How Recent is Recent History?

¿Cuán reciente es la historia reciente?

Abstract:
This paper reflects on temporality and time in studies on recent Latin American history and memory culture. By focusing on the temporal nature of events (e.g. dictatorships and civil wars), memory studies fails to notice not only the succession of events, social conflicts, and violence in democracy but also those memories with more profound historical roots. Beyond their sequentiality, memories overlap and intertwine in knots of time that escape single moments, as well as the progressive and stable periodization we have assigned to political transitions.
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-18866
Languages: English, Spanish

El estallido social de 2019 en Chile y las memorias de la guerra civil en el Perú, llevan a Del Pino a reflexionar sobre la temporalidad en los estudios de la memoria. Al centrarse en un acontecimiento temporalmente determinado, este campo deja de advertir no solo la sucesión de acontecimientos, de la conflictividad social y violencia en democracia, sino también de aquellas memorias cuyas raíces históricas son más profundas y pautan igualmente el presente.

47 años de abusos

¡No son 30 pesos, son 30 años!
¿Por qué hablan de 30 años de abandono e injusticias? ¿Qué acaso en la dictadura el pueblo tenía más derechos y mejor situación? ¡Son 47 años de abusos!

Camilo Catrillanca[1], asesinado por el Estado

Este collage de grafitis condensa diferentes sentidos temporales del pasado que se evidenciaron con el estallido del octubre chileno de 2019. En su espontaneidad, esta acción se transformó en una gran movilización social, inimaginable por su alcance y violencia. De una agenda que parecía puntual, un reclamo por el alza de 30 pesos por el servicio del metro y la locomoción, esta terminó revelando una conflictividad de mayor dimensión y alcance. Salieron a manifestarse distintos sectores con agendas diversas, expresando un acumulado descontento social y una profunda indignación política contra el actual gobierno y los treinta años de la Concertación en el poder[2].

La transición política chilena se ha destacado por sus logros en la restauración de la democracia y la consolidación institucional, en base a la concertación política y el éxito de la economía neoliberal. Esta estabilidad social y política se condice igualmente en lo cultural, en el sentido progresivo del tiempo y de la memoria instaurado con la transición. Un tiempo nuevo frente a la ruptura de la violencia y represión de la dictadura de Pinochet, que quedaba atrás. Visto en esos términos, la carga de violencia del estallido social, resitúa ese orden del tiempo de la transición, la desestabiliza en su sentido primordial, en su progresiva linealidad. En su accionar, reinscribe esos otros sentidos, de abusos, injusticias y conflictividad, que no eran pasado, seguían ahí, suspendidos en la normalidad del presente: son 30 años de abusos (desde la transición), son 47 años de abusos (desde la dictadura de 1973), son más de un siglo de abusos y violencia del Estado chileno contra el pueblo Mapuche, con la ocupación de la Araucanía a fines del siglo XIX.

Eso que parecía superado, seguía ahí presente, revestido por el crecimiento económico. Solo por mencionar, las luchas por la tierra y la autonomía Mapuche en la Araucanía habían llevado a escalar la violencia y represión, a la par de los años de la transición desde los 90[3]. Un grafiti inscrito en el puente Santa María, en el centro de las movilizaciones de Santiago, condensa bien ese orden que quedó desestabilizado, algo que parecía inimaginable: “También nos mintieron con el Nunca +”.

Determinado por la temporalidad

Esta disrupción del tiempo progresivo permite plantear una reflexión sobre la temporalidad y el tiempo en los estudios de la historia reciente y memoria en América Latina. Se trata de un campo de estudios críticos que ha hecho de la represión de las dictaduras y guerras civiles un objeto de estudio. Pero al centrar ese objeto a un acontecimiento temporalmente determinado, deja de advertir no solo la sucesión de acontecimientos, de la conflictividad social y violencia en democracia, sino también de aquellas memorias cuyas raíces históricas son más profundas y pautan igualmente el presente. Más que una sucesión, las memorias se traslapan y entrelazan en nudos de tiempo que escapan a un momento único, así como a la progresiva y estable periodización con la cual se miran las transiciones políticas[4].

