Scarf of Hope as a Warm and Performative Memorial for the Disappeared in Peru

Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission completed its final report in 2003, Peruvian society has been entangled in battles over memory and battles with silences. An estimated 15,000, in their majority from Quechua-speaking communities, were forcibly disappeared during Peru’s internal armed conflict from 1980 to 2000. So far less than 2% of those buried in the 4,644 recorded unmarked graves have been exhumed. Challenging this culture of silence, women from urban and rural areas from all over the country and solidarity groups from abroad participated in an innovative memorialization experience known as the Chalina de la Esperanza, the Scarf of Hope, from November 2009 to January 2011. The Colectivo Desvela, formed by journalist Paola Ugaz and photographers Marina García-Burgos and Morgana Vargas-Llosa, proposed and developed the project in collaboration with human rights organizations and more importantly the “mothers” of National Association of Detained and Missing Family Members of Peru (ANFASEP) and members of National Coordinator for Victims of Political Violence (CONAVIP).

The goal was to raise awareness about Peru’s alarming and increasing number of disappeared with “something impressive in size that could be made by many people,” says García-Burgos. As a result, the one-kilometer long scarf created in knitting sessions (known as knit-athons) in public spaces brought visibility to those absent and gave participants the opportunity to demand truth and justice. Knitted panels of different colors with embroidered messages, in most cases with the name of the missing person and the date of the disappearance were pieced together to remember loved ones. To show their support, solidarias created some panels which read: “Truth and Justice,” “Never Again,” “So it doesn’t repeat again,” “Justice and Liberty,” “Peace,” “National Reconciliation.” Most panels, however, were left blank—somehow reproducing the troubled reality of vanished human beings. However, remembering with others does not always awaken sympathetic responses but sets up the stage for dispute over different interpretations and forms of representation of violent pasts.

Knits as DNA

Chalina organizers drew their inspiration from witnessing relatives of the disappeared identifying loved ones by patterns or stitches of clothing recovered from exhumation sites. It seems that knits in the Andes replaced DNA testing. “There isn’t any knitted fabric or weaving that is the same in the Andean world,” says Ugaz, reinforcing García-Burgos’ idea that a knitted fabric can be thought of as DNA in the absence of actual DNA testing and identity cards. This had been Nemesia’s experience in Ayacucho, the most affected area by the violence inflicted by both the Mao-inspired Shining Path and the armed forces. “My husband Reynaldo was buried [in an unmarked grave], the exhumation took place after 25 years; I recognized him because of his clothes, his burgundy sweater which I had knitted myself, clothes do not rot. If they had dumped him naked I wouldn’t have been able to recognize him but because of his clothes I was able to recognize him,” says Nemesia while caressing the piece of burgundy color that she is knitting to inscribe her husband’s name and the date she last saw him.

Warm Memorial

Of Spanish origin, the chalina was introduced in South America in the 16th century and adopted in the highlands with particular regional characteristics (Valeriano 1997) []. Adelina García, the president of ANFASEP at the time, comments on the chalina as a gift in the peasant community of Huarcas, “Only the men wear chalinas. When I was growing up a young woman could make a chalina with the name of the man she was in love with, and give it to him as a recuerdo [memento], also inscribing her name as ‘recuerdo from’.” In other communities daughters make them for their father. Beatriz whose tears moist the panel that she is knitting to remember the father she never found, tells me in a tender voice, “He disappeared in 1983 in Hualla when he was 50 years old. He loved me more than my mother. He loved light colors. I used to make him his chalina when I was little.”

“Knitting is an act of love,” says Gisela Ortiz, official of the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology (EPAF), whose brother was also disappeared and murdered in 1992. Jacinta clearly feels the same way. “I am knitting this for my husband with all my love. I think of him all the time,” she comments after letting me know that her husband always wore the sweaters that she made because it was so cold at the school where he taught. And Patrocina couldn’t help but think about her disappeared child’s need for warmth and liked the idea that the Scarf of Hope “might keep his bones warm wherever they might be.”

Warmth seems essential to this memorial’s conceptualization. Cloth, tears and the warm touch of its makers turn the Scarf of Hope into what Young (2000) calls a “warm memorial”. So does the contact of the Chalina held close to the bodies of the women while winding down the streets and around the plaza. Drawn to the festive and colorful scene of female knitters dressed in their Andean traditional attire, onlookers can learn about the missing people and express their empathy through the knitted panels. As a long piece of cloth worn around the neck, the chalina evokes the function of abrigar, to keep warm. As a symbol it is also used to abrigar esperanza, to harbor hope, “for the possibility of justice and to be treated as citizens with the right to know the truth and be able to find [our missing relatives], and for the right to reparation,” as Gisela Ortiz states.

