Archive Secrets and Silences: Brown Bag Lecture With History Professor Lydia Crafts

by Alexa Schmidt, A&E Editor

Assistant professor Lydia Crafts, Ph.D. presented her research at the first brown bag lecture series, hosted virtually by the history department on Wednesday, Sept. 25. About 40 students and faculty attended to hear Craft’s presentation on medical violence in Guatemala. 

Craft’s talk, titled “Archive Secrets and Silences: Researching the History of Medical Violence in ‘Post-Peace’ Guatemala,” served as a brief overview of her book project, which explores how Guatemala became a laboratory for U.S. medical and social scientific human subject research in Central America during the 20th century. 

“My research focuses on a series of secret experiments that the Pan American Health Organization, or PAHO, conducted in Guatemala during the 1940s and the 1950s,” Crafts said. “In these experiments, U.S. and Guatemalan doctors intentionally infected over 1000 Guatemalans with sexually transmitted infections. The researchers did not obtain consent to infect people with STI, nor did they provide them with available treatments.”

Crafts explained that these experiments were never really a secret, but rather they were always known within research circles in the U.S. and Guatemala, as well as in the neighborhoods in Guatemala where people lived or were subjected to experimentation. 

In excavating suppressed history, Crafts said she takes inspiration from Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, who urged historians to analyze the process in which historical narratives are formed. This rope of historical silence is made of four crucial moments.

“One, the moment of fact creation or the making of sources, two, the moment of fact assembly or the making of archives, three, the moment of fact retrieval, the making of narrative and four, the moment of retrospective significance, the making of history and its final instance,” Crafts said.

Crafts used historical documents, such as archives, and oral histories to reconstruct what occurred in the past. The two methods complemented each other, and allowed Crafts to better understand the experiences of the Guatemalans and their experiences. It is important to note that in many historical narratives, there are still a lot of unknown factors and gaps, which Crafts also pointed to in her lecture. 

In using Guatemala’s archives, Crafts said for many years following the Civil War, the government denied that military and police documents existed. In 2005, researchers investigating an explosion at the National Police Headquarters in Guatemala City discovered that in fact, there were records of the National Police. 

“They discovered thousands of police documents that were water stained, infested with rats and cockroaches,” Crafts said. “With these documents, local activists with the support of international NGOs filled a human rights archive, to investigate the police and try to find information about friends and family members killed and disappeared during the war.”

Through her connections with the police archive, Crafts gained access to records of people who had been experimented upon, and a searchable list with their names. 

“I had to work especially hard as an outsider and someone from the United States to gain the trust of the people who ran this archive,” Crafts said. “Once I obtained a list of names, I went to the National Archives and started tracing the names… This was an arduous process in Guatemala, there’s virtually no funding for archives. I searched through piles of documents in disorganized boxes. These documents showed me how people came into the pipeline for experimentation in Guatemala, and now racial and gender inequality in the country rendered people vulnerable for experimentation.”

To assist her archival research, Crafts also interviewed people subjected to the experimentation at their own will. Crafts recognized the vulnerability and stigma that surrounds these experiments, and used certain methods to make them feel as comfortable as possible. This included making them feel in control of the interview, allowing time for silences, and avoiding asking too many questions. 

“I also wanted to take a moment to reflect upon my role as a white North American researcher investigating this history,” Crafts said. “I thought a lot about that and how power dynamics between myself and Guatemalans may influence my interviews. So I seek to make my research useful to people while trying to avoid causing further harm. I worked very hard to make the consent process clear.”

“People did seem to appreciate the process and grow to become more comfortable with me and eventually see me as an ally, but given my positionality, this takes a lot of time and sensitivity,” Crafts said.  

Crafts hopes her lecture provides a case study to show how the historical record is often incomplete. She encourages people to think carefully about archives and the process by which historical information is included or excluded. 

“I think we can also gain important insights into our work into people’s motivations, ethics and encounters with power,” Crafts said. “Moreover, my work asks critical questions about what types of historical sources written and oral should be taken as evidence of what occurred in the past. Often, what is common knowledge about violence is not written down, because people with access to institutional power, have been able to curate what materials are included in archives.”

After the lecture, students and faculty were able to ask questions or offer comments. Political science professor Margaret Groarke, Ph.D., connected Craft’s lecture back to her own experiences.

“I am rereading Rebecca Skloot’s book right at the moment, and hearing her speak last week made me think of all the parallels of the way that people are chosen, without a whole lot of thought to the impact on their lives or any idea of informed consent,” Groarke said. “It’s not surprising to me, as somebody who watched American foreign policy in Central America in the 80s to see that we chose to do this to Guatemalan people as well,” she said. 

This was the first brown bag lecture sophomore environmental studies major Wade Wiedemann has attended. 

“I thought it was really interesting because I feel like I just genuinely haven’t heard about all the stuff we did in South America during that time period,” Wiedemann said. “And especially because [Craft] is an archivist and was talking about oral traditions, she was really informative,” Wiedemann said. 

The next virtual brown bag lecture is hosted by the Women and Gender Studies on Wednesday, Oct. 21 at 12 p.m.