2. Madres de Plaza de Mayo
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 Dirty War of the military dictatorship, between 1976-1983.
Origins of the movement
The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, is a unique organization of Argentine women who have become human rights activists in order to achieve a common goal. For over three decades, the Mothers have fought for the right to re-unite with their abducted children.
In protests, they wear white head scarves with their children’s names embroidered, to symbolize the blankets of the lost children. The name of the organization comes from the Plaza de Mayo in central Buenos Aires, where the bereaved mothers and grandmothers first gathered. They have continued to convene there every Thursday afternoon for a decade.
The Mothers’ association was formed by women who had met each other in the course of trying to find their missing sons and daughters, who were abducted by agents of the Argentine government during the years known as the Dirty War (1976–1983), many of whom were then tortured and killed. The 14 founders of the association, Azucena Villaflor de De Vincenti, Berta Braverman, Haydée García Buelas, María Adela Gard de Antokoletz, Julia Gard, María Mercedes Gard and Cándida Gard (4 sisters), Delicia González, Pepa Noia, Mirta Baravalle, Kety Neuhaus, Raquel Arcushin, Sra. De Caimi, started the demonstrations on the Plaza de Mayo, in front of the Casa Rosada presidential palace, on 30 April 1977. Villaflor had been searching for one of her sons and her daughter-in-law for six months. She was taken to the ESMA concentration camp on 8 December 1978.
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 is closer to 30,000 - a predicted 500 among this figure are the children born in concentration camps to pregnant ‘disappeared’ women and given to military related families, whilst the remaining number are presumed dead. The numbers are hard to determine due to the secrecy surrounding the abductions. Three of the founders of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have also “disappeared”. After the fall of the military regime, a civilian government commission put the number of disappeared at close to 11,000.
In January 2005, the body of French nun Léonie Duquet, a supporter of the organization, was exhumed, without an established identity. Duquet’s disappearance had caused international outrage towards the Argentine military government. DNA tests concluded, on August 30 of that year, that the body exhumed in January was that of Duquet.
Azucena Villaflor’s remains, together with those of two other pioneer Mothers, Esther Careaga and María Eugenia Bianco, were also identified by a forensics team in mid-2005. Villaflor’s ashes were buried at the foot of the May Pyramid in the Plaza on 8 December 2005.
The Mothers’ association sought to keep the memory and spirit of their disappeared children alive, through the creation of an independent university, bookstore, library and cultural center. Through these projects, subsidised and free education, health and other facilities are offered to the public and students, promoting the revolutionary ideals of many of their children. This has made their headquarters an important focal point for progressive leaders visiting Buenos Aires, including Hugo Chávez, Tabaré Vázquez, and Brazil’s Lula.
Divisions and radicalization
The mothers with President Néstor Kirchner.
In later years, the association grew and became more persistent, demanding answers from the government as to where their missing children were. After the military gave up its authority to a civilian government in 1983, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have pressed the new government to help find answers to the kidnappings that took place in the Dirty War years.
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. The Mothers also have identified 256 missing children that have been adopted. Seven of these children have died. 31 of these children’s cases have been or are being dealt with and the remaining number are currently unable to be found.
In the course of their struggle, most part of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo began to see themselves as inheritors of their children’s dreams and responsible for carrying forward their children’s work, even to the adopting the radical agenda embraced by some of their disappeared sons and daughters. As a result, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association faction led by Hebe de Bonafini takes a more political approach. This group does not doubt the fact that their children disappeared, and they are aware that the majority of them faced torture and most of them were ultimately murdered. Nevertheless, they are refusing any help offered by the government as compensation for their children’s absence. Many still maintain that they will not recognize the deaths until the government admits its fault and its connection to the Dirty War and its systematically forced disappearances.
A scholar of the movement, Marguerite Guzman Bouvard, wrote that the association faction wants “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 openly support a Cuban-style revolution in Argentina. On the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, 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. Speaking for the Mothers, she also rejected the investigations of the alleged Iranian involvement in the AMIA Bombing (the 1994 terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish community center), denouncing the Argentine government was manipulating them to serve U.S. interests. The Mothers have published a book with a compilation of Saddam Hussein’s writings, among others forms of support to the Baathist regime in Iraq.
Final March of Resistance
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 made their final annual March of Resistance around the Plaza de Mayo, saying no more such marches are needed because “the enemy isn’t in the Government House anymore”. This decision was in recognition of President Néstor Kirchner’s success in having the Full Stop Law and Law of Due Obedience (two Alfonsín-era measures which had effectively ended most Dirty War prosecutions) declared unconstitutional. Their weekly Thursday marches will continue, however, 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.
