Menchu, a Guatemalan indigenous woman, Nobel Peace Prize winner 1992, is
not a giant with feet of clay but an icon with an all too human face. A
front-paged story in the New York Times International (Pp.
A1, A10, December 15, 1998) presents her as a `tarnished laureate'. It
draws heavily on the recent book by anthropologist David Stoll, Rigoberta
Menchu and the Story of all Poor Guatemalans (Westview, Boulder, 1998).
This book certainly reveals the inconsistencies in her first testimonio,
the internationally-acclaimed and much translated I, Rigoberta Menchu
(Verso Press, London and New York, 1983). That book turned Rigoberta
into an icon of the international solidarity and human rights movements.
It led them to sponsor Rigoberta for the Nobel.
however, is not exposing or debunking Rigoberta. He is concerned to show
how this icon was created in the interaction between a remarkable indigenous
woman, an insurrectionary movement, the Mayan communities, and the peace
and justice movements internationally. Stoll holds Rigoberta responsible
for the mythic story she fabricated - for specific political purposes -
out of the experience of herself and others. He does not denigrate her,
nor reduce her dignity. Treating her as the agent of her own words and
actions is a token of respect. She comes out of his account not as a naked
empress but as an icon with a human face. If she looks now less like the
leader or representative of all poor Guatemalans, she also looks
more like you, or me, or the friends we stand by despite their frailties
- indeed, surely, because of these frailties.
iconisation of the marginalised indigenous or outcaste third world woman
did not begin with Rigoberta, although it might end with her. Before her
there was Domitila Barrios de Chungara, a woman of the doomed indigenous
mining communities in Bolivia (Let Me Speak!, Monthly Review, New
York, 1979). After her has come Phoolan Devi, the Indian bandit leader,
immortalised in what many consider to be the best Indian movie ever, Bandit
Queen. There was, on its release, a considerable national and international
controversy around this movie, with Phoolan Devi suggesting her story had
been ripped-off and distorted by the mixed Indian-British production team
responsible for it. Feminists crossed swords and theories, some stating
that the movie was sexually exploitative, others that it showed an independent
and empowered outcaste village woman wreaking vengeance on her higher-caste
rapists in the only manner available to her. Yes, they did rip her off.
Yes it is a great movie. Or - if you prefer - the other way round.
have been similar accusations by Rigoberta against her Venezuelan-French
editor, Elizabeth Burgos Debray, though the latter has evidence to show
(published in the Stoll book) that she neither distorted Rigoberta's words
nor exploited her financially. Since the recent publication of Rigoberta's
second book, Crossing Frontiers (Verso, London and New York, 1998),
another row has blown up. The co-editors of this one have accused Verso
of deliberately leaving their names not simply off the cover but out of
the book! Verso, one suspects, wanted a mature and autonomous Rigoberta,
no longer dependent on editors. This is how I, innocently, understood the
book. Journalists are, no doubt, sharpening their pens over this new story
controversies suggest to me what happens when the voiceless begin to find
voice, when for the first time the `subaltern can speak'. These voices
are neither innocent nor simple. Nor are they even heard without
the mediation of more worldly, powerful or wealthy Others with their own
already-developed skills and agendas - political or academic. Rigoberta
has been, over the years between her two books, co-formed by the `international
of goodwill' that both campaigned for and gave her the Nobel. It was, apparently,
only after the prize that she became a national figure within Guatemala
and amongst the Maya. She also created a foundation, in the name first
of her martyred father, then of herself (decided autonomously for self-aggrandisement?
advised by others as more funder-friendly?). Development funding agencies
rushed - I doubt not - to give her a share of their pie, to include this
beautiful, indigenous, pocket-sized madonna on the covers of their annual
reports. Once known and powerful (if not rich), Rigoberta and her foundation
have inevitably found themselves subject to the equally inevitable hopes,
demands, suspicions and complaints.
this is not to disparage the international peace and justice movements
either, or even the funding agencies (largely dependent as they may be
on states or corporations/foundations). It is rather to recognise a turning
point in the history of international solidarity movements. For, as Stoll
reveals, these have operated on a one-way, top-down, North/West-to-South/East
axis and direction. This has been a `substitution solidarity' in which
the rich/powerful/free, left/democratic/liberal movements, in the North/West
have related to the poor/weak/oppressed in the South/East. As Stoll suggests,
these movements needed such icons. And the icons-to-be needed them. But
this was also during the period of North-South and East-West dichotomy.
And that was before globalisation made us aware of the South in the North
and the North in the South, or that problems, collective identities and
new social movements existed across, despite of, and over these increasingly
are plenty of other meanings and types of international solidarity, and
these open up possibilities for a new global solidarity (dealing
with indigenous, ethnic and national questions, as well as with women's,
labor, ecological, peace and other ones). These are the solidarities of
identity, of complementarity, of reciprocity, of restitution, of affinity.
Substitution (standing in for a weaker, poorer, less free, less informed
Other) can only be one moment, in space or time, of such a multifarious,
multi-directional and multi-leveled contemporary solidarity movement.
stands at the frontier-crossing between the old internationalism (between
nations, nationals, nationalities) and the new global solidarities. Just
as we can get so much more out of Bandit Queen when we know about
movie-making - and the making of this movie - so can we get more
out of Rigoberta's books when we know how they were made. When we recognise
her for what she is, we can begin to relate to our multi-voiced Others
in more-equal, less-simplified terms. Any kind of solution to the global
problems increasingly created by the international monetary fundamentalists
requires this, surely, as its first premise.
forewarned, read Crossing Frontiers! It presents the discovery and
development of some kind of `global civil society', seen from below by
an indigenous woman and activist, an adventurer, and discoverer. It may
suggest to you how collective action of the powerless at global level could
empower the most peripheralised locales.
Waterman, who retired from the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague,
in 1998, is author of Globalization, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms
(Mansell, London and New York, 1998) and co-editor of Labor Worldwide
in the Era of Globalization: Alternatives for Unions in the New World Order
(Macmillan, London and St Martin's New York, 1999).