As usual, life too busy. I am in over my head with all the projects I am involved in right now. There seems to be some inner compulsion driving my desire to sign up for everything that I have wanted to do all my life: Art school, for example. I also registered in cheesemaking classes. Always curious about cheesemaking, so why not?
Mostly, I love digging through archives and finding stuff I didn't know anything about. Hence, the research project at the controversial National Police Archives. My interest was stoked by the documentaries and controversy surrounding it a couple of years ago, especially by the documentary La Isla. By the way, there is a new film on the Archives titled Granito: How to Nail A Dictator, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. I would provide hyperlinks for you, but for some reason, Blogspot has not been allowing that for days now.
The interest in the archives has only continued to grow. Research there becomes truly addictive, as any of the people working there can attest. All of this on top of the work I actually get paid to do, such as teaching at a local university and coordinating community organizing workshops for a joint project funded by international aid through the City government.
At the end of hallway, documents waiting to be digitalized
The ambiance at the archives--the building is a sprawling maze--tends to be very calm and somewhat eerie. Not in a "ghostly" fashion. Just a certain type of silence and light.
I think it is because the walls are painted in a hue of spectral green and the only natural light comes from small windows placed high on the walls, which allow a milky, foggy light inside. There are plenty of tall pine trees outside which permeate the air with a fresh scent and make a rustling sound all day long, as the wind passes through its branches. The sound is soothing yet eerie, so it adds to the sense of "dream state".
To get there one must drive through a downtrodden yet very lively and colorful blue collar neighborhood. Some brave souls get there by bike, such as Mike from Canada, but I prefer to drive. The archives are right besides the Police Academy and serve, as well, as the dog training unit and the police junkyard. It is surrounded by decades of rusting cars, piled on top of each other. The staff has tried to create gardens close around the main buildings and it does make a difference.
Talking of the staff, most of them are young college-aged people, many of whom come from families who suffered during the years of the war, or who have relatives who disappeared, and so on. The level of commitment is high. They seem to have forged close friendships.
The day goes by in school-like fashion. At around 10 am, the bell rings and it is "recess". Everybody--including the foreign academic researchers--rushes outside to the cafeteria and buy snacks: tostadas, tamales, cake, cokes. We talk, we joke. The young ones go play basketball or volleyball outside.
After around 20 mins., the bell rings again and everyone trudges back inside. Work goes on quietly until 1 pm. At that time the bell rings again, and everyone goes into the cafeteria to buy lunch, eat their own home-cooked meals. It gets very lively. After lunch, the young ones go play ball and the rest watch. After sitting cooped up for hours in the dark, dank building, carefully brushing dust from documents, taking out staples, and digitalizing, they need their exercise. Same for us who sit in from of a computer, scrolling through hundreds of documents.
Close friendships are forged
Staff members receive group therapy once a month because the work they do, such as researching paperwork for human rights violations' lawsuits, takes an emotional toll.
At the end of the day, the bell rings again and they all file into big, yellow schoolbuses waiting to take them home. It is related to safety, because the immediate streets are safe but the neighborhood at large not so much, even though it is quite busy and full of local commerce. Yet the bus thing adds to the high school feeling.
There are certain codes of conduct as well. In the room reserved for academic researchers--or foreign journalists--silence is the rule. Not strictly enforced, but it is one of those tacit things, as if one is at a very serious library. Most of us have the courtesy of stepping out to take or make a phone call, or else, these are conducted in whispers and kept to a minimum. Nobody really talks except to ask a question of the IT research specialist in the premises.
You can tell a new person sometimes, because he or she will ocassionally gasp or exclaim something like "Oh my God, listen to this!" and read something out loud. Usually something tragic or egregious. In general, the "mmm-hmmm" responses or simple non-answers convey the message that we are all busy and don't really feel like chatting (that is what recess is for!). However, sometimes the information is funny: A very unusual name, for example. We all chuckle and then, back to quiet.
In other words, we all take our work seriously and a sober mood prevails, lightened by friendship, kindness, helpfulness and gentle teasing. Of course, as with all people working with tragic information, a sort of gallows humor develops and as all places full of young people, there is laughter and hopefulness. Thank goodness!
A great deal of the research is to find missing people or to prove violations of human rights by the military or police. Even though my topic isn't really related to victims, I came across a 400-page file marked top secret, which detailed a counter-insurgency operation. What really hit me, though, were the maps drawn by soldiers having to provide tactical information. Some are very delicate, full of almost whimsical detail. I can imagine the young man drawing it, bored out of his mind in the wilderness and wanting to create something pretty out of the need to create the utilitarian.
Cafeteria lunch of the day: Pollo en pepián (A traditional Guatemalan stew made of spicy chicken) and side dishes
A few military reports are almost poetic when describing the terrain: The fields, the pine forests, the fog. It is striking to find such a combination of cruelty and beauty, all in one document. It serves to remind us that many of these soldiers weren't monsters, even though some did some really bad things. This is what wars do to people.
