Latino Heritage Month Meets Reproductive Justice & Sexual Health: Focus on Rigoberta Menchú Tum

For Latino Heritage Month I’d like to try to expand our understanding and conversations about Latino sexuality during this month. Read previous people highlighted: Gloria Anzaldúa and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.

Dr. Rigoberta Menchú Tum
Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Activist


Activist and Guatemalean k’iche’ woman, Dr. Rigoberta Menchú has been a figure of resistance for many people in the Americas, especially indigenous communities. As some people my age, I was first introduced to Menchú through her book: Me llamo Rigoberta Menchu y asi me nacio la conciencia/I, Rigoberta Menchú. An Indian Woman in Guatemala published in 1983 when she was in her early twenties (and published in over 10 different languages).

At the time that I was assigned to read her book, almost twenty years ago, I did not completely appreciate the work she had done so early in her life. There were times when I actually complained about having to read her text, and I think that may have been connected to my own ignorance about the various forms of oppressions that occur(ed) in the Americas. I was also not really trying to hear all the Simón Bolívar Pan-American ideologies because I thought it too easily excluded Pan-African ideologies and that meant excluding me.

Today, I realize that her story continues to remind us that young people are powerful, and able to create and achieve social change. Having survived the murder of her parents, the Civil War in Guatemala that lasted over three decades (1960-1996), taught herself Spanish and other indigenous languages, and being the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner (awarded in 1992), Menchú is an amazing force for change. I’m reminded that youth can endure an amazing amount of terror and trauma and still heal. Often as adults, we need to remember this because sometimes we forget and project our ways of coping and healing onto youth, which may not be what they need.

As one of the founding members of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Menchú is one of six women from all over the world who have received the Nobel Peace Prize. The mission of the Nobel Women’s Initiative is described as follows:

It is the heartfelt mission of the Nobel Women’s Initiative to work together as women Nobel Peace Prize Laureates to use the visibility and prestige of the Nobel prize to promote, spotlight, and amplify the work of women’s rights activists, researchers, and organizations worldwide addressing the root causes of violence, in a way that strengthens and expands the global movement to advance nonviolence, peace, justice and equality.  We accomplish this mission through three main strategies: convening, shaping the conversation, and spotlighting and promoting.

The Vision of the Nobel Women’s Initiative is a world transformed, a nonviolent world of security, equality and well-being for all.

She’s been awarded over 30 honorary degrees from universities all over the world. But most importantly, and how I see her fitting into conversations of reproductive justice and sexual health, is how she shared the story of her community in her autobiography and how she responded to the criticisms.

When anthropologist David Stoll decided to research and disprove some inaccuracies of Menchú’s story, his argument was set in the ideology that we can only speak about things we have experienced intimately. When Stoll discovered that some of Menchú’s testimonio was not completely true, he failed to recognize the importance of the collective narrative and testimonio. Menchú has stated numerous times that her story is the story of her people. I very much appreciate this response to his critique and it really has impacted my work in ethnography and research as well.

Although many may be on the same page with Stoll not recognizing the importance of a shared narrative, many of us still refuse to recognize how imperative it remains. I’ve noticed that when people share their own testimonios, even those that we know are not unique to just one person, people still attempt to debunk in those narratives. For some reason people have more to say about people’s personal stories than about any other stories. All I need to do is look at the articles I’ve written here where I’ve gotten the most responses and they are all personal testimonios.

How will our ability to do intake, research, and create programs for communities expand when we embrace the reality that for many people, sharing a narrative is also a way of sharing the story and history of their community? How will this bring up new challenges in how to embrace these shared stories? How can we do this yet refrain from essentializing a community and recognize the differences and complexities for each individual? Finally, when will we in the reproductive justice movement recognize that government violence is not something that happens outside US borders, it happens here at “home” too? We have a collective history of governmental violence and violation that we have inherited. How are we making sure we recognize this history and work to maintain such oppressions do not find themselves here again?

As Menchú has stated: “We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.”

Foto credit: Fundación Rigoberta Menchú Tum

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  • jaz

    Kudos to you for this Latino Heritage Month series. It’s quite educational and here in particular you raise important questions about narratives, spokespeople, and collective movement building. I visited Guatemala and was actually watching a special on Nat Geo last night where they were doing forensic anthropology to get answers and reconnect families who lost loved ones during the Civil War. Completely devastating. These are stories that need to be told and all we can ask is that people listen…not just hear. There seem to be a lot of blockages, maybe cognitive dissonance, when others hear firsthand stories that don’t fit the image or story they’ve created in their head (i.e. from their frame of reference. People lash out because maybe the truth hurts too much. Nonetheless, I appreciate your work and perspective in raising this issue and in providing some context and history to stories that are not often heard.