Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum, recognized for her work in social and ethno-cultural reform, has been selected to receive the 2018 Alice and Clifford Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy and Tolerance at UC Merced.
“Rigoberta Menchú is a perfect choice for the Spendlove Prize because she embodies so much of what UC Merced stands for — equality, justice, a place for the underserved and underrecognized, and opportunity despite adversity,” Chancellor Dorothy Leland said. “I greatly look forward to welcoming her to meet with our community of students, staff and faculty, as well as members of the Merced community, to share her important work and message.”
Menchú Tum — who uses both names specifically to honor her parents — was born in Guatemala to a poor, indigenous peasant family and raised in a branch of the Mayan culture. Her family worked farms in the highlands and along the coast, picking coffee.
The 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner also won the Prince of Asturias Award in 1998. She is the author of the autobiographical work “Crossing Borders.” Menchú Tum is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and ran for president of Guatemala in 2007 and 2011.
She has a long life of service to social justice, dating back to when she was a teenager, when she joined social reform activities through the Catholic Church and became prominent in the women's rights movement.
Her work drew attention and opposition. Her family was accused of taking part in guerrilla activities and Menchú Tum’s father was imprisoned and tortured. After his release, he joined the Committee of the Peasant Union, as did she. That year, her brother was arrested, tortured and killed by the army, and the following year, her father was killed when security forces in the capital stormed the Spanish Embassy where he and other peasants were staying. Shortly after, her mother died after being arrested, tortured and raped. Menchú Tum became increasingly active in the CUC, and taught herself English, Spanish and Mayan languages other than her native tongue.
She helped lead farm-worker strikes and demonstrations, and as part of the radical group 31st of January Popular Front, she helped teach the indigenous peasant population to resist massive military oppression.
In the early 1980s, Menchú Tum went into hiding and Guatemala and fled to Mexico, becoming an organizer to resist oppression in Guatemala and advocating for indigenous peoples’ rights. She helped found the United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition and joined the National Coordinating Committee of the CUC.
Her work drew the attention of the Spendlove Prize Committee, which selects honorees from among scholars, authors, artists or other citizens who exemplify, through their work, the delivery of social justice, diplomacy and tolerance in the diverse local and global society.
Campus friend Sherrie Spendlove established the prize in 2005 through a gift to the university in honor of her parents, lifelong Merced residents Alice and Clifford Spendlove, who dedicated their lives to education and public service.
“The Spendloves left us a legacy that exalts education through their teachings,” Menchú Tum said. “It is an honor for me to be part of this legacy that will continue to illuminate future generations.”
Menchú Tum’s work has earned her recognition across the Western Hemisphere generally and several international awards, including the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize.
She also narrated a film about the struggles of the Maya called “When the Mountains Tremble” and is the subject of a book entitled “I, Rigoberta Menchú.”
She returns sometimes to Guatemala to plead the cause of the indigenous peasants, but death threats keep her in exile.
“Rigoberta Menchú is a courageous crusader, at great personal peril, for basic human rights for her people — the indigenous populations of Guatemala. She has campaigned against the cruelty, greed and ignorance of those in power who deny them the basic right to exist, to eat, work and live,” Spendlove said. “The government authorities have done this by the theft of their native land, the destruction of the natural ecosystem upon which their civilization depends, by the mass murder and widespread rape and torture of the indigenous population, and by wiping out entire families and communities, their centuries-long traditions and their entire way of life.”
Menchú is in good company with past Spendlove Prize recipients, including Native American activist and author Winona LaDuke; Professor Anita Hill, attorney and professor of social policy, law and women's studies; slain Civil Rights activist Viola Gregg Liuzzo; Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Peter Balakian; California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso; President Jimmy Carter; Sara O’Meara and Yvonne Fedderson, who founded Childhelp USA; Jonathan D. Jansen, South Africa's first black dean; Professor Faye J. Crosby, an expert in inclusiveness, gender, race and affirmative action at UC Santa Cruz; John Y. Tateishi, the leader of the successful struggle for reparations for Japanese-American internees; and Charles Ogletree, Jr., a Merced native, Harvard Law School professor, social justice and ethics expert and constitutional law scholar.
“An internationally-recognized spokesperson and ambassador for human rights, Rigoberta Menchú has dedicated her entire life to the defense and support of indigenous people and women,” School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts (SSHA) Dean Jill Robbins said. “She is an inspiring world leader, one who embodies the values that the Spendlove Prize seeks to recognize.”
Robbins leads the Spendlove Prize Selection Committee, which includes Sherrie Spendlove, an undergraduate student; a graduate student; a faculty member; and representatives from the UC Merced community. The Prize includes a $10,000 award.
Menchú Tum will accept her award at a public ceremony beginning at 6 p.m. Nov. 5 at the Merced Theater, and will deliver a keynote address. She will also spend time with students on campus that day, as well as attending a private reception with Chancellor Leland, among others.