Archiving State Violence and Shaping Historical Memory in Latin America

AHA Session 6
Conference on Latin American History 1
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Wilson Room A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Kirsten Weld, Harvard University
Kirsten Weld, Harvard University

Session Abstract

Recent scholarship has addressed memory struggles in the wake of state violence in Latin America, as well as other regions, including Africa, Europe, and Southeast Asia. Scholars have also asked both how researchers approach archives and how archives are constructed in historical context. By investigating the role that archives play in shaping historical memories of state violence, this panel combines these historiographical issues in the spirit of the AHA theme, “Disagreement, Debate, and Discussion.” We explore how the documents we research find their way onto the shelves of national libraries, smaller documentation centers, and into digitized collections. We ask what greater purposes, besides cataloguing the past, the authors and collectors of those documents intended for them to serve. We consider what their classification systems can tell us about race, gender, and class.

We also grapple with questions such as: Do some types of documents carry greater weight in historical memory than others? Do written, archived documents provide order and legitimacy to oral narratives that circulate spontaneously in society? What roles do government documents, such as truth commission reports and declassified files, play in historical narratives, and how do we as historians use them responsibly? Does the authority of the state, even if a repressive one, authenticate survivors’ accounts of violence?

To begin our discussion, Claudio Barrientos analyzes oral archives and document collections in Santiago de Chile that former political prisoners and human rights groups created at former torture center sites and at the Museum of Memory following Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. He explores the politics of memory in the historical processes leading to the archives’ creation, their narratives of state violence, and how their constructions of gender and ethnicity may be used as frameworks to build different archetypes of victims and survivors.

Next, Brandi Townsend asks how mental health professionals working with Chilean human rights NGOs muddled boundaries between private and public by encouraging victims of Pinochet’s violence to publicly denounce the traumatic events they revealed in therapy. Speaking aloud one’s trauma, organizing it into a written testimony, and archiving it at an NGO for use in human rights reports and future truth commissions was part of a torture victim’s psychic healing and political commitment. It was also part of a memory-making process that was key to Chile’s social reconciliation.

Gladys McCormick shifts the conversation to Mexico, showing how recently-declassified police files unveiled a wealth of information on activist Jacinto López, yet López remains a virtually unknown figure in the collective, heroic memory of the opposition to state authoritarianism. She posits explanations for why López faded from historical memory as less-noteworthy activists came to represent the opposition’s heroic ideal. She also discusses methodological questions about using declassified files to uncover significant, yet overlooked, persons and events in Mexican history.

Kirsten Weld, author of the forthcoming Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala, will chair and comment. This panel hopes to engage with historians of all regions about how we think about archives and document caches in relation to historical memory.

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