The Memory Turn in Latin America

Charles Hatfield
The University of Texas at Dallas

Volume 6, 2014

In his 1987 book entitled México Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization, the anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla complained that the Mexican middle class had no “desire to remember” (57) the “precolonial world” (3). By suggesting that the middle class—and other members of what he referred to as the “imaginary Mexico”—had no interest in remembering the precolonial world, Bonfil did not mean to imply that the precolonial world was unknown. In fact, Bonfil acknowledged not only that “every schoolchild knows something about the precolonial world” (3) but also that the precolonial world was “depicted in murals, museums, [and] sculptures” (55).[1] Moreover, he added, “the great archaeological monuments stand as national symbols”, and Mexicans take “pride in a past that is […] assumed to be glorious” (3). Thus Bonfil was not using the concept of memory as shorthand for knowledge. On the contrary, Bonfil believed that the difference between “imaginary Mexico” and “México profundo” was reducible in part to two different ways of relating to the past: whereas “imaginary Mexico” had no “desire to remember”, “México profundo” actually “remember[s] history” (35). As a result, when Bonfil wrote that one of his aims was to “point toward a way of thinking about our history” (69), what he meant was thinking about it not as history but rather as memory.

Leaving aside the fact it is hard to understand how someone who was alive in 1987 could remember the precolonial past, we can begin to understand why Bonfil would have wanted the precolonial past to be remembered rather than known. In order for the precolonial past to function as what he called a “mirror in which […] to see our own reflection” (18), we must think of it not as “something apart from ourselves” but rather as “our own past” since, as Bonfil seemed to imply, history is about “them“, whereas memory is about “us” (3). However, before the precolonial past can become “our own past” that we remember rather than “something that happened long ago” that we learn about, we have to imagine a way for the past to reemerge in the present as something that we can actually experience (3).[2] This, at least in part, explains why Bonfil insisted that the precolonial past should be seen as “present and alive” (174) rather than “dead” (3). It is also, at least in part, why Bonfil was committed to the idea of the “continuity of Mesoamerican civilization” (62) enabled by the “persistence of the peoples who preserved it and brought it into the present” (159). Indeed, the idea that indigenous cultural practices in the present are aspects of the precolonial past that have been “brought […] into the present” is what is needed in order to think that the precolonial past can be remembered rather than known.

Bonfil’s enthusiasm for a remembered history belonged to a broader turn in Latin Americanist thought in which memory began to take the place of culture in conceptions of Latin American difference. The preservation and assertion of Latin American identitarian difference has been thought, at least since the late nineteenth century, to constitute the cornerstone of a politics of resistance. The substance of that difference, of course, was traditionally thought to be cultural. If, however, beginning in the 1980s, globalization seemed to threaten the persistence of cultural difference, one of the solutions generated by Latin Americanist thought was to locate identitarian difference in a remembered history so that cultural difference in the past could constitute the identitarian difference of people in the present.[3] Thus if the imperative in foundational nineteenth-century Latin Americanist texts such as José Martí’s “Nuestra América” was for Latin Americans to actually practice a supposedly indigenous or autochthonous culture, the vital message beginning in the 1980s was that they should remember it. A variety of theoretical projects—such as performance and postmemory—followed suit to make those memories possible, either by imagining ways to make the past alive in the present (so that it could be experienced and remembered), or by imagining technologies that could, as Diana Taylor says of performance, “transmit” memory (xvi).

Memory projects have been not only theoretical but also political: Bonfil’s México Profundo was published toward the end of a decade that in Mexico that was characterized by a large-scale financial crisis resulting in the first wave of neoliberal economic reforms, falling wages, unemployment, and rapidly increasing income inequality (Anderson and Garber 152-153).[4] Bonfil, for his part, noted that “the crisis has made the rich richer and everyone else poorer” (155), and suggested that a renewed or recovered relationship to Mesoamerican civilization could offer a politics of resistance and “repair the damages produced by a savage capitalism” (156). More recently, Sandra Lorenzano has suggested that “if economic neoliberalism has counteracted any labor or social development in the region”, or if “social fabrics have unraveled with profound losses in human and civil rights”, then “memory is one of the only remaining spaces of resistance” (250-251).

If the turn toward memory was understood to be both theoretical and political, my argument here is that it entailed bad theories and an even worse politics. It might be said that the problem with the politics of memory is that it emphasizes an affective identification with people in the past at the expense of a class-based identification with people in the present. However, the real problem with the politics of memory is that it sought to keep intact not only the idea that identitarian difference is the cornerstone of resistance, but also the idea that the meaningful differences between people are identitarian ones that should be preserved through memory rather than economic ones that should be eliminated through politics. The fact that the rise of the discourse of memory coincided with the rise of neoliberalism, in other words, should lead us to see memory as an epiphenomenon of neoliberalism rather than a mode of resistance to it.[5]

