This past Friday I went to see a performance at El Centro Cultural Recoleta. El Centro is a short walk from my apartment, where I now suppose I can say I’ve lived for nearly all my 74 years. The activity and livelihood of the community museum seems to me to have matched the arch of my own life following the dictatorship. In 1980, the building was renovated to become the cultural center that it is today, and just as over time I have—like so many of us have—increasingly vocalized events from the past, El Centro has over time increasingly memorialized the military dictatorship and become more and more open to requests from the public that their murdered and disappeared love ones be given exposure and commemoration in its galleries and performance spaces. Thus, since the mid 1990s, El Centro, along with many other museums and cultural centers, has actively participated in the lucha against collective olvido.
The collaborative nature of the exhibits I’ve seen there and the supportive capacity of the curators encouraged me to donate my father’s portrait to a muestra titled Los Desaparecidos in 2006. For the piece, I was able to write a short memoir for my father, which the curators printed on a plaque and hung by his photograph. In the description, I included a quotation from North American poet Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Her words echo in my heart–they make me think about my father, certainly, but just as much about the nation as a whole. I believe that the process of memorialization in our country must be emotionally comfortable and emotionally empowered, because I believe that the kinds of truth, justice, and reconciliation projects on which this country has institutionally and politically embarked are useless if they do not legitimize the often illogical or unreliable but endlessly valid emotional realities of the people they concern. We may obsess over the facts, debate over the ethical superiority of our actions, but we are each entitled to remember how it felt to live under the military regime.
Emilano Alayón, Papá, 1977, making sopa de calabaza, his favorite. The photograph I used in his memorial in El Centro.
As I write to you now, I am again in La Plaza Francia, writing to you from an expensive but clean and well-lit café (a rare and indulgent pleasure of mine). This plaza is where all the tourists come, where they take group photographs by the Gran Gomero tree outside the cemetery and spend obscene amounts of money on inauthentic food, artisanal beer, and high quality translations of Borges and Cortázar. I can’t tell if I find it upsetting or amusing, their ignorance and their privileged frivolousness. Their distance from our history allows them to look with empty wonder at memorials that feel to me and my community like reiterations of death and torture every time we look at them. I know that these tourists have their own histories and that they are associated with their own foreign social traumas, but I don’t see them carrying these around with them. All I see are their iPhones held at arm’s length. Their happy ignorance.
When I reflect on the last 40, 50 years of my life, I realize that I don’t envy their ignorance. Today’s liberty to remember and talk about the regime of yesterday is the gift that los argentinos—or argentinxs, as the young ones are saying now—have gained the strength to give to one another regularly. I understand our capacity to express as the most accurate indicator of our national well-being; I would like to naïvely hope that when the world thinks of Argentina, it were not a “flailing” economy (yes, Cristina is struggling to battle the global neoliberal uprising, the powers that be hesitate not to prioritize the market over our humanity…), an unruly obsession with fútbol, or even the Pope that came to mind, rather our capacity to heal and to learn from our mature ability to express our emotions, our stories. I see, too, in the younger generations a faltering interest in the past. Before retiring, I would frequently notice overt apathy or hostility when I tried to engage in these topics with my students. Even my son Emiliano takes on a reluctant tone when he engages in conversations about the political themes that led to the deaths of his abuelxs. For them, it’s as if talking about the past were to live in the past—ponéte al día, one student once told me rudely. Tontería total, if you ask me. The present is saturated with the past. I see it all around me. Emiliano, 35 years ago, do you know what was happening in your high school cafeteria, your favorite panadería? Might your high school swim meet have taken place in the very arena that thousands were tortured, murdered? Everyone, everyone must understand the process of memorialization as one of recuperation, of national historical re-definition. Our city has become capital of remembrances and commemorations. In the spirit of my parents and in the spirit of my community, we all must remember the past.
Yes, I am uncomfortable with the transition to democracy, and I harbor unclearly-defined worries about the future of Argentina. All I know is that our ability to talk and to remember is a privilege, and we ought not waste it. It took me until Scilingo to truly understand this, and with age I become more confident that it is true.
The particular commemorative performance I saw at El Centro Cultural Recoleta on Friday was called “Música en Memoria: una mirada sobre la dictadura cívico-militar de 1976.” Enacted by a quartet of saxophonists, it was abrasive and dissonant for the first 20 minutes, and for the remainder of the piece took on a new life, ending in a unison that fluctuated between weak, tense, and stable. The last few notes were soft and hopeful, and evaporated so slowly that I hardly noticed they had ended.