Sister Courage

updated 12/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

SINCE BEING NAMED THE WINNER OF the Nobel Peace Prize for her heroic defense of the rights of Indians in her native Guatemala, Rigoberta Menchú has been showered with flowers—not all of them welcome. As a grim reminder of the violence that devastated her family and drove her from her homeland, Menchú has received bouquets of marigolds and baby's breath—common funeral flowers in Latin America—accompanied by anonymous messages that the blossoms are intended for her grave. Living in self-imposed exile in Mexico City—and visiting Norway last week for the Nobel award ceremony—she no longer moves about without bodyguards. "My life," she says, "is not normal."

It hasn't been normal, in fact, since the late 1970s, when the Menchú family became identified with a peasants union in Guatemala—an association that was as good as a death warrant. A Quiché Indian born in the mountain village of Chimel, Menchú, now 33, fled to Mexico in 1981 after both her parents died in conflicts with the Guatemalan military. Of her 10 siblings, Menchú knows of only four who are still alive. Two died as children because of the dirt-poor living conditions, and the others are all believed to be casualties of a 30-year reign of terror in which some 100,000 people—mostly Indian peasants—have been openly killed or made to "disappear" by Guatemala's military forces. In exile, Menchú gained international fame with the 1983 publication of her autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, and she has since traveled widely to speak out about human rights.

At the age of 8, Menchú began working with her family as a migrant farmhand for wealthy landowners and was housed with some 500 Indians in open sheds with no toilets. As a teenager, Menchú started teaching herself to read and write Spanish while working for two years as a live-in maid in Guatemala City. Meanwhile her father, Vicente, started the United Peasant Committee to resist the appropriation of land from peasants by wealthy farmers, and the entire Menchú family was branded as subversives by local officials.

In September 1979, Rigoberta's younger brother Petrocinio was kidnapped by Guatemalan soldiers. After some two weeks of torture, Petrocinio and several other prisoners were paraded in front of the Menchús and their neighbors. "He didn't look like a person anymore," Menchú writes in her book. "His whole face was disfigured with beating...also they cut the skin off his head and pulled it down on either side." The prisoners were doused with gasoline and burned alive.

In January 1980, Rigoberta's father participated in a sit-in at the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City that was intended to draw international attention to the plight of Indians. Police stormed the building, and a fire broke out, killing Vicente and 38 others. Less than three months later, Menchú's mother was kidnapped by the military. She was raped, her ears were cut off, and she was hanged from a tree to die.

Rigoberta, who had been assisting her parents in the peasants union, subsequently fled to Mexico, and Venezuelan writer Elisabeth Burgos-Debray helped her turn the grim story of her life into a book. Working with various human rights groups, Menchú traveled to the United Nations to lobby for Indian rights—and became a familiar figure there, walking the halls in traditional Quiché garb and bare feet, even in winter.

Today, Menchú lives communally with a handful of Guatemalan refugees in one of Mexico City's poorest neighborhoods and complains that her busy schedule prevents her from doing her own cooking. She dreams of getting married and having children, but that day seems far off. "There are no brave men around," she says. She knows of three surviving sisters in Guatemala and was recently reunited with her brother Nicolas. But she has had no news of two sisters who joined Guatemala's guerrilla movement in the late 1970s.

When asked if she is happy, she hesitates. "For those of us who are used to being happy with small achievements, this life has many gifts," she says. "It is my privilege to live it. But a normal life..." Tears brim, and she continues, "The most I could hope to have would be a nice little farm."

Despite the death threats, she has visited Guatemala with bodyguards four times in the last 12 years and plans to return there for Christmas, but she says, "I will not take my peace medal there until the situation has changed." Though the military has had to answer to a civilian government since 1991, Foreign Minister Gonzalo Menendez Park insists Menchú is "tied to certain groups that have endangered Guatemala." On her return to Mexico City, Menchú will use the $1.2 million prize to set up a human rights foundation in her father's name. "When you get to know Rigoberta, you discover this air of loneliness," says her assistant, Hugo Benitez. "She'd much rather have her father back than the Nobel Peace Prize."

DAVID GROGAN
MEG GRANT in Mexico City

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