La Perla (The Pearl.) How strange and terrible that this beautiful and precious element of creation has come to be associated with one of the most infamous detention centers from the period of ‘La Dictadura’ (1976-1983) in Argentina. But it has. The name has particular potency in Córdoba, the city closest to the center and whose population was deeply affected by it. And for all of us in the Casa de la Mateada program, knowing about and confronting the history of this place has become an important part of our experience of living, studying and working in this country. It has become particularly important in helping us learn what it might mean to practice accompaniment in this place.
We visited La Perla several weeks ago as part of our ongoing effort to understand the immensely complex history and politics of this country. And in particular to help us understand better the story narrated in Alicia Partnoy’s La Escuelita. That book, written by a member of LMU’s Modern Languages faculty who is herself a survivor of imprisonment and torture during the period of ‘La Dictatura’, became an important focal point in our students’ work this semester. I wrote earlier about the deep impact reading this book had on them, on all of us. How it shifted their (and our) sense of where we are and what we are doing here: this happened to Alicia, to friends of hers, and to many, many others here in Argentina. It was real. We would have to reckon with this reality as part of our encounter with this country and its people. It also raised new questions for us about the meaning of accompaniment.
Twice a week, with utter faithfulness, our students spend their days at praxis sites (three sites that ring the city of Córdoba) working alongside community leaders, teachers, women religious, and children; working with them, hanging out, listening to their stories, entering into conversations, cooking, reading, playing. Without question, this work has been transformative for our students. They talk about it all the time. They express their deepening regard, respect and affection for those whom they are accompanying, and who are in turn accompanying them. The notion of accompaniment (related to but different from ‘service,’ something that many of our students are well versed in before arriving here) is central to the ethos of the Casa experience. And the experience of accompaniment in the praxis sites is in some ways at the heart of this reality for our students.
Still, as we set off for La Perla on a mild spring day a few weeks back, I became aware that this place might also have something important to teach us about the meaning of accompaniment. If nothing else, encountering this place would require us to confront, more deeply and perhaps more viscerally, a shadowy and painful moment in the history of this country whose effects can still be felt here in so many ways. I wondered: would we be able not only to ‘learn about’ this dark period of Argentina’s history, but open ourselves to it, feel it and become capable of responding to it with real thought and care? And even if its meaning proved impossible to grasp (which in some ways it must), would we be able to make a place in our own imaginative and spiritual lives for this experience? Could we make room especially for all those who were brought here to be tortured and killed? All those disappeared without a trace, whose families still grieve for them, hunger for word about what happened to them here. Could we learn to accompany them?
I realize this question might seem strange, even presumptuous. Is it really our place to ask such a question? We are not native to this place. Nor are we citizens of this country. And we have only recently arrived here. This is part of the reality of being here in Argentina as citizens of another country. We need to take care with the kinds of questions we ask, with how we ask them. Not because of fear of repercussions. No, it has more to do with what it is to be here as visitors, guests. We may ask our questions. But it is important to remember who we are and where we are and where we are from. For me, it is important to ask this question (with humility and an acute recognition of all I do not and cannot know), if only to help me learn how to approach this place and its story honestly and fully. Above all to help me begin to consider how to make room in my consciousness for all the people whose lives ended here, brutally and before their time. Nor is it my question only. It has also become real for our students.
No one knows exactly how many people were ‘disappeared’ to La Perla (estimates are from between 2,200 and 3,000 persons). Or disappeared from La Perla, never to be seen again. ‘Disappeared.’ It feels strange to speak this way. But the particular language used to describe the reality of those who were abducted, tortured and killed during this time has undergone its own unexpected transformations. ‘Disappeared,’ in this context, is both a verb and a noun. It is something that was done to people by the military personnel during the dictatorship; we say people were ‘disappeared’ as a way of trying to account for the terrible circumstances in which they were removed from their homes, their families and from the world forever. It is also the name given to all those who were subjected to this brutal treatment. The ‘disappeared’ (los desaparecidos) are remembered in a particular way in Argentina. And their fate has become tied to the unfolding identity of this nation. Trials for those who are alleged to have participated in these crimes are still ongoing. And the question of how to understand this period of history continues to affect politics, culture and social reality in contemporary Argentina. How one thinks about the disappeared and the social and political conditions that made their disappearance possible often determines how one thinks about the possibilities for life in Argentina today. And they cast a long shadow over dreams for the future of this country.
These realities were only faintly visible to us upon our arrival at La Perla that day. Nor, not at first anyway, could we really feel the weight and density of what had transpired there. Within a few hours, that would change. Much of this has to do with the care, honesty and tenderness with which the work of remembering the victims has been realized there. Walking through the rooms, you encounter the stories and sometimes photographs of particular people–both perpetrators and victims–almost always presented with a striking lack of adornment. And there are artifacts (precious few to be sure), the only traces of those who were disappeared from that place: A watch. A purse. A wedding ring. Again, palpable reminders of what happened here, of those who were put to death here. Not only carried in stories, but also in things.
