Summary: Place in Healing and Memory

My fascination with place began, I think, when I first uprooted myself from my childhood home to live in a country far away. As I have continued to travel and explore new places, I have become ever more attuned to how physical environments form my experiences and my memories. From the wild beauty of a mountainous landscape to the rough graffiti of city walls, my emotional responses and memories are inevitably tied to place. Perhaps because of my own understanding of place, I am convinced that place and space—by which I mean our location and physical surroundings—shape the human experience, at the same time that we use and alter the spaces we occupy.

Out of this idea was born my current research project. I theorized that place and space shaped processes of memory and healing. Not only are they natural factors in these processes, but they are also actively used for these purposes. Because I wished to illustrate the diverse ways in which this function of place and space may manifest itself, I chose two distinct—yet oddly parallel—case studies. First, I studied the memory of the last civil-military dictatorship and the 30,000 desaparecidos in Argentina. I knew that monuments and memorials were key in the country’s dedication to maintaining an active memory and allowing society to heal from past state violence. I also discovered that in the current day, memory drives political activism, which in large part revolves around practices of place, such as marches and demonstrations. Practices of memory and activism in Argentina are anchored in place: they revolve around the creation of symbolic presence.

The second case study took place on the Camino Portugués, a traditional pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The concept of pilgrimage, I believe, is a unique but fitting demonstration of the importance of place for healing. The route and the destination of the pilgrimage are sacred to those that choose to follow the path. The physical journey mirrors—and enables—the spiritual, emotional, or religious journey. Most pilgrims expect some kind of change within themselves when they reach the end of their pilgrimage. Although the healing process of the Camino is more personal than the collective healing that I witnessed in Argentina, it also took place on a communal level, as pilgrims shared their struggles and undertook their journeys side by side.

Between these locations, I was able to experience a myriad of roles that place and space played in memory and healing for individual and communities. I gathered information through both interviews and observation. In Argentina, I lived for six months, studied the history of the last civil-military dictatorship, and researched markings of memory in the city of La Plata. I interviewed individuals with academic and militant backgrounds and others without. From Portugal to Spain, I myself walked the Camino Portugués. Because I understood the Camino to be a very personal experience, I felt that it was necessary for me to undertake the pilgrimage to fully comprehend its significance. Along the way, I met and interviewed other pilgrims, gaining a glimpse into people’s views on the meaning of the journey.

My intention was to present the results as a documentary. Because place and space are so visceral, so dynamic, I felt video was the best medium to discuss them. Putting together the documentary, from the creative choices to the technical logistics, was by far the most challenging aspect of this research project. I am not sure I was able to do justice to all I learned, especially with so little time. With more time, I would like to continue improving and editing the video. Even so, I immensely enjoyed creating this film and I hope that my viewers will gain as much from watching it as I did from producing it.

Over the past weeks and months, I have delved into the relevance of space and place in healing and memory. I have realized that place is utilized as a concrete memory of the past, but also as a bridge to the future. It can form the backdrop for an entire society’s journey towards reconciliation, or an individual’s quest for self-reconciliation. It is symbolic—symbolic of the past, or of change, or of power. These places are liminal spaces, border spaces. They are places of limbo, suspended between past and future. They exist in the present, tethered to their histories but undergoing change. These liminal spaces are recreated by ritual, the active maintenance of memory, and its alteration through healing.

This project opens many possibilities for further research. Other case studies in other cultures could reveal further usages of place in religious, spiritual, and political practices. A greater understanding of how place and space can be tools for healing could have therapeutic or reconciliatory functions. This topic is one that I hope to continue exploring, because I believe it has much potential.

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