Rigoberta Menchu Opens Power and Privilege Symposium

Sarah Cornett

Photos by Faith Bernstein.
Rigoberta Menchu spoke in Cordiner Hall on Wednesday.  Photos by Faith Bernstein.

“The first thing I did today was greet my ancestors.”

Rigoberta Menchu began her talk last Wednesday night, March 27 with these words, building on the theme of gratitude and identity as the evening went on.  The Nobel Laureate was the keynote speaker of the ASWC sponsored Power and Privilege Symposium. A Guatemalan human rights activist, Menchu concluded her visit to Walla Walla with a lecture in Cordiner Hall, in which she spoke of using Mayan values to create social conscience.

“Sometimes we think that only small indigenous villages have ancestors, but really all of us have ancestors,” she said.  “That’s why it’s important to ask, ‘Where do I come from, where am I going?’  Using others to answer these questions results in frustration, war, hate,” she said.


Menchu has personally experienced these consequences as part of the persecuted indigenous populations of Guatemala during a 36 year-long civil war.  Two-hundred thousand Guatemalans were killed in a genocide based entirely on ethnicity.  Though she did not discuss them in detail, Menchu’s experiences recounted in her autobiography tell of her own persecution and suffering, losing her family and undergoing constant persecution as part of the Ki’che’ ethnic group.

Her search for her mother after her death illustrated this suffering, though she said she is hopeful and content at others finding their loved ones lost in the war.

The values graciousness and humility, she said, were ones she internalized as part of her Maya heritage, specifically as part of the K’iche’ ethnic group.

Menchu spoke in Spanish.  A translator accompanied her.
Menchu spoke in Spanish. A translator accompanied her.

“To be a Maya is a great privilege, a great honor,” she said.

The Mayan calendar is filled with lessons we can all learn from, she said, especially the respect for ancestors in creating our own identity and goals.  Menchu also pointed out that talk of a 2012 apocalypse, is not of Mayan origin.

“We don’t scare people,” she said, in a comment that perfectly represented her lighthearted humor present throughout.

The real Mayan calendar extended to her statement about living a full life rather than living well.

“We don’t need to live well, we need to live fully,” she said.  “Having a credit card, a beautiful house––that’s living well, but it’s not living fully.”

A full life, she said, consists of utilizing many values intricately part of Maya culture.

“Respect, gratitude, reciprocity… these are all necessary,” she said.


Menchu advocated for individuals to internalize these lessons to guarantee that humanity can peacefully coexist, she said.

“The important thing is to raise ability to get along with others,” she said.  “In Guatemala we have worked very hard to discover truth about the victims.  We never want to see another genocide.”

She also focused on the importance of youth, and their potential for change and empowerment if lessons like these are internalized.  Her visit to Walla Walla, which included a stop at Walla Walla High School and multiple receptions with students, illustrated this belief.

Gratitude and understanding identities works to create social conscience, something necessary for society to “regain our equilibrium,” she said.

Student Nilce Alvarez meets Menchu after the lecture.

Students left her talk feeling enlightened and pleasantly surprised by her humor.

“The biggest thing I got from her is that she is a happy person, even though she has seen and experienced suffering,” said junior Stefanie Barrera.

ASWC Vice President, senior Marcial Diaz organized efforts to bring Menchu to campus.


“We had been working on the symposium,” he said.  “When we were thinking of who a good person to start the events would be, [Menchu] came to mind.  We thought of her involvement with racial, ethnic conflict, and her theme of respect and racism as sickness was very relevant to the symposium.”