• How Things Disappear

    Sylvia Sellers-García

    Spring 2020

    A little over a year ago, my aunt Marina suffered a physical collapse that had no precise name or diagnosis. It manifested with pain in strange places, swelling, an inability to walk, and a complete loss of appetite. Her three children concluded that their eighty-five-year-old mother was on the verge of death, and for reasons that remain unclear to me, they decided to empty the contents of her house in order to sell it while she was in the hospital.

    Perhaps they imagined that they spared her hard work. Perhaps they imagined that because she could no longer manage the stairs of her house—a two-level townhouse on the outskirts of Guatemala City—she would need a different place, even if she did recover. Regardless, it happened quickly. The furniture was trucked off for a grandnephew who was soon to be married. Important articles of clothing, packed in suitcases, arrived at her daughter’s house for the next phase. All the chintzy, beloved, invaluable trinkets that Marina held dear vanished. It was better not to ask how. Porcelain figurines and miniature vases. Threadbare plush toys. Cut glass. Music boxes.

    At her daughter’s house, still unwell but very much not dead, Marina learned of this loss with shock and grief. Then fury. Then the abrupt conclusion that she was still alive but might as well have died. Her things, her precious things. They had brought clothes that she didn’t care about, and all her favorites were gone. The objects that gave meaning to the space around her, anchoring her vision with reminders of the past, had been swept away. This new landscape proved disorienting and pointless. Why go on if your past has already been thrown out?

    A nation’s archive is its repository for the past. And in most places, an ethos of conservation militates against loss. Housed in grand buildings that are explicit monuments to the nation’s greatness, documents are protected with layer after layer of security. No bags, no pens, no cameras allowed. Please use gloves. Or don’t touch at all; this history is behind glass. The ability to protect the fragments of the past depends on a nation’s resources. But even in the absence of abundant resources, an ethos of conservation can safeguard documents from the ravages of time.

    At the General Archive of Central America (AGCA) in Guatemala City, archivists have long worked with very little to preserve their collection. The AGCA holds approximately 220 million documents pertaining to the history of Central America, but the archive receives scant funds from the Ministry of Culture and Sports. The tables and chairs haven’t been replaced for decades. Electricity is expensive, so the archivists sometimes carry a light bulb around in the stacks and screw it in as needed. In recent years, the archive has implemented fees for patrons who wish to take photographs or use the power outlets. It’s still not enough to cover the salaries and upkeep, so the archive staff have often taken it upon themselves to decorate and maintain the place with their own supplies. I was there in 2006 when an artist drew life-size portraits of patrons and staff going about their day. Drawn in charcoals on plain brown paper and taped to the walls, they seemed fragile; I assumed they’d last a month or two. Archive staff care for the corridors and their artwork so painstakingly that the drawings, looking almost like new, are still hanging.

    Though they live in the same country and come from the same household, my aunt and her children do not view objects in the same way. Marina was raised in a middle-class family in Guatemala City at a time when hardship and education and money were understood differently than they are today. My mother, the youngest of six, remembers that at mealtimes the three girls got smaller portions than the three boys. New shoes appeared on birthdays, and they had to be cared for assiduously: polished weekly, heels repaired, and laces mended. For all six of the children, learning existed not as an automatic process but as a treasured, precarious pilgrimage. The oldest, Mario Silva, taught himself to type on a piece of cardboard with drawn letters; the real typewriter lay on the horizon, an aspirational and uncertain reward. When Mario made it as a teacher, he cast a glow of success on the entire family and paved the way for his siblings. His brothers, Angel and René, and his sisters, Marina and my mother, all followed in his footsteps, becoming teachers as well. Only the middle sister, Sylvia, didn’t have the chance; she died of leukemia when she was seventeen, but not before the entire family had shaken loose every spare coin from its collective pockets. Even the family house was sold, the earnings poured desperately into Sylvia’s treatment.

    In such a context, things are not meant to be thrown out or replaced. My mother has a wooden egg that she used (and her mother used, and her grandmother used) to darn socks. The process by which the wooden egg was made no longer exists, and though it would cost almost nothing to replace it with some item manufactured en masse, the value of the object does not lie in its thingness. Nor does it lie in its “sentimental” value, though there’s certainly a bit of romantic flair to the brown egg, so smooth and deceptively inconspicuous. Its value lies in the web of choices and sacrifices and economies and successes that resulted from its use: in a word, its history. A pair of socks passed down and mended before the new school year, perhaps, which allowed for the buying of one more book, which made it possible to pass geography. The egg could be counted on to do this, over and over again, and for that reason one would always buy good socks that could be mended and made to last, rather than cheap socks that would be thrown away.

    Sometimes this ethos of conservation is not enough. The ability to protect the fragments of the past also depends on will—an individual’s will, or a nation’s will—and that will is inflected by politics. Sometimes, disposing of the past is not carelessness but a governmentally driven strategy. We might ask, to examine this strategy: Who has what to gain from disposing of the fragments of the past?

    The Trump administration’s paranoia concerning immigration is a gift to Latin America’s petty tyrants. It cares so much and so exclusively about bodies on the border that little else about the region seems to matter. In Guatemala, where many migrants come from, this blinkered perspective allows any number of other pressing issues to become invisible, including the treatment of Guatemala’s historical record. As Foreign Policy reported in the summer of 2019, the administration of President Jimmy Morales took a hostile stance towards archives in Guatemala, including the Historical Archive of the National Police of Guatemala (AHPN), which has been central to the prosecution of fourteen cases of human rights abuses committed during Guatemala’s thirty-six-year armed conflict. During that conflict, which resulted in an estimated two hundred thousand deaths, the police worked with the Guatemalan armed forces (who were themselves trained by US operatives) to capture, torture, and murder Guatemalans deemed a threat to the regime. Many were simply disappeared, and the widespread hope is that the AHPN may hold answers to those disappearances.

    I have that hope, too. Mario Silva, the older brother who led his siblings to success as teachers, was disappeared in 1972. The only credible information our family has about his disappearance came from a doctor who had (under coercion) treated him during his detention. Mario had been picked up with other members of the PGT (the Guatemalan Worker’s Party), tortured in detention, and finally killed. Then, according to the inside source, security forces dropped his body from a helicopter into the Atlantic. None of this could be confirmed, though relatives asked the Guatemalan authorities dozens of times for information regarding his fate. They responded with silence.

    Sylvia Sellers-García is a historian and writer. Her book about criminal cases in Guatemala, The Woman on the Windowsill: A Tale of Mystery in Several Parts (Yale University Press, 2020), is based on research conducted at the Archivo General de Centroamérica.

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