Without memory there can be no identity

Speech by Pablo Corral Vega, Secretary of Culture of Quito, on the Day of Interculturality

It is appropriate to celebrate December 1st, the day of interculturality, by recognizing the work of our artists and creators. It is they who with their vision offer us the coordinates to navigate our times.

There is no such thing as a Quiteño identity; in any case, there is no such thing as a common Quiteño identity, shared by all. Identity is a dynamic and highly personal fact, which is subject to historical and cultural forces. There are elements with which all Quiteños can identify, such as the way of speaking, geography, gastronomy, certain architectural symbols, but these cultural alliances do not necessarily constitute an identity. Identity is a component of personality, that is to say, it is a psychological, inner fact, which has its correspondence in the world and in society; it is a dialogue between our deepest self and the society in which we live.

This dialogue, like all dialogue between two living beings, is changeable, unstable, dynamic. I believe that the key to approaching identity is Article 4 of the Fribourg Declaration of Cultural Rights. It states that: “Everyone has the freedom to choose and to identify himself or herself, or not, with one or more cultural communities, regardless of frontiers, and to modify this choice;”. That is precisely what the various cultural actors in Quito have done, what the citizens have done: they have changed their emotional alliances, they have chosen to belong to one or another cultural tradition. There are those who feel at home with what is Hispanic and others who call for the revaluation of pre-Hispanic cultural backgrounds. It is no coincidence that in recent years the Fiestas de Quito, which celebrate the Spanish foundation of Quito, have lost interest. They are a cultural construction of the 1950s and they are felt to be out of place in a society that wishes to promote the indigenous, the mestizo, the young, the intercultural, the multiple, the plural, the alternative, the collective.

The meaning of this event is precisely that, to celebrate the cultural diversity of Quito. We Quiteños have a multiplicity of origins, ancestors and cultural perceptions, which are expressed in a variety of ways of understanding the world and facing life. Quiteños are passionate, warm, witty, humorous and hospitable, and have a great capacity to overcome adversity. We are marked by an imposing geography, by a history full of struggles and contradictions, by a rebellious character that led us to freedom, by a questioning and iconoclastic spirit. We, the people of Quito, should feel profoundly proud of our origins and celebrate with total conviction the diversity that we are.

Quito is not only urban, it is above all rural. It amazes me when a band from a distant village arrives in the big city and blows some traditional song into its brass. People are moved to tears, they vibrate, they sing. The heart of Quito is rural, and that can be seen in every dialogue, in every encounter between the city and its peasant mirror. The clothes, the music, the food, the way of being and speaking are like the amputated arm of the city dwellers… it is there, invisible, hurting with nostalgia. The city is more indigenous and rural than its inhabitants wish to recognize in their daily comings and goings. Beyond the productive and environmental aspects – the fact that rurality is the district’s granary and the source of forest and water resources – there is that love, that obsession with the fiesta. The fact is that the celebration in the rural world is a ritual space, marks the seasons, builds the partnerships and alliances, penetrates the dark mysteries of death and absence, offers us a compass to navigate boredom… in the sense of becoming clumsy, a donkey, of losing vitality. In the Andean world, the party is not an event, it is a reason for being, a jubilant expression that rescues us from the everyday.

I maintain that identity is built around three great forces: memory, intimacy and the encounter with others.

Without memory there can be no identity: if we do not know who our ancestors were, if we do not make a conscious and systematic effort to appropriate our collective history. And I am not just talking about intellectual appropriation, memory is an emotional, inner act that allows us to re-read our personal circumstances over and over again. How much we owe to our loved ones, especially those who are not there, because it is in their affection that we learned to be who we are!

Memory must also be a collective effort, of society and institutions. Remembering in plural is the most important collective act. Symbols, – language – are the brick with which memory is built, and without memory civilization would be condemned to restart, to refound itself, to relearn again and again in a kind of Sisyphus’ punishment, desperate and infinite. Learn and forget, learn and forget…

The second force that shapes identity is the return to intimacy, to the inner self. One doesn’t create in public, one creates in silence, in the deep and fearful gaze, one creates in doubt and in sensitivity. Poetry can appear as an idea at the moment of greatest turmoil, but it is in the inner exploration that it comes to have flesh, substance. We spend long hours glued to our intelligent gadgets, giving up our last glimpses of consciousness or introspection in a desperate act of solitude. When we look at the bright screens of our intelligent gadgets, do we manage to look inwards, do we manage to give wings to our sensitivity? I am a fervent believer in technology, it helps us to communicate with those we love and explore the inexhaustible joy of everything that happens under the sun, but it saddens me how in the daily bustle we have moved away from ourselves, from the small, from the simple, from the intimate, from the slow. Culture is not built in big shows or mega events, it is slowly shaped, in an intimate and precious way, in small daily efforts, in searches, in readings, in conversations, in introspection.

The third force, the most powerful of all, is the absolute conviction that identity is built on meeting others. One plus one are three, the central idea of the philosophy of Michelangelo Pistoletto and Martin Buber is that when we meet a person something new arises, which did not exist before. I even think that we should go beyond Ortega y Gasset’s “I am me and my circumstance” and affirm “I am me and my encounters”.

