Rigoberta Menchú was born on January 9, 1959 to a poor indigenous peasant family in Guatemala and raised in the Quiche branch of the Mayan culture. In her early years she helped with the family farm work, either in the northern highlands where her family lived, or on the Pacific coast, where both adults and children went to pick coffee on the big plantations.
Rigoberta Menchú soon became involved in social reform activities through the Catholic Church, and became prominent in the women’s rights movement when still only a teenager. Such reform work aroused considerable opposition in influential circles, especially after a guerrilla organisation established itself in the area. The Menchú family was accused of taking part in guerrilla activities and Rigoberta’s father, Vicente, was imprisoned and tortured for allegedly having participated in the execution of a local plantation owner. After his release, he joined the recently founded Committee of the Peasant Union (CUC).
In 1979, Rigoberta, too, joined the CUC. That year her brother was arrested, tortured and killed by the army. The following year, her father was killed when security forces in the capital stormed the Spanish Embassy where he and some other peasants were staying. Shortly afterwards, her mother also died after having been arrested, tortured and raped. Rigoberta became increasingly active in the CUC, and taught herself Spanish as well as other Mayan languages. In 1980, she figured prominently in a strike the CUC organized for better conditions for farm workers on the Pacific coast, and on May 1, 1981, she was active in large demonstrations in the capital. She joined the radical 31st of January Popular Front, in which her contribution chiefly consisted of educating the indigenous peasant population in resistance to massive military oppression (NobelPrize.org).
Menchú fled to Mexico in 1981 and was cared for there by members of a liberal Roman Catholic group. She soon joined international efforts to make the Guatemalan government cease its brutal counterinsurgency campaigns against indigenous peasants, becoming a skilled public speaker and organiser in the course of her efforts.
Menchú gained international prominence in 1983 with her widely translated book I, Rigoberta Menchú, in which she tells the story of her impoverished youth and recounts in horrifying detail the torture-murders of her brother and mother. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her continuing efforts to achieve social justice and mutual reconciliation in Guatemala; she used the prize money to found the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation, an advocacy organisation for indigenous peoples (Britannica).
Over the years, Rigoberta Menchú has become widely known as a leading advocate of indigenous rights and ethno-cultural reconciliation, not only in Guatemala but in the Western Hemisphere generally, and her work has earned her several international awards (NobelPrize.org).