By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published February 24, 2005
Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum said in Atlanta that she continues her struggle for human rights because her conscience impels her and because she hopes her children and grandchildren will reject the violence and genocide that has flayed her native land of Guatemala.
Speaking through a translator at a forum on human rights held at The Carter Center in January, Menchú, 45, a Mayan Indian and a Catholic, said, “I’m honored to be here on the Martin Luther King weekend because I believe . . . in the responsibility (to struggle) against racism, against discrimination.”
“It’s not a struggle for a day, but a permanent struggle. It’s not the struggle of one solitary person, it’s the struggle of all of you, of your children, of your grandchildren,” she said. “I think the struggle for human rights is also the result of one’s own conscience. I must make a great effort… Who is going to save the world? Each one of us who makes a difference.”
Menchú was the youngest person and the first indigenous person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize when she received it in 1992 at the age of 33. Born in 1959 in the village of Chimel, Guatemala, she worked on coastal plantations as a child, eking out an existence. In separate incidents, her father, her mother and her brother were tortured and killed during Guatemala’s civil war. Self-educated, Menchú became involved in social reform and women’s rights when she was a teenager through the Catholic Church. She taught Bible classes to children in her village. Later she because head of the National Coordinating Commission for the United Peasants Committee. In 1981 she was forced into exile in Mexico because her life was in danger for protesting massacres and land seizures. From exile she continued to champion the rights of indigenous peoples in Guatemala and to bring their plight to the attention of the world. Her story, written by an anthropologist in book form based on interviews with Menchú, led to worldwide attention. She now leads the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation in Guatemala and the Indigenous Initiative for Peace.
She said the burden of the past compels human rights activists to continue to struggle for justice.
“Human rights advocates are the people who every day know they have a mission for humanity . . . It’s a very hard, a very tough struggle,” said Menchú. “Part of our cause is for what we have lived (through) . . . when you remember your mother was tortured, your brothers were tortured … when you have seen many widows, many orphaned children who are trying to find happiness.”
She said the overwhelming majority of those who suffered during the 36-year civil war in Guatemala were Mayan Indians. In recent years she has worked on exhuming the remains of victims and determining how many died, as well as trying to establish a record of human rights abuses.
“I believe it’s important to leave written the memory of the people,” she said. “If our children are outraged by the violation of human rights, they will not violate human rights in the future. If they know how to stop racism or genocide, they will not become people who commit racism or genocide.”
Working on this horrific task, she is confronted by the unspeakable evil human beings commit on one another.
“I’m not able to contemplate what kind of life, what kind of mentality, the perpetrators of these atrocities would have, what kind of conscience, of human nature, they would have to be able to commit these kinds of crimes, ”she said.
At the same time, she is encouraged to see survivors trying to live decent lives, “not trying to get revenge, but trying to find a job, to go to school or to find meaning for their life or . . . trying to do something good for themselves. Then you are happy because you realize your mission, your work has positive results on the people,” she said. “I think the most important thing is you have to find a balance between justice and faith, faith in the people, faith in life, faith in the future.”
Menchú was one of the human rights activists interviewed by Kerry Kennedy for her book “Speak Truth to Power,” which was also the title of the Carter Center convocation.
Kennedy, who founded the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights, said she started working in the human rights field during a college internship when she documented abuses committed by U.S. immigration officials against refugees from El Salvador.
She spoke of the responsibility of all to work to create a more just and peaceful world.
The activists she interviewed, including Menchú, “inspire us to hold fast to our dreams,” she said.
“People like these are living, breathing people in our midst. And their determination, valor and commitment in the face of overwhelming danger challenges each of us to take up the torch for a more just world.”