Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum on "Human Rights and Catholic Activism in Guatemala Today

For Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum, action cannot be left only to activists. That's why the Mayan rights crusader recently partnered with a businessman to open 31 medical offices in Guatemala. Each clinic provides basic medical attention to 4,500 patients monthly in a country with little access to healthcare.

"Social justice is the capacity you have to do things for others," Menchú Tum said. "I believe in living solidarity, something good that you do to uplift those around you."

Menchú Tum addressed a packed crowd at Saint Mary's College of California on Nov. 18 as part of the Social Justice Speakers Series, sponsored by the Bishop Cummins Institute for Catholic Thought, Culture, and Action.

She is perhaps best known for her autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, which was written when she was 23 and spoke of atrocities committed by the Guatemalan army in peasant villages during the civil war. In 1992, at age 33, she was the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and she continues to be an outspoken advocate for human rights.

Menchú Tum admits that change in her native country is not easy: even with peace accords signed eight years ago, the country that was in civil war for decades remains divided. She sees Guatemala in a state of "prolonged genocide" because of remaining corruption, and continues to look for the truth about many murders committed there, including that of her friend, Catholic activist Archbishop Oscar Romero.

"Censure and silence are responsible for the crimes; there were people who could say something but said nothing," she said. "We have to set a precedent so there will never be genocide in the future."

She thinks forgiveness of those who committed atrocities is a very intimate decision, and each person must consider their own life experiences. In Mayan culture, she said, pain is a necessary component in the balance between life and spirituality.

Menchú Tum decried the injustice of 3 billion people living in extreme poverty worldwide. In Latin America alone, she said, there are 130,000 children living on the streets.

"We can't talk about social justice when people live in opulence and waste while others can't develop because of the poverty that surrounds them," she said.

-- by Erik Johnson
Class of 2005