Estas consideraciones vienen de mis propios trabajos sobre la violencia y las memorias de la guerra civil en el Perú de la década de 1980[5]. “La última catástrofe” como marco temporal de análisis de la historia reciente deja de considerar las densas y complejas tramas temporales que se tejen sobre el pasado[6], especialmente en países con historias coloniales y poscoloniales. Está fuera de discusión que la violencia de las dictaduras y las guerras civiles trae consigo rupturas traumáticas en el curso de la vida y de la historia y que tiene consecuencias directas en el presente.  Sin embargo, hay experiencias humanas cuyas raíces históricas profundas advierten otras experiencias, memorias y temporalidades, que irrumpen el presente en circunstancias adversas. Son pasados que no pasan, que vuelven no como actos de reminiscencia, de recordación o conmemoración, sino que se reinscriben en el presente como rupturas imprevistas e imponen su impronta; son el miedo y el rumor los que catalizan su fuerza de acción. Al reflexionar sobre el tiempo y el espacio en la historia de Guatemala, Julie Gibbings precisa: “We do not move through ‘homogenuos empty time’; rather, we live in deep entanglements where the past is continually made present. Time does not so much pass as accumulate most often out of the violent wreckage of conquest, colonialism, and capitalism”.[7]

Un impacto desigual

En el Perú, la violencia insurgente de Sendero Luminoso se centró especialmente en el campo, en territorios de comunidades campesinas e indígenas. Ese fue el escenario principal de la guerra y donde se encuentra la mayor parte de las víctimas. Según la Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación del Perú (2003), de las cerca de 70 mil víctimas mortales, dos terceras partes son quechua hablantes, y un 80% proviene de las cinco regiones más pobres del país. Es decir, una afectación desigual y una violencia que traza una geografía social y étnica.

Estamos frente a poblaciones con tradiciones e identidades históricas, viviendo en estos territorios por siglos y que condensan saberes culturales y políticos, entendidos en términos ontológicos. También se trata de poblaciones con una larga historia de luchas donde la tierra y el territorio son centrales y condensan experiencias humanas profundas, como pasó con los despojos de tierras a finales del siglo XIX y en las primeras décadas del siglo XX, alentados por la liberalización del mercado de tierras. A estos despojos se sumaron la rearcaización social con el sistema de servidumbre impuesto por las haciendas. Así, la violencia opresiva del sistema de haciendas, de vivir “como esclavos” en sus propias tierras, era una experiencia concreta y lacerante para gran parte de estas poblaciones. En respuesta, lucharon por articularse políticamente, atravesando los Andes para llevar sus quejas al centro de poder en Lima: es la contracara del estado de abandono que sienten al vivir en los márgenes del Estado.

A estas comunidades con un pasado denso de demandas, luchas y articulaciones, llegó Sendero ofreciendo un cambio radical de igualdad y justicia para todos, y prometiendo desterrar la pobreza y el abandono. Por eso no es extraño que estas poblaciones los acogieran y apoyaran en un primer momento, por las expectativas de cambio largamente deseados. Pero, a su vez, son estas mismas poblaciones las que respondieron tempranamente cuando Sendero buscó imponer su lucha a través de la violencia autoritaria. Eran poblaciones con muchas carencias, pero también con tradiciones políticas propias. Eso mismo que pudo empujar el apoyo inicial a Sendero, también contribuyó a catalizar la respuesta en su contra. Adrián Ñawpa, líder de la comunidad de Purus, recordando esos años se cuestionaba, después de vivir y luchar contra los hacendados durante casi todo el siglo XX, “por qué íbamos a permitir a un nuevo patrón” en alusión al autoritarismo de Sendero.

