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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Dwellers of memory : an ethnography of place, memory and violence in Medellín, Colombia Riaño Alcalá, Pilar


This dissertation documents the memories of Medellin's city dwellers and explores how people in violent urban contexts make sense of violence and deal with its presence in their lives. This study is defined as an anthropology of remembering; it is an ethnographic observation of the practices of remembering and forgetting and how these practices shape and are shaped by the lived experience of violence. The dissertation is built on extensive fieldwork in the Colombian city of Medellin with a cross section of women, youth and community leaders. The thesis argues that when the uncertainty and paradox created by widespread forms of violence threaten to destroy the social and material worlds of Colombian city dwellers, memory becomes a strategic tool for human and cultural survival. The creation of an oral history of death and the dead, the presence of a local social knowledge that assists city dwellers in their safe circulation in and through the city, and the maintenance of practices of place making are examples of how city dwellers deal with the devastating effects of violence in their lives. The thesis develops a place-based exploration of memory and violence and approaches place as a physical, sensory, social and imaginative experience that maintains a sense of continuity between the past and the every day life of Medellin's city dwellers. The two connecting concepts that ground the analysis of the relationship between people, memory and violence are those of "sense of place" and "communities of memory." The dimensions of human agency, cultural survival and human suffering are central to the exploration of memory, place and violence developed in this thesis. From this perspective, the thesis takes to task anthropological works on violence that emphasize the routinization of terror and fear for those who live amidst widespread violence. The thesis discusses the multiple ways in which memory is disputed in Colombia and the risks posed by a local reading of violence as intrinsic to the history of the country. It concludes that when individuals are faced with realities such as life and death, the familiar faces of the actors of violence and the weakening of the social and ethical fabric of their communities, they do not stand in definite positions and cannot be defined in simple terms such as victims and perpetrators. Thus, it can be recognized that although violence plays a central role in the Medellin city dwellers processes of identity formation, it does not exhaust these possibilities.

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