Uncovering the unspeakable: Archives Speaker Series features political prisoner researcher

By Justin Smith
Assistant News Editor

Beginning in the late 1960s, Mexico saw an era of government-led violence during which thousands of people were tortured, killed, and went missing. It was at these incidents that Dr. Gladys McCormick has devoted a large portion of her life, spent wading through file after file in the Mexican Lecumberri Archives. What she discovered greatly tested her resolve.

Dr. McCormick, Assistant Professor of History and co-director of the Documentary Film and History Master’s program at Syracuse University, was the twentieth featured speaker in the Library’s Archives Speaker Series this Wednesday.  The lecture was part of American Archives Month, Latino Heritage Month, and Domestic Violence Month.

The Archives Speaker Series got its start back in 2007 when Kathleen Delaney created it to promote the archives here at Canisius College. Though she recalls a time when the archives were seldom visited, because of the Archives Speaker Series, “People aren’t afraid to come up here.”

Delaney says that an increase in traffic to the archives demonstrates the success of the Speaker Series. Citing this past week’s lecture as the next evolution in the series, Delaney explained that Dr. McCormick has “raised [the Archives Speaker Series] to a new level,” further noting her as a “pioneer” of archival study.

Dr. McCormick’s lecture, entitled, “The Politics of Memory in the Archive: Using Oral Histories and Intelligence Reports to Decode State Terrorism in Latin America,” focused on her archival research in Lecumberri—a former prison converted into an archive—in Mexico.

“I’ve spent [an] … amazingly large amount of my adult life in archives,” said Dr. McCormick.

Dr. McCormick’s interest in her research regarding government corruption in Latin America during the era known as the “long 70s” arose because of her experience growing up in Costa Rica.  Her interest in exploring the government corruption in many Latin American states during the late 1960s to the early 1980s eventually led her to the archive which inspired her talk.

Lecumberri, which she began exploring when it was newly opened as an archive, is filled with “gut-wrenching” files from the Direccion Federal de Seguridad (Federal Security Directorate), or DFS, which served as a secret police force in Mexico.  Dr. McCormick described Lecumberri and the DFS files as an “Archive of Terror” because they contain “declassified files that have recently been made public”—as opposed to what she called an “Archive of Pain,” which would contain oral histories.  McCormick said that while many of the people in Lecumberri were researchers such as herself, there were many people there who were the family members of political prisoners who had been detained, tortured, killed, and disappeared, some of them right in the same Lecumberri in which she now conducts research. She talked about how armed guards still occupy the archives, and recounted a story of how one nudged her with the butt of his machine gun for speaking in the building which is supposed to remain silent.  She described the overall experience as “traumatic” and “eye-opening.”

McCormick has focused a large portion of her research on looking into the government torture of the era.

“What struck me is that there wasn’t a single secondary source exploring the nature of political prisoners and the use of torture in Mexico,” said McCormick.

As for primary sources, that was a different story.  McCormick described coming across “thousands and thousands and thousands of pages, documenting the use of torture.”  She added that she came across 204 files on the torture of children in front of their parents.  Some of the torture McCormick described to the audience was gruesome, evoking a reaction both from the audience and herself, as she recalled conversations she had with former political prisoners.  McCormick spent two years tracking down 10 political prisoners, only two of which would go on record, partially out of fear of repercussion, and partially out of a fear of reliving the events they endured in prison.  And repercussion is a real possibility, since, as McCormick pointed out, “the perpetrators of that terror are not only alive and kicking, but they are back in power” in Mexico, as Mexico has come from a brief period of perceived Democracy to a renewed era of perceived one party-rule.

“I’m putting out this … research—these articles—on political prisoners and torture, but I have no idea if it matters,” said McCormick.

These comments were inspired by what McCormick described as a general consensus in Mexico that no one knows exactly what happened during this time in history, and in any case, it is better forgotten.  However, McCormick feels strongly that her research is important, whether people accept it at the moment or not.  Dr. McCormick said that archives are not only a means of historical and political analysis, but also a means of “social repair.”  Far from any perceived consensus that this era should be forgotten, McCormick says the only way to repair the damage of the past is to understand it, and that is why the Archives are so important.

“I’m really very proud of [the Archives Speaker Series],” said Delaney.

Indeed, she should be. The Archives Speaker Series has expanded from a series featuring Canisius Professors—Dr. Butler in 2008 and Dr. Di Cicco in 2011, to name a few—to a series that attracts archivists from a multitude of locations.  Delaney hopes that more reliable funding of the series will continue to bring in such distinguished speakers, adding to the list of quite accomplished speakers that have been featured.

The Archives Speaker Series this year was part of a larger attempt to get a competitive grant from the National Endowment for Humanities, PBS, and the American Library Association.  Though Canisius was not selected for the grant, room in the budget allowed the lecture series to continue.

Bringing in speakers from outside the college has turned over a new leaf for the library’s speaker series. Past speakers have given great lectures and represented the series well, but Dr. McCormick managed to combine the outstanding depth of her research with a unique ability to engage the audience. With Delaney’s hand at the tiller, it looks like the Archives Speaker Series is moving in the right direction.

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