1. Culture

As Alberto Moreiras argued in The Exhaustion of Difference: The Politics of Latin American Cultural Studies (2001), one of the central tasks of Latin Americanism has been “preserving, no matter in how contradictory or tense a manner, an idea of Latin America as the repository of a cultural difference that would resist assimilation by Eurocentric modernity” (44). Undergirding this task was the idea that cultural difference was already at hand and merely ignored or submerged beneath imported ideologies and practices. As Carlos Alonso has argued, given that Latin American cultural discourse was predicated on the conviction that the desired culture was “consubstantial with the community”, its recoverability was “always […] portrayed as an imminent achievement” (12). Thus even though Latin American cultural discourse depended on the assertion of a “cultural crisis” in which the region’s cultural difference was being threatened, it also depended on the idea that cultural difference “never really left there in the first place” (12).[6] In “Nuestra América” (1891), for example, Martí wrote that the “Indian circled about us”, but was “mute”; the “black” sang “his heart’s music in the night”, but was “alone and unknown” (293). In Forjando patria (1916), Manuel Gamio declared that the “Mayas of Quintana Roo, like the Lacandónes of Chiapas, the Maya of the Petén, and a few other groups […] live in almost the same state in which their ancestors were surprised by the Conquest” (154). Nicolás Guillén’s prologue to Sóngoro cosongo (1931) identified a crisis of African culture in Cuba, only to ultimately affirm the inescapable persistence of an Afrocubanidad through biology: the “African injection in this land is so profound”, he wrote, “and so many capillary currents cross and crisscross in our well-irrigated social hydrography” (1:114). In his Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928), despite the claims that “the conquest most clearly appears to be a break in continuity” (3), or that colonization brought about the disappearance of an indigenous economy “together with the culture it nourished” (35-36), José Carlos Mariátegui affirmed “the survival of the Indian ‘community’ and of elements of practical socialism in indigenous agriculture and life” (33). And in 1979 Octavio Paz declared that in Mexico “the old beliefs […] are still present, barely hidden under a veneer of Christianity” (362).[7] Moreover, Paz argued, “the Mexicans’ entire life is steeped in Indian culture—the family, love, friendship, attitudes toward one’s father and mother, popular legends, the forms of civility and life in common, the image of authority and political power, the vision of death and sex, work and festivity” (362).

By the 1980s, however, confidence in the persistence of an indigenous or autochthonous cultural presence was shaken by the increasing dominance of globalized U.S. culture. As Jorge Larraín suggests, by “the end of the 1980s […] the project of rapidly advancing to modernity, even at the cost of identity, was becoming dominant in Latin America” (172). Larraín goes on to argue that “the stage that opens up after the end of dictatorships [in the 1980s] continues with, and accelerates, economic and political modernization under the influence of an already consolidated neoliberal ideology”; the result is that “concerns about [Latin American autochthonous] identity recede as neoliberal optimism gets the upper hand everywhere” (172). In a 1994 interview with Claire Brewster, Carlos Monsiváis reflected on the 1988 election of Carlos Salinas to the Mexican presidency, which began a period of major neoliberal economic reforms culminating in the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement on January 1, 1994. Monsiváis stated that it was “an incredible time”, because many Mexicans seemed to think, “‘Wow, we’ve made it, for the first time we’re joining the First World.'” (Brewster 150).[8] During a time when some prominent intellectuals championed neoliberal reforms, many others grew anxious about the possibility of Latin American difference represented in, or constituted by, actual cultural practices. Whereas in 1916 Gamio could claim that “75 percent” of the population of Latin America was “composed of men of […] indigenous language, and indigenous civilization” (25), in 2001 García Canclini observed that the “aesthetic taste” of Mexicans was heavily influenced by U.S. film, which had “a 60-85 percent market share in all venues: movie houses, television, and video” (Consumers and Citizens 114).

If some Latin Americanist thought in the 1980s was anxious about the possibility of preserving identitarian difference as constituted by culture, the commitment to the idea of identitarian difference itself remained intact. The new challenge for Latin Americanist thought was to find ways to preserve the idea of Latin American difference without the cultural practices that would constitute the substance of that difference. The dominant strategy that emerged was to locate identity and difference in history, and to find ways to make history constitute part of the experience and thus the identity of people who had not lived through it in the first place. This was the work of memory. Memory is what Latin Americanist thought turned to when it gave up on Latin American culture, but not on the identitarian difference that was constituted or represented by that culture. In this way, memory functioned to radically separate identity and culture, so that identity could be thought of as no longer dependent on, or derived from, cultural practices in the present. To see the extent to which memory performs the function of older forms of identity, we need not look any further than Jeanette Rodríguez and Ted Fortier’s Cultural Memory: Resistance, Faith, and Identity (2007). In the introduction, the authors write that “‘sangre llama a sangre’ (blood calls to blood) is an expression or metaphor that alludes to blood as the carrier of one’s life, which is in turn connected to others” (4). Moreover, they add, blood “is the life force that allows one access to the affective, intuitive bond of community that surges up without any rigid or rational trappings” (4). Thus “cultural memory”, they write, is in fact “blood calling out to blood” (4).[9]

One of neoliberalism’s main assumptions, as Manfred Steger and Ravi K. Roy have pointed out, is that single global “markets and consumerist principles are universally applicable because they appeal to all (self-interested) human beings regardless of their social context” (53). In this sense, (cultural) difference seems to be an obstacle to creating consumers and workers within and for a global market. This emerged as one of the contradictions of neoliberalism, inasmuch as neoliberalism also requires identitarian accounts of (noneconomic) difference. One of the main strategies of neoliberalism, as Walter Benn Michaels has persuasively argued, is giving “poor people identities” in place of classes, so that they can be treated as “victims of discrimination” rather than of exploitation (Trouble 172-173). In other words, Michaels argues, neoliberalism is fundamentally committed to redescribing “the material difference between people […] as cultural difference” in order to perpetuate the illusion that “as long as people get to keep on speaking their own languages […] there’s no reason for alarm” (161-162). Charles R. Hale argues that the rise of the official and institutionalized recognition of cultural difference perfectly coincides with neoliberalism. Hale notes that the assumption that the “victories of indigenous cultural rights” keep “the devastating effects of neoliberalism at bay” is “misleading”, because “proponents of the neoliberal doctrine pro-actively endorse a substantive, if limited, version of indigenous cultural rights, as a means to resolve their own problems and political agendas” (487). For example, “in the same initiative of constitutional reform in 1992 the Mexican state recognized the ‘pluri-cultural character’ of the society (article 4), and eliminated the cornerstone of the revolution’s historic agrarian reform (article 27)” (494).[13] Neoliberalism is thus about “simultaneous cultural affirmation and economic marginalization” (493). But the seemingly paradoxical point is that while actual cultural practices get in the way of neoliberalism’s agenda for global consumer and labor markets, the general idea of identitarian difference does not—in fact, it is desired. Neoliberalism needs a noneconomic vocabulary for thinking about difference in order to obfuscate the economic differences—which is to say, inequalities—that it creates.

