Political Minutes: Katherine Hite on Politics and Commemoration

Last Thursday, as part of an ongoing seminar series organized by Columbia’s Institute for Latin American Studies (ILAS), professor and author Katherine Hite presented some of her findings from her book Politics and the Art of Commemoration: Memorials to struggle in Latin America and Spain. Hite, formerly the associate director of ILAS and currently the director of Vassar College’s Latin American and Latino/a Studies program, led a fascinating multidisciplinary discussion that touched on complex issues such as social conflict, empathy, reconciliation, and politics. Hite spoke first about the dual nature of memorials to the victims of war, oppression, or conflict. Memorials are not just static acts of remembrance of fallen friends. Instead, as Hite put it, “Commemorations mobilize the past with an eye to the here and now.” In other words, memorials are both representations of the past and “vehicles for mobilization” that can invigorate those who stand before them. Indeed, in many cases these memorials (and, more broadly, the intersection of politics and memory that drives their creation) are actively redefining identity and political expression in communities of all sizes.

According to Hite, the essential purpose of a memorial is to provide an open, safe space in which communities can endeavor to sort out the complex, conflictive, and often-contradictory process of grief and memory. Memorials, if they effectively move observers toward contemplation, can be both cathartic and empowering for individuals while catalyzing a necessary conversation within the society at large. To highlight the importance of these memorials, Hite mentioned Judith Butler’s notion of a global community built on shared mourning; trauma art, at its finest, can be essential in recreating community bonds that violence and hatred had dissolved.

In order to root the discussion in a particular context, Hite focused extensively on “El ojo que llora” (“The eye that cries”), a memorial in Lima, Peru, that was erected to commemorate the victims of guerrilla warfare and authoritarianism that haunted Peru throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. The memorial features a sculptural representation of Pachamama (the revered Andean goddess of the Earth) and an eye that “cries” an endless trickle of water. Around the central sculpture is a labyrinthine series of paths lined with stones featuring names of the victims. Hite says that visitors weave through the paths, searching for forgiveness, cleansing, and reconciliation with themselves and others. Most importantly, for families who have no other place to mourn their fallen relatives, this memorial has proven to be a powerful source of identity and healing.

Nevertheless, “El ojo que llora” also speaks to the tremendous complexities of commemoration and healing. While the memorial has been a source of healing, it has also seen ongoing violence: After Chile extradited former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori to Peru in late 2007, the memorial was vandalized and covered with neon orange paint. Moreover, the discovery that some of the names of the victims in the memorial were, in fact, fallen members of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), the Maoist insurgency behind many of the atrocities in Peru, led many to protest the memorial and to question its validity. The conflict that has surrounded the memorial since its creation calls attention to the ongoing political struggles in Peru to distinguish victim from perpetrator and to heal the violence that destroyed families and unraveled the social fabric of many communities.

In the second half of the seminar, Hite took a number of questions from the diverse attendees, and the ensuing discussion wanted for nothing in terms of complex questions. At a fundamental level, the analysis of memorials (within a broader context of a society seeking commemoration and reconciliation) centers around the questions of what the memorial represents, who promoted the memorial and for what purpose, and how the society at large has independently reacted to and mobilized around it. Hite presented one fundamental idea that is crucial to address any of those questions: “Memorials,” she said, “depend on people and agents to engage them.” Although memorials may be set in stone, the political processes and social interactions that give them meaning are, in fact, quite dynamic.

Latin American nations have been at the forefront of these struggles of the politics of memory, as country after country undertakes the tricky process of addressing severe violence in its history. Hite is cautious in her discussion of national attempts at reconciliation, noting firmly that no government can directly impose reconciliation upon its people. Nevertheless, if a state can create an open, public space that encourages shared mourning and open discussion about past atrocities, the society can take great strides toward healing the wounds of its recent past. And most importantly, says Hite, we can “never say never” about any particular society; the politics of mourning and commemoration are ongoing, heterogeneous, and of critical importance, and they may arise in any nation that longs for healing.