Sep 24, 2017

Rigoberta Menchú Visits Michigan

By Andrew Bentley

PeaceJam is an International Education Program that unifies Nobel Peace Laureates with children through service learning. The program’s outlook centers around several fundamental goals, among them a commitment to social justice, increased academic performance, and, above all, cross-cultural communication and appreciation for human diversity. The Laureates’ lived experiences, which are reinterpreted through the eyes of local K-12 youth, fosters culturally-responsive pedagogy to get at the heart of social issues.

By increasing global awareness, PeaceJam reverses provincial thinking and forces students to see beyond the local without losing sight of matters that are relevant to their own wellbeing. The Great Lakes PeaceJam chapter is headquartered in Kalamazoo, Michigan with close ties to Western Michigan University. In addition to Michigan, it serves youth in the neighboring states of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. On 24 March 2017, Guatemalan Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum visited the campus of Western Michigan University to speak at the Great Lakes PeaceJam Youth Conference before a room of nearly 100 primary and secondary school-aged children and their families, indigenous leaders from the Ojibwe community of the Upper Peninsula, as well as members of the immediate university communities in Kalamazoo and elsewhere in Michigan. Instantly, Shaw Theatre of the Gilmore Theatre Complex was transformed to a center stage for a cultural event that engaged a vast variety of spectators, keen on listening to the most famous indigenous leader in the world.

Menchú’s talk, titled “An Indigenous Perspective: Protecting People and the Planet,” was translated from Spanish to English by Professor Michael Millar of Western Michigan University’s Department of Spanish. Professor Millar’s specialization in Central American cultures (with emphasis on Guatemala and El Salvador as well as dystopian themes in contemporary literature) undoubtedly played a role in his ability to transmit clear and precise translations to the audience, with sound linguistic and cultural sensitivity for the issues at hand.

As Menchú delivered her talk, she paused after two to four sentences to allow Millar adequate time for his interpretations. Considering the title of the talk, it is easy to deduce that the central themes hinge upon the environmental tendencies of indigenous epistemologies, which often underscore the importance of Mother Earth and her bounty. Indeed, Menchú reminded everyone that we are all spiritual people; we rely heavily on our faith to guide us (and Menchú refers to faith not only in the theological sense, but also in our own self confidence); we believe that there is life beyond death; we are transcendental creatures; most importantly, if we are not born into a community, whose members share a common cultural and historical heritage, we do not exist.

Of course, a profound sense of community has always been of paramount importance for Menchú, due to her humble beginnings in Laj Chimel, a K’iche’ Maya community in San Miguel Uspantán, some six hours by bus from Guatemala City. Those of us who have read Menchú’s testimony recall how she reflects upon her earliest memories of caring for her family’s harvest, chasing the birds away from the crops, and traveling to Guatemala City for the first time with her father in 1966. The dusty mountain roads with hairpin turns were tranquil and paralleled Menchú’s youthful innocence before serenity gave way to state-sponsored insurgency. 

As expected, Menchú pondered her monumental losses, but rather than classify herself as a victim, she sees herself as someone who has triumphed despite all evidence to the contrary. The room was filled with people holding the record button on their smartphones and some of the younger children were drawing portraits of Menchú to give her after the talk. The room seemed to pause rhythmically, totally in sync with Menchú’s exclamation of triumph. How was it that a Guatemalan woman who had lost her entire immediate family and much of her extended family during the war (often through unspeakably gruesome acts), not to mention failed presidential runs and a life partially in exile because so many in Guatemala want to murder her, could consider herself a winner?

In addition, although her collegial relationship with the faculty at Western Michigan University did not reflect it, Menchú has not always been warmly received by PhDs, who, as we know, have called into question the plausibility of her testimony and engaged in oft-heated debates with one another in written and spoken discourse. Yet Menchú considered herself a winner on the campus of a public research university in the Midwestern United States. How? Obviously, the easy answer to the question rests in part on Menchú’s privileged status as the most famous indigenous leader in the world and her renowned Nobel Laureate title. Menchú’s declaration of triumph evenly resonated with all listeners, an uneasy feat considering the range from schoolchildren to PhD-holding academics, the latter of whom possess the ability to tap in to the cultural and sociohistorical implications of indigenous survival in a warzone, despite all adversities.