Memory, by attempting to preserve the idea of Latin American difference in the face of the disappearing cultural practices that used to mark that difference, thus serviced the contradictory demands of the neoliberal project. Memory de-emphasized culture as the basis for Latin American difference while simultaneously functioning as a mechanism for affirming that there was such a thing as Latin American difference in the first place—only this time constituted by a remembered history. The advocates of neoliberalism themselves explicitly championed this idea: when Jaime Serra Puche (Carlos Salinas’s Secretary of Commerce and Industry), was asked whether NAFTA would negatively affect traditional Mexican culture, he famously replied, “This has little relevance for Mexico. If you have time, you should see the exhibition ‘Mexico, Thirty Centuries of Splendor’ and you will realize there is no cause for concern” (qtd. in García Canclini, “North Americans” 143). Serra Puche thus refocuses a question about cultural identity in the present onto culture in the past, implying that Mexicans will always have an identity because of their history.

2. History

In the 1960s, people’s memories of the things they actually experienced were seen as important resources for correcting ostensibly inaccurate or incomplete accounts of the past. In this sense, memory was understood in terms of a project that entailed turning memory into history. In 1963, for example, the Cuban scholar José Antonio Portuondo declared that up to that point, there had been “no history among us that did not study the rise and fall of the dominant hegemonic class: the [Cuban] bourgeoisie” (qtd. in Schulman 8). What was needed, Portuondo argued, was a history of “the exploited classes” and “their constant struggles” (Schulman 8). Texts such as Miguel Barnet’s Biography of a Runaway Slave (1966), a “novela-testimonio” based on the personal memories of former slave Esteban Montejo (1860-1973), initially appeared to fulfill that imperative by offering glimpses of the past that had been ignored or overlooked by official history—the very things that would have been unknowable through conventional archival sources. In 1971, Elena Poniatowska’s oral history, Massacre in Mexico, used a great number of eyewitness accounts to counter the Mexican government’s cover-up of its violent attack on student protesters and bystanders on October 2, 1968 in the Plaza de la Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City. Although the fragmentary nature of Massacre in Mexico might suggest a skepticism on the author’s part about what Beth Jörgensen calls the “the homogenizing tendencies of much conventional journalism”, opting instead for a “decentered, collective retelling of history”, the project as a whole embraces individual memory as an effective way to correct errors and omissions in official versions of the past (78-79).

By the early 1980s, the value of memory as a source for history increased as people tried to learn about and document the political abuses and human rights atrocities committed by Argentina’s military regime in the absence of other kinds of records. The 1984 report of Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP), for example, affirmed the important role that memory had played in its findings. Ernesto Sábato, who chaired the commission, remarked in his prologue upon the “arduous task” CONADEP had faced in piecing together “a shadowy jigsaw, years after the events had taken place, when all the clues had been deliberately destroyed, all documentary evidence burned, and buildings demolished”. The basis for CONADEP’s findings, Sábato pointed out, had been “the statements made by relatives or by those who managed to escape from this hell”. In the case of disappeared persons, memory, rather than “documentary evidence”, was often all that was available to attest that a missing person had ever even existed in the first place, since the regimes frequently destroyed all official records and physical traces of a person’s existence. “The idea”, as Diana Taylor rightly puts it, “was that by disappearing the documentary evidence of a human life one could erase all traces of the life itself” (63).

The publication of the 1984 CONADEP report was one of the signs that marked the rise of memory as an accepted source for knowing about the truth of the past in Latin America. Indeed, Emilio Crenzel argues that CONADEP was the first of several “truth commissions” across the region whose “reports became the main vehicles for the construction of historical truth” (1063). Kerwin Klein points out that when “historians began professionalizing in the nineteenth century, they commonly identified memories as a dubious source for the verification of historical facts” (130). Instead, written documents “seemed less amenable to distortion and thus preferable to memories” (130). But the CONADEP report overcame this by asserting that memories could offer historical facts and truth: the report was interested in turning memory into history. As Crenzel argues, the individual testimonies in the report became “a chorus of testimonies that transcends the partiality of personal experience and, at the same time, confirms its truthfulness through the voices of others” (1070). The report also presented “other forms of validating the facts” which confirmed the testimonies: it “incorporates scientific knowledge” that “ratifies the veracity of direct experience”, and cited “international science institutions” that validated the use of the report’s techniques and methods. Finally, the report validated its own narrative “by presenting a detailed account of its work, the interviews it conducted, the visits to clandestine centers, cemeteries, morgues, and hospitals, the trips it made to gather reports, and the cases it brought before the courts” (1071). Not only did the claim of “truth” make it possible for the report to install what Crenzel calls “a new official truth” (1073), it also allowed the report to function as a key piece of evidence “during the trial that led to the conviction of the military juntas” (1063). In the wake of this politically powerful harnessing of memory, as Emilia Viotti da Costa has argued, “the number of practitioners of oral history grew, as did the number of [scholarly] studies based exclusively on testimonies and interviews”, and oral history began to displace “archival research” (21). At the same time, Viotti da Costa argues, many wanted to foreground subjectivity to the point that history became merely “a confusion of subjectivities and voices” (21). Of course, the idea that all accounts of the past are necessarily subjective and contingent might be bad news for a historian seeking a truth of the past that transcends subject positions. However, for many scholars of literary and cultural studies who were seeking ways for history to give people an identity, the same idea was good news. For if we give up on the notion that there is a truth about the past and replace it with the notion that there are multiple truths about the past, then the past that is individually or communally ours becomes a marker of our difference.

