By Anna Nicol
It is 3.30pm on Thursday in La Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, and from the crowd of busy tourists and locals, emerges a sea of white headscarves. These are the Madres (Mothers), women who first came to this square in 1977 with questions, many still unanswered. They have come to represent the relatives and the lives of thousands of ‘disappeared’, men and women who were kidnapped, tortured and murdered during Argentina’s military dictatorship, which spanned from 1976 to 1983.
The late twentieth century witnessed the establishment of numerous military dictatorships across Latin America. These arose for various reasons, including ideas of ‘exceptionalism’ stemming from long histories of bloodless transitions of power, U.S. sponsorship, and the global fear of Communism fostering ‘subversives’ aiming to destabilise the status quo. 1976 saw a military coup overthrow the rule of Isabel Perón, the third wife of the late President Juan Domingo Perón, and the beginning of Argentina’s ‘Dirty War.’ Initially known as the ‘Gentlemen’s Coup’, due to the country’s long history of military intervention to combat any sign of instability, few could predict the violence and upheaval the dictatorship would entail.
The junta tightened censorship and shut down newspapers and media outlets hinting at any signs of anti-regime content. No more than three people could meet in a public space without being arrested. Individuals were kidnapped from their homes and off the street for allegedly being involved in underground politics, associated with a ‘subversive’ or as a result of personal vendettas. Families and friends searched for their whereabouts in a climate where asking questions could result in your own disappearance. The crackdown on ‘subversives’ began and it is now estimated that around 30,000 went missing.
Silenced, mothers of the ‘disappeared’ began to find each other and found some respite through their shared experiences. However, after searching and asking the authorities for information on the location of their children, they decided the answers they needed could only be found through their own actions. They decided to meet in the main square of Buenos Aires at 3.30pm on Thursday 30 April 1977 to deliver a letter to the Presidential Palace, demanding information on the whereabouts of their children. They were promptly sent away. They resolved to walk around the square in pairs every week. In September 1977, they joined a Catholic march to Luján, a city 68 kilometres to the north-west of Buenos Aires, where they decided to wear material nappies on their heads to recognise each other in a crowd and to symbolise their roles as mothers looking for their disappeared children. Their presence strengthened, to the extent that they received public support and became targets themselves, resulting in the 1977 disappearance and murder of three of the leading Madres: Azucena Villaflor, Esther Careaga, and María Eugenia Bianco.
In order to delegitimise their struggle, the government began to refer to them as ‘Las Locas’ (the Crazies). But the mothers claimed the label, citing ‘of course we were crazy, crazy with sadness’. In 1978, the power of their voices grew, grabbing the attention of the international press when Argentina hosted the World Cup. The government aimed to present an image of prosperity and political stability to the rest of the world, attempting to quash those who would hinder their plans. The Madres decided that this was the publicity they needed; they now donned white handkerchiefs, an easier garment than a nappy, and the coverage in Argentina turned from reporting on the football to interviewing the women and broadcasting their struggle to find their missing children.
The work of the Madres has shown how protest has changed and sheds lights on different forms of struggle. Fights against human rights violations are now associated with organisations such as Amnesty International but during the 1970s and 80s, human rights groups in Latin America were not seen as legitimate bodies and so groups such as the Madres had to find their own way of campaigning for justice. They also represent how catalysts for change in history do not necessarily come from governments or large institutions like non-governmental organisations. Meeting on Thursdays at the same time weekly, wearing the same and recognisable handkerchief meant that they became a well-established and legitimate movement, making it harder for the government to silence them.
Now, 40 years later, most of the Madres have either passed away or are in their 80s. The struggle is far from over, as not all of the disappeared people have been accounted for and are now labelled “desaparecidos” to mark their permanent disappearance. An increasing concern is shared amongst the group as the current government continues to make decisions that seem to undo the pillars of justice, and in turn, shaping how the country remembers. In 1990 President Carlos Menem pardoned General Videla and the other imprisoned leaders of the junta. On 28 December 2017, Miguel Etchecolatz, the leader of the police investigations and imprisoned for the abduction of Uruguayan babies, was transferred to house arrest. These pardons and changes in sentencing sparked outrage among human rights groups as they question whether justice has truly been served. It concerns the Madres that the turmoil of the junta could be forgotten and once they have gone, who will be left to remember.
In light of this, they have inspired other groups, both the Abuelas (Grandmothers) of the children who were taken from pregnant prisoners and the Hijos (Children) of the disappeared. The Abuelas also formed in 1977 and fought for the rights of their grandchildren who were stolen from their imprisoned mothers and given to couples in the military. The Hijos are the children who have yet to find their parents and represent the younger generations who were affected by the dictatorship and who will carry the voices of the silenced into the future. As for the Madres, those remaining continue to campaign in the plaza, meeting every Thursday, rain or shine, drawing attention to how the past continues to live in the present.