Rigoberta Menchú is one Guatemala's best-known and most powerful public figures. Born in 1959 in Chimal, a Quiché village, Menchú is a diminutive woman who almost always dresses in the traditional garb of the Highland Maya. With just a sixth-grade education, she is a Nobel Prize winner and best-selling author.
As an adolescent, Menchú worked with Catholic social reform groups, and in 1979, she became an activist with the Peasant Unity Committee. The following year, Menchú's brother was murdered by the military, and in 1980, her father died, along with 36 others, when the military set fire to the Spanish embassy. The group had sought refuge in the embassy after publicly denouncing the ongoing atrocities. Later that same year, Menchú's mother was taken by paramilitary forces, never to be seen again.
In 1981, Menchú went into hiding after receiving death threats for her work to organize the Maya people against the rampant violence and oppression in Guatemala. She fled the country, remaining in exile for 12 years. During her exile, Menchú returned clandestinely to Guatemala several times in an attempt to continue her work, but was always forced to leave because of death threats and personal danger.
I, Rigoberta Menchú, based on a series of recorded interviews with the Maya activist, was published in 1983. The book had an immense impact in bringing the atrocities being committed by the military against the Maya in Guatemala to the attention of the international community. In 1992, Menchú was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work.
Menchú's selection was criticized by some because she had been a member of organizations that advocated violence. In 1999, further controversy arose when an academic researcher disputed the accuracy of some of the details in her book. Menchú eventually admitted that some of the events and atrocities described in the book were generalized and composite accounts of what was occurring in Guatemala throughout the period, although they may not have occurred on the dates or in the places originally claimed. A member of the Nobel committee stated that Menchú's award was not based exclusively on her autobiography, and he dismissed any suggestion that the Committee should consider revoking her prize.
With the funds from the Nobel prize, Menchú formed a foundation to work for indigenous rights internationally (the rights of women in particular), attempted to have Guatemalan military leaders extradited and tried for crimes against humanity, and became president of a company that distributes low-cost generic medications to the poor. Menchú was named a Goodwill Representative for the 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accords by then President Alvaro Arzu. She is also a representative of the United Nation's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).