En el 2005, volví a estas mismas comunidades para la investigación de mi tesis doctoral. Había estado ahí en la segunda mitad de los años 90, acompañando el retorno y repoblamiento de decenas de comunidades que habían sido arrasadas y expulsadas del lugar en los años 80, por la represión de Sendero y de las fuerzas armadas. Llegué esta vez cuando se discutía la firma del Tratado de Libre Comercio con los EEUU. Eso que los medios celebraban como una gran noticia, localmente en estas comunidades se vivía como una amenaza. Se hablaba de la posible intervención y expropiación de sus recursos naturales por los gringos. En ese contexto, las memorias de la violencia de Sendero que habían estado tan presentes, quedaron relegadas a otro plano. Los problemas de la tierra, que parecían historias del pasado, volvieron a emerger y configuraron un nuevo escenario, una nueva amenaza delineada por el rumor y el miedo.

Un sentimiento de inseguridad

Las memorias de la expropiación de la tierra y la opresiva violencia a lo largo del siglo XX no solo son historias pensadas y recordadas: perpetúan un sentido de inseguridad y vulnerabilidad que reaparece cada vez que perciben una nueva amenaza. No son experiencias del pasado en el sentido estricto de lo histórico, sino experiencias humanas profundas que reaparecen y se reinstalan pautando el presente. La guerra de Sendero entendida como la última catástrofe en la historia, no es todo lo que hay frente a estas otras experiencias y memorias cuyas raíces históricas son más profundas y que requieren ser entendidas e incorporadas en el análisis.

Estamos frente a memorias de más larga data que reintroducen el pasado en toda su densidad, visibilizando una agenda mayor, histórica, motivada por la exclusión, la desigualdad y las injusticias. En esa perspectiva, el tiempo de la memoria no solo se circunscribe a una temporalidad determinada, y tampoco responde a una secular y progresiva historicidad. Estas nuevas amenazas, como la posible expropiación de la tierra, devuelven y reactualizan memorias que parecían del pasado. Esta fuerza del pasado se entiende todavía más si se considera la historia de las movilizaciones campesinas de los años 60 y de la reforma agraria de los 70, de las que participaron activamente. A las memorias de la violencia se superponen otras, aquellas que parecían tan lejanas en el tiempo. Así, en este presente continuo se superponen y anudan tiempos y memorias en “time-knots”.

El presente se encarna en memorias, unas más profundas que otras en sus raíces históricas, pero tan próximas a la vez. No se trata de buscar el mito de origen, sino de considerar las formas de cómo la gente organiza su experiencia y de advertir las experiencias significativas que dejan huellas y delinean trayectorias en la vida personal, comunal y política. Y en ellas, la tierra y el Estado son las entidades que atraviesan pasado y presente.

Al reflexionar sobre el tiempo de la memoria, no pretendemos relativizar lo disruptivo y el horror de la violencia; mucho menos dejar de reconocer los sentidos más profundos de la experiencia humana. Sin embargo, es importante dimensionar esta experiencia en toda su densidad y complejidad, sin circunscribirla a un acontecimiento único y temporalmente determinado. El pasado presente, al menos en estas comunidades, está hecho de una amalgama más compleja y rica de experiencias y temporalidades que se anudan y superponen, ajenas a la construcción lineal y progresiva del tiempo, que deja atrás el pasado. Es eso lo que se hizo evidente con el estallido social en Chile: la rotura de esa línea progresiva del tiempo en la que quedó enmarcada e institucionalizada la memoria, de la mano de la transición y del neoliberalismo.

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Bibliografía

  • Del Pino, P., En nombre del gobierno. El Perú y Uchuraccay: un siglo de política campesina (Lima: La Siniestra Ensayos, 2017)
  • Gibbings, J. Our Time is Now. Race and Modernity in Postcolonial Guatemala (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020)
  • Rousso, H., La última catástrofe. La historia, el presente, lo contemporáneo (Santiago de Chile: Editorial Universitaria, 2018)

Vínculos externos

  • Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación del Perú, Informe final de la Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación del Perú (Lima, 2003): https://www.cverdad.org.pe/ifinal/ (last accessed 11 October 2021).

