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Cultural and Personal Identity: Mothers and Shadows Report

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Updated: Sep 17th, 2021

The novel Mothers and shadows by Marta Traba depict a burden of sorrows that were evident during the reign of belligerent military regimes. This agonizing ordeal haunts much of Latin America today, including those nations of the Southern Cone, to which the Spanish title refers. Although democratic elections, political parties, and civil society have returned to Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, three of the countries hardest hit by state violence in the 1970s, they have found no easy path toward redressing a past marked by the disappearance, torture, and killing of thousands of citizens. During the 1980s Latin America was subjected to cruel, oppressive, and often deadly military regimes. In the face of such overwhelming political, economic, social, and cultural repression, these women writers openly fought against their countries’ dictatorships, challenged the dominant, traditional norms of women’s sexual behavior in their respective patriarchal societies, and managed to publish quite subversive novels.

The “percepticide,” what Marta Traba has called the destruction of the public’s ability to bear witness to acts of terror (119-38), that pervaded these societies at the height of their conflicts has not entirely dissolved with a transformation to civilian rule. Nor has the rebuilding of cityscapes and neighborhoods entirely erased a “culture of antagonism” that once constructed social identities out of political opposition and fostered a mentality of intransigence. Many Chileans now recall the militancy that emerged during years of the Frei-Allende presidencies (1964-1973) as leading toward civil war, fanning a fervor in which the Right and the Left upheld ideals of society that would not brook compromise: human rights, suffering, even life itself were to be sacrificed toward the realization of political goals. Today beneath the modern facades lie fault lines, wounds in the national psyche as well as the body politic, which continue to disturb? It is, as Carmen Castillo Echeverria found when she returned to her native Santiago, as if the unseen menace of the past was carried into one’s lungs with the newly polluted air, never actually seen, but carrying with it the stench of fear.

In Chile as in other states that engaged in “dirty” wars against those who were deemed internal enemies, the slow, painstaking rebuilding of democracy has had to take place alongside an intact military and amidst powerful supporters of the earlier dictatorship. Seventeen years after a military coup destroyed the socialist government of Salvador Allende (1970-73), the first civilian president, Patricio Aylwin, maneuvered between those who demanded justice against the perpetrators of state terror and those who insisted upon forgetting a conflictive past. Turning to a middle ground, he established the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation to gather information about the extent of violence during military rule. His aim, as well as that of the investigators on the Commission, was to realize the hope embodied in the cry of “Never Again” and to rebuild his country through reconciliation:

Truth and justice–insofar as they can be attained through the courts–are the pillars on which a reconciled society must be built, but in themselves, they are not enough. The various sectors of society affected must also be brought back together. Only by taking such steps will we advance toward the national reconciliation that is an utter necessity and is also the primary condition for avoiding a repetition of past events. Efforts by subsequent civilian governments have followed a similar approach toward the acknowledgment of past wrongs while refraining from exploring too deeply how political violence could have thrived in what was considered to be a nation of democratic traditions. Several “memory sites” have been erected in Santiago: a Peace Park on the site of the demolished torture center Villa Grimaldi, a three-story Memorial for the Disappeared at the entrance of the Cementerio General, as well as tombs for Salvador Allende and folksinger Victor Jara, both causalities of the 1973 coup. Yet, there is still little information to explain to visitors what happened on these sites and, surely, no indictment of the many who supported and carried out the terror unleashed by the regime of General Augusto Pinochet It is as if these commemorative sites remain charged with the power to unleash the past, to bring back the conflicts that have been put aside, and therefore must be quieted, tamed.

Memory knots, as the term, have been employed to refer to sites of humanity, sites in time, and sites of physical matter or geography. Specific human groups and leaders, specific events and dates, and specific physical sites all seem to stir up, collect, and concentrate memories, thereby “projecting” memory and polemics about memory into public space or imagination. Yet Carmen Castillo, daughter of the former rector of the Universidad Catolica, lived at the heart of the MIR throughout much of her young adulthood, and involvement that embraced not only her political affiliation, but also her social group of friends, lovers, and family. She reveals that her entry into revolutionary life at seventeen was primarily an infatuation with “la belleza del compromiso,” the beauty of political commitment and obedience to those who embodied it. Thus she first turned to Beatriz Allende, daughter of the future president, and was fascinated by the young woman’s refusal to conform to the norms of seductive femininity, insisting instead upon maintaining a serious mien that befitted her role as a member of a guerrilla organization.


Marta Traba (1981). Mothers and Shadows; the art of Latin America; Harvard University Press.

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IvyPanda. "Cultural and Personal Identity: Mothers and Shadows." September 17, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/cultural-and-personal-identity-mothers-and-shadows/.


IvyPanda. 2021. "Cultural and Personal Identity: Mothers and Shadows." September 17, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/cultural-and-personal-identity-mothers-and-shadows/.


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