José Rabasa’s account of the Acteal massacre offers a clear vision of this idea at work. On December 22, 1997, 45 members of a Christian pacifist group named “Las Abejas” were massacred in a chapel in the Chiapan village of Acteal.[10] Conflicting accounts of what happened quickly emerged. The residents of Acteal, some of whom witnessed the events, claimed that Las Abejas fell victim to state-supported paramilitary forces because of their support for the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional). Others corroborated their claims; for example, retired army brigadier General Julio César Santiago Díaz testified that the paramilitary forces were “accompanied by 40 state police officers” who were “stationed at the entrance to the village” (qtd. in Mazzei 57). However, the official Mexican government account of the massacre, produced by the Office of the Mexican Attorney General in 1998, denied any responsibility and attributed the event to “mutual grievances” that resulted from “the accumulated offences […] in the indigenous communities of the region” (qtd. in Kovic 189).

In an essay from his book entitled Without History: Subaltern Studies, the Zapatista Insurgency, and the Specter of History (2010), José Rabasa considers the competing claims about what happened at Acteal. Rabasa focuses on what he calls a “revisionist” series of articles entitled “Regreso a Acteal”, in which the Mexican journalist Hector Aguilar Camín supports the official government findings, characterizing the events at Acteal “as the collateral violence of a battle […] between Zapatistas and Priístas” (233). Rabasa rightly believes that truth is on the side of Las Abejas, but he is ultimately less concerned with what really happened than with challenging “a historical framework that seeks to destroy the face of testimony” (232). Rather than seeking the truth about the massacre, Rabasa’s concern shifts to another crime—the “assassination of memory” committed by revisionist accounts like Aguilar Camín’s (237). For Rabasa, the problem is not only that Aguilar Camín lets the government of Ernesto Zedillo off the hook for a massacre, but also that his writing “strikes at the core of the Abejas’ identity” (232).

Rabasa begins his essay by claiming to explore a “disputed truth” only to give up on the idea that there is such a thing as “truth” (234). He seeks to reframe “disputed truths” in terms other than “those based on fact and falsification”, which is really to say, truth and falsity (236). The result is that the competing accounts of what happened at Acteal are reimagined as a conflict over identity—the “revisionists”, suggests Rabasa, want to destroy it, while Las Abejas want to preserve it. Rabasa eagerly rejects the idea that “testimony holds an unquestionable epistemological privilege” (235); testimony, he argues, “must be suspected of manipulation when claiming […] objective truth” (234). But when testimony is freed from questions of truth—when, suggests Rabasa, we acknowledge that it “partakes of other forms of knowledge” (236)—it can give us identity in the place of truth.

For Rabasa, the “revisionist histories” are not merely an “assassination of memory” but an entirely new round of murders that are “beyond the act of putting to death” (237). The death they seek, in Rabasa’s view, is the death of the difference between the multiple accounts of the “disputed truth”. The difference between Las Abejas’ account of the past and the revisionists’ claims is no longer the difference between truth and falsity, or “fact and falsification”, but instead the difference between identities. For the beliefs of either Las Abejas or the revisionists to be right is to cancel the difference between them—and “kill” someone’s identity (237). When we disagree, we commit to the idea that our beliefs are not merely true for us, given who we are, but actually true for everyone, whoever they are. This is why we can disagree in the first place: disagreeing with others requires us to think that our beliefs are ours because they are true rather than true because they are ours. If, however, we think our beliefs are true just because we happen to believe them, then the question of why we believe something can only be answered by referring to our identity, which is why Rabasa insists on a “redefinition of epistemological terms” that would no longer refer to questions of truth (236). If the CONADEP report validated memory by suggesting its possible relation to truth, Rabasa and others sought to exempt memory from questions of truth so that memory could do identitarian work. For this reason, memory came to stand in for any and every kind of knowledge about the past.

It might be said that one of the most prominent critics of the proliferation of memories and subjectivities has been Beatriz Sarlo. In her book entitled Tiempo pasado (2005), she controversially challenged what she saw as the tendency to regard memory as an unquestioned—and unquestionable—source of truth about the past. Specifically, Sarlo complained about “the transformation of testimonio into an icon of truth” which resulted from “the privileging of subjective discourses over those where subjectivity is absent or hidden” (23). While “memory can function as a moral challenge to history and its sources”, Sarlo argued, “this cannot support memory’s claims to be less problematic than what is constructed by other discourses” (57). For Sarlo, memory was part of a larger “subjective turn” in historical thinking that began when “historians and social scientists” that were “influenced by ethnography” (17) began to focus on individual subjectivities and write “histories of everyday life” (19). But while studies such as Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy relied heavily on oral history and focused on individual subjectivity, such studies, Sarlo argued, at least contained a commitment to what she called “disciplinary rules” and “methods” (14). These “methods of disciplinary history” (14) matter for Sarlo because they keep historians focused on “writing better history” and not on the market; “non-academic history”, on the other hand, merely responds to “the contemporary social imaginary, whose pressure it receives and accepts more as an advantage than a limitation” (15). Sarlo sees “good academic history” (16) as something that, unlike memory, testimonio, and the “subjective turn”, makes it possible to imagine thinking “outside experience” so that “humans might take control of nightmares and not merely suffer through them” (166).

Not surprisingly, it was Sarlo’s belief in the value of “good academic history” that made John Beverley count Tiempo pasado as part of a “neoconservative turn in Latin American literary and cultural criticism” (“The Neoconservative Turn” 65). For Beverley, Sarlo’s Tiempo pasado should be understood as part of a broader attempt by a “middle and upper middle class, university-educated, and essentially white, criollo-ladino intelligentsia to recapture the space of cultural and hermeneutic authority” from the neoliberal market and from new populist political and cultural actors no longer beholden to “a university-educated, ethnically European or mestizo intelligentsia” (79). Sarlo’s “good academic history” is, of course, part and parcel of what Beverley once thought testimonio could dismantle: testimonio, he wrote, “acts in the world as a regime of truth that operates ‘off campus,’ so to speak” (Testimonio 7). For Beverley, “what testimonio requires of the academy is not that we ‘know’ it adequately, but something like a critique of academic knowledge as such. That critique […] would point in the direction of relativizing the authority of academic knowledge” and “would allow us to recognize what academic knowledge is in fact: not the truth, but a form of truth, among many others” (7).