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[1] Joven mapuche asesinado por la policía en la Araucanía, el 14 de noviembre del 2018.
[2] La Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia fue una coalición de partidos de izquierda, centro izquierda y centro que gobernó Chile desde la transición de 1990 hasta el 2018, con el intervalo del primer gobierno de derecha de Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014).
[3] Para una descripción detallada de la violencia y represión en la Araucanía, véase Fernando Pairican, Malon. La rebelión del movimiento Mapuche, 1990-2013 (Santiago de Chile: Pehuén, 2014). El hostigamiento y la violencia policial no han sido ajenos a la ciudad, como en La Legua, a una legua del centro de Santiago de Chile, identificada como “barrio crítico” por la conflictividad social y el narcotráfico. Véase al respecto, María José Reyes, et. al., “La transmisión de memoria como mecanismo de intervención: estudio de caso de una población ‘emblemática’ y ‘crítica’ en Santiago de Chile. Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana (V. 16, N. 1, Enero-Abril 2021), 137-163.
[4] Estas ideas sobre el tiempo las elaboro en diálogo con el libro de Julie Gibbings, Our Time is Now. Race and Modernity in Postcolonial Guatemala. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.
[5] Véase especialmente, Del Pino (2017).
[6] Henry Rousso hace explícito ese vínculo, al afirmar que toda historia contemporánea comienza con “la última catástrofe a la fecha” (Rousso 2018: 23).
[7] Gibbings, Our Time is Now, 26.

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Créditos de imagen

Dignidad © 2021 the Author.

Citar como

Del Pino, Ponciano: ¿Cuán reciente es la historia reciente? In: Public History Weekly 9 (2021) 8, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-18866.

Responsabilidad editorial

Catalina Muñoz Rojas

Prompted by the 2019 mass protests in Chile and the memories of the civil war in Peru, this contribution reflects on the concept of temporality in memory studies. By focusing on the temporal nature of events, this field fails to notice not only the succession of events, social conflicts, and violence in democracy, but also memories profoundly rooted in history, which similarly guide the present.

47 Years of Abuse

It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years!

Why are they talking about 30 years of neglect and injustice? Did the people have more rights and better conditions during the dictatorship? They are 47 years of abuse!

Camilo Catrillanca,[1] murdered by the State

This graffiti collage encapsulates different temporal perceptions of the past that were displayed during the October 2019 Chilean mass protests. However spontaneous, the protests eventually transformed into a vast social mobilization unexpected in its reach and violence. Starting with a seemingly succinct agenda, complaints about a 30 peso increase in subway and transportation fares revealed a far deeper conflict. Different sectors of the population with diverse agendas demonstrated in the streets, displaying an accumulated social discontent and deep political indignation against the current government and the thirty years of power of the so-called Concertación.[2]

Chilean political transition has stood out for its restoration of democracy and institutional consolidation, based on political consensus and a successful neoliberal economy. This social and political stability corresponds in the cultural sphere to the progressive sense of time and memory established during the transition. This marked a new period, one that broke with the violence and repression during Pinochet’s dictatorship, which now lay in the past. Seen thus, the violent mass protests in 2019 reinstated that former order of time in the transitional period, destabilizing its progressive linearity. The protests reinscribed abuse, injustice, and conflict, which were not past but remained present, suspended in the normalcy of the present: 30 years of abuse (since the transition), 47 years of abuse (since the 1973 dictatorship), over a century of abuse and violence by the Chilean state against the Mapuche people, following the occupation of Araucanía in the late 19th century.

Thus, what seemed to have been overcome prevailed — albeit clothed in economic growth. For example, the Mapuche struggle for land and autonomy in Araucanía had led to escalating violence and repression during the transitional years since the 1990s.[3] A graffiti on Santa María bridge, the center of the protests in Santiago, encapsulated the destabilized order, something that previously had seemed unimaginable: “They also lied to us with the ‘Never Again.’”

