The Mothers of the Plaza – Argentina 1977

Pam McAllister

In Argentina, the mothers were watching with a wide-open-eyed rude glare that helped bring down a death-dealing kingdom. Ever since the military coup in 1976, their children and their children’s children had been disappearing. They disappeared if they raised their fists, raised their voices, raised their eyebrows. They disappeared if they joined a union, sang freedom songs, were seen with the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time. And occasionally they disappeared even if they had done nothing at all. Heavy footsteps came at night, muffled screams, and then nothing – no bodies, no proof of torture, no world outrage.

For the bewildered families of the ‘disappeared’ there was neither word of assurance nor word of bad news. With no word there could be no funerals, no closure, no coming to terms, no time to grieve or heal. There was only time to wonder, hope, pray and wait and wait and wait. The mothers’ children were silently disappearing and no one was supposed to see a thing. They were to look the other way if they knew what was good for them.

Every day many of the mothers of the disappeared went to the Ministry of the Interior in Buenos Aires seeking information from the officials. The mothers waited in long, barren corridors. When a woman finally met with an official, she was told that her case would be ‘processed’ but that, in all likelihood, her missing child had run off, had abandoned the family, was having a secret affair someplace, or was a terrorist who had been executed by other terrorists. The officials smirked and told the mother to go home.

Still, the mothers went day after day and waited in the long corridors.

One day an official smirked when he dismissed Azucena De Vicenti. She was a sad and aging women, well into her sixties. Her suffering was not his concern. But that day Azucena De Vicenti was angry. As she passed the other waiting, anxious mothers on her way out, she muttered, ‘It’s not here we ought to be – it’s the Plaza de Mayo. And when there’s enough of us, we’ll go to the Casa Rosanda and see the president about our children who are missing.’

And that is how it all began.

The next Saturday, April 13, 1977, fourteen women left their homes to do the bravest thing they had ever done. At a time when all public demonstrations were forbidden, they had decided to stand together as witnesses to the disappearance of their children. They came separately to the Plaza de Mayo carrying only their identity card and coins for the bus and wearing flat shoes in case they had to run. Only after several years were they able to look back at that day with a sense of humour, joking about the first lesson they had learned – that even in the heart of the most vicious dictatorship, no one cares if you demonstrate on a Saturday afternoon in a deserted square where no one is around to see you.

After that, the women decided to gather on Thursday afternoons when the Plaza was crowded. From that time on, they walked every week in slow moving circle around the square carrying pictures of their lost loved ones. Their numbers grew as daughters, sisters and grandmothers of the disappeared joined the circle. People began calling them ‘the Mothers of the Plaza’ or sometimes ‘las locas de la Plaza’ – ‘the mad women’.

The women were watching and making their witness a public act of defiance against the military regime. When they realised that the newspapers were afraid to write about their action, they got together enough money to buy an advertisement. It appeared, against great odds and despite efforts by the military to stop it, in La Prensa on October 5, 1977. Above pictures of 237 ‘disappeared’ and the names of their mothers was the headline, WE DO NOT ASK FOR ANYTHING MORE THAN THE TRUTH.

Ten days after the advertisement appeared, several hundred women carried a petition with 24,000 signatures to the congress building demanding that the government investigate the disappearances.

The police repression that followed was severe. Hundreds of people were harassed, arrested and detained during the month, including American and British journalists who tried to interview some of the Mothers. Still, the women refused to hide their actions. Every Thursday, two or three hundred women would gather to walk around the Plaza.

On other afternoons the Mothers held open meetings. Many desperate people came seeking information about loved ones who had disappeared. The Mothers were no long looking for their individual sons and daughters: they were seeking each other’s children and the truth about what had happened to the children of Argentina.

At some point during the fall of 1977, a young man named ‘Gustavo’ began coming regularly to the meetings, seeking information about his disappeared brother and helping the women in whatever way he could. A sweet-faced, blue-eyed blond in his mid-twenties, sincere, friendly, generous and compassionate, Gustavo seemed to be every mother’s dream child.

Then in December, two days before another advertisement was to be published, this time in La Nacion, nine of the women left a planning meeting by a side door and walked directly into a trap. Five or six men, one of them armed with a machine gun, had been lying in wait for the women. The men had been well informed. They demanded the money the Mothers of the Plaza had collected for the advertisement and forced the women into a car. The women disappeared forever. Two days later three more women disappeared; one of them was Azucena De Vicenti.

There was no doubt that young Gustavo had orchestrated the whole maneuver. His real name turned out to be Alfredo Astiz, later recognised as one of the most notorious kidnappers and torturers in ESMA, the Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, where an estimated 5000 people were imprisoned and tortured, and of whom only an estimated 200 survived. Astiz’s nickname at ESMA was ‘the blond angel’.

The Thursday following the kidnapping, only forty women came to the Plaza; even some of these stayed hidden in the shadows. When the Mothers of the Plaza called a press conference, only four journalists dared attend, all of them foreigners.

Throughout 1978 the Mothers tried to maintain a presence in the Plaza, to let Argentina and the rest of the world know that the women were still watching, still watching despite great odds, still watching. But the police violence against them was great and each week a few women were arrested. By the beginning of 1979, the Mothers of the Plaza were finding it almost impossible to endure the violence. Each Thursday they met in the shadows, hurried across the square and quickly formed their small circle for a few minutes before the police closed in. Finally, even that became impossible.

No doubt the military men felt smug then as they chuckled over their afternoon cocktails; it seemed that guns, billy clubs, tear gas and terror could defeat even the Mothers of the Plaza. Little did they know that in churches around the city the Mothers continued to gather.

Every meeting was illegal and dangerous but the women had found a way. They entered the dark sanctuaries as women do in cities all over the world every day. Some lit candles and knelt before little alters murmuring special prayers, and then they found a place in the pews to rest and pray. There was nothing unusual in this.

What the authorities couldn’t see was that the women in the churches, sometimes numbering over 100, were passing notes to each other as their heads were bowed. These were ‘meetings’ at which decisions were made without a word spoken aloud.

It must have been a great surprise to the authorities when, seemingly out of nowhere, the Mothers of the Plaza stepped out of the darkened churches in May 1979. Determined to formalize their structure, they held elections, legally registered as an association and opened a bank account with some of the financial support which began to come in from around the world. In 1980, they rented an office in Uruguay Street and opened the House of the Mothers. They even started publishing their own bulletin and within several years counted their membership 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. They came to the Plaza carrying photos of the ‘disappeared’. Some days after walking the circle, some women would leave the square, take a megaphone down a side street and each tell her personal story. They had learned that it was easier for people to understand the horror of one missing child than it was to grasp the picture of thousands who had ‘disappeared’.

The police met the women in even greater numbers than before and the women continued to face tear gas, nightsticks and arrest. But something had changed. The mothers of the Plaza 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 the women now stood still to applaud the Mothers as they circled the square.

Argentina’s bloody military regime could not hide from the eyes of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The women were watching and the world was watching them. With their persistence they inspired women in other countries (such as the mothers of El Salvador and Guatemala) where children were disappearing. And they helped bring the day in December 1983 when the people of Argentina inaugurated President Raul Alfonsin as the head of a democratic government.

Reference: Pam McAllister You Can’t Kill the Spirit Philadelphia and Santa Cruz: New Society Publishers, 1988.

Another account, written by Lester Kurtz, offers a description of the international political context and explains how the Mothers both used and were assisted to use this effectively. See Lester Kurtz ‘The Mothers of the Disappeared: Challenging the Junta in Argentina (1977-1983)’ July 2010.

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