How do you deal with a relative who disappears without warning, never to be seen again?
What does it mean to live in a society that apprehends, tortures and kills thousands of its citizens without explanation, acknowledgment or remorse?
How do you bring truth to this situation?
Unfortunately, these are the questions the citizens of Chile and Argentina had to confront during the 70s and 80s under the Pinochet and generals’ dictatorship, respectively.
It’s Women’s History Month, and, as such, and in keeping with the theme of difference makers, I plan to highlight instances of women authors and people who deal with women’s issues.
Both nations had thousands of families disrupted permanently when their loved ones were seized at all different points of the day, subjected to all kinds of physical abuse and then eventually killed.
It’s also just over a week before I start my new position at Hoy, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language newspaper. In preparation for the job, I’ve been spending part of each day reading the newspaper and watching movies in Spanish.
The film Cautiva tells the story of a 15-year-old girl who learns that she is in fact the daughter not of the couple that has raised her, but of a woman and her architect husband who were both killed shortly after the baby’s birth.
The news comes in a highly unwelcome form.
After celebrating her quinceanera, Cristina Qadri is summoned to the office at her Catholic school one day, told to collect her things and then to meet with a federal judge.
He informs her that blood tests done surreptitiously have shown without doubt that she is the daughter of the aforementioned couple, that her name is Sofia Lombardi and that she must instantly go to live with her mother’s mother.
Needless to say, this information does not sit well with the young girl, who, through her own resources, talking with a psychiatrist, and a chance reunion with a classmate from her former school in the same situation who had been expelled for being too political, she learns to muster the strength to find out the truth about her situation.
Part of that process involves walking by the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, where for years every Thursday mothers of the disappeared would march with pictures of their loved placed on demands to know where they are and what happened to them.
Dear friend, enormously prolific poet and human rights activist Marjorie Agosin knew, interviewed and wrote about many of these women in The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
This slender work is filled with Agosin’s conversations with and writings about these mothers, a number of whom come from different class backgrounds, trying to keep their loved ones alive, seeking, often in vain, for closure, and showing remarkable fortitude in puncturing the veil of silence and lies.
Renee Epelbaum, who had three children taken and killed, is one of the book’s major characters. Agosin joins the tradition of writing as witness in providing a space for Epelbaum both to share her story as well as to explore with her how you can mourn and miss someone whose death you are not completely sure about.
The books also raises the issue not just of individual mourning, but of societal reckoning and justice for these horrible actions.
Unfortunately, this has been in far too short a supply. Despite having trials in which the generals received convictions, in reality the punishment has been minimal. The are some promising signs recently as the trials of former Argentine junta leaders Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone, on charges of involvement in the systemic theft of babies during the 1976-83 dictatorship, began.
Marches, demonstrations and insisting on putting a face to the victims are three of the ways that Argentinians have worked to wrestle with the practice of so many people being disappeared.
In her native Chile, Agosin met with, smuggled out the work of, and chronicled the journeys of aprilleristas.
These women wove the stories of their disappeared loved ones into tapestries in forbidden workshops during the Pinochet dictatorship. This subversive use of a traditional art form also united women of various class backgrounds and provided a different way to penetrate and make real their experience and, in that way, to bring truth to a nation that was predicated on its denial.
In Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love, Agosin gives a brief history of Chilean society during the Allende presidency, his CIA-sponsored overthrow on Sept. 11, 1973, the brutality meted out on the people during the Pinochet era and these women’s resilient response to it.
This book contains many color images of the tapestries that give a concrete form of defiance of the murder and attempted erasure of their loved ones.
It is a struggle drenched in unimaginable anguish.
Agosin also includes the words of the women describing their pain and, like their counterparts in the neighboring country, their attempts simultaneously to keep memory and hope alive while also working to confront the reality that their sons and daughters most likely will never return.
Like Argentina, Chile has made progress in dealing with its past. After a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that provided a model for South Africa’s body by the same name but that many Chileans did not feel went far enough, Chile last decade elected Michelle Bachelet, herself a torture victim, and enacted other laws to make it possible for those survivors to gain some compensation.
Martha Minow writes in Between Vengeance and Forgiveness about the moral necessity and inevitable insufficiency of any measure that seeks to address past actions of collective violence.
This point is well taken when one looks at the official efforts both countries have made and continue to take to redress the wrongs that were visited on far too many of its citizens.
At the same time, one should give credit to the pluck, empathy and writing skill of Agosin, who placed herself in danger time and again to smuggle out the aprilleras and who, through her witness and books, have let the women know that their struggle was seen, heard and distributed to all who care to learn about it.