Do You Know Who You Are?:
The Grandmothers of the Plaza De Mayo
By Rita Arditti
In March 1976, a military junta took power in Argentina. But this was not just one more coup, of which there have been many in my country. The coup opened the door to the bloodiest regime Argentina had ever known. The military considered any criticism of its rule a sign of anti-Argentine, “subversive” behavior that needed to be crushed to protect the country. Thousands of people were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. About 30,000, the majority of them young people between the ages of 16 and 35, disappeared. Taken to clandestine detention centers, they were never heard from again. Argentine society was paralyzed by fear.
One group, however, would not be silenced. Among the relatives of the disappeared emerged a group of mothers who refused to be dismissed. On April 30, 1977, they held their first weekly protest in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, the center of civic life in Argentina. Labeled “Las Locas de Plaza de Mayo,” (The Crazies of Plaza de Mayo), they had found a way to channel their despair and frustration into action. Neither they nor Argentina would ever be the same.
Some of the mothers were actually searching for two generations of disappeared—their children and their grandchildren, who had either been kidnapped with their parents or born into captivity in the secret detention centers. Nearly thirty years ago, in October 1977, twelve of the mothers established the Association of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. They committed themselves to find their missing relatives and to return the kidnapped or captive children to their legitimate families.
A huge economic crisis and Argentina’s defeat by Great Britain in the Malvinas/Falklands war finally brought the junta’s regime to an end in 1982. Under the democratically elected government of Raul Alfonsín, members of the junta were tried, and in 1985, five generals were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from four and a half years to life. Four others were declared innocent. Hundreds of additional members of the police and the military were supposed to have been brought to trial, but threats to the government mounted. In an effort to pacify the military, President Alfonsín passed the Full Stop and Due Obedience laws, which effectively granted amnesty to a large number of the defendants. Human rights groups quickly called for these laws to be declared unconstitutional, but their complaints were summarily dismissed by a judicial establishment complicit with the junta. To make matters worse, in 1989, the next president, Saúl Menem, gave a presidential pardon to the generals convicted in 1985. The amnesty laws and the presidential pardon signaled the beginning of a culture of impunity that would have serious consequences in the years to come for the development and strengthening of democracy in Argentina.
Separating children from their legitimate families had been one of the strategies of the military regime. Many of the kidnapped and captive children had been given, like pieces of property, to highly placed government officials or to members of the military and the police. Others had been abandoned in the streets or in orphanages, with no information about their origins. What was the thinking behind such hideous actions? The junta members feared that if the children of the disappeared grew up with their families, they would end up hating the military. Incorporating the children into the “big Argentine family” required destroying their identities. This was also a way to punish the families of the “subversives” by robbing them of their grandchildren.
High on the agenda of the Grandmothers was finding a way to prove to the judicial system the true origins of each found child. The Grandmothers worked with scientists to develop a genetic test. They came up with the grandparenthood index, which proves identity with a 99.95% accuracy. This development enabled them to create the National Genetic Data Bank, the first of its kind in the world, which stores the blood of thousands of relatives of the disappeared, so that even after their deaths the children will still be able to discover their origins. The Grandmothers also worked with forensic anthropologists, who were able to prove by examining skeletal remains that pregnant women kidnapped by the military had delivered their babies before being killed.
The work of the Grandmothers led to the conceptualization of a new human right to identity. Incorporated into international human rights legislation as Article 8 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, it requires states to respect the right of children to preserve their identities and to take action to restore them if they have been destroyed.
I was fortunate to meet and interview many Grandmothers and their allies for my 1999 book, Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina. Since then, I have continued to marvel at their fortitude and their ability to adapt to the changing historical and political climate in Argentina. For instance, in the early years, the children they identified were young. Some even remembered being kidnapped and had images of being separated from their parents. When returned to their families of origin, they adapted fairly easily to life with them. Later, the situation became more complicated. The children had lived for many years with the families who appropriated them, and they’d formed emotional bonds with them.
While the Grandmothers continued investigating and compiling information on each case, they also developed new programs and activities to educate Argentines about the right to identity, in an effort to prevent this human rights violation from occurring ever again. They explained the difference between forced appropriation and adoption, and stressed the importance of historical truth in children’s development of a healthy identity.
