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abby rose's picture

Learning about Rigoberta Menchú has made me think about language, and the obligations we may or may not have to speak on our experiences due to our privileged positions. Menchú's first language is Quiché, yet she tells her story (and the story of her people) in Spanish, her second language. In the words of translator Ann Wright, Menchú "has learned the language of the culture which oppresses her in order to fight it -- to fight for her people -- and to help us understand her own world" (vii). And further elucidated by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, Menchú "is a privileged witness: she has survived the genocide that destroyed her family and community and is stubbornly determined to break the silence and to confront the systematic extermination of her people. That is why she resolved to learn Spanish and break out of the linguistic isolation into which the Indians retreated in order to preserve their culture." Both of these accounts of Menchú's experience with resistance and language heavily imply a sort of duty felt by Menchú to testify to her personal and communal experience of oppression. I, Rigoberta Menchú details the injustices and veritable horrors endured by Menchú and her family and her people in the words of Menchú herself. Although I know nothing of Menchú herself except for the facts she has chosen to share with the world, I can only imagine the pain endured from recounting these deeply personal stories. I wonder if I were in her shoes if I would even have the strength to leave my bed every day, let alone relive what I have seen and felt. However, as a leader for Indians in Guatemala, Menchú has had much practice in standing up in the name of justice in times of great distress, so I imagine she has had a lot of practice in facing the realities of her past and using her narrative for global awareness of her people's struggles. But what if Menchú had decided to remain "silent" and not speak out using the language of her oppressors? Had she decided to remain in "linguistic isolation" with her community and fight against adversity in a very different way? She almost certainly would not have been recognized for her advocacy and peacemaking even if she were very active in the struggle. Did (does?) she have a duty to speak because of her privileged position of speaking Spanish? Would she be shamed from members inside and outside of her community for not using the power she has to bring light to the injustices in her country? Would WE be looking down on her for withholding her voice from the world? And who would any of us be to judge? Or even more complicated a question, what if she had begun to testify and then realized she couldn't continue due to trauma, or danger? I have been wondering these questions as I've read because the only reason that we know of these injustices against Indians in Guatemala is because one woman had the resilience, the courage, the strength and the opportunity to speak and share her story. Could we discuss these tensions in class if others have wondered the same?