The art of testimony is a dangerous one. In the book Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia, Rigoberta Menchú faces violence, danger, and oppression at nearly every moment of her life. She is fiercely proud of her Quiché culture and rituals, but at the same time, learns Spanish and adopts the bible and Christianity as a means to strengthen her power against her oppressors. Although this apparent assimilatory gesture would seem to be at odds with what she stands for, this expansion of her identity is actually a rebellion. In particular, her fascination with the bible could be seen as a kind of stepping stone on the path towards testimony. In her book Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, Edwidge Danticat recalls a similar phenomenon in Haiti during the years of the François Duvalier dictatorship, where citizens would secretly stage plays or readings of classic Greek works, like Antigone, or Albert Camus’s Caligula:
“Unlike the country’s own citizens, these writers could neither be tortured or murdered themselves nor cause their family members to be tortured or murdered. And no matter how hard he tried, Papa Doc Duvalier could not make their words go away. Their maxims and phrases would keep coming back, buried deep in the memories by the rote recitation techniques that the Haitian school system had taught so well” (Loc 167).
Like the Haitian resistors re-appropriated classic literature, Menchú has recycled the Bible for her own purposes. In this sense, her embracing of the bible is not so much a spiritual rebirth as a Christian, but a rebellious act in which she rewrites the lessons, stories, and heroes of the bible for her people. Menchú describes this conversion:
“Nosotros empezamos a buscar textos que representan a cada uno de nosotros. Como comparando un poco con nuestra cultura indígena. Tenemos un ejemplo de Moisés que representa a los hombres. Tenemos el ejemplo de Judith, que es una mujer también famosa en su tiempo, que aparece en la Biblia, y que luchó tanto por su pueblo, hizo muchos intentos en contra del rey que había en ese tiempo, hasta quitar la cabeza del rey. Va con la victoria en la mano, la cabeza del rey” (157).
It would seem counter-intuitive that Menchú go outside her culture for strength and inspiration, but in practicality, it also makes sense. The voices of most indigenous Guatemalans, much like in the Duvalier dictatorship, are either silenced or not made available to most of the population—especially the poor, indigenous population. For this reason, Menchú repurposes what’s available and what cannot be censored, the Bible. Of course, this repurposing is a double-edged sword, which also in some ways perverts her identity as Quiché. For example, consider Menchú’s recounting of Judith and how she beheads the king: “Va con la vicotria en la mano, la cabeza del rey.” Contrast Judith's violent hands, and her gesture of holding the King's decapitated head in her grip, with the importance and sanctity of a Quiché person’s hands, which Menchú describes in the second chapter of the book: “Inmediatamente cuando el niño nace se le amarran sus manitas… Esto significa que sus manos son sagradas para el trabajo y que esas manos tienen que actuar donde tienen que actuar, o sea, nunca van a robar; el niño nunca va a abusar de la naturaleza. Sabrá respetar la vida de todo lo que existe” (32). Clearly, this mixing of biblical morality and Quiché morality is not without conflict. The Quiché are supposed to respect the life of all that is in existence and never raise a hand in violence against nature. However, in the context of oppression, it becomes necessary for Menchú to press the boundaries of her founding ethics to find examples that will guide the Quiché towards a new future. In one of the most harrowing chapters of the book, where Menchú describes the murder of Petrona Chona, one hand of Chona’s baby boy is left mutilated, his finger chopped off with a machete (177). This mutilation is a representation of the paradox that the Quiché as a culture are faced with. Oppression and violence have disfigured them physically and spiritually as a culture; their identities are already irreversibly changed; so to salvage what’s left of their culture, is to salvage something already altered, and impure. It is in this problematic space that outside influences become indispensable. There exists a desperate need for difference, to find a textual other that can be filled like an empty basin—one that is solid on the outside, but hollow with potential within. In this way, turning to the bible becomes a stepping stone for Menchú in articulating her own testimony. She projects her stories and struggles onto those of the bible, then finds the voice to write with her own words in Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia.