Interview with 2023-2024 Center Research Fellow Pilar Pérez


Interview conducted by Charlotte Gibbs (PhD student in History, University of Southern California, and Center Graduate Assistant)
January 25, 2024

Professor Pilar Pérez, Professor of History at the National University of Río Negro, Argentina, is the 2023-2024 Center Research Fellow at the USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research. Professor Pérez arrived at the Center in January 2023 to study the theme of territory (territoriality, space, and the creation of space) in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive testimonies of Guatemalan genocide survivors. Professor Pérez spoke about her research of genocide against Indigenous people in Patagonia, Argentina, her public-facing history and activism, and methods for navigating silences in archives.

How did you come to your current project of studying territory and displacement in Guatemalan genocide survivor testimonies?

Previously, I have worked on Argentinan history, reconstructing the Indigenous genocide of the late-ninteenth century. The questions, particularly the theoretical questions, that I see the Argentinian genocide share with the Guatemalan genocide concern the building of the nation state and the territory. The literature related to this kind of topic has two kinds of prevailing characteristics. The first is that Indigenous genocide has been diminished or regarded as a natural part of Indigenous life since European arrival, and the mass violence in the nineteenth century was one more step of this suffering. And the second has to do with territory. Territory is something that scholars are not paying a lot of attention to. Most of the time, scholars are thinking about how the nation is built, what is the characteristic of the community, who and what are included and excluded, what is the definition that every nation has historically built. And the same with the state – the development of the administrations, the bureaucracy, the armed forces. But not the territory itself. And there, I think there are very important questions to look at because the nation-state builds a certain kind of territory, with borders, with many definitions. And the Indigenous territories are built in a completely different way. In this clash of understandings of the space, I think there is a very interesting question to be asked so we can understand what is genocide targeting exactly. Specifically, what are not only the economic aspects of getting the land and putting into progress “development” projects, and all these kinds of things. But I am interested in the characteristics of the spaces, the types of ways of living in these places.

With your work in Argentina, in your own country, are you able to visit the sites you studied? And does this experience inform your current research on the mass violence in Guatemala?

I live in Patagonia so I live in the province where the genocide took place. When I was young, the Indigenous people in Argentina were completely out of sight and invisible. Few came forward and proclaimed their indigeneity, but this has changed very fast in the last 20 or 30 years at least. Now, Indigenous people are happily accepted when they are part of a culture and folklore of the place, but not really when they demand their rights. And so this has brought a lot of conflict in society, and beneath all that is a struggle for the land, territory, and sovereignty.

I witnessed all these changes in my own experience of life, and it became an important question for my studies. I believe it is very important to be part of the spaces that one studies, and it is also very interesting to create distance to understand that there are some problems that happen in different historical contexts and geographical situations.

Guatemala today has an economy which is extractivist, has to do with mining, hydroelectrics, and we are undergoing the same type of economic change in Argentina. So it brings out a very important question regarding also the agency of Indigenous people and the relation they are building with the rest of society. So I think there is a very interesting point of comparison.

To what extent is the notion that genocide against Indigenous people occurred accepted in Argentina?

This notion is a contested point, and here is an interesting comparative point with Guatemala. In the late-nineteenth century, the governments that ruled in Argentina and Guatemala imposed a very particular way of understanding the state and the nation, and the territory. And in Argentina’s case, the building of the nation-state erases Indigenous people from the narrative.

That’s the starting point of the so-called “progress” and “development” of Argentina. These processes brought capitalism and the development of an elite society. Particularly in Argentina, there is an understanding of the nation that we are a nation of immigrants, which is very similar to the United States. We are a nation of immigrants because there was a policy directed to whitening the society and at the same time, the military campaigns incorporated the land in the north and south. That was the historical point of leaving behind the so-called “savage” nation and growing into a white nation. From this point on, Argentinian society incorporates narratives, such as “we are part of an immigrant nation” and “we come from the boats.” Many don’t want to break this tradition and this racist way of nation-building and recognizing nor acknowledging the Indigenous rights. Therefore, bringing this issue of recognizing this or acknowledging it is very much contested in the society. So we scholars from every discipline (historians, anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists) are pushing with our studies, highlighting every day that there is a conflict regarding this.

In the town I come from, there is a statue of General Julio Argentino Roca, who was the president at the time of genocide and was the Minister of War that led the genocide. Roca is considered the father of the modern state of Argentina, and so there are lots of supporters of him. Many schools, towns, streets are named after him, which are also publicly contested. This statue is in the middle of the central city in the country. People use this statue as a platform to make genocide denial arguments, purporting conventional national narratives that without Roca Argentina would be part of Chile or a “nation of savages.” So not only are these narratives contested, they are being contested in public spheres throughout the country.

Much of your work is public-facing history. What about public history allows you to communicate your scholarship in different ways? What sort of projects have you been a part of?

