Olivia Dembie is the recipient of the Spring 2019 Seminar Achievement Award.


I, Rigoberta  Menchú tells the story of the Quiche human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú and the stories of her people during the Guatemalan Civil War. Menchú explains her culture and descriptive events over the course of the book. However, Menchú and her story became controversial when an American anthropologist, David Stoll, discovered that many of the stories that Menchú told were inaccurate. Despite the debates over the credibility of the book and whether it is useful, it still offers accurate depictions of the Quiche culture, which must be understood to get a full picture during this strained period of time in Guatemala. I, Rigoberta Menchú delivers a much-needed description of the indigenous cultures in rural Guatemala.

One of the elaborate rituals held in the Quiche culture is marriage because it is viewed as a key milestone that leads to having children. Menchú explains the delicate process of a young man asking the parents of a young woman permission to marry. She explains why the father typically rejects the initial request for marriage. Menchú writes, “This is because when our people think of marriage, they think of becoming a mother or fulfilling their duty as the father of a family. They also think of gaining the respect of the community, because when a couple gets married in our community, they have to preserve our traditions.” The Quiche people view marriage as a dutiful position in the community to cultivate another generation of people and instill in them their values to keep their culture alive. The central focus and goal of marriage is to have children and pass down traditions. Raising children and starting a family keeps the community thriving with people who respect, understand and value those traditions.

Other sources also support the idea that marriage’s key responsibility for the Quiche community is having children. Two professors led groups of college students to examine and document the K’iche’ culture and way of life. A chapter dedicated to the marriage process explains the main focus of marriage, along with explaining the rituals. When explaining the Civil Wedding, which Menchú mentioned briefly, the authors explained the reading of the Civil Code. The authors wrote, “The code emphasizes that marriage is based on compromiso (commitment) and that couples must fulfill their responsibilities to have and sustain a family.” This evidence matches with Menchú’s description of marriage that revolved around raising a family. The commitment that the couple makes is primarily a responsibility to have children and care for them. The community first acknowledges the importance of having a family when speaking about the obligations of marriage and reminds the couple of their important duties at the outset of their lives together.

Another important aspect of the Quiche culture is the communication and speech between parental figures in the community toward their children. Throughout a child’s development, and throughout their entire lives, the parents make an effort to instill their traditions and demonstrate their affection for them through language and communication. This process begins very early. When describing the life of a pregnant woman, Menchú writes, “She talks to the child continuously from the first moment he’s in her stomach, telling him how hard his life will be.” From the outset of a child’s existence, the mother speaks with them. The parental figures also display their love through how they deliver their words. While explaining the customs of marriage ceremonies, Menchú describes the emotional speech that the grandmother gives to her engaged granddaughter about the world. Menchú writes, “She finishes with her voice full of feeling.” The grandmother, an important parental role in the community, communicates her meaningful message with emotion that comes from love and a desire to maintain their culture for future generations.

Outside evidence from a study held amongst the Quiche community confirms Menchú’s description of the verbally intimate communication between children and their parents. One study examined how parents adjust their pitch when speaking to children in the Quiche culture. The reporter records, “Mayan parents are very affectionate and extremely protective with their children. It also appears that Quiche mothers employ alternate speech modifications to demonstrate their feelings toward children. Some (whispering, hypocoristic…) are seen in other language communities.” This study found that parents speak to their children lovingly by adjusting their voice to display those emotions. The parents’ warm speech reflects their tender love for their children. Hypocoristic is a term that refers to the use of endearing pet names, which parents use to show affection. Those who ran the study understood the affection and care of Quiche parents from hearing the audio recordings and noticing the warm tone behind their words when speaking to their children, just as Menchú described.

Understanding the culture of the indigenous people of Guatemala is key to having a more complete understanding of the Guatemalan Civil War. One can empathize with another group of people if they are familiar with their lifestyle and traditions. Understanding the meaning of many rituals of the Quiche people demonstrates how they were affected by the Civil War and displays the profound impact that it left on the indigenous people. Despite the occasional inaccuracy in the book, I, Rigoberta Menchú contains valuable information about a reserved culture, which provides context and another perspective for the Guatemalan Civil War. This book tells the story of a silenced and oppressed group of people during a historical time period. It provides another perspective to the war and provides a more complete story. It allows others to understand how the impact of the Guatemalan Civil War not only destroyed individual lives but tore apart communities and families that were stronger together. While not all of the experiences in the book belonged to Rigoberta, spreading the story of her people’s culture is very valuable to this day.




Hawkins, P. John and Walter Randolph Adams. Roads to Change in Maya Guatemala: A Field School Approach to Understanding the K’iche’. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.

Menchú, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchú. London: Verso, 2009.

Ratner, Nan Bernstein, and Clifton Pye. “Higher Pitch in BT Is Not Universal: Acoustic Evidence from Quiche Mayan.” Journal of Child Language 11, no. 3 (1984): 515–22. doi:10.1017/S0305000900005924.