Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared

Arditti, Rita. Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999.

Searching for Life (1999), Rita Arditti’s rare gem of a book, has many facets and each reflects a different dimension of this inspirational story about how a group of “housewives” resisted the “worst dictatorship in Argentine history” and changed the world just as Margaret Mead says a “small group of thoughtful committed citizens” can do. In one of the best examples of truly interdisciplinary feminist scholarship that I have read, this well-researched non-fiction work reads like a complex story that is part horrifying global political history, part riveting mystery novel, part heroic quest journey, part roadmap for social action and community organizing, part model for how to use science in service of human rights, and ultimately, all about the kind of real courage that is born of great love—the love between mother and child. (1999), Rita Arditti’s rare gem of a book, has many facets and each reflects a different dimension of this inspirational story about how a group of “housewives” resisted the “worst dictatorship in Argentine history” and changed the world just as Margaret Mead says a “small group of thoughtful committed citizens” can do. In one of the best examples of truly interdisciplinary feminist scholarship that I have read, this well-researched non-fiction work reads like a complex story that is part horrifying global political history, part riveting mystery novel, part heroic quest journey, part roadmap for social action and community organizing, part model for how to use science in service of human rights, and ultimately, all about the kind of real courage that is born of great love—the love between mother and child.

In Chapter One “Not Just One More Coup” Arditti sets the political stage by explaining enough Argentine history for readers to grasp how events conspired to create the climate for a military dictatorship to seize power and kidnap, torture and murder over 30,000 citizens during its rule from 1976-1983. Arditti explains how the Doctrine of National Security, the “political cornerstone of the regime,” was based on the “West Point Doctrine” taught in counterinsurgency courses offered by the U.S. military to select Latin American leaders and how the key methodology for enforcing the Doctrine (abduction, torture, murder and “disappearance”) was based on Hitler’s 1941 Night and Fog Decree. Arditti describes the magnitude of the abuses of power that existed at all levels (including within the judicial system and among the highest leaders of the Argentine Catholic Church) as well as detailing the set patterns for the disappearances, tortures and murders. Fortunately, the vivid descriptions of the tortures (such as torturing children in front of their parents, torturing the fetus of pregnant women, and inciting guard dogs to attack) are mercifully brief. However, Arditti has a good sense of how important these details are to the unfolding of her story about the Grandmothers. Readers must sense the very real and horrifying risk the Grandmothers took if we are to appreciate the magnitude of their courageous resistance.

In Chapter Two, Arditti chronicles the confluence of events and social actions that contributed to “The Fall of the Regime” with a series of stories: 1) about unionized workers (who were among those targeted for disappearance) who organized work slowdowns; 2) about Rodolfo Walsh an investigative journalist who “started an underground communications network to inform people of the daily abuses taking place” and was later disappeared; 3) about a visit by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights who helped bring international attention to the disappearances with their report and a subsequent New York Times article; 4) about the impact of the 1982 Malvinas/Falklands War in weakening the credibility of the military dictatorship; and 5) about the formation of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. On April 30, 1977, fourteen mothers whose children had disappeared gathered at the Plaza de Mayo (which is flanked by the presidential palace, cathedral and several ministries) to begin what later became a weekly march. They were inspired by Azucena Villaflor de DeVincenti, a woman in her 50s whose son and daughter-in-law had been abducted, and who later disappeared herself on December 10, 1977. In October 1977, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo was born out of this original group with the express purpose of returning the children of the disappeared to their legitimate families.