Beverley’s problem with Sarlo is not what she privileges as truth, but that she privileges anything as truth. Beverley thinks there are only forms of truth, never universal ones, and therefore any claim to truth is always a power grab by the particular. Beverley understands the neoconservatism with which he associates Sarlo in terms of its belief in “a hierarchy of values embedded in Western Civilization” (66). The problem is that neoconservatives such as Sarlo “speak as intellectuals in the name of the universal” (66), so the real crux of the disagreement between Beverley and Sarlo is that Sarlo thinks beliefs have to come from nowhere to be true, whereas for Beverley they always come from somewhere, which is why they are not true. But positions such as Beverley’s actually require everyone to produce accounts of their identitarian difference to justify their beliefs, since if different things are true for different people, then we must know who we are in order to know what is true for us and justify our beliefs. Beverley’s call for a plurality of truths is just another way of affirming identity and protecting difference from the universalism intrinsic to beliefs. This would seem to be exactly what Sarlo was pointing out and critiquing in Tiempo pasado: the old battles over history, she says, “are now called battles over identity” (27). What we are left with, Sarlo argues, is only “the primacy of the subject” (27).

The difference between Sarlo and Beverley, however, is in the end more apparent than real. What Sarlo values about “good academic history” turns out to be its commitment to “hypothesis” over the supposed “certainty” she sees in self-validating and self-authorizing testimonial narratives based on memory. Accounts of the past, for Sarlo, are “always constructions” (13), and she values ways of doing history that theoretically confront the idea that “the very idea of truth is a problem” (163). Sarlo relies on Paul de Man’s famous essay from 1979, “Autobiography as De-facement”, which she calls perhaps the “highest point of literary deconstruction”, arguing that De Man’s claims are still unheeded by those who “affirm the truth of the subject and of autobiographical testimonios” (40). De Man’s point, of course, was that autobiography was prosopopoeial: instead of assuming “the life produces the autobiography”, the “autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life” (920). But Sarlo goes further to make her argument about the “problem” of “truth”. She refers to Derrida’s idea of otobiographies with which Derrida suggests that it is the “ear of the other that says me to me and constitutes the autos of my autobiography” (51). While there are obvious differences between Derrida and De Man here, Sarlo invokes them to make an old, familiar point: our knowledge of the past is mediated, by language, genre, reading, etc. For Sarlo, this is a challenge not only for those who believe memory and testimonio to be true, but also for historians who claim truth for their histories.

However, the claim that our knowledge or beliefs are “mediated” has no logical implications to the question of their truth. This is what Stanley Fish meant when he pointed out that the “unavailability of independent grounds—of foundations [for beliefs] that are general and universal rather than local and contextual—is fraught with no implications at all” (926). Sarlo, however, mistakenly counts the inescapability of mediation or knowledge “outside experience” (166) as a reason for us to give up on the “very idea of truth” (163). However, after we give up on the possibility of a truth about the past—mediated or not—to what do we appeal to justify our beliefs about the past? All we are left with is descriptions of how our knowledge is mediated—by language, genre, and, ultimately, by who we are, which brings us back to identity. To give up on truth because truth is mediated is to claim that differences are fundamental and insurmountable, which puts Sarlo back in line with the very “truth of the subject” that she set out to critique (58). Thus it might be said that what Sarlo offers us is the high-theory version of Beverley’s subalternism, or that the difference between them is the difference between two different ways of affirming identity.

3. Memory

Rather than champion the idea that individual memory was a valuable tool for knowing about the past, much Latin Americanist thought declared that the past shouldn’t be known at all—instead, it should be remembered. Writers such as Eduardo Galeano complained that the past had been relegated to “history”, to something merely known. Instead, Galeano argued, the past—even the past that was never experienced by anyone living today—should be remembered.

In the Preface to Genesis (1982), the first book in the trilogy that makes up Memory of Fire, Galeano complained that history has “stopped breathing” and has been “buried […] beneath statuary bronze and monumental marble” (xv). Written in the wake of Uruguay’s military dictatorship, one of the stated motives for Memory of Fire was the desire to “rescue” and correct “official Latin American history”, which had been “kidnapped” and reduced to “a military parade of bigwigs” (xv). But Memory of Fire goes beyond the desire to know the past more fully, completely, or correctly—in fact, Galeano is not invested in knowing the past at all. He is invested instead in imagining a way to experience the past he never experienced; Galeano wants to be able to “talk” to the Latin American past and “ask her of what difficult clays she was born, from what acts of love and violation she comes” (xv). Despite the fact that Galeano calls his book a “historical narrative” made up of “historical episodes” that have actually “happened” (xv), Memory of Fire rejects the past as an object of knowledge. Instead, even though Genesis deals with events “from the end of the fifteenth century to the year 1700” (xvi), Galeano wants to turn those events into “memory” (xv).

