Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo

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For the documentary film, see The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo.
The white scarf of the Mothers, painted on the ground in Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Spanish: Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo) is an association of Argentine mothers whose children were "disappeared" during the Dirty War 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.

The years of 1976 to 1983 in Argentina are referred to as the “Dirty War” period. This era represents the lives lost, families broken, and human rights atrocities executed by Argentina's military regime. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo were the initial responders to the human rights violations. These women created a dynamic and unexpected force which countered existing restrictions of 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 the human rights violations which came to be known on both local and global scales. Their legacy, progress and attention 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.[1]

Origins of the movement[edit]

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 shared experience: each had children who had been disappeared by the military government. Together they made the decision to protest just across the street from the presidential office building, la Casa Rosada (the Pink House). In choosing this location the mothers utilized visibility as a means to recover their children, who had been taken and held in clandestine detentions. 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.[2]

The Mothers' association was formed by 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 14 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 that period, many people were highly fearful of attracting the government's attention, as it was exterminating the opposition. Taking strength together by marching in public, with some coverage by the press, by the following year, hundreds of women participated, gathering in the Plaza for weekly demonstrations. They made signs with photos of their children and brandished their children's names. The government tried to marginalize and trivialize their work by calling them "las locas" (the madwomen).[3]

Together with the number of disappeared, the movement grew and gained international attention during the years of the Dirty War. The mothers cultivated international attention, seeking to build pressure by other governments against the Argentine dictatorship by publicizing 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 was kidnapped from her home in Avellaneda by a posse no 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. A few months later, her body was washed up on a beach. When democracy returned to Argentina, DNA analyses confirmed her identity.[4] 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.[3]

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; the babies were given in illegal adoptions to military families and others associated with the regime. Their mothers were generally believed killed. The numbers are hard to determine due to the secrecy surrounding the abductions.

During this period, Azucena Villaflor, Esther Careaga and María Eugenia Bianco, three of the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, were also "disappeared". After the fall of the military regime, official accounts say almost 20,000 people were "disappeared", but human rights groups say the figure is at least 30,000.[5]

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, attracted international attention and outrage, with demands for a United Nations investigation of human rights abuses in the country. France demanded information of both, but the Argentine government denied all responsibility for them.[6]

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, all pioneer Mothers of the Plaza. In December 2005, Azucena Villaflor's ashes were buried in the Plaza de Mayo.[7]

Divisions and radicalization[edit]

The mothers with President Néstor Kirchner

In later years, the association grew and became more persistent, 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 persisted in their demands.[8]

Beginning in 1984, teams assisted by the American geneticist Mary King began to use DNA testing to identify remains, when bodies 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, to end the prosecutions.

In 1986, the Mothers association split into two factions. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo – Founding Line focuses on legislation to help in recovering remains and bringing ex-officials to justice.

In addition, together with Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Mothers have identified 256 missing children who were generally adopted soon after being born to mothers in prison or camps who were later "disappeared". Seven of the identified children have died. Thirty-one of the children were returned to their biological families. In 13 cases, the adoptive and biological families agreed to raise the children jointly. 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 could be imprisoned. The Mothers and Grandmothers were also subject to repeated disappointments: many DNA tests came back negative, and not all recovered grandchildren embraced their biological grandparents, who were strangers to them. Many, loyal to the only parents they’d known, refused even to be tested.[9]

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.[10]

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 a Cuban-style revolution in Argentina. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, Bonafini defended the actions of the airline hijackers, calling them "courageous", stating that many people "had been avenged", and connecting their ideals with the cause of the guerrilla groups in 1970s Argentina.[11] 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 Argentine government was serving U.S. interests.[12]

In 2003, Congress repealed the Pardon Laws, and in 2005 the Argentine Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional. The government re-opened prosecution of war crimes, and former high-ranking military and security officers have been convicted and sentenced in new cases, including for the stealing of babies of the disappeared. The first major figure, Miguel Etcholatz, was convicted and sentenced in 2006.

Final March of Resistance[edit]

The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo march in October 2006.

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."[13] 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.[14] They said they would continued 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 Dirty War.