They also reached out directly to youth, using popular culture. The Grandmothers asked the question “Vos sabes quien sos?” (“Do you know who you are?”) on radio, TV, and at countless public events. Projects such as Tango for Identity, Graphic Arts for Identity, Music for Identity, and Architecture for Identity spread the word about stolen identities among the youth of Argentina. In Teatro por la Identidad (Theater for Identity), young people wrote and performed plays dramatizing issues of conflict and power around the topic of identity. In 2000, more than 40,000 people attended free performances of more than forty plays produced by Teatro por la Identidad. Afterward, 72 young people who had doubts about their origins approached the Grandmothers to ask for help in discovering who they were. Two volumes of plays were published and read at innumerable sessions and community gatherings, not just in Buenos Aires but all across the country. Theater for Identity continues to this day and has now spread to Europe, where some of the plays have been performed in Spain and translated into English and French.
The partnership of the young people and the Grandmothers led to another project, the Identity Archive. The young people noticed with sadness that grandparents were dying without finding their grandchildren, and that the stories of those families were getting lost. They proposed collecting the life stories of the disappeared from their families and friends, so that found children could learn about their families even after their relatives had died. So far, the archivists have interviewed more than 300 families. The archive has a collections of photos, films, audiotapes, diaries, significant objects, and personal stories to give to children of the disappeared when they are found. Working in partnership with the young ensures that the struggle against impunity and the recovery of kidnapped children will go forward even when the Grandmothers, now in their seventies, eighties, and nineties, are gone.
In July 2005, the impossible happened. The newly appointed Supreme Court upheld a 2003 congressional decision, made under the leadership of Patricia Walsh, a left-wing representative and daughter of disappeared writer Rodolfo Walsh, and annulled Alfonsin’s hideous amnesty laws. The court ruled that the amnesty laws were unconstitutional and contrary to international human rights norms. This cleared the way for renewed prosecutions of human rights abuses during the military rule.
The Grandmothers’ diligent and persistent work provided evidence for hundreds of prosecutions. One, that of police officer Julio Simón, accused in the disappearance of a young couple and their one-year-old child, was the basis of the Supreme Court ruling. Simon received a 25-year sentence. There are currently 959 criminal causes open and 211 people in pretrial detention. A trial that attracted enormous amount of attention was that of Miguel Etchecolatz, director of investigations of the Buenos Aires province police from March 1976 to late1977, when more disappearances took place than at any other time. On September 19, 2006, after a trial in which more than 100 witnesses testified, Etchecolatz was found guilty of numerous atrocities and sentenced to life in prison. Two days before the sentence was announced, Jorge Julio López, a 77-year-old retired construction worker who had testified at the trial, disappeared. He has not yet been found. The three judges who presided on the Etchecolatz trial have received threatening phone calls. And in December 2006, Luis Gerez, a bricklayer who the year before had testified against another repressor, also disappeared. This time, President Nestor Kirchner immediately went on TV and radio to denounce the disappearances. Within an hour of Kirchner’s speech, Gerez reappeared, with clear signs of having been tortured.
Another trial that is being closely watched regards the Escuela Superior de Mécanica de la Armada, or ESMA, the Navy Mechanics School. The ESMA was one of the largest clandestine detention centers in Argentina, and thousands of people passed through it. Young pregnant women were imprisoned in the ESMA’s secret maternity ward until they delivered their babies. Then they were killed, and the babies given in false adoptions to navy personnel or policemen who had put themselves on a list to get these children. In March 2004, on the 28th anniversary of the 1976 coup, President Kirchner, in an enormously moving ceremony, opened the ESMA to the public, apologized for the role of the state in the repression, and announced his intention to dedicate the space to the recovery of historical memory.
Recently, Victoria Donda, a found-grandchild born in the ESMA, was getting ready to testify in the trial of one of the repressors, when she returned from a vacation to find her home had been broken into. After she was born, her mother had put a blue thread through one of her ears, hoping that would help identify her daughter. Blue thread and a threatening message were left in her home.