Performing Memories

The Scarf of Hope has an aesthetic language with a strong visual impact that draws public attention in a non-threatening way. As a quilt, fragments of fabric with the inscribed names and photos of the disappeared are pieced together to tell their stories. With colors and stitches their relatives also give shape to their phantom existence, as in the woman who chose yarn of a milky color to make punto arroz (seed stitch) because her son’s favorite dessert was arroz con leche (rice pudding). Or the woman whose panel is knitted in no me olvides, a stitch named “forget me not,” because she senses her child’s cry to be remembered. Epitaphs with the date of disappearance—and in many cases the place—also make viewers conscious of Peru’s geography of terror throughout time. As a physical reminder of the disappeared, the Scarf of Hope carries a wealth of information that turns it into a form of “archival memory” that “works across distance, over time and space” (Taylor 2007:19) [].

The Chalina’s archival dimension must be understood in conjunction with what it generates as repertoire, which according to Diana Taylor “enacts embodied memory: performances, gestures, orality, movement, dance, singing⎯in short, all those acts usually thought of as ephemeral, nonreproducible knowledge” (Taylor 2007:20). This is knowledge generated in the presence and interaction with others. Taking the streets women with their knits interrupt the daily life of passersby. “There is something warmly familiar and comforting about the quiet chatter of women and the clickety-clack of knitting needles,” writes BBC journalist Dan Collyns (2010) []. The festive scenario seduces and draws people to ask the women about what they are knitting. The women respond gracefully with information about their disappeared relatives and their anguish quest to find them, shocking in turn the inquirers, many of whom admit not having known the magnitude of the violence, and somehow forcing them to reflect on why this is. The women are not afraid of speaking to power either. “Somebody like you in uniform disappeared my son,” is a woman’s response to a curious police officer that requests the knitters to relocate to another spot, further away from the Palace of Justice in Lima during the knit-athon held in July 2010. The simplicity of women knitting joyfully turn knit-athons into a form of protest that “disarms” with irony.

With its apparent innocence, the Scarf of Hope was invited for an exhibition at the municipality of the upscale neighborhood of San Isidro in Lima last November. Away from streets the chalina became a source of conflicting memories. Only one day after the opening, the show had been taken apart. Outraged at memory detractors some local newspapers (El Comercio, La República, El Peruano and Perú 21) wrote that the show had been “mutilated,” “severed,” “censored.” The municipality removed the accompanying slideshow of war images and testimonials claiming the content “could affect the children.” Behind this act was San Isidro Mayor Antonio Meier of Renovación Nacional, the party whose main leader, Rafael Rey, was a keen promoter of a controversial legislative amnesty decree. aimed at silencing inconvenient truths such as the disappearances carried out by armed forces. In disassembling the exhibit, Peru’s divided society and its struggles with remembering and forgetting became more evident. The defacement of the Scarf of Hope exhibit, similar to that suffered by other memorials such as the Ojo que llora [the Eye that Cries] also “bears witness to the violent past’s continued legacies, and indeed Peru’s present situation in the process of reckoning with its past” (Milton 2011:192).

Ironically, the attempt to silence brought more visibility to the Scarf of Hope exhibit through the media and it reopened in the municipality of Lima in Plaza de Armas right across from the Presidential Palace. The conflict over what is appropriate to represent and remember engaged viewers in heated debates over Peru’s violent past. Instead of becoming a memorial that substitutes memory with dominant narratives, the Scarf of Hope worked as a countermemorial (Young 1993, 2000) [] that destabilizes and disconcerts, animating in turn debate over conflicting views of the past. The Scarf of Hope exhibit became what historian Cynthia Milton (2011) [] refers to as a performative memorial site in which contested memories get worked out, in this case, through the dis-membering and re-membering of a work of art.



Olga González Castañeda
Olga González Castañeda

is assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Macalester College. Author of Unveiling Secrets of War in the Peruvian Andes, that is being translated into Spanish and will be published by the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos. She has been the advisor for traveling art exhibits in the United States, Latin America, and South Africa. She is also the curator for the upcoming exhibit “Ayacucho: The Times of Danger” at the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center, Macalester College, running from November 16 –December 16, 2012. Her current research focuses on memory and visuality in “post-conflict” Peru.