They called it the “Dirty War.” After the military coup in 1976, people deemed to be “subversives” began to disappear. They disappeared if they raised their fists, raised their voices, raised their eyebrows. They disappeared if they sang freedom songs; joined a union; worked to alleviate poverty, hunger, illiteracy; were seen with the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There were heavy footsteps in the night, muffled screams, and then nothing — no body, no proof of torture, no world outrage. The families of the “disappeared” waited and endured, bewildered. With no confirmation of death there could be no funeral, no closure, no coming to terms, no mourning period, no healing.
During the Dirty War, as many as 30,000 left-wing people disappeared. Some were arrested, taken to torture centers, drugged, and loaded onto military planes from which they were hurled into the Río de la Plata. Pregnant women were taken into custody by the secret police and killed after they gave birth; their babies were given to childless military families to be raised with “conservative values.”
The mothers sought information. They waited in barren corridors at the Ministry of the Interior in Buenos Aires, only to be told to go home.
One day, an official smirked as he dismissed Azucena Villaflor de Vicenti who sought information on her disappeared son Néstor. As she passed other mothers on her way out, she muttered, “It’s not here that we ought to be, it’s the Plaza de Mayo.” And that’s how it all began.
The next Saturday, April 30, 1977, Villaflor and thirteen other women left their homes to do the bravest thing they had ever done. At a time when all public demonstrations were forbidden, they stood together, witnesses to the disappearance of their children. Later, they looked back on that day, joking that, even in the heart of the most vicious dictatorship, no one cares if you demonstrate on a Saturday afternoon in a deserted square.
After that, the women decided to go to the Plaza on Thursday afternoons when it was crowded. Because it was illegal for more than three people to stand together in a public place, the women walked slowly around and around the Plaza. They had been “walking in circles” anyway, at government offices. Now, they would walk in circles on behalf of their children. Their numbers grew, and they became known as “the Mothers of the Plaza”.
Their public witness made them bold. On October 4, 1977, they paid for an ad in La Prensa with photos of 237 of their disappeared children and the names of the mothers under the headline: “WE DO NOT ASK FOR ANYTHING MORE THAN THE TRUTH.” Ten days later, several hundred women marched to Congress carrying a petition with 24,000 signatures. They demanded an investigation into the disappearances.
The government reaction was severe. Many protesters were arrested. American and British journalists who tried to interview the Mothers were harassed or detained. Still, the women came. They were no longer looking for their individual sons or daughters: they were seeking each others’ children as well.
On December 10, a new ad ran in La Nacion. That same night, men armed with machine guns abducted Villaflor from her home. Her body washed up on a beach a few months later.
Fear gripped the Plaza as some of the Mothers were disappeared, never to be seen again. Now, few women dared come on Thursdays for fear of being taken. No doubt, the junta’s secret police felt smug as they purged Argentina of left-leaning “subversives.” It seemed that guns, torture, and terror could defeat even the Mothers of the Plaza.
Little did the military regime know that, in churches around Buenos Aires, the Mothers continued to gather. They entered dark sanctuaries, as women do in cities all over the world every day. Some lit candles, then found a place in the pews to pray.
What the authorities couldn’t see was that the women were passing notes to each other as their heads were bowed. In these “silent meetings,” decisions were made without a word spoken aloud.
It must have been a great surprise to the military regime when, seemingly out of nowhere, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo stepped out of the darkened churches in May 1979, determined to formalize their organization. Within several years, their official membership numbered in the thousands.
The women returned to the Plaza. They wore flat shoes and white scarves embroidered with the names or initials of the relatives they were seeking.
White scarf graffiti began to appear on pavements and walls. The Mothers carried photos of their disappeared children.
Some days, after walking the circle, a few women would leave the square, take a megaphone down a side street and each tell her personal story. They learned that it was easier for people to identify with the agony of one parent lamenting the disappearance of one child than it was to grasp the notion of thousands who had disappeared.
THEY PROVED THAT COURAGE IS CONTAGIOUS
This is a story without an ending. The women endured tear gas, nightsticks, arrest, and torture, but something had changed. The Mothers were determined that they’d never again retreat into silence and shadows.
Their visible courage was contagious. Onlookers who had been too afraid to stop long enough to acknowledge these ordinary-extraordinary women, now stood still to applaud the Mothers as they circled the square.
The Mothers inspired women in other countries to stand up to repressive regimes, and they helped bring the day, in December 1983, when Argentina inaugurated a democratically elected government.
In July 2005, the body of Azucena Villaflor was finally identified, along with the bodies of several other founding members of the Mothers of the Plaza. Forensic experts confirmed that they were victims of the junta’s “death flights” and had been flung from a military plane into the ocean or gulf. Villaflor’s remains were cremated. At the 25th Annual Resistance March of the Mothers, in December of 2005, her ashes were buried in the center of the Plaza de Mayo, to remain forever as a symbol of courage.
Now, the Mothers have become the “Grandmothers of the Plaza.” They support the work of finding their stolen grandchildren, using DNA to determine their existence and true identity. The story continues…
TO GO DEEPER
Circle of Love Over Death: Testimonies of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, edited by Matilde Mellibovsky, one of the founding Mothers. She collected the testimonies into a book, first published in Spanish in 1990, in English in 1996.
“U2 – Mothers of the Disappeared” (5:21 mins)
“Mothers of the Disappeared” / U2 cover by Evenstar (7:21 mins)
“Argentinean Mothers of the Plaza Commemorates 35 Years of Struggle” News Report overview (2:16 mins)
“Madres de la Plaza” slide show and song, by Bandido Urbano 83 (2:34 mins)