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Home / Articles / News / News /  On the wings of change
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Thursday, July 1,2010

On the wings of change

An interview with Nobel Peace Prize winner & Mayan leader Rigoberta Menchú Tum

By Ana Arias


Greed, envy, individualism, and an excessive materialism are altering the human experience and causing a lack of equilibrium in the world. I believe the inequality has also generated racism, the sickness of discrimination. This world has lost values; it must begin again. Beginning again means much humility.” — Rigoberta Menchú Tum in PeaceJam: A Billion Simple Acts of Peace


Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in and translated from Spanish.

Racism. It’s a cauldron of shadow attributes that amass into a powerful brew of sheer yuck: abuse, harassment, discrimination, prejudiced attitudes, cultural biases. Often rooted in fear and ignorance, racism, ironically, is an equal opportunity affliction that comes in varying strengths. Little ones can pick it up from their family members as easily as they pick up their ABCs. Adults with ingrained biases can spend their whole lives fine-tuning their skewed perspective, certain that their sense of superiority over others is justified.

Fortunately, there is hope for a present and a future that calls for a united front of minds and hearts and that has the potential for unleashing a new consciousness within each of us. I’m not talking about just the intellectual and spiritual realms — I’m talking about the embracing of a consciousness that has pragmatic, real-world action behind it.

On July 8, Boulderites will have a unique opportunity to hear from a wise Mayan woman who represents that beacon of hope. Rigoberta Menchú Tum is an internationally renowned Mayan activist from Guatemala whose lifetime of work in leading her indigenous people in a non-violent movement against the military government of Guatemala earned her the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. She’s recognized as having been instrumental in a peace accord in Guatemala that helped to end a 36-year civil war and reclaim many rights on behalf of Mayans.

Mrs. Menchú, the sixth of nine siblings, knows racism from a very personal level: her father, mother and one of her brothers were all tortured and killed by the Guatemalan army.

Mrs. Menchú continues to work for peace and justice for her people and indigenous cultures worldwide. Currently she is working with Guatemala’s minister of education as part of a team tasked with constructing a national peace curriculum for Guatemalan youth that will be implemented nationwide through the school system.

Between a trip to China and preparing for her visit to Boulder, during which she will share insights about the dawning of a new age in 2012, Mrs. Menchú took time to share her thoughts on racism.

Boulder Weekly: In the 2008 book PeaceJam: A Billion Acts of Simple Actions, you write that inequality has generated racism, which you call the “sickness of discrimination.” Racism is such a prevailing illness in our culture. From your experience, what leads the human soul to take the crooked path of racism? And how is it still affecting us today?

Rigoberta Menchú Tum: I have seen many dead people. I have seen many poor people, and I have seen many people who cry and cry and cry trying to find happiness. I have seen a lot of suffering, many people who are destitute and hungry, many people with cancer and other diseases, and they have all been excluded and marginalized. People are marginalized when they are not able to enter into certain social categories. The struggle against marginalization, exclusion and racism is not a temporary struggle, but rather a life-long one.

BW: As I understand it, Mayan spiritual tradition believes that beginning in 2012, much will begin to shift in the world — a shift away from the “darkest time for humanity” that the Mayans call “no time,” in which there is lack of perspective, a time where humans have lost what you call the “concept of solidarity, of amity, or collaboration, of sharing.” Part of that shift is associated with the people of the world finding a common ground. How are those anticipated societal changes going to impact racism as we know it?

RMT: I think the indigenous peoples have been able to survive disasters, discrimination, racism, exclusion and many exterminations precisely because they have a profound and deep culture. As Mayans in particular, we are very proud that our culture endures today in the universe of cultures.

Well, in 2012 there is a change in era, and it is our time to initiate a new era. I hope this new era will be prosperous, successful, a contribution to humanity, because the one we have lived for more than 5,000 years has been very painful. But perhaps the new era will be more prosperous for our people because the lives of our indigenous peoples are also the life of humanity in general. Natural disasters demonstrate that no one can own life, no one can own knowledge. And because of this, it is so important that we all collaborate to form a better world. All of us must dream together of a better world.

BW: How do you teach children to embrace, not hate; to celebrate, not put down or bully, when so much of what they see around them seems to model disrespectful, inhumane or unkind treatment based on accent, skin tone or nationality?

RMT: It is necessary to reconstruct the fabric of society, taking into consideration what is happening and perhaps fighting with much more courage, because I feel that people have lost courage and have accepted the injustices.

I think we have to do the important job of training leaders. I think we have to invest in the creation of leaders. I am referring to the fact that there have to be programs, opportunities, exchanges of opinion. Human beings have to be thinking beings. Human beings should be thinking beings because otherwise they only accept the rules that are already in place, and many of the rules are based on policies that are racist, materialistic and not based on global and holistic policies that respect human dignity.

BW: Tell us the story of a specific example where you have witnessed fierce racism. And share with us a couple of instances where you’ve seen or learned of a life-changing experience where racism morphed into healing.

RMT: Several members of my family were tortured and killed during the war in Guatemala, and many people have heard this story. This is still my deepest experience of racism.

But I would like to talk instead about healing.

Right now it is time to open the pathways. We must open the door to reconciliation amongst ourselves. We have offended one another a great deal. We have offended cultures.

This idea of starting over together can be practiced in very difficult situations. I have, in these years, helped in the process of reconciliation between couples, for example.

It is a very special thing.

