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AAA 2013 Paper: Historical Memory as Weapon and Arena: Comparing Three Forms of Memory Activism in Guatemala

By popular demand, here is my paper from the 2013 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association.  I had the good fortune of presenting alongside several excellent scholars working in the anthropology of memory studies–Nutsa Batiashvili, Brigittine French, Svetlana Jacquesson, and Carole Blackburn, with James Wertsch serving as our discussant.  The panel, which I organized, was titled “ANTHROPOLOGY AND MEMORY STUDIES: CREATING ETHNOGRAPHIES OF COLLECTIVE REMEMBERING.”

I’ll post the panel abstract after my paper.

Historical Memory as Weapon and Arena:
Comparing Three Forms of Memory Activism in Guatemala

Doc M. Billingsley

Washington University in St. Louis


Billingsley, Doc

2013    Historical Memory as Weapon and Arena: Comparing Three Forms of Memory Activism in Guatemala. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Chicago, 20 November 2013.


In contemporary Guatemala, historical memory (memoria histórica) offers a valuable generative resource for (re)defining identity at multiple sites and scales—from individuals’ profound personal experiences with ritualized remembrance in Maya spiritual traditions, to national-level political and legal contests over the official version of history.  However, personal and collective memories in Guatemala often reflect the past as experienced from perspectives that were substantially divergent—sometimes even violently at odds.  The public negotiation of these contrasting memories can thus have highly charged political consequences, creating impasses that indicate a national-scale crisis of truth.  In order to explain how, why, and to what effect different Guatemalans could remember the past so differently—e.g., how the current president can claim that “there was no genocide” while one of his predecessors stands trial for its perpetuation—I turn to an anthropological framework of memory as mediated action.  In this paper, I examine and contrast three movements that seek social change through transforming practices of collective remembering: protest-oriented ‘memory offensives’ that challenge society to discuss rather than silence the difficult past, pedagogically-oriented campaigns for textbook reform that seek to re-imagine national history, and legally-oriented movements to prosecute former military leaders for war crimes.  I focus on the ways in which each of these movements draws on Maya memories and mnemonic practices, arguing that some approaches are fundamentally transformed by this borrowing while others merely appropriate Maya discourses in ways that are deeply (though often unintentionally) problematic.

Keywords: Memory, Activism, Guatemala


I have three goals to accomplish in this short paper: first, to explain the title. What do I mean when I say that historical memory is both a weapon and an arena, and why do I think that is an important factor for conducting and writing ethnography?  Second, I wish to juxtapose three examples of the ways in which groups and individuals are waging battles over memory in Guatemala.  I hope to show through these examples how remembering practices are reflections of other political and cultural processes that are perhaps more familiar territory for many anthropologists.  Third, I want to offer my thoughts about the relationship between memory activism and other changes that are underway in Guatemala, particularly the impact of what Victor Montejo (2005) has called the “Maya intellectual renaissance.”  In particular, I found that memory activism is an important site for studying recent and profound changes in the politics of knowledge, as Maya perspectives are incorporated into various public debates.

Although I focus on specific cases from Guatemala, in keeping with the goals of this panel I aim to step back and illustrate how memory can be a useful focus for ethnographers working anywhere.  To be able to cover all of the ground that I’ve promised to cover today, I will need to skip over some details.  In particular I won’t be providing a lot of historical context, and the extent of my theoretical contributions will have to be limited to the specific examples I describe below.  The missing parts are covered more exhaustively in my dissertation and manuscripts in progress.  For now, suffice it to say that the type of collective memory I deal with is historical memory, borrowing the language used by the participants themselves.  In particular, my research has focused on people’s historical memories of violence in Guatemala, and the role that this violence has played in defining collective identities, national and otherwise.  For the most part, the violence in question refers to the internal armed conflict which lasted from 1960 until 1996, though in other cases that I won’t address today, I found that people expressed historical memories of events that occurred much earlier, including early colonial period.

As I conceptualize it, historical memory offers a fortuitous and pragmatic approach to studying collective memory because it conspicuously blurs the line between memory and history, categories which some scholars treat rather like opposites.  For example, Pierre Nora wrote that history is “antithetical” to memory (1989:9), and Peter Novick has claimed that memory is “ahistorical, even anti-historical” (1999:3).  However I find this clean separation to be problematic.  For one thing, this binary view of knowledges about the past limits our ability to understand local practices on their own terms.  Anthropologists are often attuned to knowledges that we encounter outside the bounds of officialdom or the mainstream—one might even say this is our disciplinary specialty.  We stand to gain a richer understanding of past experiences, as well, by recognizing the different local discursive conventions at play in any act of commemoration.

