Commemorating genocide through art, museum and memory

During my recent trips to Guatemala and Israel, I had the opportunity to visit two very distinct museums that commemorated two different genocides. The museum in the collective farming community of Sant’Anita La Union honors the guerrillas who fought in Guatemala’s 36 year Internal Armed Conflict (from 1960-1996), in which approximately 200,000 Guatemalans were killed.  Yad Vashem, located in Jerusalem, commemorates the Shoah or Holocaust (from 1933-1945) in which 6 million Jews perished.

Visiting both museums led me to reflect on these devastating genocides, and ways that the two cultures memorialized such profound losses. The contrast of Sant’Anita and Yad Vashem had been percolating in my mind for a while, but emerged to the forefront following my recent participation in an activist art project called “One Million Bones,” which convened people to array one million paper-mache and cardboard bones on the lawn of the National Mall as a tribute to past and present genocide victims and survivors around the world.

I joined the Guatemala Human Rights Commission in placing bones to honor the Guatemalan victims killed in the Ixil Triangle region. I was surprised at how moved I felt placing the bones–which were made of cardboard, gauze, and paper mache–on the National Mall lawn.  Some bones were painted in rainbow colors and others were inscribed with messages such as: “stay strong” and “rest in peace” yet despite their cartoonish appearance, I felt overwhelmingly sad reading the names of the Ixiles as I placed one bone at a time in honor of each victim. Placing the bones on the National Capitol Lawn also felt like a complex gesture–acknowledging the United State’s past role in funding the Guatemalan military during the genocide, and asking the United States to pay attention now to Guatemala’s pursuit of justice in the genocide trial of Efrain Rios Montt, the dictator in power when the massacres in the Ixil Triangle occurred.

This photography by Teru Kuwayama shows the One Million bones displayed on the National Mall Lawn as a tribute to genocide survivors past and present

This photography by Teru Kuwayama shows the One Million bones displayed on the National Mall Lawn as a tribute to genocide survivors past and present

My visit to Sant’Anita la Unión

Santa Anita la Unión is an organic coffee and banana growing community formed by ex-guerilla combatants. I visited Sant’Anita with my language school, PLQ, and in addition to touring the fields where the coffee grew and the facilities where it was roasted and packaged, the residents of Sant’Anita showed us their “guerrilla museum.” The one-room museum had a cracked wall from the recent earthquake, visible as our guide gestured to the framed photos of “our fallen comrades.” On the floor, a guerrilla’s camouflage uniform and radio were neatly displayed. Newspaper clippings explaining the unfolding history of the armed conflict hung on the other walls. I was most moved though by how our guide brought this room of artifacts to life with his sincere appreciation for his fellow ex-combatants and his community’s collective wish to preserve their memory.

This closeup of one of the main buildings at Sant'Anita was taken from an article about Guatemalan activist and Desgua co-founder Willy Barreno

This closeup of one of the main buildings at Sant’Anita was taken from an article about Guatemalan activist and Desgua co-founder Willy Barreno. The link to the article is included at the post’s conclusion.

My visit to Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem is physically imposing–built in the shape of an arrow to evoke how “the Shoah pierced our hearts,” our tour guide explained. The grounds are lavish, and surrounding the entrance are carob trees, planted in honor of the “righteous gentiles” who rescued Jews during the war. Inside, we walked a zigzag path from room to room, a route designed to mimic the unfolding years of 1933 until the establishment of Israel. What most moved me fell outside of tangible bounds, it was learning about how Jews used “trickster behavior” to help one another survive.

Trickster behavior can be explained as how people who are marginalized use their cleverness to subvert the rules that oppress them to attain power. Tricksters can span cultures, and examples of trickster figures can be found in Chinese mythology (the Monkey King), African American Folktales (Brer Rabbit), Brazilian Santeria (Eshu)–I could go on and on about representation of tricksters and how people can use trickster figures as metaphors to express and enact coded rebellion against the powers that oppress them.  Learning how Jews in Concentration Camps would subtly trick the Nazis to improve the living conditions for themselves and others so moved me because trickster behavior is a topic that deeply fascinates me. In fact, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on how Chinese and Latino immigrants  in three contemporary American works of fiction use “trickster language” to subvert the status quo and gain power. Because I have grown accustomed to thinking of myself as white and carrying around a knapsack of privilege whose contents I am oft ignorant of, I felt surprised and moved to consider trickster behavior in connection to myself and my own ethnic and religious identity.

Entrance way to Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem

Entrance way to Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem

Learn more about the exhibitions discussed above 

1. One Million Bones. June 8-10, 2013. This link is to the official website for One Million Bones, and explains about the project and includes a photo gallery of people who have made the bones.

2. After participating in laying the bones on the National Lawn with the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC), GHRC received hateful comments from genocide deniers. GHRC has written this response on their blog. “GHRC Target of Hate for Commemorating Genocide Victims. Guatemalan Human Rights Updates. June 11, 2013.

2. Sant’Anita. May 24, 2013. This is the official website for Sant’Anita farming collective.

3.  Mychalejko, Cyril. “Resurrecting the ‘Guatemalan Dream.'” August 31, 2009.  This article from Upside Down World is about Guatemalan activist and co-founder of DESGUA Willy Barreno, and also describes Sant’Anita la Union and information regarding the documentary “Voices of a Mountain.”

4. “Genocide in the Ixil Triangle.” Guatemala Human Rights Commission. June 13, 2013. This webpage from GHRC provides historical information regarding the massacres in the Ixil Triangle region during Guatemala’s Internal Armed Conflict.

5. Yad Vashem. May 24, 2013. This is the official website for Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. The website contains a wealth of information about the Holocaust, including podcasts and a database to search for the names of victims and survivors as well as a virtual tour of the museum’s galleries.



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