Rigoberta Menchú Tum is a Mayan k’iche’ activist. She was born in 1959, in a small Mayan community called Chimel, located in the highlands of Guatemala. As a young girl growing up in poverty, Rigoberta used to travel with her father from community to community teaching rural farmers about their rights and encouraging them to organize.
Guatemala was a country marked by extreme violence due to deep-rooted ethnic and socioeconomic tensions between the native Indian population and the European immigrants, dating back to the colonization period. Under the dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt, the Guatemalan military launched a “scorched earth campaign” in the early 1980’s, burning hundreds of Mayan villages, massacring hundreds of people and brutally torturing and murdering anyone suspected of dissenting from the imposed policy of repression.
Rigoberta’s mother and brother were kidnapped and killed, and her father was burned alive at a peaceful protest held at the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City. During said campaign, the military killed up to two hundred thousand people and forced one million people into exile, including Rigoberta, who was forced to leave her country. And while the Guatemalan army marched against its people, the rest of the world remained almost completely silent.
In exile, Rigoberta came into contact with human rights groups working in Latin America. She began publicly speaking about the suffering of the indigenous people in Guatemala and, in 1983, she published a book entitled I, Rigoberta Menchú, which push the Guatemalan civil war into global headlines.
Her continued efforts as an activist during those times were recognized by the Nobel Committee in 1992, when Rigoberta Menchú Tum received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on the respect for the rights of indigenous peoples.
The symbolic strength of the Nobel was of great significance in achieving a peace agreement between the government of Guatemala and the guerrilla organizations in 1996. By that time, more than 400 Mayan villages were destroyed, over 200,000 Guatemalans had been murdered and there were more than one million people displaced.
From 1996 to 2004, Rigoberta Menchú Tum was a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, promoting the protection of the political, social and cultural rights of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, while working on her established foundation, the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation, which supports Mayan communities and survivors of the genocide.
Her political struggles got her to found WINAQ, the first indigenous-led political party, with which she ran for President of Guatemala in 2007 and 2011. In 2013, she was appointed Special Investigator within the Multicultural Nation Program of the Autonomous National University of Mexico.
Today, Rigoberta Menchú Tum continues to seek justice for all those impacted by the genocide while continuing her work on the promotion of human rights and development.