More importantly, I am concerned that an a priori analytical break between memory and history risks obscuring the role that power plays in claims to truth.  For example, the peculiar forms of subjectivity and literacy practices that make up professional historiography or social science have come to enjoy a great deal of power and prestige.  As academics we may be especially prone to consider “authoritative” and “true” those interpretations that fit our expectations of what a well-researched account should look like: precise dates, named actors, perhaps some nice unrounded numbers that suggest an exact count.  However, such accounts are not inherently more or less true than any others.  We must cultivate awareness of different conventions—that is, different local understandings of the parameters of “history,” “memory,” or even “historical memory”—in order to evaluate the truth value of claims, and understand how different forms of authoritative statements compare against each other.

Three Examples of Memory Activism

At this point I will very briefly describe three examples of how groups are using historical memory as a resource for activism in Guatemala.  My goal here is to point out a few details that reveal the complexity and productivity of memory as an ethnographic focus.

Memory Offensives & Offensive Memories

The first case is centered on an organization called H.I.J.O.S., the Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice against Forgetting and Silence,[1] which is based on an Argentine group of the same name (Contreras 2009).  In particular, I’d like to describe H.I.J.O.S.’ signature event, an annual celebration-slash-protest called the “Memory Offensive.”  These Memory Offensives take place during the final weeks of June each year, leading up to June 30, which is officially recognized in Guatemala as Army Day.  Traditionally, on this date each year the Guatemalan military would parade through the streets in a show of force and nationalist pride.  For over a decade, H.I.J.O.S. has responded by organizing series of public demonstrations that they call “memory offensives [ofensivas de memoria],” a play on military terminology.  The events culminate in a “Memory March” on June 30, designed as a direct counter-response to the Army Day parades.

Despite being the culmination of a ‘Memory offensive,’ the march is far from militant.  When I participated in 2011, at least half of the participants were young, including dozens of children and teenagers who were probably too young to personally remember even the signing of the Peace Accords, much less the forced disappearances, assassinations, and torture that plagued Guatemalans during the war.  Many of these younger participants came dressed as clowns, or walked about on tall stilts.  Drummers occupied the center of the march, tapping out cadences that the clowns and others used as a rhythm for dancing.  A group of young women, wearing t-shirts and tank tops that declared that “Women’s bodies are not spoils of war,” sang a short song about sending Ríos Montt to jail.  In short, the Memory March was a festive occasion.  Although the demands of the participants would no doubt be threatening to some, the medium they used to deliver their message is attractive and disarming, and I noticed bystanders joining the procession or stopping to watch with smiles on their faces.

The march and other events of H.I.J.O.S.’ Memory Offensive seemed to evoke the carnivalesque atmosphere that Bakhtin described as being “ambivalent: it is gay, triumphant, and at the same time mocking, deriding.  It asserts and denies, it buries and revives” (1968:12).   Bakhtin held that carnivalesque atmospheres provide participants with a “temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions” (1968:4-11).  These brief periods marked by both respite and upheaval, celebrations of ambiguity and change, were immensely meaningful for people.  They were also important sources of communitas, with the corresponding potential for political consciousness-raising and mobilization.  In contrast with the official festivals sponsored and organized by state authorities, which uphold hierarchy and fetishize the stability and immutability of the status quo, carnivals and popular feasts “were the second life of the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality, and abundance” (Bakhtin 1968:4-11).  This contrast is all the more meaningful in the context of the competing definitions of June 30 in Guatemala, where the official celebrations are precisely ordered and choreographed spectacles of military might, the archetypal hierarchical organization.

Finally, I want to share descriptions of memory and history as offered by members of H.I.J.O.S.  First, the slogan of H.I.J.O.S. is “We are all children of the same history,” a claim that is at once unifying and polemical.  On the one hand, it recognizes that the burdens of history are, or should be, shared by all members of society.  On the other hand, it rejects the tendency toward multiple explanations—i.e., a history of the victimized and the victimizer.  One of the defining goals of H.I.J.O.S., and other memory activist groups, is to force Guatemalan society to come to terms with the past and ultimately to assign blame and demand justice.  As for memory, a representative of the group offering the following remarks before the march got underway:  “Our memory is not a pure, static record.  Our memory does not obey the interests of groups or elites. Our memory is not guarded in a box … Our memory is alive … Our memory is the seed of rebellion, the voice, the word, the action, the idea that reveals itself before so much oppression.”

Reconfiguring Textbooks & Museums for Historical Memory

The second group applying historical memory toward social transformation consists of scholars and activists in a variety of institutions focused on educating future generations about the difficult events that Guatemala has experienced.  I encountered several groups engaged in the production of new textbooks, including the Office of Human Rights of the Archbishop of Guatemala, the coworkers of the late Bishop Gerardi who was assassinated in 1998 for his early leadership in memory activism.  The same researchers who prepared the Church’s influential Recovery of Historical Memory Project are now working with the Guatemalan Ministry of Education to prepare new materials that cover the periods of history that have been largely ignored in public education.  Another group called Equipo Cosmovisión has worked with the photographer Jonás Moller to create textbooks that feature powerful images of forensic excavations of burial sites and reburial ceremonies in Maya communities.  These photos are interspersed with essays and poetry from various Maya intellectuals.  Although Moller is American, his project is clearly focused on incorporating Maya experiences of the conflict into the national consciousness.

Several Maya writers have also been working to transform the national narrative on an even more fundamental level.  Whereas the official versions of history usually focus on the Guatemalan State—its mythic origin story, an unbroken chain of political leaders, and various symbols of nationalism—the historical memories of my K’iche’ and Kaqchikel colleagues tended toward a much longer view of history.  The stories they told began long before Guatemala: before independence, before colonization, before the arrival of the Spanish.  Although their individual narratives differed in the details, a common theme was the recurrence of violence against Maya communities by the highest authorities, be they representatives of crown, colony, or State.  As one of my friends in the publishing industry put it, “the violence [of counterinsurgency warfare] was just the latest episode in a long series that began with the arrival of Pedro de Alvarado.”  Now that the tools and authority needed for text production are once again available to Maya scholars, such alternative views of history may finally be on the horizon.

From the Streets to the Courts: Memory on Trial

The third and final example of historical memory being used for social transformation is also perhaps the most inspiring.  In recent years, communities that were victimized by military violence during the internal armed conflict have finally succeeded in pursuing judicial action against the perpetrators of the crimes.  These historic trials are a particularly clear example of the negotiation of contrasting forms of knowledge about the past: the testimony of victims—who are predominately Maya, and who often testify in their native languages with the assistance of a court interpreter—must undergo a quite deliberate process of transformation to fit the expected parameters of courtroom discourse.  For example, in the official transcripts of the recent Ríos Montt trial, each witness’s testimony is followed by a list of the reasons why their declaration is deemed valuable by the court.  These brief explanatory remarks function on the one hand as a form of evaluation of the validity of the testimony—for example, pointing out the age of the witness at the time of the event, as a sign that she was mature enough to understand and remember what she experienced.  They also serve as a space for a sort of meta-commentary on the trial itself, incrementally building evidence of a recurring pattern in the narratives which in this case led the court to find Ríos Montt guilty of genocide.

On the surface, it would appear that the court’s handling of survivor testimonies reflects long-standing patterns of discrimination and privilege, specifically in the necessity of commenting on the validity of survivors’ testimonies rather than letting them speak for themselves, as it were.  However there is a larger sea change underlying these commentaries and translations.  The process of incorporating victims’ memories of violence into the official record, via the judicial system, has consequently led to broader shifts in how society at large discusses and understands the internal armed conflict.  The relationship between individual testimonies and national narratives is thus laid visible in this critical moment in Guatemala.

Memory as Weapon & Arena

Finally, I arrive at explaining the first part of this paper’s title: memory as weapon.  For the activists, writers, and survivors described above, historical memory has become a valuable resource—or weapon—for challenging the status quo and demanding social change.  For the participants in H.I.J.O.S.’ Memory Offensive, for whom memory is the “seed of rebellion,” historical memory functions as an organizing principle and a powerful recruiting tool.  For the authors of new textbooks, memory offers perspectives that have been excluded from the national historical narrative.  And for the survivors and victims of violence who finally have their day in court, historical memory is the primary evidence they bear.  In this final case, memory is a weapon with the potential to put some of the most powerful men in Guatemala behind bars for the rest of their lives.

