Latin America comprises of those countries of North and South Americas where Spanish and Portuguese and in some regions even French are the major languages that are spoken. These languages have originated from Latin, hence the term Latin America. The population is mixed consisting of Whites (mostly Spanish and Italian) and Mestizo (mixed Amerindian-Spanish – in local Spanish called Ladino) K’iche, Kaqchikel, Mam Q’eqchi, other Mayan, indigenous non-Mayan and others.
Guatemala, located in Central America, bordering the North Pacific Ocean, between El Salvador and Mexico, and bordering the Gulf of Honduras (Caribbean Sea) between Honduras and Belize, is the most heavily populated among the Central American countries. It has a GDP per capita which is approximately half that of Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Amerindians constitute the largest proportion (43%) of the total population of Guatemala which singles it out among the other Latin American countries and half of these are descendents of the Maya-Quiche ethno-linguistic group.
It was in this country that Rigoberta Menchu was born on 9th January, 1959. Recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, Rigoberta is committed to dedicate her life towards bringing to light to the rest of the world, the plight of her country’s indigenous population, during and after the Guatemalan Civil War that lasted for thirty six years. It was through her testimonial biography, “I, Rigoberta Menchu” (Rigoberta, n. d. ) that the world learnt about the atrocities committed against the indigenous people in Guatemala.
She was born in a village named Chimel, in El Quiche, which in her own words is “…a paradise, the country is so beautiful. ” (Rigoberta, P. 2) “The mountains were so high that not a single ray of light fell through the plants. ” (Rigoberta, P. 4) It did not matter that they had to cover long distances on foot to reach their nearest neighbor. Rigoberta loved her home and her environment very much. Rigoberta never went to school and never left her surroundings till a long, long time. She grew up absorbing the culture of the Quiche people and their customs. A proud Mayan, she is reserved about these customs and defends of her identity.
Though Christianity has been accepted by most of her people, a newborn is baptized within the community before being taken to church. At the core is their true identity as a Quiche Indian. Nuns and monks have failed to gain their confidence since a lot of what they contradict their own customs and beliefs. They are committed to defend their customs and culture and not disclose these to others outside their communities. (Rigoberta, P. 9) Like most tribal communities in the world, the Quiche Indians also have their own elected representative who is regarded as a father. Rigoberta’s parents were her tribe’s representatives.
As if weaving an intricate corte cloth of multicolored threads, Rigoberta retells her story and creates an atmosphere of wonder and mystery, of awe and suffering. She tries to rebuild for us her past, and the environment she grew up in so that we are able to understand her world and her realities. The birth of a child is a very important occasion and the newborn is welcomed with candles. He is regarded as one of the community and not of the family alone. There are celebratory sacrifices for the newborn. A wedding is also an important occasion. The staple food of the Mayans is maize and they hold a special regard for this grain.
Mayan children are taught to respect elders not only in their family but all elders in the community. However, life for them is harsh. Initiation into the life in a finca, or plantation, begins when the child is forty days old. Rigoberta experienced the face of deprivation at a very early age. They travelled like chickens in a lorry from their home to the finca. Life there was hard. Their world was a world of bitterness, of deprivation and monotony, world that would never change for them. They were forced to live in overcrowded sheds without the basic amenities like clean water and access to a clean toilet. Death was common.
Rigoberta lost two brothers to the plantation, one died from pesticide poisoning and the other from malnutrition. Everybody had to work in the finca and refuge from work meant no food. Even children who did not work were not provided food. The native Mayans faced oppression in more ways than one. And they were denied any representation in the government. Since they were not of Spanish descent, they were denied any rights of citizenship. And then the military government arrived and with them came the Civil War. Wealthy plantation owners of European descent, backed by the government started taking away by force lands occupied by Indians.
The land had been made habitable by the Indians, it was their home and they did not take kindly to this. Rigoberta’s father, Vincente, led one of the peasant movements against this action of the government. Beginning with a series of petitions, and then protests, he tried to secure the lands that the Indians had occupied. This often led to his imprisonment. Finally, in 1980, Rigoberta’s father died in a fire, with thirty eight other Indian leaders at the Spanish embassy. They were protesting against violations of Indians’ human rights. Rigoberta had to witness the death of her sixteen year old brother at the hands of soldiers.