Social involvement and political controversies[edit]

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).[15]

The association manages a federally funded housing program, Sueños Compartidos ("Shared Dreams"), which it founded in 2008.[16] 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.[17][18]

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.[18] The Schoklender brothers were convicted in 1981 for the murder of their parents and served 15 years in prison. After gaining Bonafini's confidence, they had managed 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 ended in June 2011 after Bonafini learned of irregularities in their handling of the group's finances.[19] 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.[20]

Significance of voice[edit]

The public and collaborative nature of the activism engaged in by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is in stark contrast and opposition to the oppression and silence of the government. Many victims dealt with the stress by "retreating into private worlds and turning inward. As they became separated from each other, their lives were controlled by the terror that influenced every thought, action and feeling".[21] The response of isolation by these individuals allowed the government to maintain a level of control through fear. When the Mothers began to talk to each other and tell their stories, it represented a major break in the habits of isolation. Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, president and founding chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, write "At first the mothers of the disappeared felt only numb loss. But as they realized that no one else would act, they began a melancholy migration from the world of their families and homes out onto Argentina's cold plains of political lawlessness. Yet the mothers sensed that they were not alone: If they had no one else, they had each other." [22]

There was sufficient transparency due to the women choosing to congregate in the central business district of Buenos Aires, which is the financial and political capital of Argentina. They moved into a physically male-dominated space and ultimately redefined the meaning of an open social space. Furthermore, many of these women were coming to the urban business districts of Buenos Aires from rural parts of Argentina. According to Marina de Curia, the government had waited too long to take them seriously. "They didn't destroy us immediately because they thought we couldn't do anything and when they wanted to, it was too late. We were already organized." [22]

Mothers' movement and other social movements[edit]

Furthermore, it maintained a sense of a feminist movement that is in contrast with some traditional understandings of the feminist movement in other countries. According to Sara Eleanor Howe, "the Madres reinterpreted the traditional role of motherhood, subverting it from a restrictive label to a positive force, asserting the rights of mothers and transforming motherhood into a positive and politicised force." The Madres themselves have rejected the feminist label, seeking to distance themselves from what they consider bourgeois thinking that neglects real issues. Even so, the Madres can be seen to have contributed to feminist aims, especially within the increasing acceptance of diversity witnessed in feminism since the 1980s.[23] The traditional role of the woman in Argentina was in the household. She was the mother: the nurturer, the protector, the educator of the family and the children. As the Mothers came together in the Plaza de Mayo, they were moving their role into the public eye. The women took responsibility for dealing with their grief by taking any actions they could. Women began to gain experience in organizing and political processes. However, the group was not interested in "challenging the gender system and the sexual division of labor, the …[Mothers] were committed to the preservation of life; and they demanded the right as "traditional" women to secure the survival of their families" (Arditti 80). As Rita Arditti says in her book: "In… [joining together], the Mothers were creating a new form of political participation, outside the traditional party structures and based on the values of love and caring. Motherhood allowed them to build a bond and shape a movement without men".[24] Men were quietly involved in support of the movement. Their quiet support further allowed the women to move into the public arena. Despite the fact that it put them in great danger, the repressive military dictatorship of the Dirty War in Argentina presented an opportunity for the women of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo to break free from the confined world of homemaking. They were able to create a strong human rights organization because their history led them to strongly identify as mothers, because they used their identities to take action, and because they refused to stop fighting until they had answers.[25]

Not only did the Mothers and Grandmothers, somewhat inadvertently, participate in what could be perceived as a feminist movement, the Mothers and Grandmothers also received support from groups across the world fighting for social justice. This helped transform the actions of the Mothers and Grandmothers working to search for their lost family into a broader fight against human rights violations. In Arditti's "Searching For Life", she quotes a woman, Nélida de Navajas: "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), even the transsexual groups".[26] It has since been revealed that many of the children who were kidnapped that survived were given to and raised by military families within the government. The Mothers and Grandmothers were acting in response to their need to find their children. However, when the truth about the family histories of these adopted children became public, many of these children were devastated that their past was not what they thought it was.[27]


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 "Dirty War". Its president is Estela Barnes de Carlotto.[28] As of 2014, their efforts have resulted in finding 114 grandchildren.[29][30]

Awards and prizes[edit]

Representation in other media[edit]