Determined by Temporality

This disruption of progressive time allows us to reflect on temporality and time in recent Latin American history and memory studies. This field has focused on the repressive nature of dictatorships. But by focusing on events as determined by their temporality, memory studies fails to notice not only the succession of events, social conflicts, and violence under democracy, but also those memories with more profound historical roots, which, moreover, affect the present. Beyond their sequentiality, memories overlap and intertwine in knots of time that escape single moments, as well as progressive and stable periodization in terms of which political transitions are viewed.[4]

These considerations come from my own work on violence and the memories of the civil war in Peru during the 1980s.[5] “The last catastrophe” as a time frame for analyzing recent history ceases to consider the dense and complex temporal plots that are woven about the past,[6] especially in countries with colonial and post-colonial histories. It is beyond dispute that dictatorships and civil wars impose traumatic ruptures on individual lives and collective history, and directly impact the present. However, there are human experiences whose deep historical roots call attention to other experiences, memories, and temporalities, which burst into the present in adverse circumstances. They are pasts that do not disappear, that return not as acts of reminiscence, of remembrance, or commemoration, but rather are reinscribed in the present as unexpected ruptures and imprint themselves; fear and rumor catalyze their force of action. Reflecting on time and space in the history of Guatemala, Julie Gibbings points out: “We do not move through ‘homogenous empty time’; rather, we live in deep entanglements where the past is continually made present. Time does not so much pass as accumulate most often out of the violent wreckage of conquest, colonialism, and capitalism.”[7]

An Unequal Impact

In Peru, the violent Shining Path insurgency focused on rural areas, and on their peasant and indigenous communities. The armed struggle concentrated in these regions, where most lives were lost. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Peru (2003), of approximately 70,000 deaths, two thirds were Quechua speakers, with 80% coming from five of the country’s poorest regions. Thus, violence had an unequal impact in Peru and staked out a social and ethnic geography.

Populations with traditions and historical identities have lived in these territories for centuries, ontologically condensing cultural and political knowledge. These populations have also experienced long-standing struggles over land. Following the liberalization of the land market, they were dispossessed in the late 19th century and during the first decades of the 20th century. Besides dispossession, the servitude system imposed by the haciendas brought about social re-archaization. Thus, the oppressive violence of the hacienda system, of local populations living “as slaves” in their own lands, was a concrete and painful experience for a large part of these populations. In response, they struggled to articulate themselves politically, and crossed the Andes to bring their grievances to Lima, the country’s center of power. Their crossing highlighted the other side of their abandonment, heightened by their living in the geographical margins.

It was in these communities, shaped by a dense past of demands, struggles and articulations, that Shining Path arrived, offering radical change, equality and justice for all, and promising to banish poverty and abandonment. Unsurprisingly, therefore, these populations initially welcomed and supported the insurgency due to their long-harbored hopes for change. Yet the same populations reacted early on when the Shining Path sought to impose its struggle through authoritarian violence. These were severely deprived populations, but with their own political traditions. The same issues that drove initial support for the Shining Path, and helped to catalyze the response against it. Reflecting on a life spent fighting landowners, Adrián Ñawpa, leader of the Purus community, asked, “why were we going to allow a new boss” (in an allusion to the authoritarianism of the Shining Path).

In 2005, I returned to these communities to do research for my doctoral dissertation. I had been there in the late 1990s, accompanying the return and repopulation of dozens of communities that had been wiped out and expelled from the area in the 1980s by the Shining Path and the armed forces. When I arrived this time, the locals were discussing the signing of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. What the media celebrated as great news, these communities perceived as threatening. They talked about the possible intervention and expropriation of their natural resources by gringos. In this context, the memories of the Shining Path and its violence, which had been ever present for years, were now demoted to another plane. Land issues, which seemed to belong to the past, reemerged and configured a new scenario, a new threat outlined by rumor and fear.

