Wisdom from Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú


The 2015 UNESCO Chair Oration was delivered by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr Rigoberta Menchú; social activist, author and an internationally-leading voice on Indigenous rights and ethno-cultural reconciliation.

“Dr Menchú inspired and challenged her audiences, both at the oration and a workshop earlier in the day, with personal reflections on fundamental ethical questions gained from her life, her struggle, dedicated to justice and reconciliation”, said Professor Fethi Mansouri, UNESCO Chair for Cultural Diversity and Social Justice and the Director of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation.

Some of the key messages Dr Menchú shared included a heart-felt plea that:

We question this world and its rules.
When we are better with ourselves we can be better to others.
One has to always make efforts to be better. You take the decision to be better.
One doesn’t live in mid-air thinking we can change the world – rather it’s important to know what this can be done practically.
Our way of life creates culture; culture doesn’t create our way of life.
Australia has vast spaces to be inclusive and happy, we must remember that what happens to others touches us.
We are spiritual beings, we are material beings, we are social beings. Balancing these three dimensions will lead to equilibrium.
Uncertainty sickens the spirit.

The event was hosted by Deakin University Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander who also found the lecture “inspiring”, particularly the centrality of diversity. “Everything starts with diversity”, Dr Menchú said.

Approximately 130 people attended the sold-out event at Deakin University’s city centre campus on Wednesday. Earlier in the day a she led a workshop with students, academics and community members at the University’s Burwood campus.

Full video coverage of Dr Rigoberta Menchú’s lecture will be available next week.

Rigoberta Menchú’s Story:

Rigoberta Menchú was born on January 9, 1959 to a poor Indian peasant family 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 guerilla organization 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 than her native Quiche. 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 Indian peasant population in resistance to massive military oppression.

In 1981, Rigoberta Menchú had to go into hiding in Guatemala, and then flee to Mexico. That marked the beginning of a new phase in her life: as the organizer abroad of resistance to oppression in Guatemala and the struggle for Indian peasant peoples’ rights. In 1982, she took part in the founding of the joint opposition body, The United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition (RUOG). In 1983, she told her life story to Elisabeth Burgos Debray. The resulting book, called in English, I, Rigoberta Menchú, is a gripping human document which attracted considerable international attention. In 1986, Rigoberta Menchú became a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the CUC, and the following year she performed as the narrator in a powerful film called When the Mountains Tremble, about the struggles and sufferings of the Maya people. On at least three occasions, Rigoberta Menchú has returned to Guatemala to plead the cause of the Indian peasants, but death threats have forced her to return into exile.

Over the years, Rigoberta Menchú has become widely known as a leading advocate of Indian rights and ethno-cultural reconciliation, not only in Guatemala but in the Western Hemisphere generally, and her work has earned her several international awards, including a Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.