Memory is a fickle thing. Even at 23, it sometimes slips through my fingers. As hard as I try to remember, the early years of high school are still just a blur of gangly limbs. But it’s also one of the most durable materials known to man—certain scenes survive decades to be treasured into old age. And a “delicate, tensile” strand of memory spans the distance between two continents to bridge two halves of my life.
Late in the summer of 2019, I sat in a one-on-one meeting with journalist Susan Smith Richardson at the Center for Public Integrity. She was the CEO. I was an intern. I was trying my best to appear cool, calm, and collected while slowly soaking my blazer with a nervous sweat. The conversation shifted toward Chicago—Susan was formerly the editor and publisher of the Chicago Reporter—and I probably told her my mom was from there. I also told her my dad was from Cali, Colombia. And then some pieces clicked into place.
Susan told me about the concept of “historical memory,” the process through which survivors of violence begin to understand and process what has happened to them. In Chicago, memory work helps survivors of police torture and brutality share their stories. In Colombia, survivors of the ongoing civil conflict use it to heal from trauma. And Susan gave me the name of one linchpin person between the two places: María del Rosario Acosta López.
The idea of historical memory finally gave me something tangible to tie together two very different parts of me. It took root, occasionally pinging around my brain like a pinball, and I knew I had to do something with it. Eventually, that opportunity arose in an assignment: an “integrated project seminar” for my International Studies 395 class: the final, massive paper to cap off my International Studies major. We were free to pick our own research topic, and historical memory immediately sprang to mind.
“My favorite idea … involves a clear connection between Colombia and Chicago: liberatory memory, which aims to create spaces for healing and prevent reoccurrence,” I wrote in my initial memo for the class. “According to the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the aim of liberatory memory work is to ‘release societies from cycles of violence, prejudice and hatred, and instead to create vibrant and conscious societies that strive to achieve a just balance of individual and collective rights.’”
The term “liberatory memory” is historical memory’s twin flame. As I would later learn, the term evolved out of a workshop hosted by the Chicago Torture Justice Center featuring the Colombian National Center for Historical Memory. I started to connect these dots through María, who was more than willing to let me interview her. María—currently a professor of Hispanic studies at the University of California, Riverside—had been a memory worker for years, first in Colombia and later in Chicago.
She taught me that historical memory “is not about just telling a story of something that happened,” but rather “it’s about the process that takes people towards understanding what happened to them. Not because we helped them, but because they realized it themselves in working through the events and among themselves, understanding that each one of their narratives is equally valid, but different.”
Alongside a fellow Colombian memory worker, María Emma Wills, María del Rosario Acosta López helped teach the concept of historical memory to Chicago. Through a series of three workshops in 2019, the pair introduced memory work as a trauma-healing tool. Colombia, it seemed, had something to offer Chicago.
This, to me, was a revolutionary idea. My parents had always seemed to have come from diametrically different worlds—my mom never learned Spanish, and it took 20 years of wheedling to get my dad to take me back to Colombia. (Although yes, there were some safety concerns associated with bringing a redheaded American with questionable Spanish to visit a country in an armed conflict.) Finally, I had found a concept to stitch these two places together.
And as events unfolded from the spring onward, I began to realize just how present memory work—and the violence that precedes it—was in my own life. As I delved deeper into Chicago’s stained history of police torture, I learned about Area 2 police headquarters, where appalling physical and psychological harm was committed against more than 100 Black men and women under then-commander Jon Burge. I hadn’t realized that Area 2 was right around the corner from my mom’s house, or that I drove past it almost daily.
In June 2020, I protested with my mom for this first time. As we marched together through her first neighborhood, Chatham, I thought about the police brutality that still disproportionately impacts the predominantly Black south and west sides of Chicago. I thought about the $863,000 of Jon Burge’s police pension, which the Illinois Supreme Court ruled he could keep. And about the $131 million in taxpayer dollars spent to defend Burge and pay for his wrongdoing. The memory of the 120 people—mostly African-American men—tortured under Burge between 1972-1991 seemed fresh then.
And when my dad went back to Colombia in the winter to visit his mother, who had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, memories appeared out of thin air. I had asked him if he could help me find sources while he was there. (He was vaccinated and I was not; it wasn’t safe for me to travel.) Specifically, I inquired, could he ask around to see if any family members happened to know any survivors of paramilitary violence? (The Colombian conflict is multi-faceted, but paramilitaries, like the police, are at least somewhat linked to the state.) The response was overwhelming. Everyone knew someone who had been impacted—and suddenly, memory was everywhere.
In late April, Colombians took to the streets to protest a proposed tax reform that critics claimed would disproportionately impact the working class. The president withdrew the proposal in less than a week. But protests continued, largely over flagrant police brutality.
I watched in horror as Amnesty International confirmed the use of lethal weapons and excessive force against protestors. Colombia’s police force is perhaps the only one on the continent that answers directly to the Ministry of Defense. And as The New York Times put it, this was a “force built for war, and now it has found a new one—on the streets of Colombia’s cities.” Memories of a war that supposedly ended with a 2016 peace accord slipped out of the cracks in the sidewalk. I can only hope that memory, too, will help heal in the aftermath.