This week and next the Swedish and Norwegian Nobel Prize Committees will be announcing this year's award winners. I'm especially looking forward to the announcement of the Peace Prize Friday at 11:00 am (Oslo time). I remember a similar week twenty years ago. It was the 500th anniversary of what the Mexican government called the “Encounter of Two Cultures”. It seemed logical that the Peace Prize would be awarded that year to an indigenous person from the western hemisphere.
In 1992 most eyes were focused on Guatemalan Rigoberta Menchu, who by that time had no living parents, siblings, or aunts and uncles. They had all been killed in the Guatemalan civil war. Yet she continued working for the peaceful resolution of the conflict while heading a human rights commission named in honor of her father. Her story had been told in the bestselling biography "I, Rigoberta".
Facing embarrassment if Rigoberta received the prize, the Guatemalan government presented the names of other equally deserving Guatemalan indigenous women and lobbied on their behalf.
At the time the peace prize was to be announced, I had as houseguests two distinguished Guatemalans who were living in exile in Mexico--Guillermo Toriello and his wife Esperanza Salguero. During the time period of 1944 --1954, Toriello had served as ambassador to the US, UN, OAS and foreign minister of Guatemala. As such he signed the United Nations Charter for Guatemala in San Francisco in 1945. Toriello spoke out repeatedly at the UN warning of the dangers facing the Guatemalan people if a rightwing coup were to occur. In fact the coup did occur, and what followed was a terrible, 36-year-long chapter in Guatemala’s history. In exile Toriello actively worked on behalf of Guatemala's people in international settings, leading to the UN distancing itself from him. As the youngest signer of the UN Charter, he outlived all the rest yet, understandably, he was not invited to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the UN.
The morning the chairman of the Nobel Committee announced that Rigoberta Menchu had been chosen to receive the award I was preparing breakfast and looking forward to being the one to tell Guillermo that we needed to celebrate, but he had already heard the news on shortwave radio. With a beaming smile, Guillermo said, "I need to talk with Rigoberta and congratulate her. Please put me in touch with her."
I motioned towards the telephone and told him he was welcome to use it, but his response was "I don't know were to find her." We knew she was in Guatemala, but that was all. I told Guillermo, "Neither do I." Playing on my pride he said "I wouldn't have asked you to make the call if I wasn't sure you could find her."
Those of you who lived here back then certainly remember how we would reach the international operator-- by dialing 09, the two longest turns around the rotary dial, over and over again until our finger was sore. Finally, one answered. I explained the need to reach Rigoberta Menchu and that I had no phone number for her, nor did I even know what city she was in. All I knew was that she was in Guatemala -- somewhere. The operator rose to the challenge. On an open line I heard her call Guatemala's international switchboard and give the same explanation to the Guatemalan operator who I heard shout out, "¿Donde está Rigoberta?" ("Where is Rigoberta?"). Just like that; no last name. Within a minute I was saying "Doña Rigoberta, Guillermo Toriello is going to speak with you," and she proceeded to receive his congratulations.
That morning the press swarmed the presidential palace in Guatemala City. The Guatemalan president was asked if he was going to receive and congratulate Rigoberta, now an instantly and internationally famous Guatemalan woman. The president told the press that he certainly would like to meet with her but unfortunately there was no time available on his calendar between then and when the awards ceremony would be held in December.
Mexico's president, on the other hand, sent his Presidential Boeing 757 to Guatemala City to pick her up. This Mayan indigenous woman, wearing her traditional clothing, arrived in Mexico City for a heroine's reception in the Zocalo. The streets from the airport to the National Palace were lined with school children waving Mexican and Guatemalan flags. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari accompanied Rigoberta out onto the main balcony of the Palace and introduced her to the cheering crowd in the Zocalo saying "I feel like Mexico has received the Peace Prize." Indeed, like Guillermo Toriello, Rigoberta Menchu had lived most of her time in exile in Mexico.
In her acceptance speech in Oslo, Rigoberta said that display space had been made available for the parchment certificate and the medal representing her Nobel Prize in Mexico City's Templo Mayor museum. If you've never seen a Nobel Peace Prize, I suggest you stop by that museum a block north of the National Palace. Both items are on display in a glass case at the base of the stairway leading up to the permanent exhibit area.
Rigoberta's award was predictable. Not so easy to predict this years awardee. Stand by to be surprised Friday morning.