Editor's Letter: The Past Is Present

By June Carolyn Erlick

Irma Flaquer’s image as a 22-year-old Guatemalan reporter stares from the pages of a 1960 Time magazine, her eyes blackened by a government mob that didn’t like her feisty stance. She never gave up, fighting with her pen against the long dictatorship, suffering a car bomb explosion in 1970, then being dragged by her hair from her car one October ten years later and disappearing.

I knew she was courageous. I became intrigued by her relentless determination—why did she keep on writing? However, the case was already old even in 1996, when the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) assigned me the investigation for its new Impunity Project. Irma was one of Guatemala’s 45,000 disappeared—one of thousands in Latin America, men and women forcibly vanished, mostly killed. Yet I learned from the investigation that disappearance is a crime against humanity, a crime not subject to a statute of limitations.

And I also learned from Irma’s courageous sister Anabella that it really is a crime that never ends. “They took my moral support, my counselor; in killing my sister, they stole my human right,” Anabella told IAPA members at a Los Angeles meeting. “I was orphaned again, condemned for the rest of my life to not know what happened to my sister...”

Anabella taught me that the past is always present. In Miami, where she has lived for more than 40 years, she might just seem to be the pet-loving, doting grandmother that she indeed is. She might have chosen to remain invisible—a silent victim.

Instead, spurred by my investigation, Anabella’s determination and the steadfast leadership of the IAPA’s Ricardo Trotti, Irma’s case became the first the organization brought before the Inter American Commission on Human Rights. In 2001, in a so-called friendly agreement with the IAPA, the Guatemalan state acknowledged its responsibility. Reparations were paid; monuments were built; scholarships were set up. And a funeral mass was finally held in Guatemala for the disappeared journalist. Ricardo and Anabella showed me how reconstructing memory could help strengthen democratic institutions.

My investigation turned into a book, Disappeared: A Journalist Silenced, The Story of Irma Flaquer (Seal Press 2004), but when I sought to publish it in Spanish, I was told, “People are tired of hearing about the war. They want to forget the past.” I wanted to tell the publishers that it wasn’t the past; it was the present; survivors still feel the guilt and the pain and the anguish of not knowing; perpetrators have not been brought to justice; Irma’s bones have not been found.

Finally, after many years, the book has appeared in Spanish: Desaparecida, Una Periodista Silenciada (Sophos/Hoja del Norte, 2012). I get e-mail messages now from young Guatemalans wanting to know about Irma’s legacy.

That is why this ReVista issue on Memory and Democracy, which accompanies two months of events and a major conference at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, focuses on the present. It highlights the disappeared, the press, education, museums, and the fascinating ongoing experiment in Colombia—a laboratory for historical memory. These are all ways in which the past becomes the present and morphs into the future.

I’m tempted to dedicate this issue to the memory of Irma Flaquer, who would not be silenced until she was forcibly taken on October 16, 1980—33 years ago. But instead, I’ll dedicate it to Anabella and to all the relatives and friends and witnesses who keep the struggle for truth and justice alive, who have taught us that the past is never really past.