Friday, August 04, 2006

Walking With the Mothers

Mothers of Disappeared

Yesterday I cut school and walked around the Plaza de Mayo with Los Madres de Desparacidos, the mothers of the disappeared. We met with three of them during our first week here and heard their stories of loss, disappointment and grief. Between 10,000 and 30,000 of their sons, daughters, spouses and other relatives were seized, often tortured and killed, some of them by being dropped alive from helicopters or airplanes over the Rio Plate. In some cases, children born to women in prison were taken and adopted by friends of the military junta that controlled Argentina for much of the 1970s and 1980s. Every Thursday, for almost thirty years, these women have walked in the Plaza de Mayo, ground zero of Buenos Aires, in the hope that someday justice might prevail, that the secret records of their missing relatives might be released, that those responsible for kidnapping and killing them might be punished.

Mothers of disappeared

There are actually two groups of mothers. The smaller one, in the left of the picture at the top, is the one we met with our first week here. Three women in a downtown office told us the stories of their missing children and how they searched for them for over a year until they discovered that other mothers were looking as well. In 1977 they began their witness in the Plaza. The larger group, carrying a banner which says "Redistribute the Wealth Now," receives funds from the government, according to the mothers we talked with, and is led by a woman they do not trust. The big group is more political and now compaigns for larger issues, while the small group continues to seek justice for what happened so long ago. I split the difference and walked behind both groups. There is also another group that does not march, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and they focus on finding the children born from pregnant women and uniting them with their biological families.

Father of disappeared

There were even a few fathers walking with the mothers. This one carries a sign with a picture of his son who would be over fifty years old now. The mothers themselves should be grandmothers since most are in their seventies and eighties, but their posterity was stolen from them by a brutal and cruel military regime intent on murdering all its opponents.

The marchers were surrounded by tourists with cameras taking photographs. Marx wrote that history always repeats itself; the first time is a tragedy and the second a comedy. There is something farcical about the mothers selling tee shirts and mugs and key chains, turning what was a personal and social tragedy into a profitable item of consumption, a sourvenir of Bs As. Nevertheless, I was moved by the opportunity to walk with such a courageous number of women.

The unreality of the Thursday event was compounded by a loud demonstration of poorly paid workers who were blocking traffic and singing songs to the rhythms of several drummers. A line of police in bright orange vests prevented them from getting close to the Casa Rosada. And behind them were crowd-control shocks troops with arms, helmets and see-through shields. Most of the demonstrators were young and some set off firecrackers, which made me a bit nervous. I walked away from the Plaza to get a cup of coffee and encountered yet another group of demonstrators, also with drums, getting ready to proceed up the street for their protest.

I was reminded of the Thursday march when I met yesterday morning with Juan De Wandelear, a friend of Phil McManus, who works in City Hall for the Comisión Pro Monumento a las Victimas del Terrorismo de Estado. His project is a Parque de la Memoria on the river which will commemorate the 10-30,000 victims of the "Dirty War" with a monument similar to the Vietnam wall in Washington. A competition was held among artists and several proposals were chosen for the park. Three art pieces have already been erected and I hope to visit it today. Juan, a Belgian, has worked on social justice issues for years, all over Latin America, and he once stayed at the Resource Center for Non-Violence during a visit to Santa Cruz. He lives here with his Argentine partner and their five-year-old son, Ivan. He told me that he hopes to have 10,000 of the names engraved on stone and put in the park by next year.

Juan said I might be interested in seeing memorial at the Iglesia de Santa Cruz for three of the founders of the Las Madres de Desparacidos, as well as a French nun who supported them, and I went looking for it in the afternoon.

Iglesia de Santa Cruz

The women were all seized by the police in the church in 1977 and disappeared. Last year the bodies of several of them washed up on the banks of the river and it was determined they had been pushed out of a plane and killed. I found the story and the memorial particularly poignant because it reminded me of my own church, Holy Cross, in Santa Cruz. There, it is not the disappeared that are remembered but the native people that died during the Spanish conquest.

And finally, Juan told me about a film that was shown last night about the life and death of Enrique Angelelli, bishop of the diocese of La Rioja in northwest Argentina, who worked with the poor and with workers trying to unionize. He was a thorn in the side not only of large landowners and mine owners who profited from cheap labor, but also the military who saw all social unrest as subversive. Thirty years ago today, he was driving back with a fellow priest from celebrating mass for two murdered priests. Two cars forced them off the road and their vehicle overturned. When the driver awoke, Angelelli was dead. Police said it was an accident; others felt he was murdered. The Catholic Church accepted the official story. But two days ago President Kirchner declared today, the thirtieth anniversary of Angelelli's death, to be a national day of mourning. Juan said that Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his work here in Argentina, would be at the screening of the film.

Unfortunately, the cultural center where the film was to be shown free of charge was mobbed with people trying to see it, and I could not get in.

It was a wonderful day of wandering, nevertheless. I continued my search for interesting cafes and restaurants in Bs As. First I visited the large and brightly lit Las Violetas in the barrio of Almagro before going to the Iglesia de Santa Cruz. Then I took a taxi to San Telmo and had lunch at the ancient El Federal with its lovely carved bar. After marching with the mothers, I had a cappuchino at the bustling London City Cafe. Then I walked passed yet another recommended cafe that was overcrowded to the Confritería Ideal to have one more coffee while watching niños practice their dance moves on the tango stage in this cavernous old restaurant. There are no public bathrooms in Bs As so it's necessary to buy something in order to use the facilities. But of course drinking more coffee just hastens the process.

Today I depart for a weekend in the northwest of Argentina, in Salta and Jujuy.

P.S. The bald picture of me and other assorted information about my blog have been moved to the very bottom of this page. Scroll down if you wish.

No comments: