Madres de Plaza de Mayo: Motherhood and Protest in Argentina. Audacious Foremothers no. 3
gBetween 1976 and 1983, Argentina was besieged by Dirty War.
The phrase “Dirty War” refers terrorism waged by the state against it’s own people. In Argentina, the military junta, in an effort to control the people and limit resistance, organized the systematic rape, assault and kidnapping of anyone who spoke out against them.
The list of targeted people and organizations was long, but essentially included anyone who was a left-wing sympathizer, including union activists, Marxists, students and journalists.
Conservative estimates suggest that some 11,000 people were “disappeared”. But there are many who suggest the number is likely to be closer to 30,000 with some estimates reaching 45,000 people detained by the authorities, and then just…gone.
Imagine 30,000 people – mostly young and idealistic, fighting for civil rights against a military dictatorship, marched from their homes, schools and places of business. They likely faced torture. Some women were pregnant at the time and there are hundreds of babies of the disappeared who were taken from their mothers and illegally adopted by junta members and supporters.
Some of the disappeared were held in detention camps. A few were freed.
Most were never heard from again.
The junta hoped that would be the end of these “agitators”.
Their hope was misplaced.
For each of these victims came from somewhere. They were sons and daughters, loved by their families.
But the military dictatorship expected that fear would keep their families in line. In fact, they depended on it. And why shouldn’t they? History was on their side.
Fathers had to be careful – they risked their jobs, businesses and livelihoods if they demanded answers. They put their remaining families at risk.
And mothers? Mothers didn’t speak up in public. It was improper.
Women were expected to suffer injustice in silence.
Institutions controlled by men – chiefly governments and the church – have believed since time immemorial that by limiting women’s participation in public life, they could keep women quiet.
They set expectations for women and passed laws both temporal and sacred, designed to limit choices, proscribe behavior, and control speech.
These institutions thought to keep women meek and quiet, confined to the home, and dependent on the wisdom and good will of the authorities. Men would act for women in the public spheres of politics and law. Women would graciously accept the will of God, tend to their hearths, and grieve in silence when their children were sacrificed for for political or military ends.
And for most of history, this plan has worked.
But every now and then, a group of women decide to take matters into their own hands. They tap into the audacious heart of womanhood and find the courage to defy the Powers that Be.
When women do this – especially when they to it together, in solidarity – it is a wonder to behold.
On the 30th of April, 1976, a small group of mothers of the disappeared gathered in Buenos Aires in the Plaza de Mayo in front of Presidential Palace. At 3.30 pm, they walked around the plaza, holding pictures of their missing children.
These mothers sought answers from the junta. They sought it through legal means and through non-violent protest.
The protests themselves were not legal. But the women were crafty and they used the one thing the junta could not use against them.
They used the yoke of their oppression – motherhood – as a weapon against their enemies. The authorities said that a mother’s place is in the home, caring for her family, not in a public square raising a ruckus. The mothers agreed in part and said, yes, a mother’s place is to care for her family, and when her home is invaded and her children unjustly stripped from her, a mother has a duty to seek answers, to continue where her children left off, and to never stop until the last mother and her missing child can be reunited or a body found and the guilty brought to justice.
They even employed a common symbol of female oppression as their symbol of justice. In their marches around the Plaza, the mothers began to wear white head scarfs, inscribed with the names of their missing children.
In their dignity, the mothers became untouchable. The junta tried to discredit them – they were called madwomen. A few of the mothers and their early supporters became Disappeared themselves. Their bodies were later found and identified by DNA evidence.
Speaking truth to power is an audacious move. Some call it foolhardy, especially in the face of abduction, intimidation and violence.
But the movement grew. It spread to other cities and to other countries across Latin America. This was helped in part when, in 1978, Argentina hosted the World Cup soccer tournament. It should have been a triumphant time for the junta, full of celebrations and media spin. The Madres de Plaza de Mayo, however, upset the order of things when they became media favourites. No less than Sting and U2 recorded songs about them.
The Madres were silenced no longer.
And the Argentine people were beginning to get restless.
In 1982, in a desperate move that the junta hoped would rally the people, the junta started a war with Great Britain over the Falkland Islands. The junta sent troops to the island and thought that the US would support the move given Argentina’s support for the US in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
The junta presumed wrong and the US backed the British. After less than 100 days of war, the British were victorious and the junta was fully discredited in the eyes of the Argentine people. By 1983 civilian government had returned to Argentina. Democratic reforms were instituted. Slowly, the mothers got answers.
In 2006 President Kirchner declared unconstitutional the laws used to imprison the Disappeared. Following this move, the Madres ceased their annual protest marches.
The Mothers continue their Thursday marches around the Plaza, however, in order to further their others causes of social justice.
Today the Madres de Plaza de Mayo are the largest civil rights organization in Argentina. In addition to their initial work to find the disappeared, the Madres have tried to continue the work of their lost children. They have set up a newspaper, a radio station and a university.
And they continue to fight for social justice.
The Madres de Plaza de Mayo taught us many things. First, they demonstrate the dignity and effectiveness of non-violent resistance. It works.
More importantly, they teach us that motherhood is a powerful force to be reckoned with. While social institutions and laws seek to restrict women through motherhood, when challenged, we can use those restrictions in ways the Powerful cannot imagine.
They teach us that there is strength is solidarity.
They teach us that when it comes to a mother and her child, the circle will remain unbroken, even into death.
They lost their children. But they gained the respect of the world.
Have you ever spoken a difficult truth to people in power? Share your experience in the comments below:
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