Friday, July 21, 2006

"A Generation has been stolen from our country."

Yesterday our group of students from Cabrillo College studying Spanish in Buenos Aires visited with Los Madres de Desparecidos, a group of mothers who have been demonstrating weekly in the Plaza de Mayor for nearly thirty years in the hope of
finding out what happened to thousands of children and spouses that were "disappeared" during the "Dirty War" from 1976 to 1983 when up to 30,000 were arrested, tortured and killed by the police for having even vaguely leftist ideas and opinions.

We gathered in the group´s downtown office in a room on the first floor and listened to the stories of three of the mothers: Aurora (pictured above under the photo of her missing daughter), Pepa and Aida. All three lost children who would now be in their fifties. The women should be grandmothers but the possibility of descendents was eliminated when their children were taken by a repressive military government intent on wiping out all opposition.

The first wave of arrests began in March of 1976. Numerous students were identified by an undercover agent even though many of them had no connection with the Montoneros rebel organization. Even taxi drivers worked for the police. The students´parents were mystified because neither the police nor the government would admit they were taken. Only a few rare witnesses could provide evidence that the police were involved. Even the clergy (some of whom were aware of what was happening and supported it) denied knowledge of the arrests. Gradually the mothers ran into each other during their searching and discovered a pattern of disappearances. Their first march was on April 30, 1977. Several of the early leaders were themselves disappeared, but the marches continued, the mothers wearing white scarves and carrying photos of their missing relatives. They march every week on Thursdays.

Although government files on the missing people have never been released, the mothers gradually learned that their children and spouses were in many cases tortured and sometimes thrown out of planes alive. Women were raped. Babies were born in prison and adopted by people friendly to the government. Only now are some of them discovering their biological grandparents. Those responsible have not been brought to justice, and the women have reached beyond Argentina for help from world agencies.

Because my Spanish is a tad insufficient, one of the group coordinators, Lucilla, translated the stories of the women. Some of us were in tears. All three women were in their 70s, their hands and faces wrinkled with age. They have been telling these stories of horror and loss for years. I wondered how they can cope. And how is it that a government can go so out of control that it assassinates the best and brightest of the younger generation? The Nazis marginalized Jews and then exterminated them. The Argentines in the 1970s destroyed its future. Fear of progressive ideas -- that the poor should be fed, that outrageous wealth should be moderated, etc. -- was the rule in South America during the 1970s when most countries were ruled by military dictatorships. Can this kind of repression happen in the United States? We should watch closely and learn from what happened here.

Afterwards, some of us walked to the Cafe Tortoni, a venerable BA institution since the 1850s. Jose Luis Borges used to sip coffee here, as did the singer tango Carlos Gardel. Now both are memorialized with wax life-sized effigies with another friend, the artist Solari, sitting down in at a corner table. We had a delicious lunch of beef, the national bood of Argentina. Outside in the street, thousands of poor workers marched for a decent wage while tourists gazed at them from the sidewalk.

In Argentina, it was El Dia de Amigo, the day when friends contact each other and express their love and affection. I was told that it was on July 20 because that was the day that Neal Armstrong walked on the moon. I´m not sure how that connects with friendship, but the Argentinians are nothing if not creative. We have Mother´s Day and Father´s Day and Valentine´s Day in the U.S., but no day for to celebrate our friends. Perhaps it´s a good idea.

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