Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo
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The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Spanish: Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo) is an association of Argentine mothers whose children "disappeared" during the state terrorism of the military dictatorship, between 1976 and 1983. They organized while trying to learn what had happened to their children, and began to march in 1977 at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, in front of the Casa Rosada presidential palace, in public defiance of the government's state terrorism intended to silence all opposition.
To the people of the country, this era represents the lives taken, families broken, and numerous human rights atrocities executed by Argentina's military regime. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo were the initial responders to these human rights violations. Together, the women created a dynamic and unexpected force, which existed in opposition to traditional limitations on women and motherhood in Latin America. The mothers came together, and pushed for information on the whereabouts of their children. In carrying out these efforts they also highlighted for the world the human rights violations occurring, and raised awareness on local and global scales. Their legacy and subsequent progress have been successful due to their sustained group organization, use of symbols and slogans, and silent weekly protests. Today, the Mothers are persistently engaged in the struggle for human, political, and civil rights in Latin America and elsewhere.
Origins of the movement
On April 30, 1977, Azucena Villaflor de De Vincenti was accompanied by a dozen other mothers to the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina's capital city. Arising from a multitude of histories and families, the women had one universally shared experience: each had at least one child who had been disappeared by the military government. Together they made the decision to protest. The location they zeroed in on was just across the street from the presidential office building, la Casa Rosada (the Pink House). In choosing this location the mothers utilized their visibility as a means to gain information on and hopefully recover their children. While they held weekly marches, the mothers also began an international campaign to defy the propaganda distributed by the military regime. This campaign brought the attention of the world to Argentina.
The Mothers' association was made up of women who had met each other while trying to find their missing sons and daughters. Many of the disappeared were believed to have been abducted by agents of the Argentine government during the years known as the Dirty War (1976-1983); the "disappeared" were often tortured and killed before their bodies were disposed of in rural areas or unmarked graves. The original founders of the group were Azucena Villaflor de De Vincenti, Berta Braverman, Haydée García Buelas; María Adela Gard de Antokoletz, Julia, María Mercedes and Cándida Gard (four sisters); Delicia González, Pepa Noia, Mirta Baravalle, Kety Neuhaus, Raquel Arcushin, and Senora De Caimi.
In the years of the military regime, citizens were highly fearful of attracting the government's attention. Opposition was not tolerated; those opposing the government were made to go away. Just a year after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo was created, hundreds of women were participating, gathering in the Plaza for weekly demonstrations. They found strength in each other by marching in public, and even attracted some press. They made signs with photos of their children and publicized their children's names. The government tried to marginalize and trivialize their work by calling them "las locas" (the madwomen).
As the number of disappeared grew, the movement grew, and the Mothers gained international attention during the years of the Dirty War. They drew international attention, and began to try and build pressure by outside governments against the Argentine dictatorship by sharing the many stories of the "disappeared". On 10 December 1977, International Human Rights Day, the Mothers published a newspaper advertisement with the names of their missing children. That same night, Azucena Villaflor (one of the original founders) was kidnapped from her home in Avellaneda by a group of armed men. She is reported to have been taken to the infamous ESMA torture centre, and from there on one of the “death flights” to the middle of the ocean. During these flights, the abducted were drugged, stripped and flung into the sea. In 1978, when Argentina’s hosted the World Cup, the Mothers' demonstrations at the Plaza were covered by the international press corps in town for the sporting event.
The military has admitted that over 9,000 of those kidnapped are still unaccounted for, but the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo say that the number of missing is closer to 30,000. Most are presumed dead. An estimated 500 of the missing are the children born in concentration camps or prison to pregnant 'disappeared' women; many of the babies were given in illegal adoptions to military families and others associated with the regime. Their mothers were generally believed to have been killed. The numbers are hard to determine due to the secrecy surrounding the abductions.
Esther Careaga and María Eugenia Bianco, two other founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, were also "disappeared". In early 1978, unidentified bodies began to wash up on the beaches south of Buenos Aires. Some of the movement's most prominent supporters have been disappeared but their bodies never found, like French nationalist Leonie Duquet. Duquet and her sister, both French nuns, were taken during the Dirty War. Their disappearance attracted international attention and outrage, with demands for a United Nations investigation of human rights abuses in the country. France demanded information on the sisters, but the Argentine government denied all responsibility for them.
In 2005, forensic anthropologists dug up some bodies that had been buried in an unmarked grave after washing ashore in late December 1977 near the beach resort of Santa Teresita, south of Buenos Aires. DNA testing identified among them Azucena Villaflor, Esther Careaga and María Eugenia Bianco, the three disappeared pioneer Mothers of the Plaza. In December 2005, Azucena Villaflor's ashes were buried in the Plaza de Mayo.
