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
“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
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
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
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.