be the best choice. This may sit better in a unit on human rights or genocide.

Challenge: Questioning the Authenticity of the Text

Few educators would empower their students to believe everything they see or hear. As educators we want our students to question what they read, see, and listen to. We also encourage students to see both sides of any argument and check all the facts.

In Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (1999) David Stoll, then a graduate student and now a professor of Anthropology at Middlebury College in Vermont, argues that although nearly everything that Menchu describes about the Guatemalan civil war and genocide of indigenous peoples is true, some of her personal and family experiences may have been described in misleading ways or exaggerated. Menchu herself, and many Guatemalan experts have responded to these charges, see especially the book The Rigoberta Menchu Controversy. Student researchers are bound to find some of Stoll's information on the web with a simple Google search of the book’s title. Because of this, teachers may want to bring this discussion into the classroom to see both sides of the story. Presenting students with this information first and opening up a dialogue will facilitate a healthy discussion of fact versus fiction.


  • Be prepared to discuss: The classroom teacher should be aware of the authenticity question and be well-read on the topic to help students see the truth. It is important to recognize David Stoll's claims and to read rebuttals such as Dr. Allen Webb's article.
  • Journal Writing: This discussion may begin based on some journal writing to a simple question like "could this have happened?" or "should we question this piece?" or maybe a little more personal like "how do you feel when someone questions your honesty?". Then, bring the class back together to discuss and relate to the narrative.

Challenge: Understanding the Broader Scope of the Native: Ethnic Divides Within

Throughout the narrative, Menchu refers to the ladino culture and the Quiche resistence to it. The ladino, according to the Glossary at the end of the book, is "...any Guatemalan--whatever his position--who rejects, either indvidually or through his cultural heritage, Indian values or Mayan origin. It also implies mixed blood." The label itself plays a large part in the book as the ladino may own land or work for other ladinos. Menchu struggles throughout her story with accepting some ladinos as good or rejecting them all. Of course she realizes that even the poor ladinos are exploited and she helps organize some of them too. But it is not only the Indians who do the labeling. Even the poor ladinos see themselves as better than the Indians. At one point, a nun asks a little ladino boy if he is poor and he replies, "Yes, we're poor, but we're not Indians" (119). There is a misconception that even the poor ladino is better than any Indian when it is so clear that they suffer the same. Menchu says, "...the example of my companeros ladino made me really understand the barrier which has been put up between the Indian and the ladino, and that because of this same system which tries to divide us, we haven't understood that the ladinos also live in terrible conditions, the same as we do" (165). After sitting down and discussing this cultural divide, Menchu concludes, "And this confirmed that the justification of our struggle was to erase all the images imposed on us, all the cultural differences and the ethnic barriers, so that we Indians might understand each other in spite of different ways expressing our religion and beliefs" (169). In other words, Menchu decides to remove the labels and help all in need. However, even today not all Guatemalans feel the same.

Some students may question why this cultural divide is so prevalent, especially between the poor ladino and the Indian.

  • Bring it home: I would say the best way to address this is to bring the idea home to America. The cultural divide is not unique to Guatemala of course; it speaks so relevant to our American cultures--even the culture of the high school. Many teens feel the need to label--it's classic--the jocks, the preps, the goths, etc. More recently, our conflict with Iraq has led to immense labeling from Americans. A unit based on cultural divides that incorporates research and/or academic service learning has the potential to be an eye-opening experience for students.

Additional Resources For...

Rigoberta Menchu the Woman

WorldTrek --this site will offer plenty of information on Mechu
Interview transcript--regarding her philosophies and the current state of Guatemala.
Biography--done by the Nobel Prize site
Guatemala the Country

WorldTrek--this links to information focused more on the country
US Department of State--notes on Guatemala
Guatemalan Civil War Timeline
Yale Guatemala Study--use of charts provides forceful reality of genocide
The Maya

Mayan Culture--thorough overview
Ancient Maya--looks at the ancient times in Guatemala

When the Mountains Tremble--clip of introduction
When the Mountains Tremble--clip of movie
When the Mountains Tremble--clip of movie
FirstSearch Database Articles

Please note: this is an excellent resource, but a subscription through a
school library or university is needed to access.

"Rigoberta Menchu: The Prize that Broke the Silence. An Activity-based
Packet on the Relationship between Guatemala and the United States."
packet by Merideth Sommers and others--this packet is priceless as far as doable activities and worthy information

by Nicole Ziegler