  • 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1]. Denver University, Case Specific Briefing Paper, "Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo: First Responders for Human Rights", 2011. Accessed: May 4, 2015.
  2. ^ [2]. "Purdue University Press", article, "Textual Strategies to Resist Disappearance and the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo", 2007. Accessed: May 4, 2015.
  3. ^ a b Lester Kurtz. "Movements and Campaigns", Nonviolent Conflict website, N.p., n.d. Web. 16 December 2012
  4. ^ [3]. "Gariwo", article, "Azucena Villaflor: A Mother of the Plaza de Mayo". Accessed: May 4, 2015.
  5. ^ [4]. "BBC", article, "Painful search for Argentina's disappeared", March 24, 2013. Accessed: May 4, 2015.
  6. ^ Durham, Robert B. (2014). False Flags, Covert Operations, & Propoganda. p. 96. ISBN 1312462884. 
  7. ^ [5]. "Los Angeles Times", article, "Argentines Remember a Mother Who Joined the "Disappeared"", March 24, 2006. Accessed: May 4, 2015.
  8. ^ [6]. "JSTOR", article, "Argentina's Mothers of Plaza de Mayo: The Mourning Process from Junta to Democracy", 1987. Accessed: May 4, 2015.
  9. ^ [7]. "The New Yorker", article, "Children of the Dirty Way", March 19, 2012. Accessed: May 4, 2015.
  10. ^ [8]. "The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace", Volume 2, "Early Christianity and Antimilitarism - Mass Violence and Trends", 2010. Accessed: May 4, 2015.
  11. ^ "Aldo Marchesi: Old Ideas in New Discourses". 2001-11-26. Retrieved 2012-03-01. 
  12. ^ "Página/12 :: El país :: "Se escucha sólo a una parte"". Retrieved 2012-03-01. 
  13. ^ DyN, EFE (news agencies) (26 January 2006). "Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo realizaron la última Marcha de la Resistencia". Clarin. Retrieved March 28, 2011. 
  14. ^ "Bonafini anunció que las Madres harán la última Marcha de la Resistencia". El Pais. Edant. 14 January 2006. Retrieved 2012-03-01. 
  15. ^ "Hebe de Bonafini S.A.: Cuando el dolor sirve para ganar dinero y poder". Patagones Noticias. 
  16. ^ "Página/12 - Las Madres y su construcción de sueños". Retrieved 2012-03-01. 
  17. ^ "Podrían denunciar plan de viviendas de Madres de Plaza de Mayo". El Intransigente. 
  18. ^ a b "Les quitan a las madres el manejo del plan de viviendas". La Nación. 
  19. ^ "Bonafini says Schoklenders are 'scammers, traitors'". Buenos Aires Herald. 
  20. ^ "Bonafini says Schoklenders are 'scammers, traitors". Buenos Aires Herald. 
  21. ^ (Arditti 82)
  22. ^ a b Loeb, Paul Rogat (2014). The Impossible Will Take A Little While. Basic Books. p. 357. 
  23. ^ [9]. "Journal of International Women's Studies", scholarly paper, "The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo", 2006. Accessed: May 4, 2015.
  24. ^ (Arditti 80)
  25. ^ [10]. "Northwest Passages", Volume I Issue I, "The Madres de Plaza de Mayo: Motherhood's Search For Answers During The Dirty War In Argentina", 2014. Accessed: May 4, 2015.
  26. ^ (Arditti 93)
  27. ^ [11]. "The Guardian", article, "I'm a child of Argentina's 'disappeared'", December 27, 2014. Accessed: May 4, 2015.
  28. ^ [12][dead link]
  29. ^ "Grandmothers' president recovers grandson taken away under dictatorship". Buenos Aires Herald. 5 Aug 2014. 
  30. ^ Gandsman, Ari (16 April 2009). ""A Prick of a Needle Can Do No Harm": Compulsory Extraction of Blood in the Search for the Children of Argentina's Disappeared". The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. 1 14: 162–184. doi:10.1111/j.1935-4940.2009.01043.x. Retrieved 9 December 2013. 
  31. ^ "Gleitsman International Activist Award". Center for Public Leadership. Retrieved 2012-03-01. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Mothers of the Disappeared, by Jo Fisher (1989).
  • Revolutionizing Motherhood: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, by Marguerite Guzman Bouvard (1994).
  • 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 (Spanish).

External links[edit]