The Magazine

I, RIGOBERTA MENCHU . . . NOT!

Dec 28, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 15 • By DINESH D'SOUZA
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I confess to having been mildly embarrassed when Rigoberta Menchu, Guatemalan political activist and author of I, Rigoberta Menchu, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. The Chronicle of Higher Education called the very day her prize was announced and reminded me that in my book Illiberal Education the year before, I had harshly criticized Menchu's autobiography as a sadly typical example of the bogus multicultural agitprop that was displacing the Western classics on the reading lists for undergraduates at elite universities like Stanford.


"Now that Rigoberta has won the Nobel prize," the reporter asked, "what is your reaction?"


"All I can say," I replied, "is that I am relieved she didn't win for literature."


For Rigoberta, the Nobel prize proved to be a canonization in both senses of the term. This obscure Indian woman who published her 1983 autobiography when she was still in her mid 20s, suddenly received worldwide recognition as a leftist icon -- a modern-day Saint Sebastian, pierced by the arrows of racist discrimination and colonial exploitation. She received several honorary doctorates and in 1992 was nominated as a United Nations goodwill ambassador and special representative of indigenous peoples. Her book, hailed as a first-person account of Guatemalan bigotry and brutality against native Indians, spread from cutting-edge curricula like Stanford's to become part of the canon of required and frequently assigned readings in high schools and universities around the globe.


Then, just last week, the New York Times revealed that much of I, Rigoberta Menchu is a fabrication. Times reporter Larry Rohter corroborated the research of an American anthropologist, David Stoll, whose interviews with over a hundred people and archival research during the past decade led him to conclude that Rigoberta's story "cannot be the eyewitness account it purports to be."


For example, in one of the most moving scenes in the book, Rigoberta describes how she watched her brother Nicolas die of malnutrition. But the New York Times found Nicolas alive and well enough to be running a relatively prosperous homestead in a Guatemalan village. According to members of Rigoberta's own family, as well as residents of her village, she also fabricated her account of how a second brother was burned alive by army troops as her parents were forced to watch.


Central to Rigoberta's story -- and the supposed source of her Marxism -- is a land dispute in which her impoverished family, working for slave wages on plantations, is intimidated and oppressed by wealthy landowners of European descent. Those nefarious oligarchs supposedly manipulated the government into forcing the Menchu family and other poor Indians off unclaimed land that they had farmed. According to the locals, however, this dispute was really a land feud that pitted Rigoberta's father against his in-laws. "It was a family quarrel that went on for years and years," Efrain Galindo, the mayor of the town, told Rohter. "I wanted peace, but none of us could get them to negotiate a settlement."


Even on small matters, Rigoberta's account turns out to be unreliable. On the very first page of her autobiography, Rigoberta says that she "never went to school" and only learned Spanish as an adult. In fact, she received the equivalent of a middle-school education as a scholarship student at two prestigious private boarding schools operated by Catholic nuns. Her half-sister Rosa Menchu confirms that since Rigoberta spent much of her youth in boarding schools, she could not possibly have worked as a political organizer and labored up to eight months a year on coffee and cotton plantations, as described in considerable detail in her autobiography.


None of this is to deny that Rigoberta's family, like many Guatemalans, suffered greatly during that country's long civil war. Both her parents were killed in that bloody conflict. But Rigoberta's account of the tragedy can no longer be trusted. "The book is one lie after another, and she knows it," Alfonso Rivera, a municipal clerk who kept all official records for the area for three decades, told the Times.


No less interesting than these revelations has been the reaction to them by Rigoberta Menchu, her champions and advocates. Rigoberta herself senses a racist plot and denounces her critics for "political provocations." The Nobel committee, having found Rigoberta a suitably obscure and politically correct candidate for its peace prize in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus's landing in North America, said that it will not rescind the prize even though her only credential for winning was her life story, as narrated in her autobiography.