If the important thing for Galeano is that Latin Americans remember history, for Gustavo Verdesio the important thing is for Uruguayans to think of themselves as having forgotten it. In his essay entitled “An Amnesiac Nation” (2003), Verdesio criticizes the widespread and systematic “lack of interest in both the colonial past and the indigenous history” of Uruguay (202). Verdesio refers mainly to the fact of the nineteenth-century “genocide of the Charrúa people”, which emerged from Uruguay’s confrontation with “the problem of not being a nation in the same sense that the European ones were” and the resulting attempts to generate a homogenous “national history” and “national culture” (197). The massacre of Charrúa people by Uruguay’s first national government in 1831 was followed, Verdesio points out, by the institutional failure to recognize “the possible indigenous […] contributions to the […] historical evolution” of Uruguay, a country “always imagined” by the Creole establishment as “a European nation” (202). Verdesio notes that “if a foreign observer desired to write a history of the cultural and social evolution in the territory of present-day Uruguay, he or she would conclude that, according to the available bibliography, the colonial past and the pre-Columbian era were almost nonexistent” or that “their importance was almost nil” (205). Of the “very few academic works about the pre-Columbian era in the territory”, most, Verdesio argues, either rely too closely on chroniclers of the colonial period of dubious veracity, who reproduce and historically validate the myth of Charrúa barbarism and cannibalism, or “locate the Amerindians [of Uruguay] in a universal continuum” that places them “in a stage of evolution previous to the one reached by modern-day Western civilization” (207). Hence it is time, argues Verdesio, for a new and “rigorous study of […] documentary sources and the most recent archaeological excavations” to “approach the indigenous past in a way that is less uncertain” (224). In this sense, Verdesio’s project is a call for historical revisionism and revised historical knowledge.

But it is not enough for Verdesio that Uruguayans simply revise the history of the “territory” that is now “present-day Uruguay” to include a heightened recognition of its pre-Columbian history, or that these revisions provide an account of Amerindians outside the ideology of “national narratives”, or that some speak out “to condemn the genocide” of the Charrúa (202), or even that new accounts of the Charrúa repudiate the “evolutionary model” (213) that subordinates them to supposedly more “advanced” Amerindian and non-Amerindian cultures. For Verdesio, only a change in the status of the Amerindian past will suffice—a change suggested by the title of his article. Verdesio does not want Uruguayans to learn the pre-Columbian and colonial history of the Amerindians, he wants them to remember it, or at a minimum, to understand themselves as having forgotten it.

Verdesio wants the Amerindians to be remembered not in spite of, but especially because of, his own admissions about the lack of “survival” of Amerindian “cultures” in Uruguay. Not only did the “Amerindians from Uruguay […] not leave many traces of their life on earth” (211) but also, he points out, despite the presence of some “individuals with indigenous biological heritage”, indigenous culture “did not exist as such in Uruguay” after the 1870s (203). But if the culture of the Amerindians has “disappeared” in Uruguay, and if their history has been suppressed since at least the 1870s, how can present-day Uruguayans be expected to remember it, especially given that the basis for Verdesio’s argument is that present-day Uruguayans never experienced it to begin with?

While it seems impossible to imagine how someone can remember things that they never experienced, all that is required by Galeano and Verdesio is the redescription of certain events of the past, given who we are. It is precisely because of this fact, and not in spite of it, that such projects do their work, since we have to figure out who we are before we can know which events in the past that we never experienced to call “memory”, and which events in the past that we never experienced to call “history”. Everybody learns about the Charrúa past the same way—but only Uruguayans can (and should) think of themselves as remembering it. In this way, the indigenous Charrúa past becomes a marker of identitarian difference—but without the burdens of having to be culturally Charrúa.

4. Performance / Postmemory

Jean Franco is critical of Galeano’s Memory of Fire because the sources that Galeano uses to “rescue” memory turn out to be “texts” and not “oral tradition”, “performances”, or “myths” (236-237). Oral “tradition”, writes Franco, has “a special relation to memory” (237). But even if one believes that orality or cultural performance offer us better, more accurate, or more politically valuable accounts of the past than archives or texts, it would seem that they still count as representations through which viewers or listeners learn about the past and know it, rather than remember it. Events in the past that we learn about through orality or performance are no more part of our memory than events that we read about.

The common objection to this might be that memories are “cultural” or “collective”, and that the split between experience and knowledge does not hold. For example, there is the idea, derived from the work of Maurice Halbwachs, of a “historical memory” that “refers to residues of events by virtue of which groups claim a continuous identity through time (Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Levy 19). Following this line of argument, having a “historical memory” of “the U.S. Civil War, for instance, is part of what it means to be an American and is part of the collective narrative of the United States” even if no one has an individual memory of the event (Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Levy 19). But it cannot be having a “historical memory” of the Civil War that makes people Americans; instead, it is because people first identify themselves as Americans that they know to think that the Civil War is part of their memory. Americans who think that the Civil War is part of their memory learn about it in the same way that people all over the world learn about it: through linguistic or visual representations (such as history books, monuments, documentaries, or storytelling) and not through their experience of the actual event. There is no strictly epistemological difference between the way present-day Americans access the Civil War and the way people all around the world do. It is only a claim of identity (“I am an American”) that renames knowledge as memory—but to realize that is to realize that the Civil War is not really a memory at all. The same would be true, for example, if we were to claim that an event in the past that was narrated to us by our grandparents counted as part of our memory: it is only because we first make a claim of identity between ourselves and our grandparents that we can then redescribe their narrative as our memory. The content of their narrative is not intrinsically any more a memory for us than it would be for a total stranger; it does not come to us as an experience that we remember. We can begin to think of it as a memory only after we have claimed a shared identity with our grandparents. Thus the claim of “historical” or cultural memory does not challenge the difference between knowledge and experience, and it does not make sense of someone remembering something they never experienced.

Indeed, it could be said that this is precisely the problem that postmemory seeks to solve: Marianne Hirsch, for example, explores the nature of “the response of [a] second generation to the trauma of the first” (8). Hirsch notes that the children of trauma survivors experience not the “events” but only their “representations” (8). However, rather than conclude that the children of trauma survivors merely learn about or know the traumatic event (or experience its effects second hand), or that the “obsessive repetition” of media-driven representations of traumatic events “distance and protect [them] from the event”, Hirsch argues that their repetition “retraumatize[s], making distant viewers into surrogate victims who, having seen the images so often, have adopted them into their own narratives and memories, and have thus become all the more vulnerable to their effects” (8). Thus for Hirsch, postmemory actually “connects the second generation to the first, producing rather than screening the effect of trauma that was lived so much more directly as compulsive repetition by survivors and contemporary witnesses” (8-9). Building on Hirsch’s work, Latin Americanists such as Michael J. Lazzara have argued that our memories “are not entirely our own” because they “result from a combination of our own lived experiences and the experiences transmitted to us by others (whether those ‘others’ are individuals or images from the collective archive of the mass media, popular culture, or politics)” (156).[11] The result is that the act of learning about the traumatic experience of others through representations is reconceived as the experience of trauma itself, so that the historical trauma of others can be incorporated into one’s own experience and identity as well as the experience and identity of successive generations.

