Rigoberta Menchu Tum (born 9 January 1959, Laj Chimel, El Quiché, Guatemala) is an indigenous Guatemalan, of the K’iche’ ethnic group. Menchu has dedicated her life to publicizing the plight of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples during and after the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), and to promoting indigenous rights in the country. She received the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize and Prince of Asturias Award in 1998. She is the subject of the testimonial biography I, Rigoberta Menchu (1983) and the author of the autobiographical work, Crossing Borders. Menchu is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. She has also become a figure in indigenous political parties and ran for President of Guatemala in 2007.
Rigoberta Menchu grew up desperately poor. The adversities she faced contributed to her actions as a peacemaker. As she was growing up, her family had to work on a plantation. At that time, many plantation owners didn’t pay a fair wage. Indigenous peoples of Guatemala had no rights. They were treated as property. When the Guatemalan government, along with plantation owners continued to oppress, abuse and even steal native peoples’ lands, they began to fight back.
Rigoberta’s father was a leader in this movement. He was arrested many times and was even put to death by fire as Rigoberta watched. She also lost her brother in the movement. He was kidnapped, tortured and also burned alive. One by one, Rigoberta’s family members were summarily raped, tortured and executed as were many people. This became the start of the Guatemalan Civil War.
Because Rigoberta was also active in the movement, she retreated to Mexico, fearing for her life. She began to work on her autobiography and tried to begin the healing process from losing so many members of her immediate family. She had no schooling so she had to dictate the book.
Her book, I, Rigoberta Menchu not only talked about the plight of her family, but also of the plight of the indigenous peoples of Guatemala. The world began to hear about this conflict and began to help Rigoberta in her efforts.
In 1992, the United Nations recognized Menchu as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and she received the Nobel Peace Prize. She used the prize money to set up a foundation in honor of her father to help fight for the rights of indigenous people in Guatemala. Her relentless battle for peace has changed the lives of many in her home country. Her work also led the United Nations to recognize the International Year for Indigenous Peoples in 1993.