LuisMiguel Adames 3/31/13 Book Review: I,Rigoberta Menchu “Everything in our life is like a film. Constant suffering.” Pg. 116 SUMMARY “I,Rigoberta Menchu” is a truly saddening and invigorating tale of a hard knock life with anger and aspirations towards a better one. She lives the life of an Indian peasant who lives in the Altiplanos (the mountain range), in Guatemala. Along with her family, they live and work for eight months in the fincas (plantations), were they are taken by a truck covered up in cloth and have to live with about 400 others in horrible conditions. In the early stages of her life, we are introduced to the customs and beauty of her community and her people. Her descriptions allow the reader to be enveloped and experience her world through her shoes. From the death of her brother in the fincas and not being able to give him a proper burial, to when she became a woman at the age of 10, working for a wealthy ladino (Guatemalans of Spaniard descent) to the horrible death of her mother and father, Rigoberta has endured it all. Keeping in mind her ancestors customs and traditions, yet being open minded and respectful to the beliefs of others, is important to her. From living in her community, she has been taught that understanding others is important to live peacefully. Even while working for the CUC she continues to work in the finca’s with the companeros and companeras, even leaving behind her fiancée for the struggle of her people. As a leader fighting for justice and peace for her people in Guatemala, that is what Rigoberta works for. ANALYSIS
Teaching the I, Rigoberta Menchu Controversy
Rare is the indigenous woman who receives a Nobel Prize; rarer still that she should do so without controversy. Most controversies dissipate when both sides lose interest or weary of arguing-however, the controversy over Rigoberta Menchu's testimonio has been waged now for over a decade and shows no signs of abating. Any mention of Menchu will inevitably lead one to David Stoll, the anthropologist who accused Menchu of fabrications in the text of I, Rigoberta Menchu. Stoll first made his doubts known in 1990 at the Western Humanities Conference held at Berkeley; however it was not until the New York Times (December 1998) article that the general public became aware of Stoll's accusations against Menchu's testimony. Stoll published his book, Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, the result of ten years of research on the Menchu text, in 1999.
Stoll's main allegation is that Menchu distorted facts, thus weakening her account and making it obvious that her testimony is a political propaganda piece for the Marxist guerilla cause. Stoll suggests that Menchu's voice was "colonized" by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray to further a flagging political. Behind the romantic picture of the poor Mayan peasant farmers bravely defending their land from the evil, greedy ladino landowners, Stoll reveals what he considers to be the real Menchus-guerrilla sympathizers who provoked the Guatemalan Army's arrival in Chimel and brought their own disaster on themselves.
Spinning off from the heart of the controversy, Stoll's challenge to the veracity of Menchu's story, are many unanswered questions for educators. Is this a political or a cultural text? What is the nature of the genre of testimonio? How should Menchu's text be read? Should the Menchu/Stoll controversy be taught in the classroom or ignored? Mary Louise Pratt says that "Scholars face an opportunity and a responsibility to work through the issues the controversy raises, which include a series of important epistemological, methodological, and ethical questions" (29-30).
As Pratt points out, privileged students are often made uncomfortable upon first encountering Menchu's testimony (39). Student reactions will vary but typically may fall into three categories-immediate empathy and acceptance of the text; rejection of the text; or cautious examination of the text. Introducing students to the Stoll/Menchu controversy can be done by having them read Stoll's text followed by Arturo Arias' examination of the controversy in The Rigoberta MenchuControversy. Arias' book is divided into three sections-an introductory background of Menchu and the controversy; primary documents from newspaper articles, interviews, and official statements; and scholarly responses to the controversy analyzing its cultural, political, and historical implications.
Anyone contemplating teaching I, Rigoberta Menchu needs to be aware of the controversy, if, for no other reason, than to allow students to question and resist texts as an appropriate and productive activity which leads to the development of critical, analytical skills. Students need to be allowed to question texts without being made to feel politically incorrect, culturally insensitive or a social elitist. Stoll raises some serious questions that situate the teaching of Postcolonial texts as a political activity. Some students will accept the text as a true and powerful narrative detailing cultural repression, but others will view the text as a political ploy and experience its power as emotionally manipulative. A student may experience this reaction while still being empathetic to the plight of culturally oppressed people.
