St. Mary's welcomes Guatemalan visitor Rigoberta Menchu, Nobel Prize winner, speaks on hope, justice

November 10, 1998|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

ST. MARY'S CITY -- Tears welled in the eyes of Rigoberta Menchu several times during breakfast at St. Mary's College yesterday -- when she talked of torture in her native Guatemala; when she remembered Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, 75, who was killed in April, two days after issuing a report detailing human rights violations; when she spoke of her son, who died last year of kidney problems.

She wept again when she talked of her Sunday night dinner with a group of St. Mary's students whose visit to Guatemala in January ended when their bus was attacked by armed robbers who raped five women in the group.

"I hope I have helped them to move forward," said Menchu, 38, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work to end the civil war that gripped her country for her entire life until a 1996 cease fire.

"One of the messages I wanted to get across is that we should not feel like victims for the rest of our lives," said Menchu, who lost much of her family to political violence -- her father killed in the burning of the Spanish embassy in 1980, her mother tortured and left hanging in public view until she died, her brother killed in a similar manner.

"It was very moving," Jorge Rogachevsky, an associate professor of Spanish and Latin American studies, said of the dinner. "It meant something to the students to talk to someone from Guatemala, someone who had lived through the experiences she had lived through, who could feel what they had gone through."

Rogachevsky was one of the leaders of January's ill-fated trip. Three teachers and 10 students in an anthropology course were on the bus when a group of armed men stopped the vehicle. After the gunmen robbed everyone in the group, they held the men at gunpoint while the women were raped.

Eight students attended the dinner with Menchu. "I understand several of the students want to return to Guatemala," Menchu said, speaking through an interpreter. "They want to do some sort of social work. I think that would be good."

The college plans no trips to Guatemala this year, in part because of a review of all its overseas trips in light of the attack, but also because Bill Roberts, an anthropology professor who organized the Guatemala course, is on sabbatical.

Menchu's talk to the college last night -- the school's 16th annual Margaret Brent lecture focusing on women's rights -- was the centerpiece of a yearlong series of exhibits, performances and talks on the culture of Latin America.

It was organized by a group of faculty led by Rogachevsky, a native of Argentina who has taught at St. Mary's for 11 years. Long planned, the series took on added poignancy after the attack.

Dressed in the colorful garments of her Quiche Mayan village in the Guatemalan highlands, her 4-year-old son playing with her husband in the background, Menchu talked earlier in the day of trying to protect the fragile peace between the government and insurgents through a foundation she has set up.

"We are just there in the hallways listening," she said. "We are not protagonists. We just try to help things along."

She said she is working to bring to trial soldiers responsible for a massacre, to see that justice is done in the murder of Bishop Gerardi, and to ensure that victims of political violence have a right to bring suit in court.

But interrupting that is the devastation caused in Guatemala by Hurricane Mitch.

"Guatemala is not prepared for a hurricane like this," she said. "More than 1 million people have been affected. Over 80,000 have lost everything -- their houses, their animals, everything," XTC she said. She expressed concern that money that was to have gone to resettling internal refugees and aiding out-of-work soldiers must now go to hurricane relief.

Menchu is following the case of the attack on the St. Mary's students, which she said had a profound effect in Guatemala, resonating through the community of foreign workers for both government and nongovernmental organizations and making many afraid to travel in the countryside.

The St. Mary's students and teachers returned in April to give statements and identify suspects.

"We will support them in that trial," Menchu said of her foundation's work. "It is a very important trial for our justice system, to show that it is a justice system for the people."

Pub Date: 11/10/98

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