I had the opportunity to speak with Donda in early 2006. She is a vibrant young woman involved in feminist and progressive politics. Growing up in a conservative family, she never had doubts about her identity until she was approached by young people active in the human rights movement. They told her they had received anonymous tips about her origins. In 2004 she found out that she indeed had been born in ESMA, where her mother had been taken when she was five months pregnant. Donda told me:
When they told me that I could be the daughter of disappeared it was as if the world fell on me. After two or three days I realized that this was the history of my country, though I had never imagined that I was part of all that. I went to a park, and started to cry… Afterward I went to see the Grandmothers but I still was not ready to have the blood test. It took me six months. I was afraid to end up alone. I went to the library of the Grandmothers, and got a book about the disappeared children with pictures of children and their parents and I started to look to see who looked like me. Then, on March 24, 2004, when Kirchner returned the ESMA to the people, I realized that I had to have the test. I did it and learned that my true name was Victoria Donda and who my parents were. I also found out that I had one sister and that there was a military man in prison with the name Donda, accused of torture. He is my uncle, Adolfo Donda. He was ten years older than my father, and he was the chief of operations of the ESMA. He is the one that sent the order to kidnap my mother and father, gave me away to somebody else, and kept my sister for himself… My story is part of the painful history that the Argentine people went through, and what I learned is that instead of feeling sorry for myself, I have to look around and help make profound social changes.
Another young man born in the ESMA, Juan María Cabandié, also grew up in a conservative family without knowing the truth about his origins, though he always felt “different” from his family. His mother, too, was five months pregnant when she was taken to the ESMA in 1977. When I asked Cabandié in 2006 what was especially helpful for him in coming to grips with his story, he answered:
What was incredibly important was that the State had an explicit position about human rights. It was very healing for me that the president supported the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, and that the president returned the ESMA to the people. The place where more than 5000 compañeros [comrades] passed through, where I was born, and where my mother disappeared… I felt very protected and there was no way I could be marginalized anymore. It was as if I finally could become part of the real world and claim my place. I felt totally backed up.
What is really important to me is that people understand that my case is not just a personal story, but that it is part of the collective experience that we lived in Argentina as a consequence of the dictatorship. It was part of a plan, the devastation of a people, a well-thought-out plan, to disintegrate human beings, to disintegrate participation in society, to fragment the collective. It was a neoliberal plan. My appropriation had to do with the economic plan installed by the juntas. It is not just us, the kidnapped children, who where the direct victims of the plan, but the whole population which was affected, in its economic and social spheres. I hope people who learn what happened in Argentina can make the connection and also understand that the United States government was responsible for impelling dictatorships all through Latin America.
When I first met the Grandmothers in 1989 I learned, much to my surprise, that there was no international body of law regarding forced disappearances. Finally, in December 2006, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the Convention on Enforced Disappearances. Argentina and France played a pivotal role in moving this convention forward, and the work of the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo is widely considered to have paved the way for it. Once twenty countries ratify it—which should not take long, given the lack of opposition—the convention will become the first universally binding treaty that defines enforced disappearances as a human rights violation. It has four main aspects: combating impunity; prevention; recognition of the rights of not just the disappeared themselves, but also of their relatives; and providing reparation for the wrongs done to them.
Under the dictatorship, in spite of constant threats and intimidation, the Grandmothers persevered in their work, identifying and recovering some of the estimated 500 missing children. Even under democracy the Grandmothers were targeted, and since the new trials the threats have multiplied. One night in 2002, the home of Estela Carlotto, president of the organization for the last eighteen years, was riddled with bullets. Fortunately she was not harmed. Carlotto puts it this way:
They want to stop us by frightening us, but if we did not stop even one second under the dictatorship, even less are we going to stop now. The perpetrators do not confess, they die without telling the truth, it is as if nothing happened here. Even when there will be no more Grandmothers left, this struggle will continue, thanks to the young who have become central to our work. My hope is that whoever learns about our story will help spread the word, for the sake of a democratic Argentina and for the sake of “Never again.”
The work of the Grandmothers can be summarized in one phrase: “No impunity for human rights atrocities.” So far, they have restored identities to 86 kidnapped children. Their work continues – for more information, you can visit their website, www.abuelas.org.ar
Rita Arditti is a long term feminist and human rights activist and professor emerita at Union Institute and University. She is one of the founders of the Women's Community Cancer Project in Cambridge, Massachusetts.