Cristian Navarro


A 2024 prizewinner for his Lauder Capstone paper “Atoning for the Past in a Fractured Present: Unsettled Debates on National Memory Laws in France and Italy,” Cristian Navarro Delgado (G24, WG24) discusses the process of writing a master’s thesis and how the research experience at Lauder has contributed to his professional development.

In his award-winning paper, Navarro Delgado, a graduate of Lauder’s Europe (French) Program, examines how France and Italy have attempted to confront their contentious histories through a series of laws passed in the 1990s and early 2010s. These memory laws, related to the Holocaust and colonialism, are legal measures enacted by governments to control the public discussion, portrayal, and commemoration of historical events. They aim to shape collective memory by endorsing specific historical narratives while restricting others. In asking the question of whether legislating history is an effective means of reconciling with the past, Navarro Delgado explores the duty of remembrance, the construction of national narratives, and the limits of free speech.

What led you to choose this particular topic?

I first came across the issue of memory laws in my courses on French language and culture at the Lauder Institute. In many ways, this research is the continuation of the discussions we held in class. I think all countries have troubled pasts that we, in the present, wrestle to come to terms with, and countries have dealt with this challenge differently. Perhaps the most famous memory laws are the laws against Holocaust denial that were first passed in Germany, then in Israel, then in France, and eventually all over Europe. But in the case of France, it really proliferated into other areas.

I wanted to explore this topic by asking, does legislating on official versions of historical events help countries both atone for and find a way forward from past tragedies? Or does this recourse create more problems than it solves?

What was the most surprising or interesting finding from your research?

Most scholars agree that memory laws first emerged in Europe (and that this is the region where they have been most widely adopted). Unsurprisingly, much of the work I had read emphasized this idea, but I found models of other legislative initiatives throughout the world that I argue fit into this category.

In particular, I was surprised by finding examples of memory laws in Latin America. Colombia, for instance, established the National Center for Historical Memory, a museum-like entity responsible for preserving the memory of civilian victims of the Colombian armed conflict. There’s also the case of Argentina where, during a military dictatorship in the 1970s, thousands of people disappeared. The province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, as of 2017, passed a law requiring that when you speak publicly of the number of abductions that took place during this dictatorship you must legally recognize that at least 30,000 individuals went missing.

Another realization from my research was that memory laws have arguably gotten less effective at confronting the problems they were designed to solve, such as the proliferation of false narratives. Memory laws emerged as a Western European and legislative phenomenon amid the resurgence of nationalistic movements, where efforts to subvert the truth were rampant. Today, we are in a similar situation, and social media has added another layer where information, knowledge, and truth are no longer the monopoly of journalists, academics, politicians, or the establishment. So, I think allowing societies to come to terms with their pasts in responsible ways takes so much more than just passing a law, especially if the historical events in question remain the object of social controversy or trauma.

What were some of the major challenges you faced during your research and how did you overcome them?

This is a nascent field of study. The laws I focused on for my research were passed in a period spanning the 90s to the early 2010s. So, in the beginning, I was worried whether there was enough secondary research to be able to write a master’s level thesis. All I knew was that it interested me.

I have to thank Dr. Maoz (Michael) Brown and Dr. Reto Gieré, my advisors, as well as Dr. Ecaterina Locoman, for asking tough questions when I was still at the very early stages of selecting the topic. I think that relying on people who do research for a living was very helpful, and that would be my biggest piece of advice. When I felt stuck, I just went to the people that know more, and even if they weren’t experts in this specific subject, they had ideas about how to overcome roadblocks.

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to students who are about to start working on their Master’s thesis?

First, I highly recommend discussing your research with a librarian. Penn Libraries have designated librarians with expertise in specific subject areas, as well as geographic areas. These librarians keep up-to-date on recently published research across different areas and can provide you with a tailored list of sources that would otherwise be hard to find.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, choose a research topic that you feel passionately about. That was crucial in making this experience both academically and personally rewarding.

In what ways has working on this research project contributed to your personal growth or professional development?

After school I will be going into consulting, and I am primarily interested in working across energy and sustainability issues. These areas can seem entirely divorced from this thesis topic, but I was ultimately trying to understand legislative outcomes and how a country’s political landscape is deeply influenced by its history and culture. Whatever you want to do in a particular country, pursuing this level of understanding is key to developing solutions that will be socially viable and long-lasting.

If I were to think about a particular energy initiative in a community, in the end both the project’s financial feasibility and local stakeholders’ perceptions are going to matter. Is this project something that is going to be derailed as a function of cultural and social factors that I just haven’t taken the time to understand? There are numerous examples of factories or extractive projects in small towns across the world that didn’t work because companies did not take the time to truly understand the intricacy of the places they were going into.

Overall, this research project reaffirmed the importance of my Lauder education – how necessary it is to consider culture, language, and history as integral components of responsible leadership.■