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Testimonio, Testimonials, and the Guatemalan Civil War
“Subjectivity is as much the business of history as the more visible ‘facts.’“
Survivors of the Guatemalan Genocide, which took the lives of 200,000 civilians – mainly indigenous Mayans – share their stories in video testimonials recorded by the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive.
The Tradition of Testimonio
Testimonio is a unique genre of storytelling in Latin-American tradition. It typically originates as an oral history, told by someone from a marginalized population ─ someone poor, uneducated, often female; someone who has been politically oppressed, exploited or abused; usually someone of a “native” or ethnic minority background – and recorded by a professional writer or academic.
“The dominant formal aspect of the testimonio,” notes Latin-American literature professor and critic John Beverley, “is the voice that speaks to the reader in the form of an ‘I’ that demands to be recognized, that wants or needs to stake a claim on our attention.”
This results in an element of urgency on the part of the speaker to tell her story, in her own voice and in her own words. It is a story has gone unheard but will no longer be ignored. In this way, testimonio is sometimes classified as “resistance literature.”
Another distinctive characteristic of this genre is that the narrator “speaks for, or in the name of, a community or group,” Beverley explains. “Each individual testimonio evokes an absent polyphony of other voices, other possible lives and experiences.”
I, Rigoberta Menchú
In the early 1980s, at the peak of violence in the 36-year-long Guatemalan Civil War, a young Mayan activist campaigning against human rights violations went into exile.
After suffering the brutal deaths of her brother, mother and father, Rigoberta Menchú fled to Mexico, along with tens of thousands of other indigenous Guatemalan refugees who endured the annihilation of their villages; the “disappearance” of their loved ones; the destruction of their crops; the slaughter of their livestock; the contamination of their water supplies; and the violation of their sacred places and cultural symbols.
In Mexico, Menchú co-founded the United Republic of Guatemalan Opposition and continued to support the resistance movement against the military government. Her work took her to Paris, where she met Venezuelan anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos and agreed to tell her life story. Burgos transcribed Menchú’s words, and in 1983 the controversial testimonio, I, Rigoberta Menchú, was published. It went on to become an international bestseller.
The story begins:
My name is Rigoberta Menchú. I’m 23 years old. This is my testimony. I didn’t learn it from a book and I didn’t learn it alone. I’d like to stress that it’s not only my life, it’s also the testimony of my people. It’s hard for me to remember everything that’s happened to me in my life since there have been many bad times but, yes, moments of joy as well. The important thing is that what has happened to me has happened to many other people also: My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.
By the late 1980s, Menchú’s testimonio attracted global attention. I, Rigoberta Menchú became staple reading in college classrooms. Menchú herself gained renown as an international human rights activist. She was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.
Then, within the next decade, backlash ensued.
Critics questioned elements of Menchú’s story, in particular Menchú’s claim that her father refused to let her attend school, and her claim to have been present when her brother was murdered. Accusations were made that she manipulated facts of her life for political gain. Detractors have called her a liar and an opportunist.
The Value of Oral Histories
Oral historian and scholar Alessandro Portelli says:
The first thing that makes oral history different is that it tells us less about events than about their meaning. This does not imply that oral history has no factual interest; interviews often reveal unknown events or unknown aspects of known events, and they always cast light on unexplored sides of the daily life of the non-hegemonic classes...They tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, what they now think they did...Subjectivity is as much the business of history as the more visible ‘facts.’
In a later interview, Menchú readily admitted that she went to a Catholic boarding school, a fact left out of her testimonio in order to protect the nuns who harbored her there. She did attend a few classes part-time, but mostly she worked as a maid in order to pay for her room and board. Menchú also acknowledged that she did not witness the murder of her brother herself, but related the harrowing details as accounted by her mother.
The facts of Menchú’s story, many of her critics conceded, were true accounts of experiences in her community. Her story, as she said herself, is the story of her people. What’s more, Menchú says at the conclusion of her testimonio, “I’m still keeping secret what I think no one should know. Not even anthropologists or intellectuals, no matter how many books they have, can find out all our secrets.”
Portelli suggests “the most precious information may lie in what [narrators of oral histories] hide (and in the fact that they hide it), rather than what they tell.”
In other words, what is omitted from a testimonio is as much a part of the story as what is included. A narrator might leave something out because certain details are dangerous, or because a memory is too painful, or seems unimportant. Or impressionable tragedies might be absorbed to such a degree into a person’s consciousness she tells of the experiences of her community – or her deceased mother – as if she lived them herself.
Because in a way she has. And others – like her mother – might not be able to tell of such events themselves.
The elements that are left out of an oral history can be seen as the negative space in the story that give form to what is said, and as such, they are a part of the narrative. Maybe this is a way to think about how perspective works: it’s how a narrator chooses what to include, what to omit, and what to emphasize in her story.
This is what makes it her story.
And this is what makes oral histories and testimonial narratives human stories, distinctive from – and a meaningful complement to – the objectivity of historical record.
The USC Visual History Archive
Working with the La Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala (FAFG), a Guatemalan forensics organization, USC Shoah Foundation has launched a project to collect video testimonies of witnesses to the Guatemalan Genocide of the early 1980s. About 150 video interviews from Guatemalan survivors and witnesses have been collected in Guatemala for the pilot program. All of these interviews are conducted in Spanish or K’iche,’ the indigenous language. The testimonies are being preserved and indexed by USC Shoah Foundation, which is adding them to the Visual History Archive.
Pending funding, there are plans to collect approximately 400 additional Guatemalan testimonies.
These stories and experiences from survivors and witnesses of the Guatemalan genocide will be included the collection of 53,000 audio-visual testimonies archived by USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History.
ProQuest is honored to be in partnership with USC Visual History Archive to offer this a streaming version of material in its entirety.
Watch the videos, learn more and sign up for librarian trials.
*For primary source documentation related to U.S. relations with Guatemala, see ProQuest’s History Vault modules:
- Office of Strategic Services (OSS) - State Department Intelligence and Research Reports, 1941-1961
- Vietnam War and American Foreign Policy, 1960-1975
- Confidential U.S. State Department Central Files, 1960-1969, Europe and Latin America
John Beverley’s “The Margin at the Center: On Testimonio (Testimonial Narrative)” from Modern Fiction Studies and Alessandro Portelli’s “The Peculiarities of Oral History” from History Workshop Journal are available on the ProQuest platform.
David Stoll’s investigation of Rigoberta Mentu’s testimony, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of Poor Guatamalans is available on ProQuest’s Ebook Central.