Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Argentina: BBQ at the ESMA, anyone?

An odd scandal blew up in the first week of the year in Argentina. Justice minister Julio Alak was accused of taking part in an end-of-year barbecue on the site of the former ESMA clandestine detention centre. This was interpreted by some as a sign of disrespect for the victims disappeared at the site.

Alak has responded by denying that there was a barbecue, stating that there was an event organised by his ministry at which sandwiches were provided. He has also blamed the media for blowing the story out of proportion.

Madres' leader Hebe de Bonafini says that "anything" is allowed in the ESMA and has herself previously cooked there. On the other hand, the association of former disappeared people (AEDD) has criticised Alak and is organising a protest.

Pagina/12 has published an excellent article by Cecilia Sosa asking the questions which arise in this context:

What is a "space of memory"? What are the activities which it is possible to imagine in a site which is characterized by the unbearable? And further, is it possible to celebrate in a place of death?

Sosa recalls the work of Jens Andermann, who has identified three positions with respect to a place of memory like the ESMA: the "testimonial", which situates it as an unalterable place of witness to State Terrorism, the "museal", which focuses on the pedagogical function of the space, and the "performatic", which maintains that only by opening the space up to artistic and politic activities can it be taken back from death and the perpetrators.

Since the opening up of the ESMA in 2007, Sosa points out, the site has attempted to balance all three functions - human rights groups have offices there, there are guided tours, and there are concerts and lectures, among other things.

She concludes,

The future of the ex-ESMA has still not been discovered. The co-existence of distinct rituals suggests a different path to that taken by Auschwitz: a politics of pain which reveals its capacity for experimentation, where absences help to forge new links and where the past may live alongside a future to be invented. In this time to come, perhaps a barbecue for two thousand people or other types of celebration will not be so scandalous and will turn out to be a new way for people to be together in their loss. The table is laid. It's time to feed our guests. 

My gut reaction when I saw Tweets about the ESMA barbecue was "Really??". But reading this article reminded me of some of my usual understanding of memorials. I'm a great believer in using spaces of memory, not shutting them off from the rest of society. This was the problem with the Parque de la memoria when I was in Buenos Aires in 2004: far from the centre of the city and close to the (then-closed) ESMA, it was completely empty at the time I visited. Dead. What's the point of a park no one sits in, walks in, brings their kids to? It was also the problem with the Ojo que llora monument in Lima which, following vandalism, was shut behind a gate (I don't know if it's freely accessible right now, but the last I heard it wasn't).

No, I'm not suggesting a picnic in Auschwitz. I don't even know enough about Alak and the particular event he was attending to comment on whether or not it was "respectful enough" for the site. But I am still sure that I like to see places of memory woven into the fabric of the landscape and not preserved in aspic.

Apareció la foto del "asado" de Alak en la ex ESMA (Clarin)
Alak: "El asado en la ex ESMA es una absoluta mentira" (La Nacion)
Bonafini: en la ESMA "se puede hacer de todo" (Terra)
Crece el repudio al asado en la ESMA y convocan a una marcha (Clarin)
La mesa está servida (Pagina/12)

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