Divisions and radicalization
In the years after the war, the association grew and became more insistent, demanding answers from the government as to the fates and locations of their missing children. After the military gave up its authority to a civilian government in 1983, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo rekindled their hopes that they might at last learn what had become of their children. Far from abandoning their campaign, now that the military was out of power, they pushed for more information.
Beginning in 1984, teams assisted by the American geneticist Mary-Claire King began to use DNA testing to identify remains, when bodies of the "disappeared" were found.
The government conducted a national commission to collect testimony about the "disappeared", hearing from hundreds of witnesses. In 1985, it began prosecution of men indicted for crimes, beginning with the Trial of the Juntas, in which several high-ranking military officers were convicted and sentenced. The military threatened a coup to prevent widening of prosecutions, and in 1986, Congress passed Ley de Punto Final, which stopped the prosecutions for some years, but in 2003, Congress repealed the Pardon Laws, and in 2005 the Argentine Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional. During the Kirchner's governments prosecution of war crimes were re-opened, and former high-ranking military and security officers have been convicted and sentenced in new cases. Among the charges is the stealing of babies of the disappeared. The first major figure, Miguel Etchecolatz, was convicted and sentenced in 2006. Most of the members of the Junta where imprisoned for crimes against humanity.
In addition, together with Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Mothers have identified 256 missing children who were adopted soon after being born to mothers in prison or camps who were later "disappeared". Seven of the identified children have died. At beginning of 2018, 137 of those children, now grown adults, were found and got to meet their biological families, and rebuilt their liaisons. Parents who were judged in court to be guilty of having adopted—or “appropriated”—the children of the disappeared while knowing the truth about their origins were susceptible to imprisonment. The Mothers and Grandmothers were also subject to disappointments as sometimes grandchildren, now adults, didn't wanted to know their history, or refused to be tested.
In 1986, the Mothers split into two factions. One group, called the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo-Founding Line, focused on legislation, the recovery of the remains of their children, and bringing ex-officials to justice. Hebe de Bonafini continued to lead a more radical faction under the name Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association. These mothers felt responsible for carrying on their children's political work; they assumed the agenda that originally led to the disappearance of the dissidents they wanted returned. Unlike the Founding Line, the Association refused government help or compensation. They pledged not to recognize the deaths of their children until the government would admit its fault.
A scholar of the movement, Marguerite Guzman Bouvard, wrote that the association faction wanted "a complete transformation of Argentine political culture" and "envisions a socialist system free of the domination of special interests". The Mothers association is backed by younger militants who support socialism. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, Bonafini said "I was happy when I first heard the news, that for once they were the ones attacked, I'm not going to lie.","being the U.S.A the most terrorist of all countries, throwing bombs everywhere around the world" but "Felt bad for the innocent workers dead (because of the terrorist attack)" which leaded to some criticisms in mainstream media. Speaking for the Mothers, she rejected the investigations of alleged Iranian involvement in the 1994 AMIA Bombing (the terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish community center), saying the CIA and mossad where misleading the investigation; They stated through a statement that they repudiate "the tragic attack, but respect for the victims and their families requires to investigate and do justice," without being "politically manipulated in the service of US interests."
Final March of Resistance
On 26 January 2006, members of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo Association announced what they said was their final annual March of Resistance at the Plaza de Mayo, saying "the enemy isn't in the Government House anymore." They acknowledged the significance of President Néstor Kirchner's success in having the Full Stop Law (Ley de Punto Final) and the Law of Due Obedience repealed and declared unconstitutional. They said they would continue weekly Thursday marches in pursuit of action on other social causes.
The Founding Line faction announced that it would continue both the Thursday marches and the annual marches to commemorate the long struggle of resistance to the dictatorship.
Social involvement and political controversies
The Association remained close to Kirchnerism. They established a newspaper (La Voz de las Madres), a radio station, and a university (Popular University of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo).
The Association at one time managed a federally funded housing program, Sueños Compartidos ("Shared Dreams"), which it founded in 2008. By 2011, Sueños Compartidos had completed 5,600 housing units earmarked for slum residents, and numerous other facilities in six provinces and the city of Buenos Aires.