Chapter Three, “The Grandmothers Organize,” provides a particularly vivid outline of the Grandmothers social action efforts thanks to Arditti’s effective use of direct quotes from the Grandmothers themselves. While Arditti’s words frame the organization of this chapter, the Grandmothers voices actually tell the story as much as possible. Readers begin to get a deeper sense of the magnitude of their accomplishments by learning more about the Grandmothers as women. Haydée Vallino de Lemos explains: “We were simply housewives. Most of us had never done anything outside the home. I did not even know how to take a bus alone. I was not used to going out without my husband.” (54) Remarkably, it was these “simple housewives” who literally risked their lives with weekly marches, developing special codes for communicating privately, waging legal challenges through the courts with writs of habeus corpus, launching direct appeals to the Catholic Church (including a still unanswered letter to the Pope), instigating a variety of international outreach efforts, becoming skilled detectives in order to locate their grandchildren, and perhaps most importantly learning enough to use contemporary science as a tool for legal, political and social change. The Grandmothers worked with scientists to develop a genetic blood test to identify biological affiliation even when the parents were dead—a “grandparentage” test. In 1987, the National Genetic Data Bank was established and by 1996, “2,100 individuals had deposited their blood in the bank, representing about 175 family groups” and over 30 children had reclaimed their birth identities (73). As mass graves began to be unearthed in the mid-80s, the Grandmothers also engaged with internationally renowned forensic scientists to identify remains—inspiring one of the first uses of this science as a tool in human rights investigations.

In Chapter Four, “From Terror to Resistance” Arditti expands on the Grandmothers’ work and its results in a more inner way. With the same wise balance of author-as-guide and the direct voices of the Grandmothers as primary storytellers, Arditti introduces readers to these remarkable women more intimately. While Chapter Three chronicles their outer successes, Chapter Four chronicles their individual struggles and interior development. It is here that we meet their families—the children and grandchildren who have inspired this work. Their stories were so painful, their love so deep, and their presence so real, that I kept flipping to the photographs at the center of the book and the biographical sketches in Appendix One to better “see” who was speaking. Arditti managed to make it feel as though I was present with each woman during her interviews.

Chapter Five, “Finding the Children,” has a similar sense of intimacy, but here Arditti allows readers to hear the voices of some of the grandchildren that have been returned to their legitimate families thanks to the Grandmothers’ work. Arditti does a great job of telling these stories in their paradoxical complexity. Not all reunions have been happy. Some children were adopted by families who knew nothing of their origins, and their “restitution” to their legitimate families has created warm extended family networks. However, other children were adopted by the police and military officers responsible for kidnapping, torturing and murdering their birth parents. In some cases, their identity is tied to the politics of their adoptive parents, and the restitution of their birth identity is painful and disorienting.

In Chapter Six, “Captive Minds, Captive Lives,” Arditti leaves the individual/inner stories for more outer landscapes by expanding on the Grandmothers’ work to address complex psychological and social issues raised by challenging the identity of children adopted by their parents’ captors. Here, Arditti wisely returns to a bit of global history about similar events such as Polish, Czech, Yugoslav and Russian children kidnapped and given to German families during World War II; and indigenous children in the U.S. and Australia who were removed from their families of origin in order to be educated in the ways of the dominant social group—making them functional outcasts from their cultures of origin.
Chapters Seven (“A New Strategy: The Right to Identity”) and Eight (“The Politics of Memory”) explore the larger social results of the Grandmothers’ work in terms of adoption and the “politics of memory” in Argentina, and human rights issues globally. In Argentina, the Grandmothers have been responsible for more open legal adoption practices in order to make it impossible to hide children from their heritage. The Grandmothers also remain active in their efforts to hold the perpetrators of these crimes legally and morally accountable for their actions—to create a “politics of memory” in which this history is not forgotten, and therefore, less likely to be repeated. Their work has also influenced the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, especially in terms of its description of “identity.”

Arditti says that she wrote this book in the spirit of “bearing witness” to the ways in which the Grandmothers’ story inspired her and challenged her own stereotypes about women and aging. I believe that Arditti has honed the dark lump of coal that is this Argentine genocide into a diamond of human courage and love. My hope is that this review shines the light on this sparkling gem in the dark recesses of your local bookstore.

This book review was originally published in Feminist Teacher 18.2 (2008): 235 and can be accessed at: http://ft.press.illinois.edu/
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