The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and the rewriting of History

The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo have recovered the identity of 126 grandchildren (the last one, a granddaughter, on December 4) who were stolen by the Argentine civic-military dictatorship. Interview Español

Oleguer Sarsanedas Estela Barnes de Carlotto
8 December 2017

Estela Carlotto (Image: Josep A. Vilar/Casa Amèrica Catalunya). All rights reserved.

Forty years after their founding, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo have located and identified 126 grandchildren, including the grandson of Estela Barnes de Carlotto, their president, whom she spent 36 years trying to find. It is estimated that some 500 babies were kidnapped by the Argentine civic-military dictatorship (1976-1983) during the repression, some of them born to mothers in prison who were later "disappeared", as part of a systematic plan to pass the children for adoption by military families and allies of the regime, to avoid raising another generation of “subversives”.

The Grandmothers started their activities in 1977 and since then they have become a global human rights referent. Nominated on five occasions for the Nobel Peace Prize and awarded UNESCO’s Félix Houphouët Prize in 2011, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo’s expressed goal is finding the children stolen and illegally adopted during the Argentine dictatorship and returning them to their legitimate families, in addition to creating the conditions to prevent this crime against humanity from being committed again, and seeking due punishment for all those responsible.

The following sentence from 1980 is on their website: "The Grandmothers are not afraid. The worst that could happen to them has already happened. Their voices challenge the military regime that continues to deny the existence of the disappeared." Unfortunately, denialism did not end with the dictatorship and so they carry on with their struggle. 

Estela Carlotto, as president of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo since 1989, has just received the 2017 Joan Alsina Human Rights Prize in Barcelona (in memory of a Catalan priest murdered in Chile in September 1973, a few days after Augusto Pinochet’s coup d'état), which Casa Amèrica Catalunya awards every year on December 10, Human Rights Day. 

Oleguer Sarsanedas: Today, President Macri is saying that it is time to turn the page. Some MPs are seeking to have the trials for those condemned for crimes during the dictatorship repeated and to release those who are now over 70 years old. And the most powerful media in the country support the idea that there were two sides in all this, and that responsibilities are tantamount. What is your reaction to this?

"When the current government took office – during the election campaign, they made a terrible blunder saying that human rights organizations were a curro (curro means that we cheat and lie), and that was of course an offense –"

Estela Carlotto: We are grandmothers and also mothers, of course, hence doubly affected by the events. We got together and have been fighting for 40 years, during which we have had to face a dictatorship, risks, fears, and ignorance. We have been able to survive and to witness the advent of democracy. In Argentina we are now enjoying the longest democratic period in our history - since, from 1930 onwards and up until 1983, we constantly suffered irruptions by the armed forces and their civilian accomplices. We firmly believe that this is something that should never happen again and, therefore, our position is to respect democracy and to sustain a permanent dialogue with our governments. We have maintained this position,free from any political ideology, ever since the presidency of Dr. Alfonsín, the first President of our recovered democracy, for we believe that the Rule of Law has to solve and respond to what the terrorist State did.

When the current government took office – during the election campaign, they made a terrible blunder saying that human rights organizations were a curro (curro means that we cheat and lie), and that was of course an offense –, the first thing we did, as human rights organizations, was to request an audience with the President. His answer, transmitted to us by someone from his entourage, was that he did not have time to receive us and that, for this reason and thereafter, we should address the Human Rights Secretariat - which, incidentally, was created by the previous government. It was a conclusive answer: we were referred to another official, with whom we duly met and expressed all our concerns. This was at the beginning of this administration, almost two years ago, and we have not had any contact with the President since. We maintain a dialogue with the Human Rights Secretariat and the Minister of Justice and Human Rights, but we have to constantly come out and defend ourselves because the Human Rights Secretary is fond of saying untrue and malicious things about us in the monopolistic mainstream media. That is, we have some degree of friction, but the relationship exists.

Now, obviously, everything you have said is true: they want to erase History, rewrite it in their own way, to their liking. Their intention to release the prisoners who are serving sentences for crimes against humanity, who are guilty of genocide and responsible for the disappearance of 30.000 people, cannot in any way be justified on the grounds of old age. They should not have - I am sorry to say, but that is just how things are - any privilege whatsoever, be they shorter sentences or the benefit of house arrest. They are also trying to skew History in schools, to avoid the subject or simply to erase it - which is exactly the opposite of what we Grandmothers have been doing, that is, writing it in full. We have strived to teach rights to our youth and, above all, the right to identity, something that the Ministry of Education is not doing at all. In addition, the media aggravate us.

So, we are not having an easy time. But we are on our mettle and we have quite a lot of experience. I am now 87, there are not many of us left, but we must continue our task: we still need to find more than 300 grandchildren! 

"[The people] should avoid being lambs, letting themselves be taken from here to there without saying anything". 

OS: What Macri and his government are saying in Argentina is almost exactly what the People’s Party is saying in Spain. Curiously, the crimes of the Franco regime are not being investigated in Spain but, as a matter of fact, in Argentina. From your long-standing experience, what would you tell Spanish citizens about the importance of historical memory? 

EC: What I would tell not only Spaniards, but the citizens of the world - because, unfortunately, these stories are still happening, people are still disappearing, there are dictatorships and pseudo-democratic governments with dictatorial attitudes in the world today – is that people should resist. They should avoid being lambs, letting themselves be taken from here to there without saying anything. They should resist - peacefully, for violence and hatred only generate bad things. They should resist wrongdoings with their rights as citizens of the country where they live – because they were born there, or because that is how things have turned out. They should think that the people in government in any country are their employees: they are being paid for governing for the good of the people, not for doing whatever they want and using the taxpayers' money as they see fit.

Many years ago, I was in Barcelona with another grandmother and a group of young people came to visit us. They were the grandchildren of victims of the Franco regime who wanted to find the remains of their grandparents. Their grandmothers were not speaking, they were only putting some flowers in the middle of a field, somewhere, and said nothing. What did we tell them? Get together,have a legal criterion, so as to be credible and acceptable, build a genetic data bank and demand exhumation from the State. They are now doing it.

Then, a few years ago, the women who were looking for their stolen children during the Franco regime came to see us – some 35.000 children, they say. Nobody was talking about this, the matter was buried under a 40-year silence in Spain. But today the relatives of those children - some of whom are elderly people now -, are looking for them, they are investigating.

This is what needs to be done. The pages of History have to be written in full. And the people have to mobilize. The worst thing, to me, is for people to say: I am not interested in what they do, I live comfortably enough, I have all I need, and if someone is lacking anything, it is their problem,not mine. We must be supportive, love ourselves, help those who need it, assist them. Affection is essential. Many of us Argentines have mixed blood, but many are of Spanish origin - hence, the criminal lawsuit against the Spanish State. We are all plaintiffs - all the Argentine human rights organizations, including Grandmothers. 

"'We want Santiago Maldonado back alive' is a cry of pain, like 40 years ago".

OS: Is the case of Santiago Maldonado an echo of the past? 

EC: This has been a very painful event for us. It has meant a return to the slogans of the past: “we want Santiago Maldonado back alive” is a cry of pain, like 40 years ago. It was a forced disappearance, the gendarmes did it. And they were being directed by the Minister of Security. The minister, with whom we met, denied everything. She said that she was going to defend the Gendarmerie no matter what, that it was not them who did it and that it was not a forced disappearance at all, that they would never recognize this. And then, she asked for our cooperation! But, how are we going to collaborate with you, it you are denying a reality? This was our answer. For us it is, yet again, an open wound.

OS: You have so far located 126 grandchildren. What is their reaction when they discover the truth about their life? 

EC: It depends. They are now 40-year old men and women who find themselves in one of two types of situation. First, there are those who already have some doubts and are looking for answers and come to see us looking for help - that is, they have already a disposition to know where they come from. In fact, some grandchildren whom we have located recently are now part of our organization and speak of their experience with amazing ease. In other cases, where there is no such disposition, they are summoned by a court of justice, they refuse to accept the facts, they resist, and it takes longer - in some cases, it takes years - for the token to fall, as we say, and assume that they are the children of a couple who was kidnapped and not of those who raised them. In some cases, the children were legally adopted, which is a different matter altogether: there is no crime, only ignorance. But most of them were appropriated by members of the armed forces and their civilian accomplices. Incorporating their truth depends on their disposition.

OS: It must be very hard to live with the knowledge that the people you thought were your parents are, in fact, monsters... 

EC: Yes, of course. Some are very captive of the stories that these characters who stole children and killed their parents have told them, who have been "affectionate" to them, who have enchanted them. There is a granddaughter who always says that she suspected who she was, but she did not want to admit it, and she hated me so much. Well, now this girl has accepted her full story and realized what sort of people raised her, and is today politically engaged, a member of our organization, and is very clear about it all. But it was hard for her, yes, very hard. 

OS: And how was it with your own grandson?

EC: He found out when he was 36, through a neighbour, a woman who lives next to where he lives. I had been looking for him for 36 years, here there and everywhere, because our grandchildren are now adults and they can be anywhere in the world - we have located grandchildren in the Netherlands, in Mexico, in the United States. He lives in a small town and probably the people there knew that the couple who raised him were not his parents, but nobody talked about it. They never said anything to him. They are country people, good people, I have nothing to say about the upbringing. What hurts me is that it is me who should have raised him.

He decided to come over to us to find his identity. He was already pretty close, he was into identity music - he is a musician -, he was doing things which were close to the issue. But it was a shock to him to discover that I was his grandmother, because he had made some remarks while watching me on TV - he once said: who is the fool who does not feel his blood and rush to this lady, so that she can find her grandson? And it was him!

Our relationship is close and very nice. But he lives far away from me and he is very busy. And I am very busy too. So, we see each other every time we can. 

"What hurts me is that it is me who should have raised him".

OS: An estimated 300 grandchildren are still missing. How do you look for them? Do you count on collaborators from civil society who give you information on likely candidates? Do you have detectives working for you? 

EC: We have now a complex organization. We have grown from being the grandmothers who met in a bakery in secret, who later had nowhere to go and met in people's houses, ringing doorbells in sophisticated codes, to having an organization with several technical teams. We have a team of lawyers who work on all the lawsuits, we have a genetic team running the genetic data bank - which is key for knowing for sure if someone is or is not the grandchild we are looking for -, we also have psychologists who have learned how to deal with and take care of the victims of what was previously an unknow field. We have research teams, approach teams, reception teams and people in charge of the economy, the media and dissemination. We have now 100 people working with us and several branches throughout the country.

What we have focused on most recently is perfecting the genetic data bank and maintaining a space within the State, CONADI - the National Commission for the Right to Identity - which my daughter Claudia heads since its creation in 1992. And we have devoted much time and effort to dissemination not only in Argentina but throughout the world. There now exists a European network for the right to identity, which was founded in Madrid, grouping countries such as Spain, Italy, France, and Holland -, the purpose of which is to let public opinion in these countries know that grandmothers in Argentina are waiting for their grandchildren, who could be living there. So, you see, we keep on coming up with initiatives as we go along. 

OS: Forty years have gone by, the wounds are still there and it seems that some people are interested in having them stay there. What is needed for Argentina to make peace with its past? 

EC: I believe that this is basically an ideological question - of a specific government, not of society as a whole. Argentine society, on the whole, is with us. Of course there are those who believe it was a good thing to kill people, because they deserved it, and its is logically difficult sometimes to educate or convince them. But they are a minority. Today people know who the Grandmothers are, they recognize us, they greet us, they respect us for what we do, looking for our grandchildren, who are missing but alive - unlike all the others. We make people understand that if this is not solved, History will repeat itself.

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