Desktop version

Home arrow Philosophy

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Huachos: From Postmemory to Post-orphanhood

In recent years we have witnessed the public appearance of a growing corpus of cultural texts by the so-called second generations of the Argentine military regime. Simultaneously, the field of memory studies has seen a range of investigations into these artistic interventions. Such academic works have been confronted with the difficulty of discussing a corpus that draws together primary texts that have as many points of difference as they have points in common. Does the generational mark in these works dominate the class, gender or national concerns of their authors?10 What kinds of dialogue do they establish with their parents’ generations or with the cultural texts of the 1980s and 1990s in Argentina? And what does the prefix “post,” which is so often attached to these memories (postrevolutionary, post-dictatorial, post-memory, post-traumatic and even post-generational), actually mean?

Given these dilemmas, it is not surprising that many scholars have turned to the theoretical framework proposed by Marianne Hirsch, and particularly to her notion of “postmemory,” to describe these artistic productions. As discussed in previous chapters, postmemory designates a specific structure of an inter- and intragenerational act of transfer involving the memory of the children of victims of traumatic events, a type of memory that she (and other scholars, such as James E. Young) defines as mediated, indirect, vicarious, fragmented, belated and displaced, linked to the past “not via recall but via the imagination,” and shaped by the testimonies of adult survivors, inherited images and the discourses of mass media.

Though Hirsch developed the notion in relation to children of Holocaust survivors like herself, in a 2008 article she stated her belief that the term is useful for referring to other second-generation memories of collective traumas, including those of the Latin American dictatorships.11 Thanks to its economy and clarity, the term has indeed helped to name a diverse and still growing corpus of post-dictatorship texts by the new generations in Argentina and Latin America. But is the notion of “postmemory” the most appropriate to describe these texts? What are the risks of adopting a foreign term to explain local experiences of trauma? In other words, what does it mean to read and apply an “imported” theory in the context of a peripheral culture?

In Chapter 3 I quoted Argentine literary and cultural theorist Beatriz Sarlo when expressing her distrust of terms such as “postmemory,” “vicarious memory” (James Young 2000), “memory shot through holes” (Henry Raczymow 1998) and “absent memory” (Nadine Fresco 1984), all coined to describe the memory of the children of the Holocaust. Sarlo sustains that all memories, not only those of the descendants of traumatic events, are imaginary, vicarious and fragmentary. In her reading of Lola Arias’ 2008 performance Mi vida despues, Mariana Eva Perez agrees with Sarlo that “postmemory” is a category and an “academic fashion” whose value is yet to be proved.12 She argues that given that Arias’ play is about what the actors do with their legacy and not so much about the obsession that the descendants of the survivors of traumatic events supposedly have with the past, the notion of “postmemory” does not seem to be particularly appropriate when describing this work. (Let us remember that in the text cited in the Introduction, Nicolas Prividera said that “mutant” children tend to look for answers in the present or even in the future, rather than in the past).

Furthermore, a basic problem of the acritical adoption of the term postmemory in Argentina is that its definition of the generation of “children” as “the generation after,” “second generation,” or secondary or adoptive witnesses occludes the fact that state terror affected many generations simultaneously, and that many former children of the dictatorship were direct victims of the crimes and therefore owners of “firsthand” memories of those events.

In this respect, Perez mentions the Colectivo de hijos (Cdh), a 2010 group of young artists (including herself, Lucila Quieto, Marfa Giuffra and Ana Adjiman) that initially accepted and identified themselves with the term “children of the disappeared” but have now provocatively redefined themselves as huachos.13 In Quechua, huacho means “orphan” or “bastard,” while here it does not refer to an abandoned or parentless child but to a specific type of orphan, “scientifically produced by the genocide.” The members of the Cdh explain that, from a judicial perspective, the hua- cho is the product of a social trauma and not of a situation that belongs to the private sphere. As a result, this figure should be recognized and named by the law. They have called for a revision to the so-called leyes repara- torias of the 1990s and the way in which the post-dictatorial state has defined what constitutes a victim of the dictatorship.14 They claim that if Law 23.466/86 offered remuneration to the children of the victims aged under eighteen at the time the crimes took place, even if it did not specify their status as children (they are referred to as “relatives of the disappeared”), there is no concrete public policy that protects them financially when they reach adulthood. Moreover, Law 24.411/95 offered the children of the disappeared compensation but only in one payment in relation to their status as causahabientes de sus padres. Finally, Law 25.914/04, approved during the Nestor Kirchner government, states that children kidnapped or appropriated by military families had their right to freedom and identity violated. However, this law is also problematic because it does not consider less extreme but equally traumatic cases, such as those former children whose families had to change their identities for a period of time to avoid being persecuted by the military.

All of this implies that there is no legal recognition of the violations perpetrated against the majority of the former children per se, which means that their status as direct victims of the dictatorship has no bearing on their juridical subjectivity, making them invisible as a group. In her book

iQuien te crees que sos? (2012), Angela Urondo states, for example, that in a visit to the Human Rights Office in Buenos Aires, she discovered that only adults were considered to be targets of repression, whereas former children are classified as an appendage to their parents, even in cases similar to hers, in which children were abducted or detained in clandestine detention centres, sometimes even suffering torture:

we were all mistreated, but in order for the state to recognize what we children went through we have to demonstrate ... that the murderers wanted to exercise repressive actions against us due to our condition of potential extremists and subversive subjects. This reading of the events is more in tune with the logic of the repressor than with the right of the prisoner.15

More recently, in the trials against the murderers of her parents ongoing at the time of writing this book, Perez asked that the accused be judged not only for the disappearance of her parents but also her own disappearance, given that she was kept captive for a day with them on the day of the abductions, 6 October 1978, when she was fifteen months old: “I would like that my situation become visible,” she demanded in her statement when she was asked to give testimony at the trial.16

In sum, the Cdh, Urondo and Perez all argue that the excessive emphasis on the biological and familial bonds between the children and their disappeared parents present in many human rights, judicial and memory discourses prevents us from seeing the impact of the genocidal action on their bodies.17 In other words, the huacho is a victim of the dictatorship not only for being a “child of disappeared parents” but also because their rights as independent subjects were violated.