But also, not only must we ask for forgiveness, we must also learn to coexist with each other. We must have a great deal of tolerance of others and respect others and their differences. Each person has a world, a preoccupation, an objective, and we should try to be patient and know that this objective is valid since it is his or her dream.

So, many paths must be opened for tolerance, patience, for humility. Humble people know how to listen. It doesn’t matter if words are offensive, they don’t kill.

One must simply listen and assimilate the good and let the bad filter out along the way. Finally, I think that it is not only ours to open up the paths, but also to be an example. I think our first obligation is to not respond to provocation with anger, but with wisdom, because that which we need the most these days is wisdom.

BW: What are the most meaningful, practical actions that everyday people can do to extend a hand toward inclusion and tolerance as opposed to the clinching fist of division and racism?

RMT: In my personal experience, there was a time where I was left with no money, no friends, no strength, and it was like my health was in jeopardy.

I asked the spiritual guides what I needed to do.

What’s happening to me? I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to do things. And they told me that I had a lack of equilibrium. If you find equilibrium, you can do many things.

So I traveled through many hills and valleys. I went to temples. I walked through the mountains and volcanoes, and went to many places full of energy. And since then, I have had a great conscience about time and the need to help people return to their Mother Nature.

In my personal experience, I have had to secure this equilibrium within myself before I could really extend my hand to others, day after day. So, this is where you have to start.

BW: Estimates on gang activity in Guatemala put the number of gang members at 400,000, in a country whose population is 13 million. Many of the gang members in Guatemala are affiliated with Mara Salvatrucha 13, the most feared and violent gang in Los Angeles. In the United States, criminal gang members are estimated to be around 1 million, responsible for approximately 80 percent of crimes committed in neighborhoods nationwide. What can be done to change the mindset of such hardcore, deeprooted hatred and racism in extreme groups?

RMT: Guatemala is a very spiritual place.

Mayans are spiritual. Aztecs were warriors and Incas were economic gods, but Mayans were very, very spiritual.

My people say that humanity has gone through four cycles, each cycle having 5,200 years. The first cycle was dominated by feminine energy, the second cycle had a masculine energy, the third cycle had a feminine energy, the fourth — which is the one we’re leaving — has a masculine energy, which can give you an idea why we have so much violence in the world today.

But after the 21st of December 2012, we’ll begin the fifth cycle, which has a dual energy, the feminine and the masculine, in balance for the very first time. So I have hope. I have great hope for the future. I am also very happy to be coming to Boulder with my Mayan teachers, so that the Mayan voice can be heard very clearly right now, because it is the time for this.

BW: Empathy is a human trait known to be an effective ambassador to exorcising deep-rooted racist views. Would you agree and, if so, how can we teach ourselves and others to permanently adopt empathy?

RMT: All individuals are in need of being in equilibrium. Equilibrium begins in our “other I.” I have another shadow, another spirit, and this other spirit needs to be in equilibrium.

The two great fortunes we own must be in equilibrium … material fortune and spiritual fortune.

Many times we emphasize the material fortune, that is, our home, money, shoes, clothes. And we are not thinking, “Who am I? What is my purpose? What energies do I possess? What is the depth of my spirit to be able to be healthy?” And we don’t care for ourselves until we are ill.

Many people don’t think about all the spiritual for tunes they have missed in life until they have a terminal disease.

And spirituality, remember, is not a religion, but a way of life. One must be grateful, humble, and walk the Earth knowing that there are other lives around us. And we must be in harmony with ourselves. Spiritual fortune is what this world needs the most. That is how we begin to create empathy and compassion.

BW: You are a recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of your nonviolent work for indigenous people’s rights. In 2007, you ran for president of Guatemala. What message would you like to impart to the people of Boulder County about ending racism in our backyards and yours?

RMT: I think we must renew our commitment so that the fight for justice is a life-long fight, the fight against impunity is a life-long fight, the fight for peace is something so vital so as to actually renew the contents of peace.

And I think that we are the hope of a culture of peace. This culture has to be born out of tolerance, of dialogue, of non-discrimination, and of inclusion. This peaceful culture does not only accept difficulties but looks for solutions. I think that we must become people who try to look for solutions every day.

BW: What do you do to keep your spirits up, in light of the violence in the world?

RMT: Each day, I pray for much spirituality, much concentration and much confidence, because the Creator strengthens us every time we are looking for energy.

Ribogerta Menchú Tum will be joined by Mayan spiritual elders Don Pedro Yac Noj and Doña Faviana Cochoy Alva on Thursday, July 8, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Naropa University’s Nalanda Campus. They will provide information not previously shared about the real Mayan prophecy regarding the year 2012.

The event will offer a day of teaching and inspiration, as well as guidance on how to be a leader in these challenging times. Author Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Women Who Run with the Wolves) and Grammy-nominated musician Nawang Khechog will also be participating in the event.

A limited number of tickets are still available. To register, call PeaceJam at 303-455-2099, or register online at Proceeds from the event will support the work of Mrs. Menchú, the Mayan spiritual elders and the PeaceJam Foundation. PeaceJam is an international program developed around Nobel Peace Prize winners who work personally with global youth to “pass on the spirit, skills and wisdom” embodied by Nobel Prize recipients.



“2012 Revealed,” with Nobel Peace Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum and Mayan spiritual leaders, July 8, 9 a.m to 4 p.m.

Naropa University, Nalanda Campus, 6287 Arapahoe Ave, Boulder. Tickets are $195 for general admission. Call 303-455-2099, or visit

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