Its growing budgets, which totaled around US $300 million allocated between 2008 and 2011 (of which $190 million had been spent), came under scrutiny. There was controversy when the Chief Financial Officer of Sueños Compartidos, Sergio Schoklender, and his brother Pablo (the firm's attorney) were alleged to have embezzled funds. The Schoklender brothers had been convicted in 1981 for the murder of their parents and served 15 years in prison. After gaining Bonafini's confidence, they were managing the project's finances with little oversight from the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo or the program's licensor, the Secretary of Public Works. Their friendship with the Association ended in June 2011 after Bonafini learned of irregularities in their handling of the group's finances. Following an investigation ordered by Federal Judge Norberto Oyarbide, the Secretary of Public Works canceled the Sueños Compartidos contract in August 2011. The outstanding projects were transferred to the Undersecretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Gender and motherhood
Issues of gender and motherhood were embedded in this movement. From its inception, the Mothers have been a strictly women-only organisation, partly to ensure their voices and actions would not be lost in a male-dominated movement, and partly out of a belief that men would insist on a lengthy bureaucratic process rather than immediate action. They also believed that women were more tireless and had more emotional strength than men. The gender separatism reaffirmed its status as a women’s movement, although it also raised the question among some scholars of whether the movement truly challenged the notion of female passivity, and whether or not it would have sent a more powerful message to have had male family members involved as well.
The Mothers movement also raised questions of women in political space and the boundaries surrounding that space. The socially constructed gender roles prevalent in Argentine society restricted the arena of politics, political mobilisation, and confrontation to men. When the Mothers entered the Plaza de Mayo, a public space with historical significance, they politicised their role as mothers in society and redefined the values associated with both politics and motherhood itself. Although they did not challenge the patriarchal structure of Argentine society, by crossing boundaries into the masculinised political sphere, they expanded spaces of representation for Argentine women and opened the way for new forms of civic participation.
The Mothers were committed to child-centred politics, symbolised by the white scarves they wore on their heads. The scarves were originally nappies, and were embroidered with the names of their disappeared children or relatives. These headscarves identified the Mothers and symbolised children, and thus life, as well as hope and maternal care. The colour white also symbolised their refusal to wear a black mantilla and go into mourning. Children were at the heart of the movement, as the Mothers fought for a system that would respect human life and honour its preservation.
The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo politicised and gave new value to the traditional role of mothers. They used motherhood to frame their protest, demanding the rights inherent to their role: to conserve life. They protested not only what had been done to their children, but also to themselves as mothers by taking them away. The heart of the movement was always “women’s feelings, mother’s feelings”, according to Hebe de Bonafini. She further stated that “it was the strength of women, of mothers, that kept us going.” The women’s identity as mothers did not restrict them from participating or making an impact in a masculinised political space. Their public protests contradicted the traditional, private domain of motherhood, and by mobilising themselves, they politicised their consciousness as women. They restricted themselves to a conservative representation of motherhood, which avoided controversy and attracted the support of international media. They refuted the concept that to be taken seriously or to be successful, a movement either has to be gender-neutral, or masculine: femininity and motherhood was integral to the Mothers’ protest.
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Spanish: Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo) is an organization which has the aim of finding the "stolen" babies, whose mothers were killed during the Junta's dictatorship in 1977. Its president is Estela Barnes de Carlotto. As of 2014, their efforts have resulted in finding 114 grandchildren.
Awards and prizes
- In 1992, all members of the Mothers' association were awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
- In 1997, María Adela Gard de Antokoletz was awarded the Gleitsman International Activist Award by the Gleitsman Foundation.
- In 1997, the organization was awarded the Geuzenpenning in Vlaardingen, Netherlands
- In 1999, the organization was awarded the United Nations Prize for Peace Education.
- On 10 December 2003, the Grandmothers' president, Estela Barnes de Carlotto, was awarded the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights.
Representation in other media
- The Official Story is a film related to the "stolen babies" cases.
- Cautiva is another film related to the "stolen babies" cases.
- An opera entitled Las Madres de la Plaza (2008) premiered in Leffler Chapel at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. It was written in a collaboration of students, staff, and faculty of the school, headed up by James Haines and John Rohrkemper.
- In an episode of Destinos set in Argentina, protagonist Raquel is told about the Mothers of the Plaza and sees a portion of a march.
- Rock band U2 wrote a song, "Mothers of the Disappeared", inspired by, and in tribute to, their cause. The song appeared on their 1987 album The Joshua Tree.
- The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo (Spanish: Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo) is a 1985 Argentine documentary film directed by Susana Blaustein Muñoz and Lourdes Portillo about the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
- Black Sash
- Films depicting Latin American military dictatorships
- Ladies in White
- Maria Eugenia Sampallo
- Mourning Mothers
- Saturday Mothers
- Tiananmen Mothers
- Women in Black
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- Circle of Love Over Death: Testimonies of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, by Matilde Mellibovsky, trans. by Maria & Matthew Proser (1997).
- Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza De Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina, by Rita Arditti (1999).
- A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, by Marguerite Feitlowitz (1998)
- "Las cenizas de Azucena, junto a la Pirámide", Página/12, 9 December 2005 (in Spanish).
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