Authenticity in Multicultural Narratives of experience and language -- the problem of Rigoberta Menchu's I, Rigoberta Menchu
On the surface, there is no 'problem,' one might say, given the astounding achievement of native Guatemalan opposition leader and community activist Rigoberta Menchu. Rigoberta Menchu won the Nobel Prize, even after she was forced to go into hiding in her beloved Guatemala, and then flee her native land to Mexico, far from the land and community she loved. She remains a forceful and vigorous voice for the rights of disenfranchised Guatemalans to this day. Her resulting book, called in English, I, Rigoberta Menchu, tells of her experiences as a native Guatemalan woman, and then as the Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition (RUOG). But because of its translated quality and the subject's own perception of herself as a community spokeswoman as well as a lone sufferer of oppression -- indeed, what it means to be an 'I' in her cultural context, the text remains troubling from a factual, literary, and anthropological view, to a student of cultural studies.
Over the course of the text's evolution, as she strives to tell her story, Rigoberta aims not simply to speak for herself, which would be fascinating enough and a potent and heart wrenching document of personal survival. But Rigoberta, in line with her indigenous tradition of narrative speaks as a representative for her people as a whole, and a collective voice as well -- which renders problematic even the 'I' of the English translation of the title. The first line of the text is "This is my testimony. I didn't learn it from a book and I didn't learn it alone." (Menchu, 1) Rigoberta, and no native person, she implies, is ever alone in life and in their perspective of life, contrary to the enclosed and personalized sense of the 'I' readers are likely to possess who access her text in Spanish or in English.
At the time it was recorded in 1984, Menchu's story attracted considerable international attention for its shocking violence. Also at the time, this woman was a brave organizer of resistance to the oppression native peoples in Guatemala and the struggle for Indian peasant peoples' rights. "My personal experience is the reality of a whole people," she asserted, speaking for all in the voice of one. (Menchu 1) But as she saw her own story, Rigoberta did not see herself as an individual voice. Rather, she was born into the context of a larger community of the Indian populace of the mountains of Guatemala into the Quichu; one of twenty-three mestizo groups, and in her community one personal experience reflected a larger communal social reality of oppression.
Rigoberta Menchu would agitate for all of these people. Thus, in beginning her text, Menchu suggested to the anthropologist recording her words that her people, rather than seeing themselves as intrinsically individuals, as individual Quiche people, the Quiche believe that all Indians have a spiritual, community responsibility for village children. For instance, Rigoberta states, two of her brothers died as infants, one of whom was tortured to death by the state. Her whole town mourned the loss of her brothers, and later her mother and father at the hands of the authorities by torture and murder. It was the tragedy of a community, not just Rigoberta's immediate near and dearest. When one person lost their home to army violence, this was seen as a rend upon the tribe, and when the land was taken away, the tribe was destroyed. The Quiche thus have personal relationships with the land and with one another's families in a holistic sense.
Rigoberta describes her people's land, before the coming of corporations and the government, as a "paradise." (Menchu 2) She sees the natural world as a place where even working was "fun" and one factor which made Menchu's eviction from her Guatemalan homeland, even in the name of fighting for justice for her people, so difficult to endure, for to see the land destroyed was to see another family member destroyed in her eyes. (Menchu 5) But how much is this point-of-view the sentimentality of the recorder of the activist's words, or the activist's own sentiments. It is difficult to say when reading the actual text in isolation.
Rigoberta states that her sense of responsibility was all that sustained her over the course of her brutally repressed and poverty-stricken existence. The Quiche had fight to keep the government and corporations from stealing any more of their land, or hurting any more of their peoples. "My village has a long history -- a long and painful history," she mourns, as much as she adores the memories of her early life with her mother and father. (Menchu 4) When bereft of her biological family in the nuclear sense, Rigoberta Menchu stated that she assumed the role of a community organizer, leader, and voice of an entire populace. "They've killed the people dearest to me, therefore, my commitment to our struggle knows no boundaries nor limits." (Menchu 1)
Rigoberta Menchu told her story orally to anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray in Paris in 1982. Burgos-Debray transcribed the story and published the tale in Spanish in 1983, after which it was translated into many more languages. Thus the problem of translation runs deep in the work, even what Rigoberta means by the people dearest to her heart. Who does Rigoberta mean when she speaks of her family? After all, not only does the reader read a translation of the social activist's words, but accesses Rigoberta's interviews conducted in a language the indigenous-speaking Rigoberta had spoken for only three years.
From Rigoberta, to imperfect Spanish, to ear of the oral interpreter, to the pen of the filtering narrative of the translator, translated through many languages -- the circularity is difficult to follow, despite the simplicity of the text. In fact, the simplicity of the prose and the clarity the anthropologist brings to Rigoberta's use of metaphor and narrative can make what is unfolding for the reader deceptively simple, rather than merely clarifying complicated manners and mores of indigenous Guatemalan life, or modern Latin American politics.
Also, Doris Sommer (1991) has added that while I, Rigoberta as an emotionally example of women's testimonial literature she notes that there are profound implications in the contrasts of vocabulary offered to the speaking subject at the center of the tale, between Rigoberta's mother tongue and Spanish, a hierarchical language with gender concepts and concepts of family that are very different from her native language. (Sommer 53) Thus the act of translation is not simply imperfect, but there may actually be no real translation between as removed a language as Rigoberta's and that of the anthropologist, much less that of the reader accessing the text third-hand in English or Spanish.
Despite the difficulty of accurate vocabulary translation, however, it is equally possible to argue the converse -- yes, Rigoberta may see family roles differently because of her tribal background, and her concept of her brother may not be direct and nuclear, nor may her concept of herself as an eyewitness. Yet it is equally possible to day that because so much of Rigoberta Menchu's narrative centers around the woman's role as a collective spokeswoman and activist for the Quiche, this questionable filtering lens is rendered slightly less problematic in understanding the woman and the woman's life story. Were she only to speak for her own personal life, the political and collective aspects of her life would be filtered out of the tale. As a modern myth and a representative community history, despite the layered nature of her written story through the oral history framework of transcriber to translator, the text could be said to retain its value -- so long as there are efforts made in verifying its accuracy, based on other local interviews and documentary sources. Even if the subject did not directly suffer her own family's destruction, that does not diminish the tragedies of those in the community who did, and clearly in her perceptions of 'the facts' she speaks with the confidence of what she considers truth, much as for a Westerner her document might stand as a factually corroborated documented history of the oppression of the Quiche, and to be emotionally true to the perceived experience of the tribe.
From the point-of-view of more standardized views of corroboration, however, one must look to other sources for veracity. For example, when Rigoberta Menchu speaks of the tragedies affecting her life as affecting her nuclear family, there is certainly some doubt as to what she means by her family. She notes that "I really meant my Guatemalan countrymen as family, not necessarily my own family," and "my mother had five children -- I think" before she had Rigoberta, her sixth, suggesting that the tortured mother referred to may not have given birth to Rigoberta. (Manchu 5)
The literary critic David Stoll, (1999) who has written a questioning text entitled Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, examining…