Diana Taylor’s The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Difference in the Americas (2003) also seeks to find ways for the past to count as the experience and identity of people in the present.[12] To that end, Taylor argues that performances are “vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity” (2). Central to Taylor’s argument is the idea that after the conquest, writing gained “legitimization” over “other totemic and mnemonic systems” at the same time that “indigenous and marginal populations of the colonial period” were denied “access to systematic writing” (18). Since those “who controlled writing, first the friars, then the letrados […] gained an inordinate amount of power”, nonverbal practices “such as dance […] and cooking” that had “long served to preserve a sense of communal identity and memory, were not considered valid forms of knowledge” (18). The “archive” was constructed to include only “documents, maps, literary texts, letters”, which were bound up with the history of power, and not “performances”, which were “thought of as ephemeral, nonreproducible knowledge” (20). To correct this, Taylor proposes the idea of the “repertoire”, a kind of performance equivalent of the “archive” which “allows scholars to trace traditions and influences” (20).

Even if we understand performance as constituting an archive or “repertoire”, it is hard to see how or why things we find in an archive—even a performative one—can constitute “memory” instead of knowledge. But for Taylor, the “repertoire” turns events in the past into memory because the “repertoire […] enacts embodied memory”, which in turn requires “presence: people participate […] by ‘being there,’ being part of the transmission” (20). Taylor refers to J. L. Austin’s speech act theory, which refers to the idea that “the issuing of an utterance is the performing of an action” (qtd. in Taylor 5). Since the viewer participates in a performance—as Taylor argues, by “being there”—we can supposedly move from thinking of ourselves as learning about something in the past to thinking that traditions are “transmitted ‘live’ in the here and now” and thus “experienced as present” (24). While the viewer of the performance gets to count these “transmissions” as “experience”, the performer gets to actually embody the past, since Taylor argues that “traditions are stored in the body” (24). The idea is that viewers who experience the transmission of “traditions” through a performance can then re-perform them. By re-performing them, someone can think of themselves as not only remembering things but also embodying them.

The appeal of Taylor’s account of performance is that it establishes performance as “an important system of knowing and transmitting knowledge” that, unlike a text, has “no claims on meaning” (25); Taylor’s account of performance refuses the “unidirectionality of meaning making” (8). If meaning in performance is multidirectional, then Taylor’s viewers can not only think of themselves as experiencing a “transmitted” past, or as embodying the past by performing the “traditions” they have viewed, but also they can look at the performed past and see themselves, since what it means, multidirectionally, must be (at least in part) the result of who they are.

5. Politics

It is tempting to think that the main problem with memory is that it invokes the identitarian difference of people in the past to constitute the identitarian difference of people in the present. It is also tempting to think of the solution to that problem in terms of a resuscitated Latin American culturalist project in which identitarian difference would be constituted once again in terms of culture rather than in terms of history and memory. The problem with memory, however, is not that it commits us to an inefficacious version of identity—it is instead that it commits us to identity writ large. We can begin to see the political consequences of that continued commitment in Jean Franco’s latest book, Cruel Modernity (2013), in which recent violence and atrocity is understood as the reenactment of violence and atrocity in the distant past.

In relation to her discussion of a 2004 video filmed in Nicaragua by the North American photographer Susan Meiselas, Franco writes that Meiselas’s video not only reveals the ways in which “the present remembers or relives the past”, but also shows “how mobile history is, how it is constantly reiterated and reformulated” (212). To be sure, the idea that the present is a reliving of the past is central to Cruel Modernity, and it is the basis for Franco’s argument that the history of violence and atrocity in the recent Latin American past should be understood as a reenactment of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. The conquest, for Franco, was the moment that reified racial and gender hierarchies and set into motion “a modern project that drags on a colonial inheritance” (63). Thus, she argues, “the myths and prejudices inherited from the conquest […] came to support the intellectual arguments that upheld the military project in Guatemala and the neoliberal project in Peru” (47). For example, Franco notes that “the special forces of the Guatemalan army appropriated the name kaibiles from an Indian chief who fought against the conqueror Pedro de Alvarado”, and they did so “as if the conquest were still going on” (5-6). Violence in the “present-day”, Franco suggests, is linked to “the Spanish army and the wars of independence” and is “a reenactment of the conquest itself” that seeks to “finish the work of the conquest” (79).

