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Revolting Women: The Fight for the Missing and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo

2011 September 7

This post is part of a series on the theme of women and protest. The full series is collected under the tag “Revolting Women”.

Argentina, during the period from 1976-1983, was not a good place to look even remotely like a dissident. The era, known as the ‘Dirty War’, saw widespread violence carried out by Jorge Rafael Videla’s military junta against those it perceived as enemies of the state – students, journalists, trade unionists and Peronist guerillas (see the Night of the Pencils, Ezeiza Massacre, Margarita Belén Massacre and Luis Mendia’s death flights for examples). Assaults, assassinations and kidnappings were rife, and somewhere between 9,000 and 30,000 people were forcibly disappeared, leaving no official trace of their fates.

This set the stage for the formation of a group known as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, named for the plaza in central Buenos Aires where they first gathered. The Mothers are one of the more interesting protest movements of the late 20th century, and also a bunch of remarkable badasses.

Formed in 1977, the Mothers set out to pressure the government into admitting the fates of their disappeared children, the Desaparecidos. On the 30th of April that year sixteen women gathered outside the presidential palace to stage a demonstration, demanding to know what had happened to theirs sons and daughters. Consider that this was right in the middle of the Dirty War, when state-sponsored death squads were meting out harsh discipline pretty much with impunity. How staggeringly brave and determined do you have to be, at a time like that, to march up to the presidential palace and demand answers? This isn’t a movement that formed years later, in safety under a civilian government – they stood up to the military junta right from the start, despite the risks.

A collection of black and white photos assembled into a poster, showing those who went missing during Argentina's Dirty War

A poster of the missing

In a time when the government sought to isolate individuals, to separate and control people through application of terror, the Mothers gave a unified voice. They acted publicly, sharing their stories, gathering others to their cause. It was by no means a safe or easy course of action (fully one quarter of the founding Mothers were also disappeared before the junta left power in 1983), but they managed to grow a movement that is still going.

The ongoing work of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo has not gone on unnoticed. It has earned them international awards from bodies such as UNESCO and the European Parliament. It has also been met with harassment and repression. Three of the organization’s founding members have joined the ranks of the disappeared since its work began.

Bruce Allen

Since the fall of the junta and the return to civilian government, the pressure exerted by the Mothers has resulted in several hundred of the missing being identified, or their remains found. Many younger children turned out to have been given to adoptive loyalist families, and the Mothers have acted as intermediaries to help these children come to terms with their pasts and interact with both their adoptive and birth families.

Beyond just finding the missing, many of the Mothers have seen it as their duty to carry on the dreams of their children, to live for the causes that got them taken in the first place. To this end the group has grown to encompass other political causes, including the founding of a university, libraries and bookshops, and the provision of healthcare subsidies.

What makes the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo particularly interesting is the boundary-crossing nature of their protest. A lot of activist movements and protest campaigns become unfortunately mired in divisions, locking out valuable voices (see the refusal by key female American activists to accept the black suffrage movement in the early 20th century, or the frequent erasure of trans* and non-white issues among a lot of modern groups). The Mothers, by contrast, brought together several spheres of Argentinean culture.

A black and white photo of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo at a protest, holding numerous banners

One of the early demonstrations by the Mothers, outside the Presidential Palace.

Active in the central business areas of Buenos Aires, and by all accounts an urban movement, they nevertheless counted many rural Argentinians amongst their number. Age divides were crossed too, with a Grandmothers division of the group who continued the work of their kidnapped children, and looked after the offspring of disappeared Mothers.

Following the return to civilian government in 1983, and the Trial of the Juntas in ’85, the Mothers went international. Argentina hadn’t been the only South American country to disappear dissidents during that time (see: Operation Condor), and the Mothers sought to bring international pressure down on countries that still hadn’t come clean about their activities, particularly the Pinochet regime in Chile.

“One of the most beautiful things that came out of my work with the Grandmothers was learning that there was so much interest and solidarity from people in other parts of the world. It was an extraordinarily positive experience. We have had support from the women’s movement, from the CHA [Comité Homosexual Argentino], and from the transsexual groups.”

Nélida de Navajas, quoted in Rita Arditti’s Searching for Life

The Mothers are still active today, still working for answers about the fates of the thousands who remain unaccounted for, and still promoting the ideals and social changes their children were kidnapped for. They still march through the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday, in addition to a larger annual March of Resistance.

For further reading:

(Note: This post is primarily concerned with the Founding Line branch of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The Association faction, who split off in 1986, are more radical in their politics. They also do some very good work, but have publicly expressed some views that are difficult to endorse.)

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