Healing and Memory, Part 1: Argentina

For the past several months, I have been studying abroad in La Plata, Argentina. I am taking classes and interning at the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria, a public and autonomous human rights organization. Because of my involvement with the Comisión, I have become immersed in the humanitarian and activist discourse of La Plata. Our studies are focused on human rights within the context of Argentina’s historical and current struggles to maintain them. We are encouraged to view everything from school subjects to present politics with a critical and a humanitarian lens. This foray into a highly mobilized community (the network of the Comisión as well as the atmosphere of  student activism) has given me a vivid conception of active memory.

In this city, scars of the crimes against humanity and the state terrorism of the last military dictatorship can be found on every corner. The streets and buildings are sprinkled with memorials, plaques, murals, and graffiti. The physical space of the city is marked by memory. Some of the remembrances are informal; others are formal. Some are state-sponsored; others are carried out by individuals or human rights organizations. Some are rooted in the past; others make reference to current violations of rights. The most common current issues touched upon (which are often addressed as continuous with past state terrorism) are recent disappearances, police killings, and the violation of rights under incarceration. Some of the most ubiquitous and, to me, striking markings demand the reappearance of recently disappeared Argentinians, especially Santiago Maldonado. “Dónde está Santiago Maldonado?” (Where is Santiago Maldonado?) is a common refrain. Flyers with Santiago’s piercing stare, following the tradition of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo of carrying photos of their disappeared children, plaster the walls of the city. They demand justice. The marking of the city with reminders of his disappearance and the demanding of his reappearance reveal how public space is used in current activist efforts. These actos create a physical space for those whose place in society and whose physical existence has been usurped. They are part of the effort to hold the state responsible for crimes against its own citizens.

Another use of public space to keep memory alive and apply it to current issues stands out to me. The plazas and streets of La Plata and Buenos Aires regularly fill with protesters. Labor unions, students, and political parties (to mention only a few) rely on marches, assemblies, and protests to make their causes visible. During these events the organizations claim public spaces, putting their message in the spotlight through banners, music, and chants. On the National Day of Memory for Truth and Justice, the link between past and present-day mobilizations is especially clear. The gathering of people and the reclaiming of space on this day is meant to revive memories of the last military dictatorship and to prevent the same crimes from recurring. These political acts are a collective use of space to process the past and to bring awareness to current questions of human rights.

So far I am astounded by the effective use of space and place in my local community. I am moved by the commitment of individuals and groups to human rights. I have found an immense volume of evidence that space and place play a key role in active memory and political activism. As I continue to explore these links, one of my next steps will be interviewing community members. I am excited to begin this next stage and to hear from people about their own experiences.


  1. catherine says:

    Well written and interesting stuff! My research is also tied to sites of memory, so I’ll be fascinated to hear what you find. You mention the dual use of space–some official memory, some spontaneous, public memory. Have you seen any clashes, whether literal, artistic, etc. over use of space to make memory? I wonder how those whose conception of space and memory is more confrontational towards the state view the state’s use of space for a similarly commemorative purpose.