Political Memory at Work in Latin America

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My recent trip to El Salvador and Argentina focused heavily on ‘sites of memory,’ locations where events of massive political violence had occurred and where attempts to learn from them are underway. These two countries have experienced extreme social conflict—military dictatorship, widespread repression, massacres and ‘disappearances.’ The recent practices of (relatively) free and fair elections, civilian government and reconciliation have led to a modicum of social peace and political cooperation. However, the scars of past trauma and perceptions of injustice, coupled with current instances of actual injustice haunt Salvadoran and Argentinean citizens.

El Salvador

After a long trip we arrived at Perquin. In this zone, once host to intense rebel activity, demobilized guerrillas founded the Museum of the Salvadoran Revolution. Carlos, our guide, was one of the former fighters who had, with their own hands, built the museum to commemorate the sacrifice of fallen comrades, which stands as a part of the continuing struggle for justice. Knowing nothing about museums, they had used traditional construction methods ill-suited to hanging frames and cases. The simple rooms showcased guerrilla leaders, especially women; the weapons and equipment they used, many of them homemade; and a replica of Radio Venceremos, the rebels’ main means of communication and propaganda. Outside a crater marked one of the many indiscriminate 500-pound bombs dropped by the Army.

The prize exhibit: remains of a helicopter brought down by guerrilla forces. The crash killed Lieut. Col. Monterrosa, commander of Atlacatl Battalion implicated in the El Mozote massacre. The massacre took place in December 1981 when the military’s US-trained forces slaughtered around 1000 civilians, including over three hundred children. Eyewitness reports in the US press were denied by the Reagan administration to secure Congressional approval of continued military aid to the killers.


(Caption: Commemorative mural in El Mozote)

In El Mozote the next day, we stood in front of the main memorial, a simple stone wall adorned with the names of the victims. Our guide, Catalina, was 12 at the time of the massacre. When the Army was ordering the population of the surrounding area to concentrate itself in El Mozote—ostensibly for ‘its own protection’ during coming military operations—she and her family had hidden elsewhere because she had a deformed foot and was unable to walk that far. Her deformity saved their lives.


(Caption: El Mozote victims’ names in memorial)

Catalina and other volunteers are part of the local historical committee trained by Rufina Amaya, the only known adult survivor of El Mozote. She had run away after her husband and four of her five children were killed. She has her own monument on the site honoring her as the keeper and transmitter of memory.

In San Salvador we visited the University of Central America. On November 16, 1989 army soldiers killed six Jesuit priests teaching at the University, and their housekeeper and her daughter. On my visit in 1990 I had seen the rooms where the murders took place and some simple displays. The Oscar Romero Center and Martyrs Museum added powerful exhibits about the killings of religious figures during the war. Most memorable was the display of the clothes of the priest-professors hanging side by side—including a bathrobe and slippers. Their ghostly presence served as vivid evidence, bullet holes and bloodstains, of a crime initially denied, as so many others were. They evoked the individuality and humanity of the victims and highlighted a religious tradition of memorializing martyrs through relics. In the library, I asked a professor if groups of soldiers or recruits are brought to the museum. This seemed likely as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), transformed from guerrilla force to political party, controls the Presidency. He chided me for my naiveté, telling me that, although much has changed, the military is still the military.


In Buenos Aires, I was most interested in meeting the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (MPM), who have marched weekly since 1977 seeking information about ‘disappeared’ sons and daughters. The majority of disappearances occurred during the 1976-83 military dictatorship. I talked to Mirta Baravalle, one of the 14 founding Madres. Her pregnant daughter Ana Maria, and son-in-law, Julio Cesar Gallizi, had been kidnapped August 17, 1976. Mirta wore a white scarf with the names of her loved ones written on it. This ‘uniform’ of the MPM is stenciled in a circle around the square (historically, the capital’s most important political gathering place). The MPM believe it is necessary to have commemorations to support the cause of justice and human rights everywhere. The MPM was joined by a lively contingent of the Teresa Rodríguez Movement for Work, Dignity and Social Change, who appeared to be largely indigenous. Their spokesperson, Osvaldo Vazquez, said they were unemployed people that had been supporting the MPM for several years. He also said that the Kirchner government is doing little or nothing for the downtrodden and is co-opting the symbolism of the MPM for their own gain. This was evidenced by the arrival of another group (with mass-produced scarves) who drove up chanting pro-government slogans.


(Caption: A Madre de la Plaza de Mayo never forgets. Mirta Baravalle’s sign asks: “Where are they?”)

I also visited several other sites of memory in the city, including several cement memorials made by the families of demonstrators who had been killed by police. These were affixed to the sidewalk in the exact spots where they had been killed. The protests, which ultimately helped bring down the government, took place in December 2001 at the height of the Argentine economic crisis. The stark rectangles, like flat gravestones, with colorful pieces of ceramics inlaid around them, appeared within days of the deaths, and reappeared even when police smashed them. Over a decade later, they are an everyday reminder of the potential costs of political action. Another site recently uncovered during freeway construction where many of the desaparecidos had been secretly imprisoned and tortured is now preserved as a memorial. A wall stands with dozens of photographs of some of the 1500 believed to have been held there. This is one of hundreds of such sites that are thought to exist in and around the capital. Several others are being excavated and turned into memorials.


(Caption: A plaque for a piquetero slain in the 2001 revolt. To the left are the remains of the original plaque, destroyed by police upon being laid; it was replaced within a few days.)


(Caption: A torture and detention site in the neighborhood of San Telmo, Buenos Aires. The inscriptions read “San Telmo remembers,” “We have 30,000 reasons to continue the struggle,” and “No forgetting, no forgiving.”)

Two phenomena emerged that confounded my idea of ‘progressive’ Argentina: the ubiquity of ‘Evita’ Peron, wife of authoritarian leader Juan Peron, and popular sentiments regarding the Malvinas (Falkland) islands, subject of the 1982 war with Great Britain. My forthrightly leftist guides maintained that Evita was a sacred figure for the ‘descamisados,’ or ‘shirtless ones’—the underclass—who she had almost single-handedly elevated from “animals” to citizens. The rooms at the central trade union federation where her embalmed body had lain for three years are now stuffed with shrines and mementos, a concentrated version of what I found around the city. To mark the 60th anniversary of her death, the government chose her image for the 100-peso bill. As to the Malvinas, the visual landscape sported widespread graffiti declaring “The Malvinas are ours!” Multiple official monuments and an encampment on the Plaza de Mayo, of veterans who have been denied combat benefits, makes sure the war—such a fiasco it brought down the military regime—maintains a firm presence in collective memory.

The Power of Memory

The Salvadoran civil war cost around 75,000 lives; the Argentine ‘dirty war’ (my guides insisted on the term ‘state terrorism’) at least 13,000—compare these to our trauma of 9/11 with less than 3,000 dead. Survivors like Mirta still don’t know the exact fate of their loved ones. The Salvadoran and Argentine perpetrators (and US sponsors), with the exception of a few low-level soldiers, have escaped justice. Yet the people do not forget. Organizations like the Instituto Espacio para la Memoria (Institute Space for Memory) are working to illuminate and preserve sites of memory across South and Central America. Though survival issues are pressing in these countries, it became clear to me that issues of memory and justice are essential as well.

About Richard Esbenshade

22-year resident of Urbana, taught history for several years at UIUC, specializing in Eastern Europe; longtime activist in peace/green/social justice/solidarity movements; father of two, including Public i alumna Shara.
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