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Religion as an Issue in “I, Rigoberta Menchu”


In her engrossing and perhaps controversial narrative, I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, Menchu presents the unsuspecting readers with an insight into the unique perspective and importance that the Catholic Church and Christianity hold for the native Indians. For a Guatemalan, Bible is, “not something you memorize, it’s not (something) just to be talked about and prayed about (Menchu 131)”, but is a credible and reliable mirror that is to be used to reflect upon and consolidate one’s individual and collective issues and experiences pertaining to identity and emancipation. There is no denying the fact that the repressive regimes introduced Christianity in the Western Hemisphere as a tool to establish and justify the Spanish and Portuguese conquests. However, the Mayan portrayal of Christianity in the work under consideration reveals a syncretic approach towards religion that is not imposed, indiscriminate or imitative, but rather, socio-politically subjective and personal. Though the Mayan religiosity potently entrenched in the Guatemalan highlands and the seemingly foreign Christianity appear to be incompatible and contradictory in their form and beliefs, the native treatment of religion as elaborated upon by Menchu is cerebrally accommodating and encouragingly adaptive. Menchu restrains from rejecting Catholicism entirely but rather defines it as a peculiar coalescing of the ancient and the novel, which empowers the Guatemalan ethnic communities to express, understand and articulate their familial, social, political, and economic experiences and boundaries (Menchu 132).

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In Chapter 18, Menchu confesses that the ethnic acceptance of Christianity, purposely and ingeniously bypassed the superficial incongruence of the implanted faith, to focus on the commonalities existing between the Biblical folklore and the indigenous Mayan history. As per Menchu, “the important thing for us is that we started to identify that reality with our own (131)”. Hence, Mayan Catholicism, as enunciated by this work stands to be in a class of its own. No doubt subaltern, but commonsensical and unique. Therefore, Mayan Christianity comes out as not something about lofty church spirals, gold-plated alters, and amorphous confessions, but as something that implants a sense of faith and confidence in a race being suppressed in its own country (Menchu 134). Interestingly, according to Menchu, this Mayan attitude towards Christianity not only allowed the natives to retain a so necessary sense of continuity between the past and the present but also enabled them to express and articulate their grievances in a format that was readily cognizable to the localized oppressors in particular and the Western world in general (135). The Spanish burdened the Mayans with a foreign faith. The smart Mayans, to begin with, simply naturalized this faith by substituting the names of one’s ancestors in the native folklore with Jesus, Moses, David, and Judith (Menchu 136). One can safely conclude after reading, I, Rigoberta Menchu that if the Indian failed to resist Christianity, at least one accepted it on one’s own terms and conditions.

However, it would be utterly simplistic to assume that Menchu delineates Christianity in Guatemala as a faith totally dominated by the local historical renderings, substituting biblical names for the native ones. Actually, Menchu discernibly accepts that the Indians succeeded in cannibalizing and accommodating the Biblical plots and characters, to give a voice to their individual identities (131). The Indian interpretation of the Bible is pragmatically literal, very unlike the Church version that recommends passivity, submission, and forgiveness. Menchu vividly identifies the native interpretation of the Bible as being intrinsically protestant in its moorings. For an Indian, the struggle of Moses to lead one’s people away from oppression and slavery perfectly blended with the personal urge for liberation (Menchu 131). The travails of Jesus suggested a way of perpetuating the personal struggle and identity and native history, in the face of organized and well-financed oppression (Menchu 133). The courage of David elucidated means of defending oneself against an enemy that is too powerful and intimidating to be resisted (Menchu 132). “We began looking for texts which represented each one of us (Menchu 131).” The narratives in the Bible helped the local communities to place their plight in a perspective that was rational and understandable (Menchu 136). It goes without saying that the tales of early Christians marked by oppression, insecurity, and violence, certainly sounded familiar to the Indian being cornered in one’s own land. Hence, the biblical parables when filtered through the Indian mind became something that a Western mind may totally fail to recognize. Menchu scarcely hesitates to say that,” the Bible is a necessary weapon for our people (135).”

Even a cursory perusal of Menchu’s tale, conclusively establishes that the Indian mindset as explained by her was ready for change. The Indian search for survival required some available mode of education. The Bible was the source that offered accessible and affordable education. According to Menchu,” when we started using the Bible, when we began studying it in terms of our reality, it was because we found in it a document to guide us… More than anything else, it was a form of learning for us (135).” The encounter with the strange and the foreign had sufficiently convinced the Indian that education stands to be an important means of liberation, especially when one is weak, poor, and unarmed. Thus, in a way, it became urgent for the cornered Indian to harmonize one’s native faith, based on polytheism, an expression of the Indian respect for the varied aspects of nature, with an essentially monotheistic faith that promised education (Menchu 56).


Therefore, it would depict extreme naivety to say that the Indian spiritual consciousness, as depicted by Menchu in the book, I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, is in some way confused and false. Yes, there exist irreconcilable incongruities between the Mayan religiosity and Christianity. Yet, the pressing fact is that the Indian had to make the best of whatever means one had at one’s disposal. In the face of repression, it is imperative to analyze one’s situation from a vantage point that not only enables one to articulate one’s plight but also allows for some sort of a direct or indirect, armed or peaceful dialogue with the oppressor. Hence, according to Menchu, the members of her community used religion to accomplish both of these goals. Bible not only served as a source of motivation and a tactical manual but also offered a viable approach towards education.

Works Cited

Menchu, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Verso: New York, 1987.


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