Selected Poems and Literary Works

We Indians Have No Childhood

Rigoberta Menchú

My name is Rigoberta Menchú. I was born in the region of Quiché and I learned to speak Spanish thirteen years ago. I don't have a father or a mother, and I'm going to explain why.

In the first place, I should say that in Guatemala we Indians have no childhood… Personally, I started working for a living when I was eight years old, on the plantations of the large landowners on the South Coast. I remember that I decided to start working because I could no longer bear the expression of pain on my mother's face. She was always exhausted, picking coffee or cotton while carrying her newborn baby on her back, and my other five brothers and sisters around her, hungry. Since the children who don't work are not fed by the owners, she never earned enough. My wage, when I started, was twenty cents a day.

When I was eleven, two of my little brothers died on the plantations from malnutrition and sickness. We came from a cold region and the intense heat of the coast made us sick. One time I too almost died from fever.

When my brothers died, my mother asked for permission to bury them, because our burial ceremonies are very important to us; but permission was denied. So she took a day off, and returned to work the following day… They fired us, and they didn't pay us for the fifteen days we had already worked. So we returned home, to the highlands. There my mother had to sell the few animals she had in order to feed us. A few months later, when my father returned from the plantation where he was working, he discovered that he had lost two sons.


Community Life and Tradition

We used to get up at three in the morning. Everyone had his own task. I had to feed the dogs and clean the corn for the tortillas; the other girls prepared the corn dough and lit the fire; and the men prepared their tools to go to work in the fields. For breakfast we had tortillas with salt. Sometimes, when possible, we drank "atol" [a drink made from corn]. At four in the morning we were all ready to go to the fields. People in the village would call their neighbors in order to leave together, because we worked as a community. One of the women stayed behind in each house to do the cleaning and the cooking. In the evenings we ate tortillas with chili peppers. We women would weave sitting on the floor. Sometimes my brothers played music. By nightfall we went to sleep. The house only had one room, in which we all slept and ate together. We slept on reed mats, with our clothes on. This is why they think that we Indians are dirty. But the truth of the matter is that it gets very cold in the mountains and the houses have thatched roofs and cane walls that let the cold wind in...

When I was a child I never went to town. Our customs don't permit a young girl to walk alone; there have to be at least two, because our way of life is communal. Moreover, in the village there was a community house where we had meetings and dances. Once a week we did the rituals of our ancestors, and once in a while those of Catholic Action*. When we were very young our parents taught us to be loyal to our ancestors, our culture, our traditions.

For example, before planting, we ask the earth for permission to make a wound in it; because for us, the earth is sacred. We only have the right to wound it for our sustenance. It is the same when we cut down a tree or limbs to build our houses. We have to hold a ceremony to ask nature's forgiveness ... Women, while pregnant, tell their babies everything they see while they walk through the woods; the names of plants, flowers and animals ... When the baby is born, he has a nahual or animal spirit, which varies according to the date of birth, and is always an animal. The name is not revealed to the child until he is an adult, so that the animal's character doesn't influence him.


“The Rich Made Fun of Us”

My father and mother were the leaders of our community. That is to say, they were elected and people looked for them when they had problems or someone took ill. That is why, when I was small, I didn't see my father very often. When we returned from the plantations and were once again reunited, he was always busy defending our community from the large landowners who wanted to take our land away from us ... After my parents were married, they moved to the mountains and founded a small village with other people whom my father sent for. Everyone began clearing the undergrowth and planting. But naturally, the land didn't produce; we had to wait several years for the first harvest. And when the village finally had its first real harvest of corn and beans, a large landowner arrived, claiming the land was his. Then my father, who was the only one who spoke some Spanish, went to the authorities.

He began to travel, looking for support so that the large landowner would leave us alone. But no one listened to his protests; they sent him from one place to another, from Huehuetenango to Quezaltenango, to Quiché and the capital, just to sign some papers. They insisted he hire a lawyer and present witnesses. And since he only spoke a little Spanish and couldn't read or write, they often tricked him. He dedicated most of his time to the community, which meant that he didn't work enough to make a living. That is why we, his children, had to work in his place.

I remember when I was fifteen, in 1973. My father was arrested for the first time. They accused him of creating disturbances, and committing crimes against the sovereign authority of Guatemala . My mother had to leave us alone to find a lawyer who would take my father's case. She found a lawyer in Quiche who charged a lot. To pay, she took work as a maid, and all her pay went to the lawyer. Later, the sentence was announced; my father was condemned to eighteen years in prison. He was set free after a year and two months, but they threatened to jail him for life if he continued causing problems.

While my father was in jail, the rich landowners came, and since no one knew Spanish, they frightened us.  And they told the campesinos* to either leave, or stay as wage earners, because the land was theirs. Then their gunmen threatened to chase us out. They came into our homes, threw all our things out, and broke everything, because all we had was clay pots. When my father returned he decided to work even harder defending his community, and even to give his life for it. He continued making trips to the capital. At that time we still believed that only the large landowners were our enemies. We didn't realize that, in fact, it was all the rich who persecuted us campesinos.