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 also manages a federally-funded housing program, Sueños Compartidos (“Shared Dreams”), which it founded in 2008. Sueños Compartidos had completed 5,600 housing units earmarked for slum residentsand numerous other facilities in six provinces and the City of Buenos Aires by 2011. Its growing budgets, which totaled around US$300 million allocated between 2008 and 2011 (of which $190 million had been spent), came under scrutiny and generated nation-wide controversy when a suspected case of embezzlement by the Chief Financial Officer of Sueños Compartidos, Sergio Schoklender, and his brother Pablo (the firm’s attorney) arose. The Schoklender brothers, who were convicted in 1981 for the murder of their parents and spent fifteen years in prison, had gained Bonafini’s confidence and managed the project’s finances with little oversight from either the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo or the program’s licensor, the Secretary of Public Works. Their friendship ended in June 2011, however, after Bonafini became aware 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 and transferred the outstanding projects to the Undersecretary of Housing and Urban Development. 
Significance of voice
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”(Arditti 82). 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 this represented a major break in the habits of isolation. These discussions did not only combat the desired silence and isolation of the government. Rather, stories of other mothers and grandmothers served as inspiration for other women to begin searching for their missing children and helped to grow the movement.
The visibility and consistency of the women located in the central business district of Buenos Aires, which is the financial and political capital of Argentina, and in some cases South America. 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. The Mothers’ movement represented connections between various spheres of life that remained isolated under the dictatorship. It represented connections between the public and private, domestic and public, rural and urban. The voices of the Mothers and Grandmothers have been recorded in many books, magazines, websites and other publications. The continued exposure of the stories of these families, told by the matriarchs of the family, helps to extend the critical public nature of the movement through time and space. Recording these dialogues is critical for awareness of injustices in the future. Not only will there always be a record of the human rights violations that occurred in Argentina’s Dirty War, but there will also be a record of the power of group communication and collaboration.
Furthermore, it maintained a sense of a feminist movement that is in contrast with some traditional understandings of the feminist movement in other countries. Some consider the feminist movement to represent the need for women to move into the roles of society traditionally occupied by men. The Mothers and Grandmothers, however, aided in the expansion of the feminist movement to embrace the values of motherhood. 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” (Arditti 80). Men were quietly involved in support of the movement. Their quiet support further allowed the women to move into the public arena. Through this process, the women “transformed themselves from ‘traditional’ women defined by their relationships with men (mothers, wives, daughters) into public protesters working on behalf of the whole society” (Arditti 97).
Not only did the Mothers and Grandmothers, somewhat inadvertently, participate in what some would call a feminist movement, the Mothers and Grandmothers also received support received 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 Rita 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” (Arditti 93). The implications of the actions of the Mothers extend beyond the need for the Mothers to find their lost children. 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 history of these adopted children becomes public, many of these children were devastated that their past was not what they thought it was.
Response from the music world
The cause of the disappeared, or Desaparecidos, of Argentina’s Dirty War and the 1973 junta in Chile was powerfully raised in a song by Holly Near, “Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida”. The song called out the names of some of the disappeared women, saying “The junta knows where she is hiding and dying.” This song was widely heard by progressive American audiences throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, and is well known in Argentina and Chile. Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo was immortalized in the Sting song “They Dance Alone” at an Amnesty International concert in Buenos Aires in 1988 and in a concert in Buenos Aires in 1998, the Mothers appeared on stage with Sting to announce their children’s names to the crowd as the song was performed. Singer and activist Joan Baezprominently featured the Mothers in her 1981 documentary There But for Fortune. Rock band U2’s song, “Mothers of the Disappeared”, from their 1987 album The Joshua Tree, was written about the El Salvador counterparts of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The band invited the Mothers on stage at during a performance of “Mothers of the Disappeared” at Santiago, on their PopMart Tour in 1998.
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Spanish: Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo) is an organization who has the aim of finding the stolen babies, whose mothers were killed, during the “Dirty War”. Its president is Estela Barnes de Carlotto.
Awards and prizes
In 2008, an opera entitled Las Madres de la Plaza premiered in Leffler Chapel at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, telling the story of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. It was written by a collaboration of students, staff, and faculty of the school, headed up by James Haines and John Rohrkemper.