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Shadows & Symbols

For Macarena Gómez-Barris, associate professor of sociology and American studies and ethnicity, memories weave a complex chronicle of culture and power in South America.

Macarena Gómez-Barris studies representations of politics and culture in the wake of Chile's dictatorship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet through the lens of memories. Photo by John Livzey.
Macarena Gómez-Barris studies representations of politics and culture in the wake of Chile's dictatorship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet through the lens of memories. Photo by John Livzey.

At Villa Grimaldi in Santiago, Chile, the majority of buildings that stood on the grounds between 1974 and 1977 have been demolished. There are no known photographs or historical registers that capture what transpired during that period.

Throughout those four years Villa Grimaldi functioned as a secret prison. Horrific acts of torture and violence were perpetrated under the leadership of dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

In 1973, Pinochet staged a coup overthrowing the democratically elected, socialist government of President Salvador Allende in Chile. Villa Grimaldi was one of a number of facilities where Allende sympathizers and members of the unarmed Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) were imprisoned.

According to testimony, about 4,500 prisoners were detained at Villa Grimaldi; 229 were executed or disappeared. In all, Pinochet’s regime was responsible for the execution, torture or disappearance of an estimated 40,000 people in Chile during that time.

Following Pinochet’s rise to power, every effort was made to hide or erase evidence of the human rights abuses that proliferated, including dismantling Villa Grimaldi. For a time, many Chileans let the memories of the period fade. But traces persisted.

Macarena Gómez-Barris, associate professor of sociology and American studies and ethnicity in USC Dornsife, analyzed those remnants in her first book, Where Memory Dwells: Culture and State Violence in Chile (University of California Press, 2009), which looks at memories as a mechanism for interpreting the past.

“What’s so interesting about memory is that it tells us a lot about the present and its zeitgeist,” she said. “Memory is about politics, the mediations of the past; it’s a terrain of struggle. It paradoxically operates in a time frame that reflects upon the past to build the future.”

What began as the subject of her doctoral dissertation — Gómez-Barris earned her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2004 — developed into Where Memory Dwells.

“Looking at memory helped me analyze many different aspects of state violence,” she said. “It was important to think about how young people remembered and dealt with, or did not have access to, what happened during the Pinochet era. The recent movements in Chile over the privatization of education and debt are intimately connected to Pinochet’s neoliberal turn.”

The book is an intimate and multifaceted study of memory forms that reconstruct the past, which Gómez-Barris terms “memory symbolics.” Her analysis includes detailed discussions of Villa Grimaldi, paintings by Guillermo Núñez, a prisoner at the torture camp, and truth commission reports produced by the state 20 to 30 years after the Pinochet regime’s crimes.

Gómez-Barris juxtaposes these memory symbolics against one another: the construction of memory through state-led initiatives versus alternative forms of memory reconstructed through visual art, documentary film and other media. These accounts provide different interpretations of the same set of events to produce a complex memory kaleidoscope of state terror and its aftermath.

“Memory symbolics can be mobilized to selectively manage history in ways that reproduce state hegemony, reinscribing national identity in the fragility after collective violence,” Gómez-Barris writes. “Alternative memory symbolics, however, can challenge and cast doubt on these limited renditions by suggesting that memory-making is complex, fluid, unending and incomplete; it can construct, rather than merely flatten, human agency.” A memory symbolic is mercurial as it continues to unfold and change, Gómez-Barris noted.

There is a personal element to her work. She was a child when her family fled Chile, first to Los Angeles then to Northern California, to escape Pinochet’s brutal regime. Through her research, she has explored the connection between memory and exile. In 2003, as part of the 9/11 Collective — a group of nine daughters and sons of Chilean exiles — she helped create another memory symbolic. Like the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the military coup marking Pinochet’s rise to power took place on a Sept. 11.

In the exhibit “Two 9/11s in One Lifetime: A Project and Exhibit on the Politics of Memory,” Gómez-Barris participated as an artist-performer and ethnographer. Showing in San Francisco, Calif., the exhibit connected the military attack in Chile with the 2001 attacks in the United States, with artwork, readings, a lecture and a performance. It concluded with members of the collective and their audience sharing names of those affected by the turmoil in Chile and other countries, such as Guatemala and El Salvador. Many also commemorated victims of the World Trade Center attacks.