Franco argues that “over the centuries, the alibi for the subjugation of the indigenous was constantly reformulated according to the needs of the state and the definition of nationhood and in hundreds of different scenarios” (46). In other words, Franco suggests that the different politics and ideologies involved in the subjugation of the indigenous were merely alibis, which is to say, excuses or rationalizations that covered over a supposedly real motive that cannot be fully “rationalized or explained” (49). That supposedly real motive, Franco suggests, is a persistent racism or “contempt” for indigenous people that has its origins in Latin America’s colonial period. The result of seeing conflicts such as the civil war in Guatemala as simply one of many manifestations of a persistent “conscious or unconscious racism” (49) or “hatred of the indigenous” (54) makes an entire history of violence and atrocity comprehensible only as the byproduct of attitudes toward identitarian difference. Even more radically, the idea that “myths and prejudices inherited from the conquest” are behind violence and atrocity radically ontologizes both the actions of the victimizers and the experiences of the victims. Hardly anyone would doubt the claim that racism exists today throughout the Americas, or that it is a phenomenon that negatively affects many millions of people on a daily basis. Likewise, hardly anyone would doubt the fact that racism primarily explains why, as Franco suggests, “at some moments during [Guatemala’s] civil war, the number of Maya victims was higher and why extreme acts of cruelty took place in their communities” (49). Nevertheless, what is at issue is the difference between the question of why some people were more victimized than others and the question of why there were any victims at all. The idea that acts of violence reenact the conquest provides an answer to only the former. Consider, for example, Franco’s discussion of Peru’s civil war: she quotes the president of Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who claimed that “two decades of destruction and death would not have been possible without the profound contempt towards the dispossessed people of the country, expressed equally by members of the insurgent Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and the Army, a contempt that is woven into every moment of Peruvian everyday life” (56). It might well be the case that both the Sendero Luminoso and the Peruvian army equally shared “contempt” for “dispossessed people”. However, to think that the civil war is explained by “contempt” entails committing to a politics in which contempt’s antonym—respect—is the basis for an affective politics. In other words, we might ask ourselves whether this way of understanding violence reduces all conflicts in Latin American history to conflicts between identities or between two competing attitudes towards “ethnic difference”—it is either respected or despised. Celebrating it is obviously the right choice, but we should ask ourselves who benefits at whose expense when politics is reduced to that choice—when, in other words, the Sendero Luminoso and the Peruvian Army are thought to be merely two different faces of sadism, or when respect for the poor, rather than ending poverty, becomes the cornerstone of politics for the Left.


01. For an important critique of Bonfil Batalla’s book, see Lomnitz-Adler, who notes that “Bonfil does not offer a detailed formulation of the dialectics that have existed between so-called tradition and modernity since the inception of a modern mentality in the late eighteenth century or since the inception of capitalism in the sixteenth century” (264). The “worrisome consequence” of this, he argues, “is that the political application of the ‘deep versus invented’ imagery must ultimately rely on a system of refined discriminations wherein certain privileged subjects, usually nationally recognized intellectuals or politicians, are placed in a position of interpreting the true national sentiment” (264). Even worse, because Bonfil’s notion of a “deep Mexico” cannot “extract Mexico from the world capitalist system”, it “tends to re-create or revitalize the sort of authoritarian nationalism that was characteristic of the period of growth under import substitution, a nationalism that […] is bankrupt as a viable political formula today” (264). See also Gran, who argues that Bonfil sees “ethnicity and culture” as “racially fixed” (43). From the perspective of political economy, Gran argues, “México Profundo naturally is ahistorical; it interprets race in an essentializing way, missing the key point that race itself is simply part of a larger set of historically contingent and interrelated constructions” (43).

02. Walter Benn Michaels, to whose arguments about history, memory, and identity I am indebted, has suggested that without “the idea of a history that is remembered or forgotten (not merely learned or unlearned), the events of the past can have only a limited relevance to the present, providing us at best with causal accounts of how things have come to be the way they are, at worst with objects of antiquarian interest” (Shape 138-39). If history is merely something that is learned, Michaels argues, “no history could be more truly ours than any other,” and “no history, except the things that had actually happened to us, would be truly ours at all” (139). Instead, it is “only when the events of the past can be imagined not only to have consequences for the present but to live on in the present that they can become part of our experience and testify to who we are” (139).

03. See, for example, Achugar. 

04. See Bulmer-Thomas; Dussel Peters; Otero; and Walker.

05. For a related argument (to which I am indebted), see Di Stefano, who argues that “the dominant form of memory politics today, insofar as it reframes the critique of capitalism into a critique of authoritarianism, functions as a primary mechanism by which the Left contributes to the expansion of neoliberalism” (n.p.). In other words, Di Stefano argues, it is not the indifference to memory and its so-called erasure that “advances the Uruguayan neoliberal agenda, but rather the commitment to a politics of memory through which the Left increasingly comes to disarticulate its past commitment to economic equality that does so” (n.p.). See also the related discussion in Draper. Specifically, she explores the ways in which “a surplus […] of controlled memory” actually conceals a “selective forgetfulness,” or, the ways in which the seeming “overabundance of memory and memorials” conceals exclusions performed “by the market and by both left- and right-wing policies” (17). 

06. As Alonso explains, the fact that “the persistent identification of a cultural crisis should have become the essential modality of cultural discourse in Latin America” is one of the fundamental contradictions of that discourse. Since “the contention that the culture has abandoned its specificity” is “the heart of the culture’s discursive production,” that contention becomes “a constitutive aspect of cultural identity, since it appears to encompass an invariant trait of the culture’s own discourse” (15). Thus, for Alonso “the essence of Latin American cultural production is the ever-renewed affirmation of having lost or abandoned such an essence” (15).

07. Paz’s investment in the presence of the “old beliefs” was that they were markers of a “continuity, which goes back two thousand years” (363). For Paz, culture is what makes the precolonial past part of the past of present-day Mexicans. However, as Michaels argues, culture alone is not enough to achieve this: the “fact that some people before you did some things that you do does not in itself make what they did part of your past” (“Race into Culture” 680). “To make what they did part of your past,” argues Michaels, “there must be some prior assumption of identity between you and them, and this assumption is […] racial” (680). 

08. For a discussion of the transformations within the discourse of Mexican national identity and distinctiveness in the years surrounding the ratification of NAFTA, see Morris.

09. The authors go on to recall a conversation with “a colleague and Nahuatl scholar” who “says that we Mexican Americans do not think or reflect on the meaning of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in much the same way that we do not think of the blood that runs through our veins” (5).

10. On Las Abejas, see Tavanti. 

11. For further examples, see Kaiser; Nouzeilles; and A’Ness. For an incisive critique of postmemory, see Martín-Cabrera. 

12. See Taylor’s “Performing Ruins” for similar arguments regarding ruins.

13. On these constitutional reforms and their provisions for language recognition and multiculturalism, see Van Cott. 

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