In 1977, fourteen mothers held a peaceful protest. The military junta called them las locas, the mad women. But they couldn’t be silent. It cost some of the women their lives. The mad mothers refuse to be silent to this day.
The Dirty War
From 1976 to 1983, Argentina experienced the Dirty War. The military government abducted, tortured, and killed any one they identified as subversive. Anyone thought to be Peronists or part of the Montoneros movement “disappeared.” The United States supplied financial and military support for the Dirty War. (more information)
The junta imprisoned many people they identified as subversive. Young people, less than 35 years of age to as young as high school students, disappeared. Disappeared meant kidnapped, tortured, and killed. Pregnant prisoners had their babies stolen and adopted. The military obliterated all records.
Mothers didn’t know if their adult or high school children were dead or alive. They didn’t know they had grandchildren.
In 1977, fourteen mothers, or Madres, met to protest the disappearances.
People were scared,” recalls Haydée Gastelú, now 88. “If I talked about my kidnapped son at the hairdresser or supermarket they would run away. Even listening was dangerous.”
“But I couldn’t keep quiet. We needed everyone to know, even if nobody believed us. That’s probably why they called us the Mad Mothers at first…”Haydée Gastelú, one of the original fourteen Madres, from The Guardian
Each Thursday, they met at the Plaza de Mayo, in Buenos Aires. The Plaza sits in front of the Casa Rosada presidential palace. Defying the dictator’s law against mass assembly, they walked in pairs and chanted. They chanted about wanting their children back, wanting to know where their children were, and wanting to see their children.
The Steep Cost
Three of the early founders: Azucena Villaflor De Vincenti, Esther Careaga, and María Eugenia Bianco, “disappeared.” Seven other helpers and two French nuns who supported the movement also disappeared.
Still, more adult children disappeared and more mothers joined the movement. Some of the demonstrators carried pictures of their missing children. Later they wore white scarves with their children’s names and date of birth embroidered on them. The scarves, according to different sources, symbolized either the white dove of peace, which “can unite all women” or the diapers of their children. They became known as Madres de Plaza de Mayo.
Becoming aware of all the terrible things the young people were enduring made us see the ferociousness of the enemy clearly. The ferocity of the enemy gives us the strength to face him. I mean, how are you going to allow him to go on?”Hebe Mascia from Women in World History.com
Police harassed the marchers, the las locas. But the Madres were a powerful symbol. They drew international attention. Human Rights groups arrived to help them. They helped the mothers organize, opened offices, and publish speeches.
The attention made it more and more difficult for the government to ignore them.
So in 1983, the military government attempted to regain popularity by occupying the Falkland Islands. But they lost to Britain. And Britain forced them to step aside and to hold free elections.
Raúl Alfonsin was elected President of Argentina in late 1983. He organized the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons. The Commission reported about 11,000 unresolved disappearances in Argentina. The military leaders confessed to 9,000. The mothers estimate the number of disappeared to be 30,000.
The new government prosecuted nearly 300 people for crimes committed during the Dirty War. Many of the leading officers received sentences. The Argentinian armed forces grew concerned at the number of prosecutions. They threatened another coup if the trials continued.
In 1986, the Full Stop Law ended prosecutions. It said that the military personnel involved in torture were doing their jobs.
The Madres held silent vigils protesting the immunity given to former military leaders.
In 2003, the Argentinian Congress repealed the Stop Law. Prosecutions for crimes against humanity restarted. Most members of the junta received prison time.
One of the things that I simply will not do now is shut up. The women of my generation in Latin America have been taught that the man is always in charge and the woman is silent even in the face of injustice…Now I know that we have to speak out about the injustices publicly. If not, we are accomplices. I am going to denounce them publicly without fear. This is what I learned.”María del Rosario de Cerruti from Women in World History.com
Searchers found mass graves and exhumed human remains. Beginning in 1984, DNA testing identified many of the remains.
In 2005, they found another unmarked grave. Among the bodies, they identified the remains of Azucena Villaflor, Esther Careaga and María Eugenia Bianco. They buried Azucena’s ashes in the Plaza de Mayo.
The Mothers Today
In 1986, the Mothers split into two factions. 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. And the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association continued their children’s political work. The same agenda that led to the disappearance of their children.
In 2006, members of the Founding Line said they had their final annual March of Resistance. Final because the enemy wasn’t in the Government House any longer.
Today, the Mothers continue their struggle. They advocate for political, civil, and human rights in South America and around the world. Every Thursday they still meet and march around the Plaza. They march for other causes now. Some of them now need wheelchairs.
The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo – aware that their watch is drawing to a close – are deeply concerned by efforts to whitewash history – in Argentina and around the world.The Guardian
Among us there are mothers who escaped from the Nazi Holocaust, only to lose their Argentinian-born children to another dictatorship – so we know for a fact that these tragedies can repeat themselves.”Haydée Gastelú, one of the original fourteen Madres, from The Guardian
The Plaza de Mayo appeared in my novel, My Soul to Keep. Do you remember which character(s) sat in the Plaza?
This is the final post on women who strove for nonviolence and peace. If you missed the previous posts you may wish to read: “Nonviolent, She Made a Difference,” “The First Female Nobel Peace Prize Winner,” and “With Words, She made a Difference.”
Did reading about these Madres inspire you? If you’d been in Buenos Aires in 1977, would have joined the Mad Mothers? The Mad Mothers Refuse to be silent even today. What do you think of their nonviolent resistance?
Excellent summation. Thanks for the history refresher. I remember watching this unfold in the news stories of the day, but your post added new-to-me details. Thank you!
I’m glad you found it informative, Jan. I, too, remembered some of this in the news as it was happening. What little I’ve dug up dismayed me that I either didn’t choose to know more or it wasn’t available at the time. (I think it was a little of the first and a lot of the second.)