Creating Cultural Memories across the Americas
By Rashad Mulla
Tragic events have shaped the histories and cultures of many nations across the world. Recently, there has been a burgeoning desire to document, commemorate, and re-analyze those moments through some form of media or memorialization, bringing these events into the present for sobering discussion.
Two College of Humanities and Social Sciences students, Eleana Velasco and Katherine Pereira, spent semesters researching separate cultural memories in their native countries, Ecuador and Colombia, respectively. Both students partnered with faculty scholars as part of Mason’s Undergraduate Research Scholars Program.
Velasco, a senior majoring in Spanish and interested in Latin American Studies subjects, partnered with Mason associate professor Lisa Rabin in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, a cultural studies expert, on the project Ecuador’s Documentary Films: Uncovering the Past and Finding Identity in the Era of Globalization.
Pereira, a senior majoring in government and international politics and minoring in both Spanish and Latin American Studies, collaborated with Mason professor Ricardo Vivancos Perez, also of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and an expert in Spanish and Latino studies, for the project Creativity and Human Rights: The Parque Monumento Trujillo as a Site of Consciousness.
Although the two projects both focused on South American countries and had to do with forms of cultural memory, they were decidedly distinct. Velasco’s project dealt with the sudden increase in documentary film popularity in Ecuador, while Pereira analyzed a memorial site in Colombia.
In the 1990s, Ecuador’s documentary film industry produced a single digit total of works. Since 1997, that number has ballooned to 187. A self-proclaimed movie buff, Velasco sought the cause of the jolt.
“There is now a massive interest in Ecuadorian film in the country,” she says. “It is so much so that the government has been supporting it since 2006. And we need our films to create a cinematic cultural memory of our country. We are writing our history through film.”
The current boom in the film industry is due in large part to the younger generation of Ecuadorians, says Velasco. Ever since the country’s political situation stabilized, younger artists decided to band together to create documentary films to compete with the Hollywood blockbuster industry. The younger artists, many of whom Velasco knows personally, triggered some sort of cinematic renaissance. Ecuador now boasts a thriving documentary film industry.
But one film Velasco zoned in on was Ratas, Ratones, Rateros (Rats, Mice, Thieves), a critically acclaimed gritty portrayal of the criminal underbelly of Ecuador. Velasco found out through interviews and articles that audiences appreciated the cold, hard reality depicted in the movie. With this in mind, she decided to document the reaction to With My Heart in Yambo, a story about a Colombian immigrant family whose two children–ages 14 and 17–were tortured and killed by Ecuadorian police. The victims’ sister is the one who produced the documentary. Velasco surveyed Ecuadorian residents to gauge their reaction of the film.
“These films are part of our history, and a part of our mistakes, and relate to some things that have not been solved,” Velasco says. “With this research, I hope to get across the message that things have to change.”
This desire to highlight history and affect change is what connects Velasco and Pereira.
Tragedy struck Colombia as well. Between 1988 and 1994, the Cali Cartel, Colombian paramilitaries, and active members of the country’s military and police murdered more than 300 people near the Cauca River, including a well-known priest and many innocent farmers.
Years later, a truth and reconciliation commission suggested that a monument be built to honor the victims of those horrible murders. The Parque Monumento Trujillo, which is near completion, will consist of a mausoleum area where some of the victims’ remains are buried, a garden, a mural, and a special exhibition for the murdered priest.
“I’m trying to understand the concept of this memorial,” Pereira says. “I’m trying to figure out what makes this a site of consciousness. I want to narrow down how exactly this is a reparation for the victims’ families.”
Pereira used books, government and nonprofit reports, other memorial sites in neighboring countries, and a host of other materials to analyze the Trujillo monument. She capped off her research endeavor by traveling to Colombia during spring break earlier this year. While there, she, of course, visited the monument and met with its creators, and presented her research in the cities of Bogota and Cali for Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, a local university.
“This is an amazing opportunity for her to do research on the site,” Vivancos Perez says. “This probably makes the difference in writing a great paper on the topic.”
Vivancos Perez says Pereira possesses uncanny research ability, drive, initiative, and a willingness to serve the public. He says that this project produced invaluable research for both Mason and Latin America.
“For us at Mason, it is important because we are promoting critical thinking in an ethical way,” he says. “We are privileged citizens of the world living here in the United States, so it is our responsibility to be committed to helping those less fortunate. Everyone has to help the way they can, and as educators, we can disseminate information about grave human rights conditions in Latin America.”
Rabin, Velasco’s mentor, believes the research into Ecuador’s film industry has shed some new light on the country’s ability to preserve its own history.
“Eleana has very fruitfully situated her work at the intersection of several prominent strands of inquiry in the humanities, including Latin American film production and the study of film reception,” Rabin says. “It is a fairly new impulse to see how films were and are received by fans and filmgoers, as opposed to a more common approach, which is movie analysis.”
Both Velasco and Pereira plan to pursue their passions into the future. Velasco would like to continue updating her study of Ecuadorian film, while Pereira will pursue a career in human rights advocacy.
“My background is what made me have a passion for stopping injustice,” Pereira says. “Why is it that we live here so comfortably while people in other countries suffer?”
This article originally appeared in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences magazine, Cornerstone, in a slightly different form.