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.
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