Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Memory as Preservation of Human Identity

In my intentional community in El Salvador, I became friends with Edith, a student from the University of Central America. I spent Holy Week at her house in northern Chalatenango, in a small village called San Jose de las Flores, which was resettled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees after the region was destroyed by fighting during the civil war. Edith told us they didn’t get electricity until she was eleven. During my times in the campo (countryside) I learned to climb to the outhouse in the dark and shower by pouring a bucket of water over my head. Edith’s mother shared stories of life in the mountains, as she had been a guerrilla combatant. Mamita, her grandmother, measured stages of her life by how many children she had “bajo de la tierra” (under the earth). In Chalatenango, talk of the war is very present in daily conversation.

Edith’s twelve-year-old sister Claudia entertained my friend Chrissy and me during the week between the vigils and preparations. Her eyes shone as she exclaimed that on Friday we were to go “river-swimming,” a favorite Salvadoran pastime. This would be the equivalent of a day at the beach, and she was especially thrilled that her mother, who works in San Salvador to provide for the family and does not come home for months at a time, would be able to join us. Chrissy and I were nervous, as we had read about this particular river. There are many songs which refer to “El Río Sumpul,” recalling the massacre by the Salvadoran army as civilians tried to flee into Honduras.

Therefore when I read the words: “…I had expected to be still crimson with blood, but which was as clear as any water that I had ever seen…I thought that the dead would reach out and haul us in, but only our faces stared back at us, one indistinguishable from the other” (40), tears came to my eyes. It sounds silly now, that as a twenty-year-old university student, I would have believed the river would still be bloody thirty years later. And I suppose I didn’t literally think that, but I felt completely surreal unpacking our picnic and watching children splash around in the river where so many people had lost their lives. I felt the same horror and inability to comprehend the atrocities when I visited another massacre sight at El Mozote, where babies as young as three days old were shot and burned in a church.

I keep the memory of the Salvadoran’s suffering alive in the stories I tell. People begged me: “tell your friends in the United States about us,” as if I were a celebrity who could change their entire reality by my power and wealth in the north. But I do remember them. I will always remember them. I carry them with me as I enter new experiences, as my human identity evolves. As I travel to Refugee Youth Project, where little children half my size have already fled horrible persecution and must struggle to adjust to their new land, as I travel to school, where I must take advantage of my blessed opportunity for education, as I watch the stories of women in the Congo and Invisible Children in Uganda, their story and their memory lives in my heart.

If we ask: “What makes us human?” while reading Krik? Krak! we must also ask how we preserve our humanity in times of suffering. How do we remember those who died before us? How do we reconcile past memories and present human interactions? How is the evolution of our identity influenced by the memory of our parents’ story?

Haitians, Salvadorans, Turkish, Congolese, Ugandans, North Americans: we all have memory. Memory allows us to forge ahead while retaining the lessons of our own experiences and those of the people we once loved. The young couple in “Children of the Sea” write beautiful letters which the other may never receive. The boy’s forced travel rips him away from their relationship, but she cherishes his memory. She writes, “I destroyed some music tapes, but I still have your voice” (4). On the boat, he writes, “Someone says, Krik? You answer, Krak! And they say, I have many stories I could tell you, and then they go on and tell these stories to you, but mostly to themselves” (14). Here I noticed the phrase “mostly to themselves.” I ask myself, when I tell a story about El Salvador in class, do I share it to continue the power of the memory for others or to relive it myself? Perhaps it is a combination of the two.

Danticat addresses the question: What happens to our identities when we die? The boy writes to his love, “I go to them now as though the very day that my mother birthed me, she had chosen me to live life eternal, among the children of the deep blue sea, those who have escaped the chains of slavery to form a world beneath the heavens and the blood-drenched earth where you live…In any case, I know that my memory of you will live even there as I too become a child of the sea” (27-8). When the mother of the protagonist of “Nineteen Thirty-Seven” dies, she will always be remembered by her “sisters” of the river. They cling to her presence as my little sister still sleeps in my grandma’s t-shirts: “Each woman was either wearing or holding something that had once belonged to her” (47). The story of the river, no doubt, will be passed on to future generations of women.

In “The Missing Peace” Emilie explains coming of age to Lamort: “They say a girl becomes a woman when she loses her mother” (116). When one’s mother dies, the emptiness is filled with only memory of the mother’s presence. Emilie wants to preserve memory “for posterity” not just for historical purposes, but also to preserve the human spirit. When we travel, we bring all of ourselves. Our memory influences our perception of our surroundings and affects our interactions with others. Memory therefore, makes us human.

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