Memory in transition: Historical consciousness and civic attitudes among youth in postwar Guatemala

In the aftermath of mass violence, history education that depicts the violent past is considered an essential element of transitional justice processes, clarifying the historical record, reestablishing moral frameworks, promoting reconciliation, and acknowledging public memory of past atrocity for future generations. But how do individuals and communities narrate recent injustice in ways that empower youth, foster civic agency, and promote democratic culture? And how does this story shift or lose credibility when the transitional justice process fails to transform society? This study centers on Guatemala in the aftermath of a thirty-six-year armed conflict (1960-1996), which included ethnic genocide. More than a decade after peace negotiations, Guatemala’s “postwar” context is characterized by pervasive violence and impunity, at high risk for renewed conflict. Comprising a multi-sited ethnography, this study documents the ways that adolescents at four schools, embedded in distinct urban and rural communities, make meaning of their country’s history of authoritarianism, while developing their civic identities. This work links insights from youth citizenship, transitional justice, and education in conflict-affected settings in an ethnographic study that places youth at the center as civic actors, often envisioned as ambassadors of peace, but less frequently recognized as historical agents in their own right.

Supported by the United States Institute of Peace.