One plus one is three. Because from the encounter of two human beings something new, unique, unrepeatable emerges. In fact we speak to connect with each other, language is the mirror in which we discover ourselves. Certainly if we are alone, lost in a jungle, we would stop talking. Because the meaning, the raison d’être of language, is the recognition that the other exists, that the other matters to us, that their perspective interests and enriches us. And it’s in the other, in their reflection, that we are. Language is the vital testimony that the human being was not built as an autonomous and self-sufficient island. Language is the vehicle in which memories travel, the container that holds the past and the future, the link that makes us human, that allows us to express what we were and what we will be. Language is the tool we use to tell stories… And we humans are made of stories.

A few weeks ago, on an ordinary Saturday, I was rushing through the streets of Quito’s Historical Centre. We were to open the Mariano Aguilera Awards exhibition; minutes later we presented a very ambitious exhibition on Quito’s markets attended by the main trade associations, and which was the product of more than a year’s research by the City Museum; and at the Metropolitan Cultural Center we opened an exhibition of contemporary art from Latin America. The day before, we had met with the Kitu Kara people to define the content of a joint book that documents a systematic collaborative work of several years, a process that led to Quito being the first city in the country to recognize communal ownership. In recent years, the Ministry of Culture has experienced a feverish activity, profound processes of collaboration and construction, always with the awareness that Quito’s identity is multiple, and cannot fit within any preconceived idea.

It would be very sad if ignorance, bad faith, or simply the refoundational spirit that animates national politics, were to erase everything that has been done. To cite just a few examples, the Secretary of Culture now has less and less power because almost all the city’s programmes are built up through external calls and curatorial committees. Quito’s theatre is an extremely successful process of collaboration between the public institution and the city’s performing arts guilds. Cumandá has become a space for urban tribes and inclusion, and has been taken as a model for its programming that combines art and sport.

When we arrived at the Ministry of Culture we found an institution without a memory. Apart from the documents from the financial department, we had nothing. There were no team members or documents left. The hard drives had been formatted. The only way for public cultural management to be strengthened is if we continue to build on what others have done before us. The only way to grow is to learn from one’s own mistakes and those of others.

Precisely with the intention of leaving a memory of what we have done, we have recovered the municipal publishing project together with the IMP. Until February 2019 we will have published 8 books only on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the declaration of Quito as a World Heritage Site… And tonight I want to present you two of them that will be available for free at the exit of this event.

The first book is the one you have been watching on your screens. A book with images by Geovanny Verdezoto, which reveals the variety, the diversity, the personality of the inhabitants of Quito. It is a playful but also informative book, with statistical data on the inhabitants of Quito.

On the other hand, at the beginning of this year we called on the country’s visual artists. We asked them to propose a contemporary and critical vision of Quito on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the declaration of World Heritage by UNESCO. This project is a tribute to two references, the magazine El Quiteño Libre that was published in Quito in 1833, a gazette that defended Ecuador’s independence against the hegemonic wishes of Bogotá, and that classic for all illustrators of the world, The New Yorker magazine. Other tributes have been organized to that quintessential New Yorker magazine in Paris, Valencia, Tokyo, Moscow and others, and we are pleased to be part of that international initiative.

The jury said at the time:

In the first round of selection, 221 works were pre-selected from more than 600 submissions. In the final round, 80 works were finally selected which will participate in the exhibition and be part of the book. The 80 selected works were chosen to ensure the same strength, expressive richness, variety of styles and themes with which to portray a diverse, contemporary, intercultural, dynamic and lively city.

I would like to call Paula Barragán, the wonderful Ecuadorian artist who won the contest of El Quiteño, and Sofía Zapata, Santiago Gonzalez and Alice Bossut to receive the certificates.

Thank you Paula, Sofia, Santiago and Alice.

I want to allow myself a personal digression.  This is my last year at the municipal awards as Secretary of Culture.  I would like to thank our mayor in the warmest way because he always gave us his support, even for the craziest projects. His conviction that culture is the space of freedom was expressed in an unrestricted respect for our management. I have enormous respect and affection for Mauricio Rodas. I would also like to thank the council members, especially those who were tireless opponents. It is thanks to their criticism, sometimes scathing, sometimes painful and excessive, that I learned some of the essential lessons that a public servant must learn: humility, to ask oneself over and over again if what one is doing is right. Democracy is not perfect, but it is the best system we know. It is in the game of checks and balances, it is in auditing, that management is perfected, adjusted and improved. We always talked even with those who expressed their anger and fury. I would like to thank Quito’s cultural managers and actors. Not everything was perfect, but we managed to walk the path together. Sometimes the urgent made it impossible to attend to what was important. And I would like to thank the hundreds of municipal culture workers and my closest team. My very committed team has achieved real miracles. I feel a deep gratitude, there is no greater privilege and honor than to serve Quito.

This is the biggest night of culture in the city, the municipal awards for the arts and sciences are presented to the most important creators in the country. I begin the event in which we will celebrate our creators, with a bold and unusual format. Instead of presenters, it will be artists from the theatre and music who will accompany us on this journey. Our award winners are the ones who show us the way forward as a society, they show us the importance of memory and creativity, the importance of introspection, and the endless miracle of meeting the other. Because it is in that meeting of two that culture flourishes. Between cultures, intercultures.