Back to homepage...

Of Icons and Internationalism:
The Case of Rigoberta Menchu

Peter Waterman

Rigoberta 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. 

Stoll, 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.

The 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. 

There 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 too. 

These 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.

But 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 blurred frontiers.

There 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.

Rigoberta 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.

Now, 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.

[Peter 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).

Back to the top