We scholars are not only scholars, but are activists as well. I have been working on many different types of projects. One of them is a radio broadcast I have worked on since 2022. This project dealt with Patagonian history. I did not want to create a program only focused on Indigenous history, because that would attract a certain public that regularly consumes these topics. I tried to mix Indigenous history with the general history of Patagonian society, understanding the different types of power relationships that shaped the past and our present. I worked with an actor who had a lot of experience on radio, so we built something quite theatrical. It was not only the historical content, but the way it engaged with audiences that made this broadcast successful. The show was very popular, and I had many teachers write to me asking for materials for their classrooms. So we put the show on Spotify and a variety of different networks.

I also worked as a screenwriter for documentaries. Typically, documentary filmmakers focused on Indigenous history and conflicts approach scholars for interviews and materials, so I have often been involved in these projects. However, I have not been part of the script-writing myself until Archivos del no- desierto, the documentary series for the Encuentro Channel funded by the Military of Culture. During this project, I worked with a friend who is a film director. This series has four episodes that each cover different conflicts on the territory of Patagonia. This documentary series was a great success too. It aired on national public television networks and became widely circulated.

For several years I have directed workshops and public lectures for various groups, such as teachers, park rangers, and tourism professionals. These events are held for people whose work is tied to public history and who need the historical context for their daily works. Many people appreciate the language we provide to speak about the Mapuche territory that combats prevalent colonial narratives.

In your work with Argentina, are you using oral history testimonies like you are here, or are you using different archives? Is there a way to approach the silences of the archives? Do you aim to fill them in, acknowledge their creation, etc.?

I typically work with traditional archives – think paper documents. When studying genocide during the colonial period, I think using these paper archives is important because doing so challenges the notion that there is no evidence of these crimes. When I first began studying the conquests of the desert within the framework of genocide, the first thing that a senior scholar commented on was that archives on this topic simply did not exist and that I would find nothing in the documents. My colleagues, who had all been told similar things, and I thought this notion of no records was impossible – state perpetrators could not have killed and displaced thousands without any records.

I started looking at the archives and realized evidence of this genocide existed everywhere. What had happened is that scholars asked the wrong questions. I began asking, what can these documents tell me? what do these silences of the archive reveal? and it became a much more productive and fruitful exercise.

In approaching archival silences, I work with social memory as well. One example of this is that in the socal memory, people remember the concentration camps and speak about stories their grandparents tell them. Many of these personal histories mention specific sites, and when scholars visit these sites of violence, you find evidence of the concentration camps. State actors imprisoned Mapuche people in the Argentinian concentration camps. Now, with this knowledge originating from social memory, it is possible to reconstruct the past using archives and sources from many different places.

I don’t typically work with testimonies in the way they are built in the VHA. Here, the interview has been done by someone else and follows a narrative structure. When I work with social memory, the interview is especially important. Testimonies direct you to a single situation that the people have lived in, but not always to the wider socio-political processes. In social history work, like in an ethnographic immersion, what I view as the goal of collecting oral testimony is to not place the emphasis as the interviewer, but be led by the interviewee. It is interesting to work with the VHA testimonies because I have started realizing which parts are narratives and which are genuine to the person and through their life’s experiences. What I am doing now is comparing testimonies from the same region, the same event, and analyzing what differences people emphasize.

In your time at the Center, you have also expressed interest in exploring the USC Libraries Special Collections. What sort of materials are you looking for?

 I am very interested in getting to know the story of the Indigenous people in North America so I hope to investigate the special collections on these topics. And then, I am interested in looking at the scholarship on the issue of concentration camps and the questions this brings to the field of genocide studies, specifically how camps are defined, their particularities.

In the Guatemalan case, there were some experiences of concentration camps, and I am very interested to dive into how these spaces of mass violence shape the theme of territory that is the focus of my research.

Concentration camps aren’t part of the wider conversation when it comes to studying the Guatemalan genocide. Do you think that scholars are wary about using the term when studying instances of mass violence in a post-Holocaust world?

Yes, it happens to us all the time. When we said that concentration camps existed in the late-nineteenth century in Argentina, people believed that the Nazi concentration camps were the first time such a space existed. This is of course an ahistorical narrative. As well, scholars of genocide during colonial periods refer to Raphael Lemkin, the first person to define genocide. In his work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, he describes mass violence against Indigenous people in North America. Reading Lemkin, it is fascinating to see what violent pasts he drew upon when coining and defining genocide.

The idea of concentration camps is widely associated with those from Nazi Germany, but these camps are also very particular. They are also not the only camps to exist. However, the imagery related to the Holocaust is present all the time. Scholars are constantly in discussion and in studying genocide in Argentina and Guatemala, I am confronting people through this imaginary they share.


Learn more about Pilar Pérez here.

She will give a lecture on April 11, 2024. Read more about it and RSVP here.