COLUMBIA — Even though she was not much taller than the podium, Rigoberta Menchú Tum’s message was big: racism is a sickness.
Dressed in the traditional indigenous huipil, Menchú lectured about peace to more than 250 people Friday evening at MU’s Memorial Union. The Guatemalan Nobel Peace Laureate was greeted with a standing ovation when she walked in.
Menchú was in Missouri for the Heartland Peace Jam Youth Conference, which took place at William Woods University this weekend. The Peace Jam Foundation is an international organization established to motivate youth to change the world through the inspiration of Nobel Peace Laureates, said Scott Miniea, regional director for Peace Jam. Participants range in age from 14 to 19. Before the conference, they created service projects that they presented to Menchú, Miniea said.
Menchú is an advocate for indigenous rights and the first female and first indigenous presidential candidate in Guatemala.
Born in 1959, she is a Quiché-Mayan whose mother, father and brother were killed by the army during Guatemala’s civil war. She received international attention after her story was published in the book, “I, Rigoberta Menchú,” in 1983.
During her lecture, titled “Healing Communities Torn by Racism,” Menchú spoke about how it’s important for the indigenous community to deal with racism collectively.
“One person cannot move forward, we must all move together,” she said.
Menchú compared racism to a sickness, saying that it is an emotional, mental and spiritual problem. She said that people who practice racism are sick, and sick people can be cured.
“It is the same as somebody that has alcoholism. They think that they are not alcoholic but they are,” she said.
The most common problems in Latin America, she said, are inequality and exclusion because there are millions of people who are not taken into account. She said the biggest problem globally is the economy because not everyone has the resources to sell in a free market economy, resulting in unemployment and poverty.
Menchú also said that young people are very important, and that the first school of humankind is parenthood, followed by school and society. Emphasizing the importance of self-esteem, she said that to respect others people must first respect themselves.
“If I feel good then I am a light for others, and if someone is not doing well, I’m going to help them,” she said. “Just criticizing we don’t resolve anything. If we feel that something is wrong, we need to take action to improve it. If you can’t get results then find another way.”
Menchú, who delivered the speech in Spanish with an English translator, learned Spanish as an adult and began learning English during her international travels. Now, she said jokingly, she speaks “Spanglishquiché.”
After the speech, Menchú answered questions and signed books.
The event was co-sponsored by William Woods University, the MU’s Arts and Science Department Dean’s Office, the Cambio Center, the MU Center for Arts and Humanities, the Center for Religion and the Professions, the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative, the DASS Seminar Committee, the English Department, the Hispanic and Latin American Faculty/Staff Association, Multicultural Center (Student Life), the Multicultural Certificate Program, the Peace Studies Department, the Religious Studies Department, the Romance Languages and Literatures Department and the Women and Gender Studies Department.