A couple of lieutenants, who appear to be uncommonly aware, wrote compassionately and insightfully about the terrible poverty of the locals. And yet, bad things were done to the locals. Not enough were able to transcend the ideology of war and what it does to the human spirit. Thank goodness my research is not related to finding human rights abuses, so I don't come across this kind of documentation often. My stuff is more in the sense of reading boring old correspondence between diplomats and that sort of stuff.
One day the silence was broken by people running through the hallways yelling for everybody to unplug the computers and leave the building immediately, as there was a fire. So of course, we all dashed outside. Lemmings are we. The fire was at the extreme end of the junkyard area. Too far to be of any immediate danger. So a bunch of us were confused as to why the generalized freaking out.
Turns out that, since the archives used to be the explosives warehouse, they have found bags of grenades and other explosives among the junkyard scrap. As soon as we heard about that, we veered as far away from the junkyard as possible! But other than that, not much fodder for excitement around there. Except in the mind.
Staff members do more than just clean and digitalize archive documents.
The archives are estimated to hold around 88 million documents and there are over 12 million digitalized right now, with more every day. The staff is investigating over 400 cases that are either being tried in court, or prepared to be tried in court. The way this works, from what I understand, is that they receive a court order or subpoena for all documents possibly pertaining to a given case, and the search is on.
Other staff members train college students in archival research, a skill they need here because there aren't any good libraries nor access to databases such as Lexis-Nexis, JSTOR, and all those others, something I have written about previously in this blog. Primary documents is the main way to research. Staff members also provide extensive workshops, tours to visiting student and scholar contingents, and so on.
Speaking of which, as part of the work I do for the Cultural Center of Spain (sort of as the Cultural Affairs branch of the Spanish government in Guatemala), I had to organize a screening of La Isla in conjunction with the City government.
One week before the film screened, the City government of Guatemala decided to pull out because the mayor, of an extreme right persuasion, deemed the film as too controversial, since it airs issues he'd rather lie dormant. Actually, he has been quite outspoken of his opposition to human rights endeavors. In genral, politicians here tend to be very narrow-minded, prepotent, corrupt. and not too savvy at P.R. They get elected anyhow, so why bother to try to get any better?
Anyhow. Because the City was providing the screening space, we had to scramble to find another one in less than a week. It was a Herculean endeavour, but in the end, all is well that ends well. Turns out that instead of having around 30 people, we had over 75, which was double the expected number. Alberto Fuentes, coordinator of the Archives offered a very well-received talk, and Uli Stelzner, the producer, came in from Germany in a surprise visit. Complete success.
Alejandra, Research Coordinator (and our IT guardian angel)
Another interesting issue was that a group of students from California came to stay at the inn. And what do you know? I bumped into them at the National Police Archives! Their professors had taken them there, and then they also appeared later that week at the screening of La Isla. Small world, Guate, even for visitors. And lots of interest in the Archives, obviously.
So, back to the archives. Other things the staff does is provide endless support to academic researchers, such as me. Academic researchers come from all around the world and most are writing their dissertation, masters' thesis or else, are professors writing some book. There are also plenty of journalists, but they don't stay as long. They have stricter deadlines.
I have been going there so long, that the volleyball players of the Archive have turned from a fledgling group of quite clumsy ball droppers, to a pretty handy team! And others have been going there longer than I have been. It does become a sort of "home away from home".
Lastly, the Archives are open to the public but within certain limitations. It actually is not all that open. I mean, the public may tour the premises (with a guide), but in order to access the archival material, it is necessary to request authorization via letters, forms to be filled, a research proposal and other requirements. After all, it is full of sensitive and personal information.
If and when approved, you are assigned a desk, your own computer, security clearance and have to take a couple of workshops to fully understand the complex system. If you are interested in going, you can contact the coordinator, Alberto Fuentes, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Usually January is a slow month for us at the inn, but this year started very well, and we have been full almost every single day of the month. Lots of academics and journalists lately, from the US, Australia and Europe. NGO and student groups too. Not bad, not bad.
My daughter's in-laws visited recently from Canada. I warned her mother-in-law not to walk the streets with gold jewelry, but she assumed that in the middle of the morning, it was safe to do so. Imagine, bright sunshine making her gold necklace gleam!
Next thing you know, a petty thief tore off her gold chain and ran away with it faster than they could blink. Well. Not to excuse robbery, but it is a poor country and if street urchins and pickpockets see the shine of gold, they tear it off and run. Same for iPods and nice cellphones. Other than that, they really enjoyed the downtown area, and fell in love with the Palacio Nacional and other lovely historic buildings. They especially enjoyed the Central Market, a must if you visit Guatemala.
And that is about it for now. I leave you with an interesting painting I saw at the art gallery of the Palacio Nacional, a landmark well worth a visit. This painting is titled Earthquake 1976. Pretty cool, if you ask me!