Quest to Interview a Nobel Laureate
Although the spiritual ceremonies were intriguing, the best part of the trip was yet to come. I had the bright idea of "wouldn't it be neat if we could interview Rigoberta Menchú Tum, the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 1992." She lived in Guatemala. I was almost sure she would be in the country because of the end of the 13th Baktun.
Rigoberta Menchú Tum and her husband, Angel Camil, during an event at her weekend home outside of Guatemala City on December 20, 2012.
Before leaving for Guatemala, we began flirting with the idea of an interview in May 2012. In June 2012, we took our first steps toward making contact with Tum. First, we attempted to find an e-mail address for her on the Internet, which was not to be found. Search after search rendered us further from our goal. Then, we decided it might be good to look into past Guatemalan history to see who had been in close contact with her in Guatemala as a public political personality. The public political person may be easier to reach. This step took us about a month of searching.
We found out that the former minister of Finances in Guatemala, Lic. (attorney) Raquel Zelaya, was present at the signing of the peace agreement in Guatemala in 1996, and she knew Tum and her personal secretary. We e-mailed Zelaya, now in private economic consulting, asking if she could petition on our behalf an interview with Tum. We explained to Zelaya who we were and sent her our curriculum vitae. This process took another three to four months. Needless to say, Zelaya e-mailed Tum and copied us. The person who responded was Tum's personal secretary, Aury Cuxé. From September until December 2012, we were in direct communication with Cuxé. It was not an easy task to obtain an interview; e-mails went back and forth. It was clear from the get-go that Cuxé was Tum's gatekeeper. There was a yes, then a no, then a maybe so. It was a roller coaster of a ride.
Once in Guatemala, word got out that we were trying to obtain an interview with Tum. Lawyers, secretaries, businessmen, and others stepped in to make the interview happen. We called all of them political go-betweens. They were all very much politically connected in one way or another with the government and with Tum. Our effort soon became a community-based endeavor to help materialize our interview with the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 1992.
We were so impressed that there were people who didn't even know us and yet they were working very hard to make our goal possible. Not only was there the hype, on our part, about the end of the 13th Baktun, but the ambiguity of the Tum interview added to our hype and suspense. All of our Guatemalan activities were in hiatus until we heard from Tum or Cuxé. That meant a lot of sitting by the phone and checking in with our political go-betweens every day and carrying a cell phone at all time in case the call came. It was like an Alfred Hitchcock film, only we were in it.
Francisco Alarcón and Lydia Rodríguez, right, talked briefly with Rigoberta Menchú Tum following a series of lectures at her weekend home near Guatemala City on December 20, 2012.
On December 19 at 10:00 a.m., Cuxé called on behalf of Tum, inviting us to a special ceremonial event that would take place on December 20 at one of Tum's weekend homes outside of Guatemala City. In her invitation, she suggested we would "possibly" have the interview there if Tum was not too tired of the day's events. Excitement and nervous energy began to swirl within us. Our driver was to take us approximately 30 minutes outside of Guatemala City, then turn right on an unpaved road and veer to the right until we reached the weekend home.
We had no idea what to expect, so we did as we were told, and sure enough, there was the house with many armed men outside guarding the property. "Vinimos a entrevistar a la Dra.; la srita Cuxé nos invitó," (We've come to interview Dr. Tum. Ms. Cuxé invited us,) we told the guards. They let our car go through. When we arrived, we realized that the event was by invitation only and was not open to the public or any media. We felt honored. There were other guests from around the world: Sweden, Mexico, Italy, France, the US, and so on. It was like the United Nations. As we continued to enter the patio/yard of the weekend home, there were many indigenous people hustling and bustling around in their bright hues of yellows, reds, and blues. They were putting up awnings, dusting off chairs, running back and forth preparing what appeared to be a big event. Cuxé came out of the house and greeted us. She informed us that la Dra. was not ready for the interview as she was preparing for the event to take place later that afternoon. "No pueden tomar fotos," (You can't take pictures), she told us before she went back inside. We sat there waiting, wondering what was going to happen. If not the interview, what was everyone running and preparing for? And how many people were to come? As 5:00 p.m. approached, more and more people began arriving and sitting under the awning where a temporary stage was being created. Soon Martita, Tum's niece, came out to greet us and asked us to join the event that was to take place under the awnings. The event that started at 5:00 was a series of Mayan lectures presented by spiritual leaders and Tum herself. The two-hour lectures were followed by the showing of a new film titled Renacimiento de los Mayas (the Renaissance of the Mayas). The English version is still in the making. The producers, Dawn Engle and Ivan Suvanjieff, had traveled from California to present the Spanish version for the first time to the invited guests. The producers gave us a copy of the special edition that was played that night, and we felt privileged to receive it.