In our classrooms we must create an atmosphere that invites inquiry and encourages the critical examination of cultural texts, rather than enshrining them as sacred documents. We can also admit that the ideological values of other cultures are open to be questioned and resisted-such as the Taliban's burka and Muslim female circumcision rites. As educators, we can give our students permission and encouragement to interrogate any and all texts and develop the skills necessary to scrutinize the author's motives. We can model ways to question while upholding and respecting the author's right to his cultural values and opinions.
My interpretation of Stoll is that while he believes it is ethical to teach respect and empathy for colonized third world cultures, it is just as important ethically to help our students be able to "read" a text and understand its construction and creation of power. To ask, "How does this book create meaning?" "How does this book influence the reader?" In other words, a text like I, Rigoberta Menchu can be taught both sympathetically and critically. In fact, Stoll argues, it must be taught that way or else we fail our students.
My suggestions for teaching this text include pre-teaching. Familiarize students with the genre of testimonio-a Latin American genre in which the experience of one person may represent or symbolize the experience of a whole group of people. Familiarize students with Guatemalan geography. As Eduardo Galeano said, "Most American don't have a clue where this country, Guatemala, with its exotic name so hard to pronounce, is located" (100). Familiarize students with Guatemalan history so that they will understand the political causes behind Menchu's emotional rationalizations for insurgency. Also, familiarize students with the connection between language and the creation of ideology-specifically how this particular text creates an unconscious reification of indigena cultural values while encouraging students to harshly judge their own.
Suggested classroom activities could include a candid discussion of the Menchu/Stoll controversy and its implications. I also suggest introducing other texts about Mayan culture and the Civil War such as Montejo's Testimony: Death of a Guatemalan Village, Mario Payeras' Days of the Jungle and James Sexton's Son of Tecun Uman: A Mayan Indian Tells His Life Story. There are many activities suggested in Teaching and Testimony for teaching Menchu's story sans the controversy. Some include having students write their own testimonio, role playing, dramatic presentations of scenes, preparing food. One that particularly interested me was a teacher who had his class compare and contrast various reports from newspapers and magazines on the Spanish embassy take-over with Menchu's description. The idea is not just to read and discuss the book, but to actively engage students through pedagogical strategies to deepen their awareness and experience of cultural texts.
Whether or not to teach the controversy is a divided issue among educators. As a compositionist, I think it should be. I want to examine how Menchu's language of polarity creates and promotes the identity of victimization. I want to know if the polarization so evident in this text (us vs. them; good vs. evil) is accurate or exaggerated. I want to know if I am being manipulated to accept unthinkingly another person's political opinions (Marxism) disguised as romantic cultural rhetoric. I want my students to raise their own questions as they encounter this text. The last thing I want them to do this with this or any text is to passively accept it . If, after challenging and examining it, the student accepts it completely then well and good, but at least they had practice in comparing, contrasting, questioning, and analyzing-skills we need to encourage our students to develop. I agree with Victor D. Montejo who says, "I think the two books and many more on these issues should be consulted in order to see that history is reconstructed with multiple voices and not by a single voice or truth" (390).
It is inescapable that critical pedagogy of cultural texts, and especially this text, will be controversial. In "Her," Rosa Montero says, "It would seem that those who denounce Menchu, obsessed by small details, have lost sight of the big picture" (76). Those that unquestioningly defend Menchu are often guilty of the same thing or else have never read Stoll's book. Stoll is the first to admit that the "big picture"-thousands of Mayans murdered by the Guatemalan Army is accurate. What Stoll stubbornly directs attention to is something beyond the surface facts of cultural oppression (of which there is no dispute). Stoll's argument is about meaning-how it is created and maintained and passed on in the classroom. While Stoll believes it is ethical to teach respect and empathy for colonized third world cultures, he also believe it is just as important to help students be able to "read" a text and understand its construction and creation of power. To ask, "How does this book create meaning?" "How does this book influence the reader?" In other words, by introducing students to the Menchu/Stoll controversy we can teach cultural texts both sympathetically and critically. In fact, Stoll argues, they must be taught that way or else we fail as educators.