My father got in touch with the National Institute of Agrarian Transformation, and they too made him sign some papers, and begin once again the procedures to obtain titles for our land; and they said we should continue working the land. On his way back from the city, my father was kidnapped by the landowner's gunmen, who tortured him and left him in the mountains, thinking he was dead. My mother had to leave us once more to go to the town where my father, with the help of our priests, was hospitalized. She came to see us only once every two months. One day the servants of the landowner told us that my father was going to be kidnapped once again, so some priests helped us transfer him to a private clinic. He remained there a long time, almost two years, and when he came out he wasn't the same. He suffered a lot of pain and could not work in the fields. His way of getting even was to continue to fight the authorities...


“For These People, an Indian is Less than a Dog”

[My father] taught me how to be an Indian and not become a ladina. He used to tell me that we Indians have to preserve our dress, or we would lose our dignity.

Many years ago I went to the city to work as a maid, thinking that everything would be different. But the rich woman I worked for asked me to take off my Indian clothing. "What will my friends say when they see you in those clothes?" she would say to me. "I'll advance you two months pay if you buy yourself clothes; if not, you'll have to leave." She knew very well that I hardly spoke Spanish and that I didn't know the city. She used to give me tortillas to eat, and gave the dog meat. Then I understood that for these people an Indian is less than a dog.

The ladinos celebrate the day of Tecun Uman, an Indian hero who fought the Spaniards. We refuse to celebrate it because we cannot accept that our struggle be relegated to the past, as if it had ended ... Once I heard a ladino say "I'm poor, but hear me, I'm not an Indian." And later I met ladinos who fought with us and have understood that we are like them, human beings.


“The most painful experience of my life”

One of my brothers was a catechist. The other was secretary for a cooperative in the village; that was his only crime. They kid­ napped him, and he spent sixteen days in the hands of the army, who tortured him. He was only fourteen years old. They ripped off his fingernails, cut off his tongue, they destroyed the soles of his feet and burned his skin. I saw him with my own eyes and I will never forget it. One day the army circulated a notice through­ out our communities ordering everyone to come to one of the villages the following day to witness the punishment of some guerrillas ...

We had to witness that horrible thing, which was the most painful experience of my life. Up until then my greatest moment of grief came when my best friend, a catechist, died by my side, poisoned by pesticides from a fumigation plane that flew over our heads.

They lined up the prisoners, dressed up like soldiers. The captain in command gave a speech which he constantly interrupted to tell his squad to keep the prisoners on their feet. They hit them with their rifle butts to make them stand, but they would just fall down again. When he finished the speech, the captain said that all the subversives would be treated this way. And when he gave the order to undress them, they had to cut off the uniforms because the blood from the wounds made the uniforms stick to their bodies ... They tied them and piled them up together, then the captain ordered his soldiers to pour gasoline over them and set them on fire. I was looking at my brother. He didn't die right away, nor the others. Some screamed; others could no longer breathe so they didn't scream, but their bodies were writhing. Unfortunately there is no water in our villages so we couldn't put out the fire that was burning them. When water arrived, it was too late.

The soldiers left shouting "Long live the army." "Long live President Lucas." "Death to the guerrillas." My mother was still hugging my brother's body. I was crying, we were all crying and feeling hate. We couldn't show it, by killing them like they kill us; but this reinforced our will to fight. My father didn't cry, he didn't move. He watched everything without making a gesture.

When we returned home, we were slightly crazed, as if it were a nightmare. My father left right away, saying that he had a lot to do for his people, that he had to go from town to town telling people what had happened. At that time he lef t the house for good. A short time later, my mother decided to travel to the regions of Chimaltenango and Huehuetenango to attest to what she had seen. She said "As a woman it is my duty to tell my story so that other mothers don't have to suffer like me, so that they don't have to witness the torture and assassination of one of their children." She took my smallest sister along. My brothers also left, and my little sister, who was nine years old, said she was going to join the guerrillas, so that she wouldn't die of hunger, nor wait to be killed by the troops.

Soon afterward my father was killed. With a group of campesinos he decided to occupy the Spanish Embassy in the capital to protest against the repression in Quiche. On that occasion twenty-one Indians from the Quiche, Ixil, Achi and Pocomchi communities, plus a worker, a shantytown dweller and four students were burned alive inside the embassy...

The consequence of this blow at the embassy was the creation of the January 31st Popular Front*, composed of six mass organizations, including the Vicente Menchu Revolutionary Christians, which was founded on the day following my father's death.  The slaughter at the embassy was one more lesson leading us to consolidate our organization.

My mother died three months later...

...As a woman, I have decided not to marry or have children. According to our traditions this is unacceptable; a woman should have children and we like to have them. But I could not endure it if what happened to my brother would happen to one of my children...

I am no longer the owner of my small existence; the world I live in is so cruel, so blood-thirsty, that it is going to annihilate me at any moment. Therefore, the only thing I can do is to struggle, to practice that violence which I learned in the Bible...

This is what I can give as testimony... If I have narrated my life, if I have taken this opportunity, it's because I know that my people cannot tell their story; but it's no different than mine. I am not the only orphan…

Source: Fried, J .L, M.E. Gettleman, D.T. Levenson, N. Peckenham, (Eds) Guatemala in Rebellion: Unfinished History. (1983) Grove Press. Originally published in: Uno mas Uno (1982). Taped by Elisabeth Burgos and translated by Javier Bajana and Jonathan Fried. Reprinted from Rediscovering America (Teaching for Change, 1992)

Note: Rigoberta Menchu's story has since been published as a book in Spanish as Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia, in English as I, Rigoberta Menchú, an Indian woman in Guatemala, and other languages. It is very popular with both secondary and college level students