Truth Be Told…Or Not

Douglas Macdonald - Associate Professor of Political Science

It was interesting to read in The Maroon News that Rigoberta Menchu had recently visited campus.To those who do not know, Menchu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her oral memoir of her experiences in the civil war in Guatemala and her subsequent appearances in favor of “indigenous peoples” everywhere.Feted in all of the world’s best universities and held up as a paragon of telling truth to power, her book and her activities have been incredibly influential.

From the account in the Maroon, it appears that Colgate gave her a similar reception. Her book has been used in the Colgate curriculum, and may still be. It is also widely used in colleges and high schools around the country and the world.

The problem with her appearance at Colgate, as related in The Maroon-News, is that there seemed to be no mention of the controversy surrounding Menchu, her book and the Nobel Peace Prize she received.Students too young to remember these controversies of more than a decade ago should have been provided with the historical context to judge Menchu and her claims critically. As we are often told, critical thinking is the hallmark of a liberal arts education.

In fact, Menchu’s story turned out to be filled with holes upon inspection.The Middlebury College anthropologist David Stoll and New York Times reporter Larry Rohter found large discrepancies in her account after research trips to Guatemala.

The first example of her false claims was that she was uneducated. Actually, she attended four different schools, three Catholic and one private, and by Guatemalan standards was reasonably well educated.Her half-sister Rosa Menchu told Rohter that since Rigoberta spent much of her early life in boarding schools, she could not possibly have spent up to eight months a year working on plantations as she so claimed in her book.

Additionally, her father was not the poor peasant she portrayed in the book, but rather a fairly prominent local landowner.

She also portrays the struggle over land as an effort by wealthy landowners and the government to drive her father off his land This account, in actuality, turns out to be a long-standing family feud between the Menchus and their neighbors.

Her claim that her brother Nicholas died of malnutrition on a plantation when she was eight and he was two is also untrue.The Times’ Rohter found her older brother Nicholas still alive (a younger brother named Nicholas died before she was born.)According to members of her own family, she also fabricated a horrifying account of a second brother who was burned to death while her parents were forced to watch. There were even more discrepancies besides the aformentioned.

When challenged on these points, Menchu and her defenders resorted to two lines of defense.

First, they said that the charges, a “patriarchal” plot to discredit a valiant voice of indigenous peoples everywhere, were not true, and that the critics were politically inspired.Although this satisfied the already convinced, many others were particularly disturbed that many of the refutations came from Menchu’s own family.Perhaps this is why, as a student noted in The Maroon-News story, Menchu did not talk about the horrors related in her book very much at Colgate.Apparently many of them never happened to her.

Second, those who viewed the evidence and concluded that Menchu had taken great liberties with the truth, at the very least, argued that even if what she said was not “true” (always in quotes), it really did not matter because they were indicative of actual conditions in Guatemala and elsewhere.Some anthropologists argued that readers had misunderstood the Mayan oral tradition where one’s own experiences can become indistinguishable from those of others. Consequently, they argue that it is ethnocentric to expect a “strict” separation between personal experiences and those of surrounding individuals. The problem with this argument, even if one accepts its basic premises (which I do not), is that the power of Menchu’s work was the first person: her personal survival made the “story” she was telling much more vivid, andit added immensely to her credibility.The time to explain the miss-match of stories, as far as I’m concerned, was before her publication. In that case, people would have been able to put them into context.This serious qualification of the veracity of the account should have been communicated prior to its publication by her anthropologist editor or Menchu herself.

Had this context been provided Colgate students prior to Menchu’s visit, it might have led to an interesting discussion regarding what historical truth actually is and how to distinguish it when we see it. Another area of discussion might have been the politicization of the Nobel and other prizes and the potential effects on their value as arbiters of culture.There are many avenues of inquiry that could have been extracted from the controversy that would have added to the critical thinking skills of Colgate’s students.

Instead, as it appears from The Maroon-News account, a little multicultural love fest and celebration of this dubious individual occurred.Truth to power?

Get serious.