Buenos Aires, a political and cultural megacity, is a place that wears its diverse history very much on the surface. Whether in the form of grandiose European-inspired architecture, the sultry sound of tango, or imagery relating to Eva Perón, the Argentine capital has a strong connection to its roots and identifies with the past. However, this is a past that has been punctuated with turbulent times, and even relatively recently Argentina suffered under the oppression of a brutal dictatorship. This may seem surprising for what is one of the more developed and stable countries of Latin America, but scratch the surface and the memory very much lives on for local people, most famously for the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (‘The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo’).
In the 1970s, Argentina was descending into political turmoil, as extreme factions prevented any sense of political stability or moderation. In 1976, the military junta seized control, marking the beginning of what would be eight years of dictatorship. The constitution was suspended, and in its place the Process of National Reorganisation or more commonly The Dirty War was implemented. Members of the public displaying political dissidence or leftist guerrilla tendencies were tracked down and abducted, and made to ‘disappear’ from society. The desaparecidos as they are known, were mostly taken to detention camps to be tortured and executed, their bodies then hidden. The purpose of this was both to eliminate the presence of violent political clashes, but also to invoke fear amongst the population so that they obeyed the dictatorship’s rule. Amidst this environment of terror, a group of women began to form, united in the search for their lost sons and daughters and angry for answers.
The modest collection of madres began to congregate weekly in the Plaza de Mayo at the heart of Buenos Aires, facing the Casa Rosada – the Argentine governmental headquarters. As the number of cases of desaparecidos spiralled, so too did the crowds of mothers, and their defiance. Their association served as a support network, as the women carried out near-impossible detective work at a time of such secrecy and oppression. However, equally it served to visually shame the military government. The distinctive white headscarves worn by the women served as an easily recognisable symbol of their public struggle. As Argentina hosted the world cup in 1978, the image of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo drew international media attention.
Once democracy was restored in the 1980s, a handful of women received answers, but for the most part the struggle continued. The mothers were still angry as legislation such as the ‘Full Stop Law’ set out to give those involved in the dictatorship indemnity once those in the top positions had been punished. It was argued that full responsibility could not be attributed to those acting under the control of the military leaders, but many were angered by this seeming reluctance to truly get to the bottom of the fate of so many Argentineans. Eventually in 2006, the government of Néstor Kirchner overturned these laws as unconstitutional, and the madres brought their protests to a close. However, even today you will find the mothers of the disappeared in regular attendance in the plaza, championing various other social causes.
In terms of your Spanish classes, discussion of politics is often a sensitive subject that should be approached with caution. Even so, understanding the political history of the Spanish-speaking world is a key to understanding its people and cultures today. Whether events from the past invoke celebration or regret, it is our ability to discuss and learn from them that matters.
Your Friendly Spanish team