‘People talk about memory as if was something that floats around in the air. In fact, it’s the sum of the political decisions that have marked the world’, Beatriz Torres tells me. Beatriz Torres is the Director of the Academic Center for the Memory of Our America, based at the Autonomous University of Mexico City. CAMeNA is home to a vast collection of documents that make up what Torres calls the ‘layers of memory’ – of an internationalist, pan-American, anti-imperialist America, deeply committed to the principles of liberation and of justice. All materials are available to the public on the premises, and many are available online, though the process of digitization has been slowed down by COVID-19.
CAMeNA started its life in 2005 as ‘Archive Gregorio and Marta Selser’. At the time, Beatriz Torres had convinced the leadership of the UACM to acquire the research archive and the personal documents of the Argentine scholar and journalist Gregorio Selser and his wife Marta Ventura, who had come to Mexico as exiles. Selser was a well-known public intellectual in Argentina; a journalist-scholar, a publicist, and collaborator of several universities and publishers.
When the Selsers left Argentina, they took some of their archive with them, donated some of it to FLACSO, which eventually shipped a third part to the Selsers once they had settled in Mexico. Gregorio Selser’s time in Mexico was the most productive period of his life. When he died in 1991 (by his own choice), he’d produced a body of work so substantial and wide-ranging, that from it one can extrapolate an ethically and politically grounded epistemology. His last work was published posthumously by CAMeNA in collaboration with UACM: a monumental, 6-volume chronicle of foreign interventions in Latin America. In all his works self-determination and solidarity – within which critical thinking and full information were a prerequisite – were inseparably enmeshed.
The Selser papers
Soon after the acquisition of the Selser papers, the ‘Archivo Selser’ transformed into a Center of memory in the spirit of Selser’s ethics, his politics, and his epistemology. Others who shared his convictions started to donate material.
- Carlos Fazio, a journalist and media analyst who had been a member of the Tupamaros in Uruguay and fled the country for Mexico, donated a large collection of materials on state crimes in the Southern Cone.
- Raquel Gutiérrez, a Mexican mathematician, donated documents from a time period when, as a young woman, she had joined the armed movements in Bolivia, had been imprisoned, tortured, and kept in prison for several years until being released to Mexico.
- Héctor Salinas donated documents from a 1987 student strike at the UNAM, and on the protests against the fraudulent 1988 elections.
‘It’s been put together like an orchestra’, Beatriz Torres explains, possibly with a wink towards Gregorio Selser, who once said that he would have much preferred to become a poet or a conductor than a journalist. His wish has been fulfilled posthumously: he is now the conductor of an orchestra of truthfulness. Over time, more voices and instruments have joined in. Individuals and groups have practiced these ethics and politics through various organisations and channels: the state, the Church, armed movements, social movements, non-governmental organisations, investigative journalism, or by conscientious objection. But these differences are not a cause for division. All these approaches, and the experience and the knowledge they produced, are recognized as ‘layers of memory.’
The layers of memory
Among the layers of memory are:
- The collection of documents rescued from Guatemala by Ernesto Capuano, former Minister of Agriculture in Jacobo Arbenz’s Cabinet, and his extensive documentation of social and political movements in Guatemala, the Guatemalan exile diaspora and the Peace Process.
- The archive of the organisation CoSoFam, founded by former political prisoners from Argentina who courageously documented the atrocities committed in Argentina from 1976-1983 and raised public awareness.
- The papers of Sergio Méndez Arceo, Bishop of Cuernavaca, an important advocate of liberation theology and ally of the politically persecuted from the entire continent.
- The materials war correspondents Blanche Petrich and Maria Cortina drew on when reporting on the civil wars in El Salvador and in Guatemala.
- The research used by Paco Ignacio Taibo II for his biography Ernesto Guevara, also known as El Che.
- The papers of Panamanian journalist Jorge Turner, an expert on one of Latin America’s biggest mega-projects, the Panama Canal.
- Archives of Mexican LGBTQ rights organisations.
- The papers of Brigadier General Francisco Gallardo, who protested against Human Rights violations by the Mexican army, advocated for checks and balances, and was imprisoned for several years.
- The papers of Guatemalan former guerrilla commander Mario Payeras, who held his own against internal hierarchies, left the organisation, became one of the first guerrilleros to create what we would today call ecocritical literature, and whose grave was desecrated after his death.
Truthfulness comes with pain
The refusal to deal with pain leads to a rejection of the truth, or to its ‘rewriting’, to make it less painful and easier to cope with for those for those who have the option of avoiding it. The layers of memory held in CAMeNA hold the physical pain suffered by those tortured, the anguish of those searching for their loved ones or knowing them to be in grave danger and in pain.
They also hold the toxicity, the fanaticism the and zeal with which those in power and their allies defended the status quo and advanced their causes by any means necessary – torture, terror, assassination, dispossession, expropriation, plunder.
But the many voices that make up Memory also show that movements and individuals did not recoil or resign themselves before such toxicity. Instead, they held their own and studied their opponents, to oppose them effectively and meaningfully on an intellectual and ideological level. In so doing, they constantly adapted and re-affirmed their integrity.
We can see this in the collection on State Crimes in Latin America. Here, we see the impact that state crimes had on families from across the continent who ended up in the firing line of repression, and who paid a high price for their commitment to internationalist solidarity, justice and self-determination.
Among these is the family of Jorge Federico Tatter, a Paraguayan former army official who left the army, organised tirelessly over 30 years for social justice and democracy, was forcibly disappeared in Argentina in 1976, and was handed over to the Paraguayan secret services as a victim of Operation Condor. His wife Idalina became one of the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, obtained German citizenship for herself and her family and was therefore able to take her husband’s case all the way through the German courts.
The ambivalence of the Mexican state
The Mexican State has had a duplicitous attitude towards political struggle. While it received exiles from the dictatorships of the Southern Cone, it unleashed a ‘dirty war’ on its own opponents, whether these were students, peasants or guerrilleros. It was patriarchal, authoritarian and coercive and often resorted to extreme physical, symbolic and structural violence – covering this up with a Third Worldist rhetoric and supposed solidarity with the persecuted. This (for many Left-wingers) inconvenient truth is recognized by the CAMeNA as another layer of memory.
The archive of the Comité Eureka, an organisation of family members of the forcibly disappeared and the assassinated in Mexico, bears witness to the Mexican government’s brutality against its own dissidents and armed movements from the 1960s to the 1980s, as do many of the documents donated by HIJOS Mexico, and those relating to the infamous case of the Brothers Cerezo. ‘Walls are constantly erected against the right to knowledge, but it should be a universal right, like the right to life or the right to healthcare. I want people to be able to exercise their right to say: this is what happened – to my country, to my family, my friends, my comrades’, Beatriz Torres says. Unless the words that are spoken are listened to, heard and responded to, these fragments of memory, verbal and non-verbal, will float in the air, haunting rather than guiding us, dividing us rather than strengthening our integrity. CAMeNA gives us everything we need to find the response that Memory requires.
All images are from the CAMeNA archives