Connecting3Worlds logo

Exploring archives in Ecuador. A reflection on creating memory

Posted by C3W Admin on October 27 2023

Andrea Espinoza Carvajal

By Erika Coello (@erikacoellop)

Growing up in Ecuador, the saying: Ecuador es un país sin memoria [Ecuador is a country with no memory] was ubiquitous. It was present at home and school, revived in every national election and crisis and served as a blank criticism and explanation of voting patterns and political trends. “Having no memory” or “having a short-term memory” meant that Ecuadorian citizens, as a group, were constantly repeating mistakes. At the same time, the phrase located responsibility in the individual, the citizen, which is portrayed as uneducated and irrational.

Fieldwork in Ecuadorian archives as part of my research for the Connecting Three Worlds project made me question the phrase and its material implications. If considered as an individual capacity, memory is fragile. Memory dies with who holds it and can only reach others if communicated and embraced. However, if thought collectively —as conceptualised by Halbwachs— that is, positioned as a matter of “social frame”, memories should be able to outlive people and be shared and discussed through groups and generations.

Collective memory is related to values, concerns and narratives constructed around family, neighbourhood, peers, generations, nation, and culture (Assmann, 2008, pp. 51-52). In that case, memory would not be that fragile because it will be coproduced and circulated. However, as opposed to individual memory, collective memory is not something that we “have” but something that needs to be “created”. It relies on memorial signs such as symbols, texts, images, rites, ceremonies, places, and monuments (Assmann, 2008, p. 55). I like to think about these “memorial signs” as tokens, items that we can use to construct, share, revive, or ignite a collective memory. Those material elements —such as pictures, newspaper articles, songs, books, and reports— need a place to exist; I think about archives as one of those places. Archives are spaces that help construct or preserve a memory of groups and communities and, in doing that, fight against the plague of forgetfulness. Ecuador struggles in making these places accessible for people and communities wanting to retrieve and built their collective memory.

My work focuses on the history of sexual, reproductive, and gender-based healthcare since 1965. The topic made me realise the multiple hurdles that engaging with the past entails and how money and politics take a place on the construction of the memory of communities and the nation. I will mention three main challenges I experienced in accessing materials: 1) Remembering women or constructing memory from a gender perspective is not a priority, 2) Lack of resources and lack of political will affects engaging with the past, and 3) Archives are not inviting people in or making it easy to get in.

Remembering women or processes related to women’s history, access to services and recognition is a challenge. Women are still fighting against discrimination, and many “memorial signs” that could have been used to create a collective memory of the feminism movement, women’s history or the history of medicine from a gender perspective have been lost in time. There is not an abundance of pictures, letters, hospital records or other elements that would contribute to weaving collective memories. Moreover, if records exist, it is not because of institutional recognition of their importance but because of the passion of archivists and people working in the archives who have built small collections of elements that they recognise as valuable and make their lives work to share and discuss them. As in the case of the coordinator of the National Museum of Medicine “Eduardo Estrella”, Dr Rocio Bedón.

Lack of resources is a significant problem. Valuable archives, such as the one in the National Museum of Medicine “Eduardo Estrella”, have only three people working there. The building appears closed if one is not in the archive or near the main door. Guayaquil’s Historic Archive have similar problems. At the end of my visit, the person responsible for taking book requests had a medical emergency. The day she was not in her place, no one else was familiarised —as she was— with the archive and the organisation of the materials. Ecuador, as a nation, has paid little attention to its archives. The country has one law regulating archives: the National Archive System Law, published in 1982. In 2022, an interinstitutional commission formed by several universities worked on a proposal for the New Law of the National Archives System. This law was yet to be discussed in the National Assembly.

Finally, archives are not inviting people in or facilitating access. To get a file in an archive, you must be on-site; there are no files, lists, or inventory accessible online about the materials available in most collections. This is true for the National Museum of Medicine “Eduardo Estrella”, Guayaquil’s Historic Archive or Alfredo Pareja Diescanseco Historic Archive (they have a catalogue in PDF). Working on-site is rewarding on its own as it allows one to get to know the dedicated people working in these spaces, but it also means a lot of work for them as the presence of a researcher demands attention from other duties. Also noteworthy is that archives are not inviting places. In most places, a security guard will be the first filter and ask why you are there, where you are going, and on whose authority. Other places will have strict dress codes, not allowing people in “informal clothes” like bermuda shorts to get inside the building, not even to the reception desk. If these are spaces to contribute to building memory, should it not be a priority to invite people to benefit from them?

After visiting Ecuadorian archives as a researcher, the phrase Ecuador es un país sin memoria had a different depth and meaning. For Ecuadorian institutions, remembering is not a national priority and is not for all. Memory building and discussion of history felt —to some extent— a privilege given to me as a researcher based in a foreign institution, not as an interested individual or an Ecuadorian citizen. However, there is hope. My hope for the archives is in the people’s reclaiming of their stories and the memory of their communities.

Ministerio de Cultura y Patrimonio. (n.d.). Retrieved from Un país sin archivos es un país sin memoria
Assmann, A. (2008). Transformations between History and Memory. Social Research, 49-72.
Comisión Interinstitucional. (2022). Propuesta presentada por la Comisión Interinstitucional para la Construcción Participativa de una Nueva Ley del Sistema Nacional de Archivos. Quito: Comisión Interinstitucional.
Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar. (2022). Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar. Retrieved from Comisión Interinstitucional entregó el proyecto de ley de archivos del Ecuador a la Presidencia de la República


Back home Back