It began with a small group of women standing arm in arm outside the presidential palace in the Plaza de Mayo. Each wore a white bandanna to symbolize her missing child’s embrace. These Argentine matriarchs weren’t looking to change the world, but an unforgiving dictatorship forced their hand.
On April 30, 1977, there were just 14 of them; that number grew to dozens and, eventually, hundreds. Many paid dearly for defying the right-wing military regime, led by Jorge Rafael Videla, that had stolen their loved ones as it purged leftists and dissenters, but they never let it stop them. Decades later, they still march in the plaza every Thursday at 3:30 p.m. sharp.
Today they’re members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo or smaller groups — united in their demand to know what happened to at least 30,000 disappeared people and some 500 of their grandchildren born in captivity.It’s now safe for the women to walk around the country’s historic square, and they have become national heroes, but decades ago, standing up to their loved ones’ murderers was dangerous, and for three of them, deadly. Scores had their homes vandalized or burned, faced multiple arrests and were labeled terrorists.
We are frail, but when we get to the Plaza, it all just goes away.
Hebe de Bonafini, president of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association
Eighty-six-year-old Hebe de Bonafini, leader of the biggest group, knows she will never find her two missing children. She won’t even talk about them or give their names (Jorge Omar and Raúl Alfredo), because it’s not about them, she says, but about their entire generation. “That’s the way my children would have wanted it,” Bonafini says. The other mothers also know los desaparecidos — the disappeared — aren’t coming back, and that they’re unlikely to ever find their children’s remains; thousands are believed to have been thrown into waterways from planes. Occasionally, a grandchild surfaces — 116 so far — but never because those responsible come forward or confess; they’re discovered after years of tracking buried clues and trails.
Some of the original 14 mothers are still living. Most are in their 80s; the eldest, who still marches every Thursday, is 101, and reflects the award-winning movement’s tireless determination to expose human rights abuses in Argentina and the plight of the disappeared, no matter the cost. “Fear is the worst of prisons,” Bonafini tells OZY from Buenos Aires, just a day after burying yet another mother from the group.
The military dictatorship crumbled in 1983; some of the culprits were convicted, but answers remain elusive. The fate of only 20 percent of the disappeared has been revealed, based on recovered remains or located grandchildren, according to Enrique Arrosagaray, a writer and historian who researched the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo for his biography of Azucena Villaflor, the group’s first leader, who was killed by the regime. “The security forces unfortunately keep absolute silence,” he adds.
The mothers didn’t bring down the repressive regime, but they helped. “To come face to face with the dictators was defiance unlike any other,” says Arrosagaray. The peaceful maternal resistance grabbed headlines, especially during the 1978 World Cup soccer matches in Argentina, when foreign journalists picked up the mothers’ stories, prompting a flood of support from Europe.
Relatives of the victims were eventually offered compensation and recognition for the loss of their loved ones, but this bred division in the group. Most accepted the reparations, but those led by Bonafini refused the money (about $220,000) and the plaques. “How can you put a price on your child’s life … without acknowledging why they were killed?” she demands. But some took the money and formed their own groups. The Grandmothers, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize six times, concentrated on finding their grandchildren, rather than the culprits.
The biggest group — under Bonafini — transformed itself into an active social and political force, involved in everything from building schools to providing access to electricity and running its own university to supporting the embattled leftist Peronista government and broadening its media outlets, thanks to national and international donations.
Despite fractures at home, the mothers and grandmothers serve as an international example of the relentless pursuit of truth. “It’s a lesson many countries have assimilated,” says Arrosagaray, especially in Latin America, as well as in Africa, Asia and Europe. But after decades of protest, time has become the women’s biggest threat. Only 15 or so mothers march every Thursday. “We are frail, but when we get to the Plaza, it all just goes away,” says Bonafini. Their future is uncertain, owing to Mother Nature, but Arrosagaray hopes they will keep fighting, “because most of the truth remains hidden.”
Indeed they shall. “We beat death,” Bonafini says proudly. But will they get the truth? “I don’t think so or expect it,” she says. But if she can get governments, and society in general, to recognize the struggle of Latin American revolutionaries, she adds, “that will be more than enough.”
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