“This participatory performance, where dozens of audience members gave public witness, made it possible to link the personal and collective levels of terror dislocation and its resistance,” Gómez-Barris writes. “The social identities of different generations of exiles produced by political violence activated relevant and meaningful cultural memory with other social groups.”


Here the damaged glasses worn by Chile's late President Salvador Allende when he died are exhibited as the Museo Historico Nacional in Santiago, Chile. Allende was overthrown in a military coup that was led by Pinochet and marked the dictator's rise to power. Photo by Roberto Candia and courtesy of Associated Press.

Gómez-Barris said participating in these kinds of activist experiences gives her deeper insight into her research, though it’s not without its challenges.

“I think there should be more cultural intellectual projects that allow one to play multiple roles as curators, organizers, ethnographers and witnesses,” she said. “Those can be very complicated spaces to negotiate but they are also fruitful spaces. For me, it’s really about an integrated approach and understanding of the material that I’m studying.”

For her next book, Gómez-Barris has widened her research focus from Chile to the larger region of South America.

“Memory has classically been tied to the nation-state. What I’m now interested in is regionality and the forms of cultural memory that have a longer arc.”

Her recent scholarship looks at issues of autonomy, the state and the emergence of new subjects in South America. One theme is the resurgence of indigenous agency and forms of autonomy. For instance, she describes the hunger strikes carried out by members of the Mapuche nation, whose territory spans Argentina and Chile. The protests are an effort by native peoples to reclaim their ancestral rights to the land where profitable forests have been planted by the government and corporate entities on stolen land. In the face of Mapuche resistance, the government and business sectors have retaliated by calling the indigenous peoples domestic terrorists.

Gómez-Barris considers the hunger strikers’ starving bodies — a result of resistance against colonial subjugation by the modern nation-state — a form of bodily memory.

“We often discuss memory as if it’s lodged somewhere, waiting to be uncovered, a premise of psychoanalysis,” she said. “Or memory is discussed as an empirical fact that can be unearthed and has a material trace. For me, part of the feminist decolonial project is to suggest that memories dwell in the archive of the body, and so in newer work I feature various female figures in South America whose scholarship and activism resoundingly makes this point.”

In the past few years, Gómez-Barris has seen a shift in the way Chileans are dealing with the violence of their past, even if forms of racialized violence are not yet well understood.

Memories that were neglected, buried or forgotten have now become the centerpiece of tourist excursions. Travel operators now run tours to the national cemetery where there is a mass grave turned historical monument and memorial where Pinochet’s regime buried the bodies of their victims. In Santiago, Chile, the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, dedicated in 2010, chronicles the history and human rights abuses of that era with exhibits and memorials.

And Villa Grimaldi, once a locus of terror, is now a memorial and cultural center, a place to remember those who perished during that dark period.

In Where Memory Dwells, artist Guillermo Núñez recounted that a student attending one of his exhibits noted that his paintings express both the victim and the perpetrator.

“What force is there in the border between what is seen and what is not seen?” the student asked Núñez.

Núñez replied that in 1974, his eyes were blindfolded day and night at Villa Grimaldi.

“I realized that I began to retreat into the world of imagination behind my eyes,” Núñez told the student. “No one has painted this world from where the spectator can imagine the situation.”

Take his painting called “Qué hay en el fondo de tus ojos?” (“What is there in the depths of your eyes?”). It depicts a dark-haired, bearded male whose eyes are obscured by a blindfold colored with red dashes of paint. This motif, which recurs throughout Núñez’s work, is an analogue of the cover that veiled his eyes throughout his time as a captive at Villa Grimaldi.

“His abstract, haunting paintings construct a bridge from the interior to the exterior,” Gómez-Barris writes.

And now Núñez’s memories, along with those of so many others, have made that transition to the exterior. In museums, memorials and in Gómez-Barris’ research and writing, they are chronicled for the world to observe, experience, remember.

Read more articles from the Fall 2012/Winter 2013 issue of USC Dornsife Magazine