Rigoberta Menchu, a Nobel Laureate


In 1988, Stanford University scrapped its required course in Western Civilization in favor of Culture, Ideas, Values. Dante's "Inferno" was out. "I, Rigoberta Menchu, an Indian Woman in Guatemala" was in.

Like other so-called autobiographies by famous people, Rigoberta Menchu did not write hers unassisted. A French radical feminist author, Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, may be credited as Rigoberta Menchu's discoverer and ghost. Some conservative critics detect in "I, Rigoberta" the political correctness of its ghost-writer more than the eloquence of its subject. They may be wrong.

All of which is to say that the winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize for Peace is not unknown. Rigoberta Menchu is more than a cultural icon of the political-correctness (PC) movement. She is also a bete noir of the anti-PC movement.

This award honors a Quiche Indian young woman whose father was burned to death by Guatemalan soldiers during a sit-in at the Spanish embassy, whose mother and brother were tortured to death, who escaped to Mexico, worked as a domestic and became at a young age the leading spokeswoman in exile for Guatemala's oppressed majority and a voice for Native Americans. She is of the left, politically correct, and earned the right to be.

This award of the Nobel Peace Prize is symbolic, as so many are, and meant to help a set of causes. It comes when much of Europe and America is celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery, and just before the United Nations' International Year for Indigenous Populations. It is upsetting to the conservative government and army of Guatemala. It comes when the laureate, who lives in exile in Mexico, is on a rare visit home where she is under death threat.

The best word of the symbolism there comes from the Guatemalan newspaper columnist, Carlos Rafael Soto: "Rigoberta is the Indian two hundred thousand times murdered in the Highlands, the raped indigenous girl, the burned down farm, the corpse that no one can identify."

But Rigoberta Menchu, 33, is also a real and relatively young person as was Mairead Corrigan, who at age 32 shared the 1976 Nobel with Betty Williams for founding the Peace People movement in Northern Ireland. They were not up to the leadership the prize implied, and their movement withered. Organized religions are wise not to confer sainthood on people before they are dead. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee takes greater risks.

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