The deeper we moved into the complex, the more completely we descended into silence. It was too much to take in. Certainly too much to try to verbalize. And too early. That in itself was such a valuable part of the experience: hold your tongue. Don’t try to climb back up into language too quickly, too soon. Listen. Look. Allow yourself to feel the power of the place. Which each of us, in our own way, did.
It is hard to account for the way the power of past experiences, especially experiences of extreme trauma, can linger in a place. It cannot be measured with any instrument. But it can be felt. Many of those who have visited the concentration camps in Eastern Europe, or El Mozote in El Salvador, or Ground Zero in New York, have testified to such feelings. How much of this depends on knowing the narrative of what has transpired there before hand? It is hard to say. Probably it contributes something. But sometimes it feels more uncanny, more visceral than this, as though all the accumulated suffering of a place is still present, seeping into your own body.
The narrator in W.G. Sebald’s great novel Austerlitz describes an instance of this in his account of what it was like for him to approach the area around London’s Liverpool Street Station; it had once been the site of a hospital for the mentally ill and other destitute persons (known as Bedlam). Austerlitz recalls how on his many visits to that place, he would find himself trying to imagine the rooms where the asylum inmates had been confined, wondering “whether the pain and suffering accumulated on this site over the centuries had ever really ebbed away, or whether they might not still, as I sometimes thought when I felt a cold breath of air on my forehead, be sensed as we passed through them on our way through the station halls and up and down the flights of steps.”
Yes: does all that suffering ever really ebb away? Or can you still feel it as you walk through the precincts of such places? And, if you can feel it, what then? What do you do with such feelings? What kind of response is possible?
I am not sure it is really possible to answer these questions in any definitive way. But even considering them can help create a bridge between the dense, inchoate sense of dread that you feel moving through such a place and the possibility of arriving at the kind of response that can open the way to hope. Even if part of that response entails witnessing silently to your experience.
We have been thinking alot these past few months in the Casa program about what it means to move from being a ‘bystander’ to being a ‘witness.’ From being a person who is dislocated from her or his own experience and from the suffering of the world to being a person who enters in, participates and accompanies others in their suffering. A person who seeks to stand with others. This is an important distinction among certain thinkers who have committed themselves to developing a more encompassing, socially just way of being in the world. Not that it is ever really so simple or clear. Most of us experience ourselves at times as bystanders, even if we long to become witnesses. We are overwhelmed by the suffering around us. We feel defeated by it, reduced to hopelessness. Still, there are moments when something else shines through in our lives: an unexpected capacity to stand with others in their pain and struggle, even if this gesture does no apparent good, solves nothing. Still it is a way of bearing witness to the possibility of a different vision of community, of life.
I thought about this as we moved through La Perla that day. These students who have become so dear to us were giving themselves over to the place and its sad, painful history. You could see it in their faces, in their slumped shoulders. There was nothing any of us could do to undo what had happened here. That in itself was more than a little dispiriting. But we stayed, trying to take in what we were seeing, trying to summon the courage to stand with those who had been brought to this place to suffer and die.
Several of us commented later on how beautiful the place is. We felt it especially on this early spring day. It sits on a small rise just north of the road to Carlos Paz. In the distance, you can see Las Sierras Chicas. The trees were just beginning to leaf out. There was birdsong. It was peaceful. Beautiful. Which only served to create a greater sense of dissonance with what we were seeing and feeling. But it was also consoling: even here, the deeper rhythms of the natural world were alive. The world was once again being reborn. It was impossible not to notice and feel this.
We departed in silence.
Later that evening, in a conversation with one of my new Argentinian colleagues, Diego Fonti, the Vice-Rector at La Universidad Católica de Córdoba and a professor to our students, we found ourselves discussing the larger history of which La Perla is only one part. He mentioned the ongoing trials in Córdoba, and how far the country still is from reaching closure and healing; also how important these legal procedures are to realizing this closure and healing. I shared my own sense what it felt like to be at La Perla, not only the force of its impact on me and on the students, but also my uncertainty, as a visitor in this country, about how to respond to it. He understood. And he appreciated, I think, my hesitation, my uneasiness. But he also expressed clearly his own sense of what it was to share concern for the kind of human rights abuses that had taken place at La Perla and also continue to take place around the world, including in my own country. He nodded and looked at me with genuine compassion. “Look,” he said, “when it comes to this kind of thing, for me it is really very simple. My dead are your dead. And your dead are my dead. There is no separation.”
There is no separation. There is not and cannot be any separation. These words have remained with me, as a gift, a reminder of what it is to open oneself to the life of another, honestly and deeply. We have only recently arrived here in Argentina. And yes we are visitors. We cannot know or feel or understand the full extent of the suffering and loss that occurred during ‘La Dictatura.’ But we can stand with our Argentinian friends in silent witness. We can open ourselves to the complicated and often-comprised history of our own country. There is no way of standing aloof from these realities, or pretending that all of us are not in certain respects complicit. And even if we do not always know in any given moment what particular response to make, or what response is even possible, we can open ourselves to the reality before us. We can try to look at it honestly. And feel it.
There is no separation.
Douglas E. Christie, Ph.D., Co-Director, Casa de la Mateada