The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo
Updated: Nov 8
The mothers and grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo are heroes. They are fighters. First and foremost, though, they are hurt. They were robbed of their children and grandchildren during the so-called Dirty War that raged in Argentina from 1976 to 1983.
The Dirty War
The Dirty War began with the deposition of the Argentinian president, Isabel Péron, by a three-man military junta – a committee or administrative council which takes over the government by force - composed of Jorge Rafaél Vidal, Emilio Massera, and Orlando Agosti. The junta, under leadership of Vidal, closed the National Congress, introduced censorship, and issued governmental military control.
Moreover, the junta punished anyone with openly leftist and liberal views. They set up hundreds of detention camps where people voicing concerns regarding the government were detained. There, they were tortured and often also murdered. While torture and murder, of course, are horrible and inhumane acts, the Argentinian regime also partook in, what are now known as, forced disappearances.
Forced disappearances were something relatively new. In contrast to what many of us connect with the word ‘disappear’, these disappearances were far from simple vanishing. In fact, they were a systemic governmental tactic to clandestinely get rid of those opposed to the government quietly and efficiently. At first, it was not clear whether the vanished had done so of free will or not. However, after the disappearances became more widespread, it became clear that they were of malicious intent.
During the Dirty War around 30.000 people ‘disappeared’. Those people are known as the desaparecidos. This is only one of many reasons why the war was titled the Dirty War. It aimed to instil fear and confusion in the population through the use of said disappearances. In fact, the junta was so keen on oppressing those fighting against the war, they actually came up with the name for it themselves.
The Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo
The more people disappeared, the more people were left behind. Hundreds of families were broken up due to a regime so ruthless it made its critics vanish. Moreover, a lot of the desaparecidos were pregnant women who were murdered after birthing their children into captivity. A lot of those children then were brought up to serve the military and its inhumane goals. These children were denied an identity outside of the war and made into war instruments who never got to experience motherly love and care.
Thus, organisations that tried to hold the government accountable for its actions started to form and organise protests. Two of the most influential and famous organisations are The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo (Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo) and The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo (Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo).
These two sister organisations – which originally were one – had one goal in mind: to bring to attention the forced disappearances enacted by the Argentinian government. Both of them get their name from a rather important square in Buenos Aires, the Plaza de Mayo. This is the spot where 14 women first marched on 30 April 1977 to raise awareness about the disappearances of their children and grandchildren.
With this march began a quest for closure and accountability. A quest for the restitution of hundreds of children that were either kidnapped or born into captivity. According to the website of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, 400 children have been reported as missing as of August 2004. However, it is estimated that this number is higher with around 500 children.
The calling card of the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo are white handkerchiefs donned on their heads. They were meant to symbolise motherhood, the struggle for justice, and the deep sadness felt by affected mothers and grandmothers. Even today, a group of women congregate every Thursday in Plaza de Mayo to remember all the children still deprived of their true identities.
Where are they now?
Both groups still exist and have been widely recognised all around the world. As previously mentioned, they still continue to march every Thursday. Even during Covid-19 they kept on livestreaming the marches. Moreover, they put on theatre performances, art exhibitions, and social activities to keep the memories of the Dirty War and its related forced disappearances in discourse.
However, they not only managed to keep memories alive, but also to reunite children with their families. After the war, in 1984, the Grandmothers started to work with American geneticist Mary-Clair Kind who developed a way to use the grandmothers’ DNA to help match them with their grandchildren. Since then, 120 children were reunited with their biological families.
In addition, after a petition of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, the National Committee for the Right to Identity (CONADI) was created by the government. The main aim of this committee is to aid young adults who question their identities to find out who they really are through investigating existing documents and referring them for blood analysis.
The organisations also had a major impact on the writing and publishing of the report Nunca Más. This report, which can be translated to Never Again, shows the many unpunished crimes carried out under the political and ideological framework of the junta during the Dirty War. It contains graphic accounts of how captured individuals were treated by the Argentinian military. The report also includes statistics and analyses the social and class background of the desaparecidos showcasing, for example, that 30% of victims were women and that at least 200 desaparecidos were children under 15.
The (grand)mother instinct
When you take away a (grand)mother’s baby, you have to be prepared to experience resistance. The Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo are a perfect example of the inner strength of women. These women were prepared to put their life on the line to save their children from a cruel and inhumane regime. They not only helped end a war, but they also initiated long-lasting change that we can all still observe today.
For more women's stories throughout history, head to our dedicated Gender Issues & Feminism section.
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka