Hite on Iturriaga, 'Exhuming Violent Histories: Forensics, Memory, and Rewriting Spain’s Past'

Nicole Iturriaga
Katherine Hite

Nicole Iturriaga. Exhuming Violent Histories: Forensics, Memory, and Rewriting Spain’s Past. New York: Columbia University Press, 2022. xv + 234 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-20112-4; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-20113-1

Reviewed by Katherine Hite (Vassar College) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (January, 2023) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58079

Within the multidisciplinary fields of memory studies and human rights, a rich and varied literature has developed regarding the “forensic turn.” Scholars who at times are also practitioners are exploring the complicated ways that exhumations and the forensic sciences open new terrain, so to speak, for confronting the violent political past, for mourning and dignifying the dead. What was initially embraced by many human rights scholars and activists as a dramatic new moment in the advancement of science to recognize violent ends and to demand accountability soon proved murkier and more challenging. The consequences of exhuming those once rendered enemies or otherwise ungrievable, often buried clandestinely in unmarked graves, have proved contingent on such questions as national and local balances of power, community histories, and the complexities of what families and comrades of the exhumed might or might not want.

In this contingent-laden context, Nicole Iturriaga’s ethnography, Exhuming Violent Histories: Forensics, Memory, and Rewriting Spain’s Past, elevates exhumation work in an often moving and eminently readable way. Iturriaga weaves analysis and personal reflection in a sympathetic account of the commitments of a leading twenty-first-century Spanish human rights organization, the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH), as it confronts democratic Spain’s gradualist, fitful approach to the violence of the Spanish Civil War and the forty-year Francisco Franco dictatorship. Throughout, the author shares intensely personal observations, as when she realizes that the remains of an exhumed woman match her own body frame. As a descendant of Chileans, Iturriaga identifies with the immense human costs of military dictatorships’ violent repression of historic political struggles for change.

Iturriaga argues that exhumations are performative political devices for human rights activism. Championing forensic science allows political and human rights activists to present their efforts and findings in seemingly depoliticized ways. ARMH political organizers are critical to messaging the “objective” nature of the work, alongside forensic scientists, anthropologists, and newcomers who are then trained to participate. As an organization, ARMH deploys what Iturriaga argues are “two master frames: the rights of families and depoliticized science” (p. 9). Within these frames, ARMH conducts performative exhumations of those executed by Francoist forces that are inclusive and respectful of the dead and their loved ones, capturing the enormity of their grief. ARMH co-founder Emilio Silva is himself the grandson of a man executed and buried in an unmarked grave by Franco rebels. In addition, ARMH’s performances are pedagogical, as ARMH explains the science behind its work.

The first chapter takes readers on an abbreviated journey through the heady, volatile years of the 1930s Spanish Second Republic, which were soon to be met by a powerful fascist reaction. Progressive scholars and activists around the world continue to be fascinated by the events and meanings of the Republican side and those who came to their aid during the Spanish Civil War. Iturriaga recounts the other side—the Nationalist rebel massacres, executions, and gendered violence of the period—both during the war and in the blanket repression in the war’s aftermath. The long durée of Franco’s rule instantiated what might be thought of as a privatization of the pain of violence and loss, tucked within families and small communities, as well as a public silence regarding the regime’s dark human rights record. The dictatorship’s duration, coupled with ongoing support for the regime from significant sectors of power, laid the ground for a gradual transition from military rule from the mid-1970s through much of the late twentieth century, including a formal pact of forgetting to safeguard against the return of political polarization and conflict. Nevertheless, in the late 1990s, the political landscape began to shift amid transnational human rights and prosecutor activism, the continued haunting of Spain’s violent repressive past, and national as well as international political dynamics more favorable to confronting that past. It is against this contextual backdrop that Iturriaga examines the rise of the ARMH and others who would take advantage of the new moment.

Iturriaga’s second and third chapters conceptualize and detail the exhumation work, from prior historical research and community interviewing to locate the gravesites, to excavations and the many ways that people participate there as witnesses, exhumers, teachers, and communicators. The author digs beside the forensic scientists, a close observer of both what she terms “performative technical work” and responses from those in the local communities who gather to watch, to support, to listen to the impromptu science classes, or, occasionally, to denounce their work (p. 72). Throughout, ARMH technicians animate the skulls, the bones, the pieces of clothing or shoes, explaining their findings, particularly the ways they believe that the dead were executed. Those gathered ask questions, they comment, they remember the past, and, in Iturriaga’s estimation, they participate in the “democratization of local collective memory” (p. 102).

Chapter 4 explores the ceremonies around reburying the exhumed dead, including the rituals of grief and mourning and the politics of re-narrativizing history to emphasize the systematic violation of human rights in the name of the right-wing Christian Nationalist regime. Iturriaga contrasts the high-level, ornate burial ceremony of Franco that marked the end of the dictatorship with the many whose deaths had remained invisible until they were exhumed. Her final chapter connects the ARMH’s and others’ efforts to the transnational human rights network.

It is difficult to know how much the ARMH was more a contributor to or a product of Spain’s newfound political opening, and this is not something that Iturriaga addresses. The author instead concentrates on micro-politics, the actual conversations that perhaps changed the positions of those who initially opposed the ARMH’s politics. Iturriaga is not a casual observer to this process, as she fairly uncritically champions the organization. At times, this may come at the expense of descendants and otherwise sympathetic activists who are well aware of the messiness of the political allegiances and conflicts that the Second Republic and the civil war entailed for their own side. The book makes for a quite useful text for undergraduate students of ethnography, human rights, memory, and collective collaboration, while ignoring the negative connotations commonly associated with the term “performative politics” among younger generations. Its chief value is the sensitive exploratory lens the author offers through her study of those who have embraced communities’ recuperation of their rights to mourn and dignify those whose lives were taken by forces hell-bent on eliminating the opposition in brutally repressive fashion.

Citation: Katherine Hite. Review of Iturriaga, Nicole, Exhuming Violent Histories: Forensics, Memory, and Rewriting Spain’s Past. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58079

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.