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Rigoberta Menchu And The Story Of All Poor Guatemalans Hardcover – December 8, 1998

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Editorial Reviews Review

In 1992, a Guatemalan peasant named Rigoberta Menchú received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in pressing the civil rights claims of her country's indigenous peoples. A decade earlier, her memoir, I, Rigoberta Menchú, had appeared, and it was immediately welcomed in the nascent canon of multicultural literary and anthropological writings that has since become standard in the academy. In that memoir, Menchú gives a highly specific account of the then-ruling military government's war against tribal, rural people, making claims that she held a leadership role in the resistance, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor. In a work certain to incite controversy, Middlebury College anthropologist David Stoll questions the veracity of those claims, interviewing many of the people who appeared in her memoir and offering contrary testimony.

"In a peasant society ruled by elders, where girls reaching puberty are kept under close watch, it would be very unusual for a person of her age and gender to play the leadership role she describes," Stoll writes. Neither, he argues, was she monolingual and illiterate, as she claimed to be; her presentation of self as "noble savage," he continues, gave her an unwarranted moral authority when she presented stories that she had heard from others as if she had been a participant. His findings, Stoll notes, do not discount the real violence visited by the Guatemalan government on its subjects, although they certainly might give comfort to apologists of the regime. (Interestingly, he notes, Menchú has since disavowed portions of her memoir as the work of the French anthropologist who recorded them.) --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

Stoll (Is Latin American Turning Protestant?) has written a revisionist biography of a Guatemalan woman canonized and, according to Stoll, ultimately misunderstood by the academic and political left. He tries to replace what he believes to be the prevailing romantic image of Guatemalan rebellion with something that comes much closer to the murky, morally shaded truth. In 1982, I, Rigoberta Menchu, the autobiography of a Mayan peasant woman, catapulted its author onto the international stage. In 1992, on the symbolically loaded 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World, Rigoberta Menchu won the Nobel Peace Prize. Stoll challenges major and minor aspects of Menchu's book, using interviews, conducted over a nine-year period, with soldiers, guerrillas and survivors of violence from Menchu's hometown and surrounding region. Painstakingly delineating the complex cultural and political landscape of Guatemala, Stoll refutes Menchu's "simplified" account of land-poor Mayans taking up arms against wealthy landowners, painting instead a picture of peasants?both indigenas and ladinos?who wish only to be left alone but are caught between guerrilla and government armies. Arguing that Menchu's book mythologizes the experience of poor Guatemalans, Stoll explores the implications of such a sentimental view for academia, solidarity activists and Guatemalans themselves. His generally supportive attitude toward the peasants' cause and his denunciation of the army's terror makes his book all the more convincing. This is provocative reading that's sure to shake up assumptions?and rile tempers?across the political spectrum.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Westview Press (December 8, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813335744
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813335742
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,513,086 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

