Rigoberta Menchú Tum is a Mayan k’iche’ activist born in 1959 in Chimel, a small Mayan community in the highlands of Guatemala. As a young girl, Rigoberta traveled alongside her father, Vincente Menchú, from community to community teaching rural campesinos their rights and encouraging them to organize.
In 1960, ethnic and socioeconomic tensions engrained since colonization spurred a brutal civil war against the Mayan people. The military dictatorship, under the leadership of Efraín Ríos Montt, and rich landowners initiated the bloodshed. By the time a peace agreement was signed in 1996, 450 Mayan villages were destroyed, over 200,000 Guatemalans murdered and 1 million were displaced.
Rigoberta and her family mobilized Guatemalans during the war to denounce government-led mass atrocities. Their activism came at a great cost. At a peaceful protest held at the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City in 1980, Rigoberta’s father and thirty-seven other campesino activists were murdered in a fire. Not long after, the Guatemalan army tortured and murdered Rigoberta’s brother and mother. At age 21, Rigoberta fled into exile.
Rigoberta spoke publicly about the plight of the Mayan people in Guatemala while in exile. In 1983 she published I, Rigoberta Menchú and catapulted the civil war into global headlines. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples. After receiving the prize Rigoberta returned to Guatemala and established the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation (FRMT) to support Mayan communities and survivors of the genocide as they seek justice. Rigoberta and the Foundation have been key in advocating for justice in several high profile cases in Guatemala, including the trial against former dictator Efrain Ríos Montt in May 2013, the Spanish Embassy massacre in January 2015, and the case of 14 survivors of sexual violence in Sepur Zarco in February 2016.
Rigoberta ran for President of Guatemala in 2007 and 2011 under the banner of WINAQ, the first indigenous-led political party founded by herself. In 2013 the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM) appointed her as a Special Investigator within its Multicultural Nation Program. She continues to seek justice for all Mayan people impacted by the genocide.