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The Gift of Memory

In the summer of 2017, my husband Nate, our two boys, and I traveled to Madrid to find out what was left of my grandmother Olga’s legacy in Spain. Back in the early 1930s, Grandmother had been a member of the Second Republic’s literary elite, publishing multiple books and arguing for Spain to value the contributions that Latin American artists and intellectuals had made to Spain’s culture. The Second Spanish Republic had been a leftist democratic government that started in 1931 and ended in 1939 when Francisco Franco, a conservative general with ties to Hitler and Mussolini, won the Civil War and took control of the country until his death in 1975. As we walked down the streets of Madrid, I realized that there was no way my grandmother could have left much of a trace in Spain because the Second Republic itself had been blotted out from the country’s memory, or at least from the memory that was visible in its monuments and public spaces. We found a few fountains in remote neighborhoods that still bore the name of the government that built them, and the Second Republic’s coat of arms still hung proudly above the entrance of the Atocha train station, a reminder of the country’s past for the few who could recognize what it was.

I was astounded by how efficiently the Second Republic had been deleted from Spain’s collective memory, but I had no idea that so many of the atrocities committed by Franco’s regime were hidden just as methodically. Last week I had the fortune of attending a screening of Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar’s Goya-winning 2018 documentary The Silence of Others, which tells the story of multiple Spanish citizens fighting to make sure that the crimes of Franco’s government are remembered. The film follows the stories of police brutality victims, leftist mothers whose children were stolen by doctors upon their birth and given to Francoist families to raise, and children who seek access to the remains of their parents who were killed by the government and placed in mass graves. Through these deeply personal stories, Carracedo and Bahar remind us how quickly past atrocities can be forgotten if a concerted effort is made to hide them, and how daunting it can be for activists to wake us up from our collective amnesia. But wake up we must. Amnesia is costly, as we can see from the fact that today’s Democratic Spain continues to be ruled by many of the same forces that once controlled Franco’s government. As the world takes what will no doubt be a temporary turn toward ultraconservative ideals and all the isms that come with them, let us figure out how to remember what is unfolding now so we can prevent it from ever happening again.

Presenting The Weeping Season at a Public Affairs College Course

Alex presenting to a room full of people
I was invited to screen scenes from my in-production documentary The Weeping Season at the “Introduction for the Study of Public Affairs” course at James Madison College here at Michigan State University. Students asked brilliant questions about the film’s main focus of my father’s 1983 disappearance in the Venezuelan Amazon and what it has been like to make a film that tells a story about cultural hybridity in today’s worldwide political climate.

Unearthed Photo of the Month

black and white picture of Alex's grandfather
During my 2017 stay in Spain, I visited the Archivo Regional de la Comunidad de Madrid, the only archive that responded to my inquiries in the affirmative, saying they had something under my grandmother’s name in their collection. A kind archivist typed “Olga Briceño” on her computer and four images appeared. Black and white and overexposed, they showed my grandmother receiving the Order of Isabel the Catholic, one of the most prestigious awards given by the Spanish government to this day. I recognized the images because at home I had numerous press clippings that Grandmother had kept from that day. Preserved in brittle, yellowing paper that had crossed various oceans to end up residing in my Michigan basement, the images I had were richer and better lit than the ones at the archive. It was as if what ended up at the archive were the rejected photographs of an elegant Venezuelan woman in her mid-20s feeling like the world was at her feet and would remain at her feet for the rest of her life. And yet, when the Civil War intensified, Grandmother packed her award, her news clippings, and her memories of a magnificent life in Spain and fled to Switzerland, only to flee again three years later when World War II erupted. Her images at the archive seemed more like ghosts of her young self, captured in now-digitized photo stock and waiting patiently for her granddaughter to find her and awaken a long lost story of fleeting glory in a fleeting republic.

Discussing Venezuelan Digital Diasporas

ALex presenting to a lecture
We had a wonderful turnout at my “Making Feminist Documentaries Across Continents,” presentation in early November as part of the University Interdisciplinary Colloquium at Michigan State University. For the first time, I showed footage of my collaboration with Cristina Carrasco, The Weeping Season’s fellow Venezuelan editor. Although we have been working on this film for close to two years, she lives in Argentina and Spain and I in the US, so we have never met in person. Through this collaboration I theorize how the Venezuelan diaspora uses digital technologies to make up for the fact that we cannot meet face to face with family and friends who are now spread around the world after fleeing our homeland’s economic and political turmoil.

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