Second-Generation Exile Memory

By Cara Levey, University College Cork

Hundreds of us children are burdened with this gaping wound, a legacy of the dictatorship: (we are) broken, placeless, orphaned and in search of identity (Paula Conde, ‘La ultima dictadura’)

The words of Carolina Meloni, a child when her family fled into exile from dictatorship-era Argentina (1976-83) to Spain, where she resides today, offer a stark reminder about the profound intergenerational reverberations of exile beyond borders. Located at the interface of geographical and generational displacement in the aftermath of state violence, second-generation exile comprises a distinct yet heterogenous range of subjectivities and positionalities that merit nuanced analysis.

An entry point for second-generation memory is Hirsch’s concept of postmemory, which has been highly influential in South America, as it has in many contexts beyond Holocaust Studies. As is now well established, the term illustrates the ‘relationship of the second generation of the Holocaust to powerful, often traumatic, experiences that preceded their births but that were nevertheless transmitted to them so deeply as to seem to constitute memories in their own right’.[i] Recollection and recall are not so much the salient features; inherent to postmemory are  subjective positions and the entwining of affiliative and familial memories.[ii] For those who were born after violence ended or were only infants or adolescents during these periods, postmemory is not a void or absence of memory any more than it is a ‘vicarious’ means of remembering the past.[iii] The child’s way of perceiving or metabolising violence is distinct to those who witness traumatic events from the vantage point of adulthood. There is, however, much variation with second-generation actors themselves; Ana Ros has encouraged us to view the memory of the second-generation as a mosaic rather than a monolith, encompassing not only those born after violence and state terrorism, but who came of age in the aftermath.[iv]  

This heterogeneity should be born in mind when we turn to the children of exile(s), a subset of the second-generation of those affected by violence and a reminder that second-generation memory does not only denote temporal displacement from violence, but a geographical break with the sites of violence, usually their parents’ homelands. Hirsch herself considered exile an intrinsic part of the second-generation experience, when formulating ‘postmemory’ in the mid-1990s.[v] She argued that even when a return to these cities and countries was feasible, these home places remained out of reach, changed beyond recognition. Temporal and geographical dislocations are thus entwined in second-generation exile memory, complicated by slippage between being the child of exiles and, often, a child-exile.

Yet, in the case of the Southern Cone countries like Argentina, where exile became a particularly ‘ubiquitous phenomenon’[vi] from the 1960s onwards, second-generation exile memory, particularly that of those who did not ‘return’, has tended to be overlooked in favour of other second-generation groups, such as the children of those murdered and forcibly disappeared. As well as the ostensible hierarchies of victimhood that explain this lacuna, and the undoubted geographic and linguistic dispersal of exiles, a further reason lies in the fact that the experience of those who were born or raised in exileis conceived as closely tied to, and thus obfuscated by, that of their parents.[vii] However, in ontological terms exile marks the lives of those who were adults when they went into exile differently to those who experienced exile as pre-adolescents, negotiating new schools and teenage years, separated from family, but unable to fully grasp the context of their displacement. Furthermore, although integration into the countries of exile has been smoother for the second-generation, they pose a challenge to Graham-Yooll’s prediction in the 1980s: that child-exiles who remained abroad would become adults fully integrated in host countries.[viii] Whilst politically and culturally integrated in European and other global societies, they are part of a transnational community, in which they maintain a strong connection with their (or their parents’) countries of birth in spite of more permanent separation. The mnemonic connections are manifest in different ways and influence modes and means of interacting with the host and originating countries not in spite of, but because of, generational and geographical distancing from repression, and is instructive for contexts beyond the Southern Cone. For those who were born and/or raised in exile and migrant contexts and communities, there is no neat division between country of origin and country of exile; their lives reveal ebbs and flows, multiple journeys and ‘returns’, some permanent, others fleeting.

To return to Meloni’s allusion to placelessness as central to second-generation exile. This does not denote belonging ‘nowhere’, but is indicative of a form of transnational memory, not simply the relocation of one identity or temporality to a new context but alerting us to multiple spatial and temporal memories that are not easily disentangled from one another.


[0] Paula Conde, ‘La última dictadura: Cómo vivieron el exilio quienes fueron niñas en los 70’, Clarín, 27 June 2019.

[i] Marianne Hirsch, ‘Projected Memory: Holocaust Photographs in Personal and Public Fantasy’, in Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe and Leo Spitzer, eds., Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present. Hanover and London: UPNE, 1999: 3–23.

[ii] Levey, Cara, ‘Of HIJOS and Niños: Revisiting Postmemory in Post-Dictatorship Uruguay’. History and Memory 26.2 (2015): 5-39.

[iii] Nadine Fresco, ‘Remembering the Unknown’, Int Rev Psycho-Anal, 11.417(1984); Ronit Lentin, ‘Post-Memory, Received History, and the Return of the Auschwitz Code’, Eurozine June 9, 2002; James Young ‘Towards a Received History of the Holocaust’, History and Theory 36.4 (1997): 21–43.

[iv] Ana Ros, The Post-Dictatorship Generation in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay: Collective Memory and Cultural Production. New York: Palgrave, 2012: 4.

[v] Marianne Hirsch, ‘Past Lives: Postmemories in Exile’, Poetics Today, 17.4 (1996): 659-686.

[vi] Luis Roniger, Leonardo Senkman, Saúl Sosnowski and Mario Sznajder (eds), Exile, Diaspora, and Return: Changing Cultural Landscapes in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018: 32.

[vii] Mariana Norandi, ‘Hijos del Viento’, Brecha, 2 June 2016

[viii] Andrew Graham-Yooll, ‘The Wild Oats They Sowed: Latin American Exiles in Europe’, Third World Quarterly 7.3 (1987): 246-253.

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