WALLA WALLA — She survived death squads during the Guatemalan Civil War and won a Nobel Peace Prize for her activism in support of indigenous rights. Now, Rigoberta Menchú can add speaking in Walla Walla to her list of life accomplishments.
Menchú addressed a nearly-full auditorium at Whitman College last night, speaking about her life as a Mayan woman and the importance of identity and community in human relationships. Her lecture was delivered in Spanish and translated into English.
“The most important part of the code of our species is happiness,” she said.
Menchú was born in Guatemala in 1959, two years after a coup overthrew elected president Jacobo Arbenz and a series of military dictatorships took over, plunging the country into a civil war that lasted until 1996. During the war, genocide was committed against indigenous Guatemalans, who were also targeted for political persecution. Since the war ended, Menchú has been active in seeking justice for victims of human rights abuses and helping communities locate the remains of family members who were murdered or disappeared during the war.
During her lecture, Menchú spoke about shared humanity and the importance of knowing one’s ancestors to understand where one fits into the world. She said this connection to tradition, the past and other people is what makes us human. Without this, people search for answers outside of themselves, which leads to the types of hate and destruction she witnessed during the Guatemalan Civil War.
“Human beings lost their ability to be human beings, so they were able to follow deadly policies,” she said. “If I am a human who understands the greatness of humanity; if given an order to kill, I would not obey it.”
She also addressed the common belief that indigenous people in Guatemala are poor and starving. While acknowledging that these problems do exist, Menchú said that true wealth comes from spirituality, health and a connection to one’s culture and past.
“We don’t need to live well, we need to live fully. Having a credit card, a beautiful house — that’s living well, but it’s not living fully.”
She emphasized her Mayan heritage and the way it fosters humanity and community.
“To be Mayan is a great privilege, a great honor,” she said. “I never consider myself a victim. I am a woman, a fighter.”