Her mother, also a leader in the movement for Indians’ rights was raped, tortured and killed. The Civil War was marked by massacres of Mayans. They were either exterminated, or simply disappeared. It was in protest of this social and economic discrimination that Rigoberta became actively involved with the United Peasant Community and later became one of the spokespersons for the Committee of Peasant Unity. She joined the radical 31st of January Popular Front, where she educated the Indian peasant population to resist the massive military oppression. The Guatemalan government initiated an intense search for her.
Rigoberta had seen the fate that her mother had suffered. She knew that if she was caught by the military government she would not survive and would perhaps suffer the same fate as her mother. Menchu was forced to go into hiding in 1981 and then escape to Mexico. From there she organized movements against the oppression in her country and provided support for her people’s struggle. Rigoberta returned to her country at least three times to plead the cause of the Mayan peasants, but threats to her life forced her to go to exile again to Mexico where she lived to tell the story of her people to the rest of the world.
As a result of Menchu’s testimony, the United Nations intervened and the Guatemalan accepted the UN Sponsored Peace effectively ending the conflict in 1996. After a war that was drawn out over 36 years, Guatemala officially disbanded its 200,000 strong paramilitary troops and has helped about 3,000 guerrillas to demobilize and resettle into the mainstream life of the country. (Global Security, 2000 – 2009) Throughout her struggle, Menchu has stressed the need for unity among the Guatemalan people. She believes in attainting a better life for her people now and not in a distant utopian heaven.
(Cited in Postcolonial Literature database, Western Michigan University, 2002) Just like the indigenous people in Guatemala, the Chicanas, a group within the Mexican Indian community in Mexico also faced repression and discrimination. And the womenfolk among them faced even greater repression. Low social expectations coupled with gender based discrimination served to keep them on the lowest rungs of social, political, economic and educational social ladders. (Encyclopedia of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, P. 43 – 44)
Till the post World War II period, the roles of the Chicana women consisted of mostly secondary roles in support of their husbands and other males in their society. They were not recognized as individuals in their own standing with needs and rights of their own. Lucia Gonzalez, Emma Tenayuca, Luisa Moreno, and Josefina Fierro de Bright were early activities who opposed this male dominance within their community and the suppression of their community and their rights by a government backed by a repressionist US foreign policy. (Latin America: History, Politics, and U. S. Policy, P. 150)
Many civil rights organizations in Mexico owe a lot to the early activism of these women leaders. In the book Latinas: Hispanic Women in the United States, Hedda J. Garza explores the important roles of these women who made major contributions to Mexico’s political and social mosaic for over 150 years and struggled to improve living conditions for Latinas. From providing secondary support to the male members of their families, these women took on more responsible positions as wage earners and even heads of their families and their communities.
During the post World War II period they often provided the backbone support needed by different civil rights organizations. However, later they found to their dismay that most of their male companions considered them fit for less important work even though their contribution towards educational reforms and fights for labor rights and livable wages were no less than their male partners. This made them voice their demands for equal treatment and full civil rights without any bias against their gender.
A variety of Chicana organizations came to be born all with the broad goals of equal treatment and equal rights for all. The 1970s saw middle class Chicana groups with greater organizational vigor come up. The Comicion Femenil Nacional Mexicana was formed in 1970 and in 1974 the Mexican American Women’s National Association was formed in Washington DC. The period was marked by greater recognition of Chicana women with more organizations coming up to voice support for them.
The Chicana Forum was established in 1976 and the National Network of Hispanic Women came up the following year. Clearly the Chicana women were determined to make themselves heard. Significant victory in this direction was made at the beginning of the 1990s when nearly 25 percent of all raza elected officials were Latinas. References: 1. Rigoberta, Menchu. , Burgos – Debray, Elisabeth. , and Wright, Ann. (1987). I, Rigoberta Menchu. Brooklyn, NY: Verso 2. Global Security (2000 – 2009). Guatemala Civil War 1960-1996. Retrieved January 16, 2009, from http://www.
globalsecurity. org/military/world/war/guatemala. htm 3. Western Michigan University, Post Colonial Literature Database (2002). I, Rigoberta Menchu. Retrieved January 16, 2009, from http://www. wmich. edu/dialogues/texts/irigobertamenchu. html 4. Meier, Matt S. , and Gutierrez, Margo. (2000). Chicanas. In Encyclopedia of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement (P. 43 – 44). Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group. 5. Cockcroft, James D. (1995). Latin America: History, Politics, and U. S. Policy. Illinois, Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers
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