Making Genocide “Family-Friendly”: Preservation of Memory in El Salvador

The recent “Truth, Trials and Memory Conference” at the University of Minnesota revealed an often overlooked concern in the field of Transitional Justice, namely that of the family, and its place and function for a forward-looking memory that is passed on from one generation to another. The panel on Memory in El Salvador took on a sentimental tone centered on the ideals and utopias held by one generation, as well as memories of political violence and victimhood experienced addressing how the next generation engages with them.

Human rights lawyer Irene Cuéllar introduced the project undertaken with her cousin Paula Cuéllar, a Ph.D. student in History at the University of Minnesota, called Cuéntame. This is an oral testimony bank of conversations between children and their parents which aims to break the norm of a culture of silence that exists in the country, and one that benefits certain social groups and individuals. The project also allows children to feel closure and forgiveness after doubting their parents, as it is meant to serve as a bridge between generations to minimize the polarization in the society. Irene Cuéllar expressed gratitude for the visibility this conference has given to both El Salvador and Guatemala, which she referred to as “una región chiquita” [“a small region”]. This perception of smallness may at times cloud the sheer impact and importance of the events in a region precisely because it is not talked about as much as the Southern Cone in the Latin American context for example. (Coming from Bosnia, I tend to share the sentiment when it comes to the European context.)

This presentation focused on the first chapter of many that are planned and in the works. The first conversation is between Paula and her father Benjamín, where her goal was to understand why her parents got involved in the Salvadorean guerrilla movement. The audience could glean from the six-minute clip that the involvements of the parents weighed heavily on the identity of the daughter. In fact, the premise relies heavily on the nuclear family as the basic unit of society, as the audience observed. A question posed by an audience member validly pointed out the void: What if the parent is not there to address the child’s questions? Even beyond that, I would push us to think of family in the context of genocide as much more flexible and open-ended than traditional family roles because the networks of relationships that emerge may take on a different shape, where strangers become family for instance.

The second presentation on the panel was by documentary film maker Julio López Fernández, who first and foremost emphasized his responsibility as a social actor, that of the archivist. His goal was to show us the growing network of directors who, including himself, deal with social problems and realities of what might be less visible, or “smaller regions,” to use Irene Cuéllar’s reference, cases such as El Salvador. Through a very compelling argument of representing the documentary as the product that reaches across disciplines, and has the power of the audiovisual medium, or “the king of all discourse” as Julio explained, we see that the collection of films serves as a “testimony of a generation,” further echoing the sentiment expressed by Paula and Irene Cuéllar. He explained that his primary audiences tend to be those at international film festivals, as well as academics and activists such as the members of our audience here at the UMN. One of the goals of the group is to form a part of the formal education in the affected countries, within which there is a lack of dialogue even though these are household topics. He hopes for more community distribution of the documentaries even though he remains very aware that these topics, while present in everyone’s lives, are more difficult to teach to children and should be approached with special care.

Both presentations thus left us to ponder how does the work of creating a testimony bank or a documentary film, and later distributing it, contribute to educating the public, and more specifically the younger generations without inflicting further trauma. This panel thus served as a nice bookend to a conference that allowed us to consider Guatemala and El Salvador from many angles of justice.


Erma Nezirevic is a Lecturer in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Minnesota. She holds a Ph.D. in Hispanic Literatures and Cultures specializing in contemporary Spain.

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