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Making the Push for Peace

Guatemalan Activist Rigoberta Menchu Draws Crowd at CSUN

November 17, 2000|RICHARD FAUSSET | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NORTHRIDGE — Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu opened her appearance at Cal State Northridge Thursday with a prayer for peace in her native language, Quiche.

In the speech that followed, the controversial Mayan leader avoided many of the complex problems facing Guatemala, as well as recent criticism of her methods. Instead, she offered the more universal logic of a prayer--a general call for respect among cultures.

"I have come to believe that culture is not a barrier," Menchu said to an overflow crowd of more than 500 faculty and students. "We should live with a profound understanding that we're different, but understand that differences don't prevent us from living together."

It was a message that was received with a celebratory warmth at CSUN, a campus where about a third of the students are Latino, between 1,200 and 2,000 students are of Central American origin and a renowned Chicano/Chicana Studies program was bolstered by a Central American Studies program that started this year. The crowd gave Menchu--the winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize--two standing ovations before her speech, with a few clenched fists raised in the process.

Like many of the events associated with Menchu, the appearance, the first of five at Southern California universities in coming days, mixed general calls for tolerance with a strong undercurrent of partisan leftist sentiment. Introducing the program, Roberto Lovato, the coordinator of CSUN's new Central American Studies curriculum, said he found it "ironic" that many students traveled a freeway named after Ronald Reagan to get to the speech, when Menchu has documented the "genocide" in Guatemala that "many of us know the United States had some responsibility for" during the 1980s.

Although Menchu the activist continues to force people to take sides, she also exerts a unifying force among Latinos--and anyone, it seems, who is exposed to her powerful presence.

A plain-spoken and diminutive woman, dressed, as always, in the vibrant clothing of her Quiche village, Menchu, 41, presented a calm center amid an excited storm of suit-and-tied professors and earth-toned media and students as she toured the campus.

The visit attracted both Chicano Studies majors such as 24-year-old Gregory Barajas--a wry cultural critic not averse to referring to capitalism as "a monster"--and business students such as Hilario Ruiz, 27--a clean-cut finance major who's deciding whether to work for a U.S. or a Mexican multinational corporation after graduation.

"For us, it's an honor," said Ruiz, looking on as Menchu dedicated three "peace poles" planted in a campus garden. "She's a real hero."

Menchu's international star rose in 1983 with the publication of her autobiography, "I, Rigoberta Menchu," which detailed the violent deaths of her family members during Guatemala's 35-year civil war. She has since become an outspoken crusader for indigenous rights and world peace.

But a 1999 book by anthropologist David Stoll questioned the veracity of key elements of her story, casting a pall over her reputation for some, and raising thorny questions about the process of hero-building and the very nature of truth itself.

For Barajas, the issues Stoll raised have not diluted Menchu's message. "Even if [the events in question] didn't occur to her, it doesn't matter," he said, "because those are definitely things that occur all over Latin America on a daily basis."

The matter never came up in Menchu's speech, which mostly stuck to generalities. In perhaps her most specific discussion of the messy daily workings of Guatemalan politics, Menchu mentioned her involvement in a Spanish court case seeking justice in a number of massacres in Guatemala during the 1980s, a case that names as a defendant the controversial former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt.

Guatemala's current president, Alfonso Portillo, is a member of Montt's political party and a close ally, and Menchu avoided any criticism of the president in her speech. At a news conference beforehand, however, she said she had "very little faith" in the current regime's handling of another high-profile case involving the murder of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, who was killed in 1998 shortly after he released a report blaming the Guatemalan military for numerous human rights abuses during the war.

Menchu's address to the students exhorted them to straighten out humanity's problems even as they become more complex.

"Before you go back to your classrooms, I call on you never to remain enclosed in a dark room," she said. "Classrooms are important . . . but the soul of humanity is where problems are trying to be solved. You don't need to go to Colombia to know the world's problems. You can go to the barrios of Los Angeles to find them."

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