Unfortunately, the events ended on December 20 around 9:00 p.m., and Tum became busy attending to all of her guests. We were fortunate that we were able to sit down with her for 15 minutes that day to lobby briefly face-to-face with la Dra. for a one-on-one interview.
"I'm traveling between December 22 and December 26 and then again from January 2 to January 15," she told us. Our jaws dropped with sorrow. Did that mean she was saying no, though the word never came up? How could it be that we were so close to her and yet unable to interview her? But "in between these dates," she said, "let's see what we can do." There was hope. It was 10:00 p.m. and Tum had red, watery eyes and she was yawning. She informed us that she and her staff had been up since 4:00 a.m. getting ready for that evening's event and the events that would take place on December 21. She politely stated that she was not in any condition at that moment to give an interview because "no tengo cabeza" (I don't have a clear head), meaning she was exhausted. She invited us to stay and join her and the others to eat some tamales (a dish made from corn dough and wrapped in plantain leaves) and drink atole (a hot beverage made from corn dough) or coffee. Both of these items are very traditional indigenous foods dating back to Pre-Columbian times. We walked out with Tum to the back patio and joined her and her guests for a cup of hot atole, realizing that an interview would not take place that night.
When Tum does give interviews, they are usually not one-on-one. Therefore, getting an interview from her made it even more desirable to attain what many considered impossible.
We returned to Guatemala City wondering if we were ever going to be able to interview Tum. The following day was December 21, the infamous catastrophic date everyone predicted. We decided to remain in the city close to phone lines in case an invitation for an interview was extended to us. We still had hope. Therefore, on December 21, we were up and on our way to the spiritual ceremonies at Kaminaljuyu, trying to remain in the city.
On the morning of December 27, we received a phone call from our political go-betweens saying that Tum had agreed to the personal interview. She had extended a personal invitation to her home in Mixco, Guatemala.
Lydia Rodríguez, left, during an interview with Rigoberta Menchú Tum on December 28, 2012, at Tum's home in Mixco.
"No way!" we thought. "Could this really be happening?" We scrabbled to get all of our interview materials together: notepads, numerous pens, recorders, cameras, etc. Once again down the checklist we went. Our instructions were to be escorted to her house. The following day, December 28, a chauffeur picked us up. In the 20- to 30-minute drive, I tried envisioning how to start the conversation: "Hello, I'm the pest. You know, the one who has been bugging you for months." Or, "Hello, it's a pleasure meeting you. ..." Thoughts ran rampant, without any cohesive logic. How can I be so close to the Nobel laureate and not have a decent introductory sentence?
There we were with our escorts on her patio behind large steel doors hidden from the public. Within minutes, the glass doors to the house opened and out walked Tum. She walked toward us with a friendly smile, dressed in her traditional Mayan clothing. Before sitting down, she greeted us with a handshake. I guess I was just stunned. I could not believe we were in the Nobel laureate's home for a genuine interview. "Is this for real? Or, am I daydreaming." I found myself blank of thoughts. "Earth to Lydia, you need to get started. Remember the purpose. Focus!" I thought. Meanwhile, Tum had sat down, still with a soft smile on her face. She stated to us, "A ver en qué les puedo ayudar?" (Let's see here, how can I help you?). In that split second, I managed to gather a half-decent sentence to begin a dialogue, "Dra., muchas gracias por esta entrevista. …" (Dr., thank you very much for this interview), and I quickly pulled out the sheet of questions for her to look over in case she did not feel comfortable answering any. Her response was, "Tú dale, pregunta todo lo que quieras," (Go for it; ask all the questions you want), not even glancing at the sheet of questions. With her response, she broke the ice of anxiety and we felt more at ease with her. I turned on the small recorder and the interview began but quickly turned into a conversation.
Tum is a very charismatic and down to earth. She began joking with us, laughing as though we were her longtime friends that she had not seen in quite some time. We felt very comfortable with her. We asked questions, conversed, and let her talk. We did a great deal of listening as she had a lot to say. After an hour and a half of conversation, Martita came out. I knew it was time to wrap up the interview/conversation. We thanked Tum for the extended time she gave us, snapped some shots with her, and lastly she dedicated and autographed some books for us. We left her house and headed back to Guatemala City. On our way back, we were still trying to absorb the fact that we actually had an interview with Rigoberta Menchú Tum, who graciously donated an hour and a half of time in her house. We were there!