And yet the rise of memory as a weapon has been accompanied by new struggles, particularly by a shift in debates onto the terrain of memory itself.  That is, memory has become an arena.  This is likely the case everywhere that we find traumatic experiences in the past that diverged along ethnic, racial, or national lines.  This is also the area where attention to the politics of knowledge is most required: to examine truth claims with a critical eye, aware of the differing conventions and experiences at play in any given speech act or commemorative practice.  Powerful figures in Guatemala have now shifted from denying the authority of memory to denying the specific contents of memories shared by survivors of violence.  Days before Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide—a ruling that was later overturned on a technicality—President Perez Molina reiterated his stance that there was never genocide in Guatemala.

Ultimately, I cannot offer a conclusion to this story because it is still unfolding today.  H.I.J.O.S. continues to organize marches and to paint the capital with graffiti.  Scholars, Maya and ladino and foreigners like myself, continue to write about Guatemalan history in new ways.  And the survivors of violence, who have waited more than a decade for their day in court, have vowed to continue their campaign for justice.  What I can say with some measure of certainty is that historical memory provides a useful lens for understanding many of the most important social processes unfolding in Guatemala today.  I hope this short paper helps to illustrate that point.

[1] Hijos y Hijas por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio; their acronym signifies “Children” in Spanish.


Panel proposal for the 2013 annual meeting of the AAA: Future Publics, Current Engagements (Chicago, November 20-24)

Session abstract:

The field of memory studies is emerging as a productive site for collaboration between scholars in diverse disciplines, as well as an important avenue for communication between academia and popular audiences.  While the study of collective memory has a long tradition in social science research, the renewed interest in the subject draws on an expansive base of participants in humanities and policy-oriented fields, from history and philosophy to legal theory and peace & conflict studies.  Memory is also an increasingly salient topic of public discourse in societies around the globe, signifying different meanings and opportunities for distinct actors: from state agents who seek to unify narratives into standardized national histories, to memory activists who use references to the past as tactics for mobilizing people to achieve present-day goals.  This increased diversity of academic and applied perspectives on social or collective memory brings new opportunities for cross-fertilization of ideas across disciplinary, national, and other epistemological boundaries.  However, the expansiveness and relative novelty of the field per se also present opportunities for miscommunication across focal vocabularies and haphazard applications of unsuited theoretical frameworks.  In particular, scholars, journalists, and activists alike are prone to borrow psychological models of memory processes that work well for describing individual behaviors, but present logical and practical dilemmas when applied to the macro level.

Anthropology holds the potential to play a vital role in harmonizing the diverse epistemological voices that contribute to discussions of memory.  The ethnographic methods and critical heuristic analyses that often characterize our research are ideally suited for addressing questions about collective memory.  In particular, studies of collective memory would benefit from the ethnographic strategy of learning about the group or social level by focusing on individual members.  At the same time, anthropologists who focus on practices of remembering may find fertile ground for exploring various topics that are intimately tied to memory—including personal and collective identity, power and conflict, semiotics and representation, linguistic ideologies, and the effects of new technologies on human interaction.

The participants in this panel draw on research from sites and societies around the world to illustrate theoretical, methodological, ethical, and pragmatic contributions that anthropology brings to memory studies research.  They also reveal the broader insights about their research questions that were gained through a focus on memory.  In keeping with the theme of this year’s meeting, we conclude that by shifting our current engagements to include greater attention to public and academic discussions of memory, anthropology stands to gain recognition and intellectual exchange within a much broader future public.

Prezi presentation on “The Future of Anthropology”

The final part of my trilogy of Prezis: a short discussion of the future of anthropology, both in terms of future research topics (because humanity is changing in interesting ways), and its future as a discipline. Fun stuff!

Embedded below, or viewable here. I have discovered that Prezi now allows you to embed audio, synced with the presentation paths of the Prezis, so at some point I may lay down a narrative track on these and re-share them. In the meantime, make of them what you will.

