Kaiser Bears Vicarious Witness for HIA

By Loren Michael Mortimer - Once a prestigious naval academy, the Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA) in Buenos Aires became, during Argentina’s "Dirty War," a facility for torture and detention. A quarter century after democracy was restored, ESMA re-opened as a museum and site of public memory. On November 10, 2015, as part of the UC Davis Hemispheric Institute on the Americas (HIA) Memory Lecture series, Professor Susana Kaiser addressed this subject in a talk entitled "Vicarious Witness: The Case of ESMA’s Visitors and their Interactions with Memory and Human Rights."

Kaiser, associate professor of media studies and Latin American studies at the University of San Francisco, has studied the experiences of ESMA vistors since 2007. Her talk examined how a population reconciles and heals in the wake of a national trauma through the experience of visiting a site of infamous human rights abuses.

She wondered: what happens to people when they visit ESMA? What goes on during the tour? How do visitors interact with the site, the guides, and one another? What is the overall experience? She sought answers to these questions by observing visitors as they proceeded through the facility, interviewing staff and visitors, and reviewing the comments left in the visitors books.

Culpability and responsibility

Kaiser discovered a range of public experiences—from ambivalent school children to painful, private moments in which victims’ families tried to reconnect with “disappeared” loved ones by visiting the last place they were seen alive; from public truth-telling to parents dispensing poignant historical lessons to their children.

Kaiser concluded that the site has now become a forum for both debating and performing public memory. Though ESMA remains a haunting site of national trauma, it has become a place where individuals and Argentine society writ large can consider their culpability in human rights abuses and their responsibility for preventing such crimes in the future.

Learn more about Professor Kaiser at her USF faculty webpage.

Since the mid-1980s, but particularly in the 1990s and 2000s, Latin American societies that lived through brutal dictatorships and civil conflicts have been dealing with the consequences of extreme political violence. Along with calls for justice, the ideas of truth and memory have been central to the project of consolidating healthy democracies. The Memory Lecture seeks to understand the ongoing nature of this process, particularly in societies in which truth and justice still remain very much works in progress. The Memory Lectures are sponsored by the Hemispheric Institute on the Americas (HIA) Program at UC Davis.