In her introduction of Estela Barnes de Carlotto and Buscarita Roa, Argentine Ambassador Cecilia Nahón called the grandmothers “two examples of courage that are emblematic of the struggles for human rights in Argentina, the region and worldwide.”
The following is a translation of their keynote address at the Latin American Congress on Democracy and Dictatorship at Cornell University.
ESTELA BARNES DE CARLOTTO:
Good evening, dear friends. All of the grandmothers are very happy to be in this very important university.
The topic of democracy and dictatorship is exciting to us because it is of interest to all of Latin America. And as everything is so globalized today, I think it is also of interest to the whole world.
We had a civil-military dictatorship from March 24, 1976 until 1983.
To better understand the socio-political landscape of Argentina, we must remember that we had a civil-military dictatorship in our country since 1930. That means that people who are my age – I was born in 1930 – grew up and were educated under dictatorships.
The monopoly in the mass media that we still have, unfortunately, was part of the information and disinformation spread about these political events.
I remember one day in my childhood, when I was getting ready go to school, we heard a military march on the radio. There was no TV. We heard communiqué number one where the military was evicting the elected government.
I remember my dad decided not to go to work, and we children didn’t go to school, but the next day our lives went on as usual.
Of course there were protest movements especially among university students, and among the working class.
The dictatorship was always supported by the wealthy class, that is, the oligarchy, and all of those who had a personal interest. I always say our history books were incomplete, because none of this was ever told.
There was a bloody coup again in 1955. The military usurped power by bombing the Plaza de Mayo, the main square in our Buenos Aires.
Hundreds of people were killed in these bombings. People on their way to work, a group of children who were on a school bus. And the next day there was no protest from the families of these victims.
I was in agreement with these illegal actions, because the education I had had made me think it was okay, that it was not illegal.
I was 25. My eldest daughter Laura was an infant in my arms, and I celebrated the deaths.
I say this because my mea culpa is that if I had taken to the streets with the people to denounce the dictatorship, my daughter Laura would be alive today. That is a thought for anyone anywhere in the world who justifies death.
In 1976 Laura and my three oldest children were part of the student movement.
When repression of that last dictatorship began, we parents were generally terrified, and we wanted to discourage our children from doing what they were doing. Out of love, we didn’t want the history we had experienced to be repeated.
Sometimes people ask us how the Grandmothers can still be going after 36 years of struggle. We keep going because Laura and her 30,000 compatriots gave us an example of courage. We continue to seek answers to what the dictatorship did. It is a lifetime commitment we have made.
During that dictatorship, more than 360 clandestine detention centers were created in Argentina. There they took people of all ages and walks of life. It was there that they were tortured, to extract information from them. Then they killed them, and their bodies were disappeared.
When among the victims they found a pregnant woman, they let her live until her baby was born at the detention center.
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo are looking for those two generations: our children and our grandbabies born in captivity.
We persevere because we need to know the truth, have memory and obtain justice.
When the Grandmothers group began, we were alone with our fear and ignorance, and we were in danger. Then we began finding each other, and we formed an indestructible group. Through this unity we have managed to find 109 grandchildren.
Some of us still have not had the joy of finding our family members, while others have been able to embrace their grandchild and tell them their real history.
There is much more to tell – it has been 36 years. But we are here to share ideas on how to achieve peace.
We cannot say we live in peace when we know there are children dying from starvation or simple illnesses, when we know about countries wealthy in resources but with impoverished people, where wealth is stolen by those who claim to be democratic.
So I say thank you on my behalf and on behalf of all of the Grandmothers, for this chance to get to know each other, look each other in the eyes and know that here great ideas will surely be generated.
In closing, I want you to understand that this Argentine dictatorship implemented a systematic plan to steal babies.
After the birth of the children in those detention centers, they were taken away from our daughters, who were then murdered.
We don’t know of any other country in the world, even in conventional wars, where this abhorrent practice of stealing babies for political reasons has happened. This should never happen again.
So I’ll close with a short phrase that we say in Argentina: Never again! Thank you.
Good evening, everyone. Thank you for having us here.
I am Chilean, and I have lived in Argentina for the past 38 years. I have had to endure two dictatorships, both in Chile and Argentina.
My son was a student who was involved in political activity in Chile. He suffered a railway accident at age 16, and the train severed both of his legs.
He went to Argentina to have rehabilitation treatment and to get prosthetic legs. In Argentina he continued his political work in a rehabilitation center for disabled people. Unfortunately, he was participating – well, I’m happy he was involved in politics – but the unfortunate thing was that he was disappeared.
Since that day, November 28, 1978, I’ve been participating in the organization called Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, looking for the remains of my son, my daughter-in-law and my little granddaughter who was eight months old.
I continue to work with the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, but I found my granddaughter 13 years ago when she was 22. I was lucky to find my granddaughter. Not all of the grandmothers have had this luck, but finding your grandchild is the most beautiful thing that can happen in this organization.
The Grandmothers have a national genetic database where we have blood samples from relatives who are still alive, to do DNA tests for these young adults who aren’t children anymore.
We have been looking for our grandchildren for nearly four decades, and we’ve found 109 of them. They are now adults and happy to have regained their true identities.
It’s not easy for them – they have grown up with a family that was not theirs. The majority was taken by members of the Armed Forces. After their parents were killed, these children were distributed among military families to be raised as their own. Of course these were illegal adoptions. They were not even adoptions, but rather stolen babies.
My granddaughter was raised with a colonel’s family, who took her from the clandestine center where she was with her parents. The colonel took her to his home to raise her as his own daughter, changing her true identity.
She of course had a name from her biological family. Her name was Claudia Victoria Poblete Hlaczik, but the colonel gave her the name Mercedes Beatriz Landa Moreira. She grew up with this name until age 22 when the Grandmothers were able to restore her true identity, so she would know who she really was.
It hasn’t been easy. Imagine – a young woman at age 22 finds out she isn’t the daughter of the family that raised her. For these kids it’s very difficult.
Over time, she has begun to realize that the best thing that happened to her was to know who she is. She has told me, “Thank you, Grandma, for looking for me.”