So we’ve been in touch on facebook and I told him that I’d try to help him if I could. And her brother told me, “I know about your work, but I haven’t been able to look at your photos of my sister. And I still haven’t opened your book to that page.”
MT: You’ve experienced some of it in the past few days, but where do you think the conversation is now? Are people speaking of the war in a public sphere? In homes?
JMS: Well, the conversation is going on in homes. It’s been going on in homes for the past 25 years. Twenty five years ago people were living it, so they would talk about in private with people they trusted. And then I think people were licking their wounds for a long time, from the 1980s to the late 1990s. And in some ways that was the worst time because it wasn’t a war anymore, but it wasn’t exactly peace. People didn’t know what to make of it. But then you have the inception of the Archbishopric’s investigation that led to the publication of Guatemala: Nunca Más, and then MINUGUA, the United Nations group that later went out and also collected testimonies. And so Guatemala started taking baby steps towards memory and justice and reparations and reconciliation. And maybe retribution.
So those things perhaps made a difference. I think people were talking about the war in the 1980s. Then in the 1990s it turned from “this thing that just happened” to “do you remember what happened five or ten years ago?” And now you have a son who is old enough to hear why his father couldn’t go out and play in the 1980s, and you have intergenerational storytelling. Photos and visual images can be prompts for that memory. And someone else’s photos remove you a little bit from the immediacy of the raw wounds; then you can recount it to someone else with a bit of distance.
I don’t think people have forgotten. I changed my mind. Years ago I did think that people had forgotten, or maybe that no one wanted to know about this war. It was over. Done with. Time marches one. And in a way, time should march on. But how can you . . .? The bones of 45,000 disappeared are buried all over this territory. It’s easy to intellectualize it and say, “It would be healthy for this process to go forward. Time marches on.” And it’s true, but at the same time if you personalize it and say, “What if this was me? What if I were the person who had lost a husband, or a child? And I didn’t even know where they were.” That to me is incomprehensible. If they take my daughter tomorrow and she’s disappeared and I don’t even know where they took her? How can you ever reconcile that by saying, “Well, time has gone by.” It’s impossible. Completely impossible. Like with Lucky. For my friend Guisella, before her mother died she had a DNA sample taken and Guisella until her dying day is going to wonder . . .
I was just her friend, I wasn’t even a relative and I want to go to Santa Lucia and dig up some earth, just to see where my friend was.
MT: Did they exhume her body?
JMS: No. Nobody knows where it is.
And you have different kinds of families in Guatemala. You have some families that were very militant — and I don’t mean that pejoratively — and they are indefatigable in their search for relatives. And then you have people who vacillate. They’re still afraid. Or they have other kids. Or they don’t want bad things to happen to other people. And so they obfuscate their feelings in their daily routines and they push to the background what happened. But I have never met a family who had someone disappeared who just let go of it. And I know a lot of families who have lost someone.
MT: Do you . . . do you have much hope?
JMS: Well, I do, but it’s really swimming against the tide. People like to say the younger generation is awful and lazy, but I don’t think so. People always say that about the young generation. They say the young generation is to blame for apathy. I don’t think so. There were young people at the talk last night. It’s not if the interest exists; it’s how they go about making decisions. What I said last night was, “Don’t think in grand terms. Focus on the little things and eventually the little things add up to something big.”
There’s this group in Guatemala City called H.I.J.O.S., a human rights group made up of the sons and daughters of the disappeared in Guatemala. I told them they could just have the photos. So now they’re going to put up images of the photos at their protests in front of the National Palace. So to me, that’s utility. And I guess that’s closing the circle on what I was telling you earlier. You go from wanting to do something grand to wanting to be useful.
MT: Jean-Marie Simon, thank you very much for your time today. And best of luck with the book.
JMS: Thank you.