The ability to communicate across cultures and ages is in tune with PeaceJam’s goals toward social responsibility and takes advantage of the spirit and skills that Menchú embodies. For their part, the children, even if they had received a G-rated, condensed version of Menchú’s testimony (or if they had read “The Girl from Chimel,” “The Honey Jar,” or even “Abuela’s Weave” instead as a supplement), were able to reflect upon what it means to be a winner in the face of immense challenges. Along with this universal message, Menchú proved her genius by declaring that twenty-five years involved in “this type of social struggle” (i.e., of an indigenous Guatemalan woman) “is a beautiful thing.”

She reminded everyone how the year 2017 represents twenty years of firm and lasting peace in Guatemala following the Peace Accords and ten years since the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which highlights the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples with due attention to rights of culture and identity. Menchú sees herself as an asset to the declaration, and the declaration itself as part of our collective contribution, indigenous or otherwise, to our societies.

Menchú’s collective stance lends itself to the idea that indigenous rights are human rights; in other words, by breaking down the systemic barriers between indigenous and nonindigenous peoples, we can see what we have in common with each other. Certainly, this message transcends beyond Menchú’s dichotomy to speak to many different racial divides in the United States and was easily comprehendible to some of the older students attuned to the current political climate.

The pervasiveness of racial discrimination, social divides between the rich and the poor (and the dangers of giving the most important societal responsibilities to the rich), and an appreciation for the environment, both in terms of flora and fauna, were other topics of Menchú’s talk. Beyond appreciating human diversity and social justice, Menchú reminded us that we only have one planet that we must protect, a message made even more poignant with President Trump’s recent decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement.

During the Q&A session immediately following the talk, audience members of all ages posed questions pertaining to Menchú’s limited access to her home country, advice she would give to young people who seek community involvement opportunities, and how to safely stand up to racism in schools. A Western Michigan University undergraduate student of Mexican descent gave an emotional personal message to Menchú and approached the stage with flowers, which she gladly accepted. Menchú closed the evening by reiterating some of PeaceJam’s goals. More than anything, the program wants to give young people the opportunity to know about peace work, not just of Nobel Prize winners, but rather the peace work of networks and institutions all over the world to give school-age students a platform for community engagement and advocacy.

After the talk, some of Menchú’s books were for sale outside of the Shaw Theatre, where she sat down with Millar to sign books and take pictures with attendees, most of whom purchased copies of “The Girl from Chimel.” Menchú also briefly chatted with attendees and took photographs. The following day, Menchú delivered another public address to more than 200 students from Michigan and nearby states. The group marched through Kalamazoo and visited natural water sources, a symbolic act that urged Michigan State Attorney General Bill Schuette to take action for the state’s water supply to keep it safe. 

Of course, the themes of Menchú’s talks and community outreach activity with children are perhaps highly anticipated for seasoned Guatemalanists, especially those of us in anthropology or cultural and literary studies. However, in the context of increasingly alt-right Michigan, it is important to note that Menchú’s reflections on fundamental human rights were particularly timely given the urgency of the Flint water crisis, elevated levels of white supremacy, and the presence of an Ojibwe language program for students of American Indian Studies at Michigan State University, among other institutions in the region.

Although it may seem that these facets of Michigan life are oddly juxtaposed here, they all coincide with Menchú’s call to protect people and the planet, to look out for one another, to learn from our diversity, and to demand justice and integrity (even when we should not have to do so). One needn’t be a scholar of Guatemala or even of Latin America to appreciate Menchú’s universal messages for the participants in the 2017 Great Lakes PeaceJam Youth Conference, a lively cultural happening, which, like all work by Menchú, was deeply committed to the promotion of social justice.

Andrew Bentley is a Ph.D. Candidate of Hispanic Cultural Studies at Michigan State University. His research explores contemporary portrayals of urban violence and sexual otherness in contemporary Guatemalan cultural production. He has also explored these themes in neighboring countries such as El Salvador and Honduras, as well as in the Central American diaspora in the United States. He is also interested in public intellectualism and positive contributions of cultural studies beyond the academy. 

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