Nobel Peace Prize winner Menchu speaks in Nashville

By Albert Bender
Nashville, Tennessee (NFIC) 4-08

The celebrated Maya heroine and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rigoberta Menchu, made her first visit to Nashville recently, speaking at Vanderbilt University. The title of her presentation was “Healing Communities Torn by Racism and Violence.”

“The organization of the entire event began in February of 2007, which is extremely fast for an event of this magnitude,” said Ted Fisher, chairperson of Vanderbilt’s Department of Latin American and Iberian Studies which sponsored the presentation.

The event was also an exhibition of the work of the celebrated Ecuadorean artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin, who passed away in 1999. Guayasamin was noted for his art portraying the struggles of Latin America’s Indigenous peoples and was a personal friend of Menchu’s. She became friends with the noted artist in the 1990s. Guayasamin painted her portrait in 1996.

Menchu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her activism in the struggle of her Guatemalan Maya people for justice and equality. She comes from a family of Indigenous activists. Members of her immediate family, including her mother, father and brother were tortured to death by the Guatemalan military in 1979 and 1980 for standing up for Maya rights.

Menchu, who ran for president of her country in 2007, now lives in Guatemala City; at one time she had to flee the country because of military attempts on her life. While abroad she campaigned internationally for Indigenous rights. Currently, her personal safety requires eight bodyguards twenty-four hours a day.

In her address Menchu called for “solidarity in the struggle for the future” and how “it is inconceivable to rape a woman or pervert a child” and that “it is even less conceivable to see the lack of sensitivity that allows atrocities, genocide and war crimes to go unpunished that should have been punished years ago.” She further added that “we find there is a forgetting from everyone else and that we forget too easily the dead and disappeared,” and that a people without a memory are “likely to suffer atrocities again.”

Menchu opined that “inequality affects dignity and racism makes sufferers of all of us.” She added that “racism is a mental illness and a social pathology.” Menchu further remarked “the world is not working right, there is a deterioration of the entire planet and we must feel indignation in the face of any injustice.”

There was afterward a question and answer session in which Menchu also brought out that although there has been some improvement in Guatemala since the signing of the Peace Accords of 1995, there is still a long way to go to achieve equality for the Maya majority. She remarked, “Guatemala is still very dangerous.”

Highlighting the danger, violent deaths in the country totaled over 6,000 last year, including several labor and political leaders, with the murders of women averaging two per day; this in a country the size of the state of Tennessee. Almost all the crimes remain unsolved.

Indeed, violence has overwhelmed the “hundred days” plan of new Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom, reaching levels higher than those marring the earlier presidency of Oscar Berger.

Among 420 victims in just 50 days were 25 transport drivers, 11 students, nine police functionaries and on March 2, laborer Miguel Angel Ramirez.

The government has responded by adding even more troops to an army allegedly responsible for most of the genocidal killings of Mayas in the Guatemalan civil war.

“It is incredibly important to remember that the genocide in Guatemala was of equal depth to the Holocaust and those who lived through the terror know what real terrorism is in this regard,” added Fisher. He continued, referring to the fact of U.S. involvement on the side of the Guatemalan military in the genocide as “a very dark stain on U.S. history.”

Menchu’s address made frequent references to the genocide carried out by the Guatemalan military in the decade plus years of the 1980s through the early 1990s that resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 Maya men, women, children and elderly. She ended her address with, “Never forget there was genocide in Guatemala.”