Monday, July 24, 2017

Memoria histórica/historical memory

The last decade or so has seen a huge battle over the history and memory of the armed conflict. Well, maybe the battle has gone on since the conflict ended nearly 20 years ago. But undoubtedly it has heated up with the genocide trial, and the other high profile cases such as Sepur Zarco (sexual slavery of Q'eqchi women) and Cremopaz -- a military encampment in Alta Verapaz. How is that history to be remember and represented throughout Guatemala is an open question, and this is the subject of a new mini-project I am starting now.

It's been simmering in the back of my mind for some time. During my first trip, or maybe my second, to Guatemala, a friend asked me to find a plaque that had been installed in the town square of San Andrés Sajcabajá in Quiché, his hometown, that had been placed to commemorate the victims of a massacre there, and to photograph his father's name - his father was a community leader killed in the massacre, which was what had prompted my friend to flee Guatemala as a young boy and seek refuge in the U.S. I found the plaque and photographed it. Later, still on one of my early trips, a nun in Zacualpa showed me a chapel in the parish house at the church. The chapel had been used as a torture chamber and there were brass handles (like drawer pulls) on the ceiling beams that had been used to suspend people by their arms while they were tortured. After the war ended, the church had made a decision to keep the room as a reminder. The handles were left on the wooden beams, and parishoners had made small crosses bearing the names of their loved ones who  had been killed or disappeared, hanging from the ceiling. A few years later, on another trip to Zacualpa - this might have been in 2011 -- there was a large monument in the outdoor courtyard of the parish, a space where people frequently came to rest and escape the sun on market days (as the church is right on the main market square). 

On another occasion, prior to 2011, I visited the family of a friend whose mother had been burned alive, along with her two young siblings. There was no formal marker or plaque but we went to the spot in the cornfields where their house had been, which the sister said was the site, and lit a candle and left some flowers.

About a year ago, just walking along La Sexta (Sixth Avenue), one of the main thoroughfares of Zona 1, the historic district, which is where I usually stay, I noticed a small museum on the eastern side of the street. Kaji Tulam, Casa de la Memory -- house of memory. I went in, viewed the exhibit, and didn't think much more about it.

There are other forms of historical marking -- graffiti on the walls, the 8-1/2x11 photocopied leaflets that the group H.I.J.O.S. posts around Zona 1 -- each bearing a photograph of a person who was disappeared, with the date of disappearance or date of death (if know) and the name, under the slogan "Donde están?" (Where are they?). After the disappearances of the 43 Mexican students in Ayotzinapa, there was a lot of graffiti about the 43. About two years ago, during the anti-government protests, I noticed that someone had made a series of stencils all around the Zona 1. The pattern at the center was the same, but each one bore the name of one of the students, and a number:  18/43 (18 out of 43), 16/43 (16 out of 43). I photographed the ones I saw but I don't think I photographed all 43.

History is written on the walls -- and not only in heavily populated areas like the capital. But I started to get interested in how the history of the armed conflict was represented and marked in more permanent ways in public space.

So, as I was planning this trip, I decided that I wanted to start looking at memory sites in Guatemala. I've spent part of the last two days doing this in the capital.. and will be posting some of my photos and thoughts.

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