When a Guatemalan indigenous woman stepped forward to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, a light was momentarily cast upon indigenous people throughout the world.
Rigoberta Menchú Tum, who was living in self-imposed exile at the time, was awarded the prestigious accolade in recognition of her work: highlighting the exploitation and persecution of the country’s indigenous people during its brutal civil war.
More than 20 years later the war may have ended, but has Menchú’s esteemed prize improved the rights of the people for whom she was fighting?
With two unsuccessful presidential campaigns under her belt, where she failed on both occasions to garner more than 3 percent of the vote, it may seem like her work has done little to enhance the lives of Guatemala’s natives. However, her success may be larger than the polls suggest.
“I’ve really enjoyed the last two elections,” says Menchú. “I haven’t reached 30% of the vote, but I’ve reached 95% of the country.”
In 2007, the Maya activist became the first indigenous person to run for Guatemala’s top position and four years later founded the country’s first Mayan political party, WINAQ.
“We were never interested in winning the elections. You can’t win without money and no multimillionaire would support us,” she says.
Recounting an anecdote from her last campaign, she describes addressing a rural town when an opposition party’s bus drove by announcing it was giving away packets of rice, and her audience disappeared.
“Elections here are a carnival, they’re not democratic. Parties use poverty—giving the poor hope by handing them food.”
Despite the irony that most people she campaigns for do not vote for her, Menchú considers her political career a great success.
“I’ve opened a door to Mayas and to women. Not only do we now have a party, but we also have one person in Congress,” she says, referring to Maya lawyer Amilcar Pop.
But it’s not all politics.
In the same year she won the Nobel Peace Prize, the indigenous activist founded the self-titled Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation, dedicated to the pursuit of peace and promotion of indigenous people’s rights.
In the past two decades the organization has campaigned for justice for the victims of the war by exhuming mass graves, legislating new crimes, fighting for usurped ancestral lands to be returned to Mayan communities and legally documenting around 36,000 women. Menchú herself even traveled to Spain to bring genocide cases against Guatemala’s war criminals.
The Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation recently implemented a multicultural education program at San Carlos University aimed at training students from rural communities to become teachers.
Although sometimes misunderstood by the non-indigenous population, Menchú shrugs off criticism and remains devoted to her original cause: the plight of the people she represented in Oslo some 20 years ago.