A Sense of Insecurity

The memories of land expropriation and oppressive violence throughout the 20th century are not just histories about the past that are remembered: they perpetuate a sense of insecurity and vulnerability that reappears whenever those affected perceive a new threat. These are less past experiences in the strict sense of what is generally considered historical than deep human experiences that reappear, are reinstated, and direct the present. The brutal war waged by the Shining Path, understood in Peru as the last catastrophe in history, is not all there is in the face of these other experiences and memories whose historical roots lie deeper, and which need to be understood and incorporated into historical analysis.

More long-standing memories, which reintroduce the past in all its density, reveal a larger historical agenda, one motivated by exclusion, inequality, and injustices. In this perspective, the time of memory is not limited to a certain temporality, nor does it respond to a secular and progressive historicity. New threats, such as the possible expropriation of land, return and reactualize memories that seemed to be a matter of the past. This force of the past is understood even more profoundly if one considers the active participation of these communities in the history of the peasant mobilizations of the 1960s and in the agrarian reform of the 1970s. Upon the memories of violence are superimposed other memories, which seemed distant in time. Thus, in this continuous present, time and memories overlap and tie each other into “time-knots.”

The present is embodied in memories, some deeper than others in their historical roots, and yet so close at the same time. It is not a question of seeking the myth of origin, but of considering the ways in which people organize their experience, and of noticing those significant experiences that leave traces and outline trajectories in personal, communal, and political lives. In them, land and the state are the entities that criss-cross past and present.

By reflecting on the time of memory, I do not intend to relativize the disruptive and horrific nature of violence. Nor do I wish to screen out the deepest meanings of human experience. However, it is important to measure this experience in all its density and complexity, without confining it to a single, temporarily determined event. The present past, at least in these communities, is made up of a more complex and rich melting pot of experiences and temporalities that are tied together and overlap, unconcerned about the linear and progressive construction of time that leaves behind the past. This is what the mass protests in Chile made evident: the breakage of that progressive line of time in which memory was framed and institutionalized, along with transition and neoliberalism.

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Further Reading

  • Del Pino, P., En nombre del gobierno. El Perú y Uchuraccay: un siglo de política campesina (Lima: La Siniestra Ensayos, 2017)
  • Gibbings, J. Our Time is Now. Race and Modernity in Postcolonial Guatemala (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020)
  • Rousso, H., La última catástrofe. La historia, el presente, lo contemporáneo (Santiago de Chile: Editorial Universitaria, 2018)

Web Resources

  • Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación del Perú, Informe final de la Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación del Perú (Lima, 2003): https://www.cverdad.org.pe/ifinal/ (last accessed 11 October 2021).

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[1] A young Mapuche assassinated by the police in Araucanía on November 14, 2018.
[2] The Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia was a coalition of left, center-left, and centrist parties that ruled Chile during the 1990–2018 transition, with the exception of Sebastián Piñera’s first right-wing government (2010–2014).
[3] For a detailed description of violence and repression in Araucanía, see Fernando Pairican, Malon. La rebelión del movimiento Mapuche, 1990-2013 (Santiago de Chile: Pehuén, 2014). Police persecution and violence have not been alien to cities, as in La Legua, not far from downtown Santiago de Chile and identified as a “critical neighborhood” for its social conflicts and drug trafficking. See further María José Reyes, et. al., “La transmisión de memoria como mecanismo de intervención: estudio de caso de una población ‘emblemática’ y ‘crítica’ en Santiago de Chile.” Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana. Vol. 16, No. 1 (January–April 2021): 137–163.
[4] I elaborate these ideas about time in conversation with Julie Gibbings’ Our Time is Now: Race and Modernity in Postcolonial Guatemala. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.
[5] See especially Del Pino (2017).
[6] Henry Rousso makes this link explicit and states that all contemporary history begins with “the last catastrophe to date” (Rousso 2018: 23).
[7] Gibbings, Our Time is Now, 26.

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Image Credits

Dignidad © 2021 the Author.