70 of 76 people found the following review helpful By Richard Stoller ( on August 9, 1999
Format: Hardcover
David Stoll's book is an impressive work of investigation, and he has a genuine concern for the oppressed (despite what you've heard in the triumphalist right-wing media and the furious left-wing media)...but the book does have two problems. One of them really is Stoll's fault, but the other just "comes with the territory":
1) Even though Stoll spends (literally) the whole book parsing Rigoberta's story and explaining why he thinks it's vital to do so, the reader is never quite clear on why the whole exercise is important. If it's to reveal that a narrator's truth, even in the testimony genre, is a fudgy thing, then why the often reproachful tone? If it's to show that testimony is deployed for instrumentalist purposes (i.e. means to an end), the argument is essentially trivial, because we all know that. (Moreover, Rigoberta's purposes are clear to any reader of her book--that was surely her own measure of the narrative's success. She explicitly didn't want the book read for "anthropological insight," but rather for political action.) If it's to show a collective and selective blindless on the left, well, let's leave that one for the next section--
2) Stoll accepts that the Guatemalan army and its local operatives were every bit as nasty as Rigoberta alleges: he faults her for personalizing details (i.e. alleging that what happened to others actually happened to her and hers), but he never downplays or denies the army's murderous abuses.
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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful By S.E. on November 6, 2001
Format: Paperback
David Stoll's book makes important points. To what extent can the testimony of a single person represent the situation faced by a larger community? What happens when a single figure comes to embody a movement, and that figure has conveyed misrepresentations of the truth?
Stoll does not claim that many poor Guatemalans did not face unbearable oppression, or that they were not massacred by para-military death squads. However, he does note that, like 1980s and early 1990s Peru, the indigenous sometimes felt trapped. He suggests that both the military and leftist guerrillas would use murder as a means to coerce the indigenous into subordination.
Although Stoll pats himself on the back for having waited until Guatemala's lengthy civil war ended, one must question whether his timing was appropriate. His book provided ammunition for the military government to negate claims of torture and disappearances at a time when United Nations Truth Commissions were investigating military abuses.
The issues brought up by Stoll are important, but could be addressed in a less slanderous manner. As Victor Montejo points out, the picture of Rigoberta Menchu on the cover is inappropriate. If Stoll is in fact claiming not to be an iconoclast, why is the photograph on the cover? Why is Rigoberta's name in the title?
Let there be no doubt that Rigoberta did have a political agenda. However, if there are several exaggerations, the story should not be discredited. Consider the genre: testimony. Rigoberta was interviewed for hours a day, for about a week (I believe). Rigoberta did not edit the text. Also, we do not know what questions were asked, and how they influenced Rigoberta's responses. We do know that Burgos-Debray has marxist connections. An interviewer can have a profound effect upon the interviewee, in this case a young twenty-three year-old.
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18 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 6, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This book was heavily criticized within the Guatemalan media due to its contraversial subject matter. Rigoberta Menchu is very well respected within the international community and this book reviews the accuracy of the 1982 book, I Rigoberta Menchu. I really enjoyed Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. It is obvious that an immense amount of research was invested into the topic and it is very thorough. More importantly, contrary to the media coverage it received, the book is neither attempting to slander Rigoberta Menchu nor is it a racist attack on indigenous peoples. David Stoll presents the Guatemalan civil war and the relationship between some indigenous communities and the guerrillas with refreshing clarity. He reveals the problems with one person, in this case Rigoberta Menchu, in speaking for an entire community-especially one as diverse as the "Mayans" of Guatemala. I would recommend the book for anyone interested in Guatemala.
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36 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on September 4, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
To start from the proverbial beginning, Rigoberta Menchu, the Mayan Guatemalan who graced the world with her autobiographical account of the terror of the countryside of that land during its lengthy civil war, lied. The author was curious how one person could have done all that Menchu claimed to have done. It turned out she hadn't. She wasn't the eyewitness at her brother's murder; her father wasn't the organizer of various rebel groups. Indeed, witnesses who knew him claimed to have known a very different personality from the one described by Rigoberta. Further, while Rigoberta was allegedly forming various political organizations in her home village--wherein she claimed she was illiterate and monolingual--she was really the scholarship student at a girls' school and quite fluent in Spanish as well as in her native, Mayan tongue.
The consequences of that myth? romanticism? are among the analyses of Stoll's work. And I must commend him on the depth of his analysis. But...
The Guatemalans have gone through a devestating civil war in which hundreds of thousands of civilians, most of them poor, have "been disappeared"--for which that new use of those verbs was created. It means, simply, that they don't exist any more (and that they're buried in one of those body dumps in which most were thrown and are now the subject of exhumations by forensic anthropologists). Stoll agrees that the Guatemalan army, civil patrols, and vigilantes have an inexcusable history. He doesn't seem to evade that. But...
Contemporary American and European leftists have made that war a battle between the victimized Mayan indigenas, and the nasty, unscrupulous, and, of course, wealthier ladinos (known elsewhere in Central America as Mestizos).
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