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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Guatemalan Nobel Laureate Visits UMass Boston, Sheds a Few Tears

Rigoberta Menchú Tum, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work publicizing the plight of indigenous Guatemalans during that country’s bloody 36-year civil war, was warmly welcomed by an auditorium full of fans, students, scholars, faculty, and Hispanic groups at the University of Massachusetts Boston last week.

At least 200 people were on hand to hear the world-renowned Menchú, who belongs to the Quiché-Maya ethnic group in Guatemala, recount the horrors of what she called the genocide of more than 160,000 indigenous people-83% of all those killed in the civil war-by the Guatemalan military before the Oslo Accords symbolized the official end of the war in 1994.

Menchú, who fled to Mexico in 1981 after her family was slaughtered at the hands of the military, used her time on the podium vowing to “defend the text of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” and issued a call to action for Bostonians of all disciplines, especially lawyers, to do the same.

Despite a 1999 UN Truth Commission on the civil war documenting the military responsible for 93% of the human rights violations committed during the war and similar findings disclosed by the Catholic Church’s independent Truth Commission, Nunca Mas (Never Again), most military officers accused of committing war crimes were never tried and granted amnesty instead. Menchú, who is also a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, pledged to dedicate her efforts whole-heartedly to overturning that amnesty and bringing justice to Guatemalans.

“My entire life I will fight against impunity,” a teary-eyed Menchú said in Spanish while an English translation was offered to those with headphones. “It’s very important to know that although peace agreements say wonderful things, wonderful things were not done.”

Menchú, who currently serves as the President of a Mexican pharmaceutical company whose mission is to offer inexpensive, generic medicines, also spoke of the need to improve health policy in Guatemala.

“Children are suffering from chronic malnutrition and 95% of indigenous women are giving birth without any professional medical assistance,” she said.

Perhaps the most anticipated part of the hour-and-a-half address was when Menchú answered public questions about her contentious autobiographical testimony, I, Rigoberta Menchú, and her disappointing 2007 Guatemalan presidential bid, which only garnered her three percent of the vote.

“I am honored to be a controversial person,” Menchú said humorously to the public before turning towards a more serious note. “Many people would have wanted me to die [already].”

Menchú took time out of yesterday’s address to exonerate herself of accusations by American anthropologist David Stoll that she fabricated parts of her testimony.

“His skin is a little whiter than mine,” Menchú joked less-than-cordially as she defended her written statements about the manner in which her mother, father, and brother died.

“What do you believe is better, to hear that your mother died after being thrown from a helicopter or that her body was found shackled around a tree, tortured and raped,” she chillingly asked the audience.

Concluding her appearance by answering questions about her presidential bid, Menchú said her tremendous loss in 2007 could be attributed to the internal divisions of her inner circle, their lack of funds for campaigning, and the fact that she’s a woman. Menchú also hinted at her candidacy for the 2011 presidential elections.

“We were not a party, we were just a movement,” she said of her bid in 2007 before announcing her intentions for the next election. “One thing is to participate, and another is to compete.”