Prezi presentation on “Culture”

Continuing with the last post, I’ve decided to share this Prezi from the last iteration of my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class. The topic of this one is Culture—I put it together to use at the beginning of our second week of class, as a point of departure for a discussion of this key anthropological concept. “Culture” carries a lot of baggage, and there have been many not unreasonable arguments for abandoning it as a conceptual tool in our research methods. However, I don’t think that an introductory class is a viable place for resolving those arguments. For better or worse, “culture” has become anthropology’s most widespread contribution to popular discourse. One of my goals in this class meeting was to provide students with a more historically-grounded yet up-to-date perspective on “culture,” its role in contemporary anthropology, and how our use of the term differs from vernacular / mass media glosses in fundamental ways, despite the occasional appearance of similarity. Ultimately, this is one of those intro-level topics that is easier to address in a seminar-style conversation than in a purely lecture format, because it’s extremely helpful to be able to gauge the students’ background knowledge and their reactions to the ideas that I’m presenting. It’s one thing to encounter blank stares in a lecture hall, and another entirely to have a student ask a question or make a remark that provides an opening for re-presenting the material in a way that may be more accessible. Some of the best breakthroughs are spontaneous, that way.

Anyway, this Prezi helps set the stage for that discussion, but it is not at all a stand-alone presentation. Some notes:

  • The first video, now missing, was a shorter clip I prepared based on an already-existing YouTube clip of the film Cosmic Voyage, which is itself a sort of remake of an older film called Powers of Ten (also available on YouTube). The clip introduces interstellar distance and scale in a more intuitively understandable way than naked charts or numbers can manage—also it features Morgan Freeman as narrator, which offers some measure of reassurance in the face of dawning awareness of the sheer enormity and emptiness that surrounds our fragile planet (and no, I’m not being overly dramatic. You’ll have to watch the video to see for yourself).
  • That whole first section is intended to set the human experience in perspective. Yes, anthropology is about humans, but I think it’s helpful to remember that the natural world we inhabit existed for a long time without us, and that all we have ever experienced or explored is but an infinitesimal fraction of the universe. Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar does a fine job of showing how humans are still noobs at this whole existence thing, but I recently discovered this fantastic resource and I’ll probably incorporate it next time around–perhaps as an “assigned reading.” My inner nerd just loves this stuff.
  • The next section continues to contextualize the human experience by asking that old riddle: what sets us apart from other beings? I assigned a couple of readings that dealt with this topic in greater detail, specifically by presenting updated research from biological anthropology about the amazing intellectual capacities of non-human primates. These four short video clips help to drive the point home—it’s one thing to read about a bonobo playing games, and another entirely to see it handle Pacman better than I could when I was a kid. The students reacted pretty strongly to these videos—they prompted more discussion than the preceding section.
  • Culture as collective memory — this idea for an analogy sprang from some other writing projects I was working on at the time, but I think it’s a useful thought exercise. One of the things that does set us apart from other beings is the enormous reserve of knowledge that we gain from social life. Language, for example, is incredibly powerful and useful, and we get it from being always already embedded in society. In a simple, off-hand way, we can imagine culture as being the accumulated, often anonymous, collective memory of our social group(s). Just as our individual subjectivity is largely shaped, though not entirely determined, by our individual memory, so are we shaped by the knowledge we gain from social belonging. We discussed both the instrumental and symbolic/meaning-focused aspects of culture at this point. Note that I’m not setting these up as contrasts/opposites: meaning is intrinsically ‘instrumental’ in its own way (this harkens back to the previous week, locating anthropology within the academy, and the discussion about the value of humanistic knowledge or a liberal arts education, more generally. The question could just as easily be: what’s the value of economics or “making a living” if life has no greater meaning or joy?)
  • From this point on, the presentation draws more heavily on outside resources—assigned readings and questions that I sent them before our meeting, to prompt them to start thinking about. We talked a bit about earlier conceptualizations of culture within anthropology, and the more recent shift to practice: not so much on what people believe, but on what they do.
  • Final note: The odd table of images here is the product of a sudden inspiration to search Google images for “beauty” in multiple languages, and then posting the top result. As you can see, almost invariably the results were images of women—often apparently from makeup advertisements or for similar products. I only had about ten minutes to put this experiment together, but I think the results were interesting. It gave me a point of departure for talking about the impact of globalization, e.g. the ubiquity of fashion and the overbearing influence of Western social norms on local ideas of beauty elsewhere. At the same time, there are noticeable differences between the results, corresponding to local linguistic-identity markers. (I attempted a similar experiment with searches for “dinner” in different languages, seen in the second matrix of images)

Altogether, this was a fun class meeting to put together. The Prezi is embedded below, or available here.