Friday, August 4, 2017

Historical memory and the politics of "urban cleansing": walking through Zona 1

Don Salomón, who had talked me through the Cuarto de las Ausencias, gave me the locations of several other historical markers in Zona 1 relating to the armed conflict: on the gates of the Cathedral; a plaque along the Sexta -- the main pedestrian thoroughfare -- for a student leader who had been killed in the 1970s; another on la Sexta for other student leaders; a plaque commemorating trade union leaders who had been killed; one by the conservatory of music; and another marking where the poet Luis de Lión was captured. So I set off to look for these. 

However, plaques are not the only way that historical memory is inserted into the urban landscape, and they may be one of the methods that is least like to catch the attention of a passerby who is not, as I was, actively looking for the plaques. The walls of houses, stores, abandoned buildings are plastered with posters and graffiti regarding the armed  conflict (or current-day political corruption). There is one group that regularly posters the walls of Zona 1, H.I.J.O.S. -- which means "children". It's an acronym for  Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y Silencio -- sons and daughters for identity and justice against forgetting and silence. It was founded by children of the disappeared in Argentina and Guatemala in the 1990s They make 8-1/2x11 flyers with the names and photographs of people who were killed or disappeared during the armed conflict, usually under the heading "Donde están ahora?" (where are they now?). Often I will pass a wall that has 10 or 12 of these posters, each for a different person, or sometimes even more. They are very low-tech -- black and white photocopies, with simple text (the name, sometimes the birthdate and date or disappearance) and then at the bottom "Ni olvido ni perdón" (neither forgetting nor pardon") and "H.I.J.O.S. Guatemala". 

The disappearance of the 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Mexico, in September, 2014, also seems to have resonated strongly in Guatemala City, and some artists/activists created a series of stencils that have been placed on walls throughout Zona 1, each one commemorating one of the disappeared (and presumably executed) students. I've come upon many of them, but haven't tried to map them to see if they were painted in any kind of order. I started to notice these stencils in the summer of 2015 when I was in Guatemala City during some of the anti-government protests that led to the resignation of both the Vice President and President. Those same stencils are still visible, along with some more recent ones I found.

Returning to the plaques -- they are mostly installed on the sidewalks, sometimes on the sides of buildings, and one if them is at the entryway to a shopping arcade. But I never saw anyone looking at them -- even when I was standing nearby taking photographs, hardly anyone bothered to look at what I was photographing. Most of these plaques are in places with a lot of foot traffic, but the plaques themselves are fairly pedestrian -- nothing in the physical appearance of the plaque would lead you to think that its contents were anything other than boring historical information.

At the same time, there has been an effort by the municipal government to "clean up" la Sexta -- particularly by cracking down on "walking vendors" (vendedores ambulantes), long a fixture of la Sexta and urban marketplaces throughout Guatemala. In previous visits, walking along la Sexta, I would come upon vendors carrying half-mannequins (well, the bottom half of a mannequin) clad in leggings, spandex shorts or tight jeans. It was a little jarring to see plastic versions of bottom half of women's bodies being carried around. Other vendors sold watches, medicines, candies, you name it. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans depend upon the informal economy; for recent migrants to the city or those without specific marketable skills, there are few other means to earning a living.  Late in 2016, the government started to crack down on street vendors and there was a huge confrontation that led to an increased police presence along La Sexta -- many in riot gear. The vendors and the Human Rights Ombudsman's office tried to meet with city officials to negotiate an agreement that would allow the vendors to sell on the street for a few days during the Christmas season, but the officials would only meet with the Ombudsman's office and not the vendors. 

And now there are signs along the Sexta explaining why the city doesn't want the vendors to be there. All in the name of urban improvement.


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