Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Archive That Never Was: State Terror and Historical Memory in Guatemala

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Archive That Never Was: State Terror and Historical Memory in Guatemala

Article excerpt

The inscription above the entrance to the cemetery, there for as long as anyone can remember, has a valedictory ring. Its message is not lost on the citizens of Quetzaltenango, or any other Guatemalans passing through to pay their respects. "The memory of the living," the inscription reads, "gives life to the dead." (1) His arms full of gladioli, my colleague Eduardo Velasquez, professor of history at the Universidad de San Carlos, takes me to where his beloved nanny is buried. "She made me who I am," he tells me, tidying up the grave site before placing the freshly cut flowers next to her tomb. I wander off to give Eduardo a moment to reflect. In the burial quarters of more prominent families--Quetzaltenango was home to coffee barons of local and German origin in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--vandals have struck, severing the heads of stately marble angels and hacking off their wings. The mausoleums of the rich, several sprayed with uncomplimentary graffiti, dwarf row after row of engraved cement niches, three feet by three feet by seven feet, piled on top of each other five or six high. There families of more modest means seal the remains of their loved ones. Beyond are the earthen mounds of the poor, where makeshift wooden crosses have names painted on by hand, more than a few indicating that the deceased was indigenous. At the far end of the cemetery, communal burial sites either have no identification or are marked "XX." What would be the more ignominious, I ask myself--an unmarked resting place or one indicated by two anonymous Xs?

I mention my observations to Eduardo. He shakes his head at the desecration, then elaborates on a discovery that offers a glimmer of hope for anyone trying to establish what happened to the more than 45,000 Guatemalans who were "disappeared" in the years of civil strife between 1961 and 1996, missing and presumed dead, many of whom are believed to be interred not only in known mass graves in cemeteries like Quetzaltenango's but also strewn around the country in clandestine ones now being exhumed.

Edilberto Cifuentes Medina is an associate of Eduardo's. Both men are now middle-aged, but as students they took classes at the university from a rebel offspring of the Quetzaltenango elite, Severo Martinez Pelaez (1925-1998). Considered by some to be the country's most influential, if controversial, modern historian, Martinez Peldez was a Marxist whose views of how Guatemala came to be continue to spark debate. Eduardo and Cifuentes hold him in high regard and have written about him passionately (Cifuentes Medina 2000; Velasquez Carrera 2000, 2008). I too have long admired the scholarship of Martinez Pelitez, especially his magnum opus, La patria del criollo ([1970] 2009), a searing critique of Guatemala's enduring colonial legacy that I helped translate and edit, much of its subject matter as pertinent today as when the book first appeared more than four decades ago. (2) Later given access to photographs from family members that neither Eduardo nor Cifuentes were able to draw upon, I also coauthored a cameo of Martinez Peldez's turbulent life and times, from an idyllic childhood ended by the suicide of his mother to the struggle he lost, in exile in Mexico, to the scourge of Alzheimer's (Lovell and Lutz 2009). With a sense of homage foremost in mind, Eduardo arranged for a presentation of both books to be held at Casa Noj cultural center in Quetzaltenango, the reason for our traveling there together. He takes great delight in showing me around the city he was born and raised in, which has a hold on his heart like no other.

"I don't see much of Cifuentes these days," Eduardo complains, "what with me so wrapped up in my job"--he may yet serve as president of the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala--"and he in his." In 2005 Cifuentes worked under the attorney Sergio Morales Alvarado in Guatemala's Human Rights Office. In that capacity he was sent to oversee a routine undertaking and stumbled upon a complex filled with old police records, which authorities hitherto claimed did not exist. …

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