If, as Perez and others suggest, the notion of postmemory is problematic for describing the corpus of post-dictatorship productions in Argentina, huachos is an alternative (playful) way to refer to their authors. In addition, other theoretical and conceptual tools help us to describe not only the young victims of the dictatorship but also the particularities and specificities of their work in relation to both previous and contemporary memory texts in Argentina.

In her article on Mi vida despues, Perez argues that even within the corpus of studies dedicated to the legacies of the Shoah, there are other more accurate terms than “postmemory” that scholars working on the Argentine case can use to refer to the heirs of the dictatorship. More specifically, she suggests swapping the term “postmemory” with Gabriele Schwab’s concept of “haunting legacies.”18 Schwab argues that the legacies of violence haunt both the adult victims and their heirs, and that these memories come back in both conscious and unconscious shapes, in flashbacks, nightmares or somatic enactments of bodies, an aspect of intergenerational transmission of trauma that, according to Perez, is unexplored by Hirsch. Moreover, one of the groundbreaking aspects of Schwab’s book is the inclusion of a chapter about the children of perpetrators who attempts to overcome “the dominant tendency within Hirsch’s work to only identify with the position of the survivors, and a lack of reflexive self-analysis” that, according to memory scholar Susannah Radstone, “affects memory studies as a whole.”19 This focus on the memories of the children of perpetrators in Schwab’s work is particularly useful when examining Arias’ play, not least because, as I discuss in Chapter 8, Mi vida despues was the first play to put the daughter of an appropriator (Vanina Falco) on stage and to acknowledge her status as another heir (and victim) of the dictatorship.

Although Schwab’s framework is useful for explaining some aspects of the intergenerational transmission of trauma in Argentina, it still does not address the difference, within the same generation, between those descendants who have chosen to appropriate those memories of trauma in art and literature using humor, parody and play and those who either do not or cannot talk about the past or who deal with that heritage differently, opting for more conventional forms of testimony.

Gabriel Gatti’s 2014 book, Surviving Forced Disappearance in Argentina and Uruguay (first published in Spanish in 2007), offers, in this sense, a useful alternative hermeneutic framework for analyzing the main formal characteristics of these new voices in South American memoryscapes. Gatti does not mention once the terms “postmemory” or “haunting legacies.” Instead, he creates his own concepts (“post-orphans,” “renegaded monsters” and “happy bastards”) to refer to what he calls an avanzadilla (a troupe/vanguard) of contemporary writers and artists, mostly children of disappeared parents, who

show a willingness to objectify their own identity, to mark it with the signs of the special, to construct a very generationally based account, bordering on the irreverent, sometimes verging on the parodic, not towards the generation before them but towards themselves, towards their own history, and, above all, towards the mechanisms that make them and us.20

Crucially, Gatti also recognizes that “not all the children of the disappeared place themselves in the void, [in the space of] absence, parody, or reflexive distance and build their identity from there.”21 In his book he explores the narratives that are marked by these attributes and by what he calls the “normality of absence,” accounts of post-apocalyptic universes branded by a catastrophe of meanings and inhabited by outsiders, “abnormal” and non-nostalgic subjects who have produced something positive out of their stigma.

One of these new subjectivities is what Gatti calls the “parodic orphan,” present, for example, in Bruzzone’s autofictional novel Los topos and in Carri’s film Los rubios. This particular figure of identity is a reference to the status of children of disappeared parents as orphans, but also, more importantly, to the way in which they have been exposed and have responded to the discourses of memory, truth, justice and human rights throughout their lives. In this vein, Gatti follows Judith Butler’s idea that identity is the result of a reinterpretation, appropriation and transformation of the framework of references (family, generations, gender, etc.) that comprise subjectivities. One way in which these references are transformed, and above all contested, is precisely through parody, a textual operation that questions the legitimacy of the originals without completely replacing them.

Mariana Eva Perez’s blog Diario de una princesa montonera—110 % Verdad uses parody in this sense, to contest and subvert the discourses of memory that have dominated the public sphere in post-dictatorship Argentina. It is thus not surprising that she has praised Gatti’s work in an email—comically entitled “I’m hiji, I’m proud” (in English in the original)—that Gatti published in the second edition of his book. In this email, Perez said that from the very first pages she felt that Gatti’s book was talking on her behalf and about her, and that when she read what Gatti said about the possibility of inhabiting the catastrophe and even experiencing pleasure in it she wanted to go and hug him even though she did not know him.

Both Gatti and Perez, then, do not claim that they can erase or ignore being children of disappeared parents (how could they?) but they equally do not want to make it the only defining trait of their lives. If the huachos can never completely overcome absence, then the idea is to find healing and creative ways to inhabit the void left by disappearance. This new manner of assuming orphanhood is also an original way of understanding the first person that dominates many of these narratives. This first person in post-millennium works is not a testimonial one in the sense often given to this term (meaning a subject expecting mere compassion from their audience), nor is it a symptom of the excess of subjectivity that governs our historical moment. Instead it is rather a creative and playful voice that bears witness not only to personal experiences of trauma but also to the exhaustion of certain discourses of collective memory in Argentina. In the following section I illustrate the characteristics of this novel way of understanding memory and testimony via an analysis of Perez’s blog.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics