Book Excerpts: Argentina
from Part II :Chapter 7 - Argentina and Chile: Resisting Repression

Argentina - Mother Courage

"We Will Walk Until We Drop"

On the first day, there were only fourteen in the resistance force - an improbable troop of women in their middle years, anonymous and ordinary, filled with anxiety, not knowing whether the gray hand of authority would crush them or merely brush them away. Through the equinoctial light of that autumn afternoon, this half-platoon filed across the stone paths of the city's most historic square, collecting near the obelisk erected to celebrate the nation's nineteenth century break with Spanish rule.

They had gone to the Plaza de Mayo, in the civic heart of Buenos Aires, in search of another kind of independence - freedom from an uncertainty more haunting than grief. They still hoped that what they had experienced was a cruel anomaly, perhaps beyond the doing or even knowledge of their leaders. It was to give voice to that loss, and to implore the government's help, that they had appeared on this last day of April 1977 on the plaza outside the Casa Rosada.

"We arrived separately," recalled one of the women, Maria del Rosario de Cerruti. "We wore flat shoes so we could make a run for it if they came after us. To demonstrate in front of Government House was very dangerous." But they were linked as securely as climbers on a rock cliff by the rope line of what they had in common: All were mothers; all had children who had disappeared.

No one bothered them on that first day. It was a Saturday. Unaccustomed to the schedule of business, the mothers had inadvertently picked a time when the doors of the banks and government offices, of the pink presidential palace, would be closed. "We agreed to return... on a weekday and to prepare a letter together to send to Videla," the Argentine general then sitting as president. They settled on a time - half-past three the next Friday, when the streets would be crowded. Then one of the mothers reminded them that Friday was said to be the day of the witches, so they settled on Thursday.

The women, whose number soon grew to several score, already sensed that they were testing a surface, without knowing what was beneath. Many others elsewhere in the world who had lived under dictators could have told them what was below: the mendacity of authoritarian control. In the clear air, life in Argentina proceeded as it always had. Given the fa├žade of normalcy, the regime seemed unassailable. No one appeared eager to penetrate it, except now for these desperate women.

Not until two months later, after weekly demonstrations, were three mothers allowed to see the minister of the interior, a general who said he had a file with the names of people who had disappeared, that it contained names from even his friends' families. But he did not know who had taken them; he said "that there were para-military groups out there who couldn't be controlled," Rosario recalled. "He passed the responsibility to other people. Then he said that perhaps our sons had run away with a woman, that perhaps our daughters were working as prostitutes somewhere."

At that moment, it seems, the women's fear gave way to anger. "We told him that they were cowards, because even a cruel dictator like Franco had signed the death sentences with his own hand...We told him everything we felt and we told him that we would come back every week until they gave us an answer and that we would walk in the square every Thursday until we dropped." When the general told them public meetings were prohibited by the state of siege then in effect, they told him they would stay until he gave them an answer. Although they did not know it, these grieving women had declared war.

1. Jo Fisher, Mothers of the Disappeared (Boston: South End Press, 1989), p. 28.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., p. 29.