Nobel laureate accepts Spendlove Prize on behalf of Guatemala’s desaparecidos

By JOHN MILLER
November 8, 2018

Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum became the 12th recipient of the Alice and Clifford Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance on Monday night at the Merced Theatre’s Art Kamangar Center.

“I dedicate this prize to the historical truth about the victims of crimes against humanity in Guatemala,” Menchú said. “This is the historical truth of the people who lost their lives in the Spanish Embassy on January 31st of 1980, and where my father lost his life too. I dedicate this prize to them because I haven’t done anything. I have only broken the silence. Broken the silence about the torture, about people disappearing. Broken the silence about the crimes that offended our humanity. And those who have lived through these crimes, there is nothing to compensate for all they have suffered. So I dedicate this prize to them. I dedicate it to the historical memory of Guatemala.”

The 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner has a long and storied life of service to social justice, dating back to when she was a teenager. That was when she joined social reform activities through the Catholic Church and became prominent in the women's rights movement. Today she is recognized internationally for her work in social and ethno-cultural reform.

Menchú was born in Guatemala as a member of an indigenous peasant family, and grew up in a branch of the Mayan culture, working alongside of her family picking coffee in the coastal highlands.

As a teen, Menchú began her first foray into social justice by working for women’s rights through the Catholic Church. Her work brought both attention and opposition to her cause, and resulted in her family being accused of taking part in guerrilla activities against the Guatemalan government.

In an interview with the Times, Menchú recounted a harrowing story.

“I was part of the victims of the inhumane crimes in Guatemala,” she said. “My father was burned alive in the Spain Embassy on Jan. 31, 1980. My mother was kidnapped. Too many people saw how she was tortured. Until today I haven’t found my mother’s body.”

Menchú added that her brother had also been kidnapped, and her other brother shot.

“Before being a victim, I lost my father and my mother, and I was without support because I was under the arm of my parents at the time they were killed. Then later, as an adult, I fought for human rights, including the search for my mother among the 50,000 people who disappeared in Guatemala. I consider myself an activist — a social activist of human rights. I have helped open too many court cases to clarify the legitimate truth of these victims. …

“I know that human rights are not only for people who are tortured or disappeared, but also against racism and discrimination. I’m against intolerance because I believe that there’s still intolerance in the world we are living in, and there is a lack of respect to human dignity. I am a person that feels motivated for human dignity.”

Over the course of decades, Menchú has seen changes take place in her home country from which she had previously fled from long ago, taking refuge in Mexico.

“It is not the same country we had in the past. I believe we have made a lot of progress; especially since we have won many court cases of crimes against humanity. And there are so many precedents that people can use to defend their rights. … We don’t have an army conflict. We have a systematic violence by organized crime, MARAS, integral violence, but we don’t have a civil war, and I believe that Guatemala has to unify more.”

She went on to note that she believes Guatemalans must find value in what they currently have, which will give rise to more opportunities to grow politically, economically, socially, and culturally. “So I think we are not as we are in the past. Now, we cannot say that we live in an ideal country. We are not. There is too much violence. There is strong racism. People are suffering extreme poverty, enormously. That is why there is too much immigration. … The lack of jobs, and the lack of opportunities of integral development, and there is a big possibility of immigration. People look for jobs in other places.”

Menchú pointed to today’s youth as the ones that can help make the necessary changes to better a country. Not only in Guatemala, but around the world as a whole. “Young Guatemalans are going to make better changes on their lifestyles. Our job — we the ones that have matured — our job is to transmit experiences. Transmit enthusiasm. Transmit a positive message to the youth. …

“I hope they can participate better in the politics, and don’t follow the steps of the corruption, impunity, and the perversity of the fake democracy. So I believe that we need to inform the youth more. Give them a better formation of the world. Transmit the experience and give them hope.”

While youth may feel abandoned from conversation about the direction of the world they live in, Menchú said, they should know they are not, and that there are more opportunities for the youth to be prosperous both in a humanitarian sense as well as in terms of economic growth.

The Times thanks Oscar Torres of Merced for helping to translate our interview with Rigoberta Menchú Tum.


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