Recommended Citation

Del Pino, Ponciano: How Recent is Recent History? In: Public History Weekly 9 (2021) 8, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-18866.

Editorial Responsibility

Catalina Muñoz Rojas

Copyright © 2021 by De Gruyter Oldenbourg and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact the editor-in-chief (see here). All articles are reliably referenced via a DOI, which includes all comments that are considered an integral part of the publication.

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    OPEN PEER REVIEW

    “Monday’s Memory, Tuesday’s Protest, Wednesday’s History”

    I shiver at the idea of living in the present, without anything, without thinking about the past and with no thought of tomorrow.
    Alejo Carpentier, The Lost Steps, 1953

    The increasingly fruitful dialogue between the academic fields of Memory Studies and History is leading to interesting transformations in both, and in the creation of new forms of knowledge. As this splendid article suggests, the insights of projects working with memories on the social margins are forcing historians to visibilize the every-widening cracks in the foundations of what Koselleck called ‘the timing of history’. Some historians even speculate that they are working with ‘timeless memories’. Has memory finally ruptured the links between History and linear time, between Progress and Development, between the written word and the National Story?

    At Bristol University my colleague Jo Crow and I teach an undergraduate course on ‘Latin America in the Twentieth-Century: A People’s History’, around which we placed the chronology of 1910-1990. Yet we spend as much time talking about the causes of change that played out before our starting point, and about the consequences as they are being seen up to the present-day. The events of our chosen period are the anchor for our discussions with students, but discussions of relevance, causation and politics necessarily lurch beyond those years. The time-period becomes the repository of our source material as much as the object of study.

    In the memory projects in which I have been involved in Peru and Colombia (the forced sterilizations in Peru in the 1990s in the Quipu Project, the abuses of the armed conflicts in both countries in Peace Festival and MEMPAZ) researchers have been repeatedly brought up short when our interest in testimonies of recent history have been merged into longer memories by the people who spoke with us. Memories seek out continuities with longer pasts, whereas histories seek to measure, categorize and explain, to buttress our understanding with timescales, chronologies and periodizations. As the author points out, in places where state presence has been patchy, extractive and/or violent, it can be counter-productive to focus memory work only on the recent past. Researchers can sometimes be blindsided by the longer timespans resorted to in memories from the margins. I remember the slow opening of my eyes and ears during a conversation about the Putumayo region when I realised that I was listening to a story told in the present tense of labour exploitation that had taken place over a century earlier rather than, as I had presumed, last week; on another, in response to an enquiry about memories of the armed conflict in northern Colombia (my emphasis) I was told about the events of the sixteenth-century. Working with and through memories can teach the historian – at least this one – of the value of listening, of allowing oneself to take time to catch the register of the past as it floats into the present through song, art or performance. This is not something that can often be captured by keyword searching through digital archives, or by browsing archival catalogues sorted by year.

    The ‘estallido social’ in Chile in 2020 and the social protests in Colombia in 2021 have seen not only historically-streetwise graffiti and clever placards, or just thousands of people making themselves physically present on streets demanding safety from police brutality and the hope of a better future. These movements have brought into wider public view the products of the memory work that has been going on under the radar since the hopeful transitions to democracy (in Chile from 1990, in Peru from 2000) and peace (in Colombia since 2016).

    Maria Emma Wills, who at the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica in Colombia did so much to bring memories of victims and marginalized peoples into the mainstream of published reports and policy-briefings, suggests that not only is memory work the first draft of history, but it also serves to open up historical accounts, pushing at the categories, boundaries and chronologies carried by historical work itself.  Whether done by well-resourced institutions like the CNMH, or by persistent and persecuted citizens, memory work serves to pierce the silence and indifference of history. For example the Peruvians who were sterilized without their consent over two decades ago have kept alive the memory of what happened to them, in the face of much social indifference and legal impunity for the perpetrators. They continue to demand that their voices are heard, that real change is enacted, and that justice is done. How much time they will have to wait before their success becomes part of history, will depend on who is listening.

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