On April 30, 1977, a group of 14 mothers gathered in the central square in Buenos Aires in an act of protest against the Argentinian dictatorship. Their tenacious weekly protests have continued for over forty years, fostering a widely-held commitment in Argentina for truth and justice, and serving as a symbol for the power of protest worldwide. Using testimonies from members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, human rights activists Marcela Perelman and Veronica Torras explore the group’s beginning and its impact.
“One day a mother said that nothing we were doing was going to do us any good, that we should go to the plaza, that we should meet at Plaza de Mayo, that since time immemorial when the people had wanted to know, they had demanded news about what worried them at Plaza de Mayo.” Haydeé Gastelú de García Buela
The white headscarf is an international symbol of the struggle for human rights and the mobilisation of family members, especially women, in public spaces. That symbol has a powerful and moving story of which the mothers of the disappeared of Argentina are protagonists. It goes back to the resistance and first forms of social protest against the military regime, which continued throughout the dictatorship and in the democratic era, forging a wide consensus regarding demands for justice over crimes against humanity and the rejection of all forms of impunity.
While the empty plaza is one of the most evocative images of the 1976 coup d’état, the incremental return to the streets, starting with the rounds of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (‘Mothers of Plaza de Mayo’), and, years later, the mass protests against impunity for crimes against humanity consolidated the symbolic, social and political link between street mobilisation, human rights and democracy in Argentina.
“The goal was for people to see us”
At the end of April 1977, when the dictatorship was at its most repressive, a small group of just 14 mothers (see textbox) gathered for the first time in the Plaza de Mayo, the centre of political power in Argentina, to demand answers regarding the disappearance of their sons and daughters. This initial group consisted of mothers who did not know one another. They had only crossed paths along the obligatory pilgrimage they made to different institutions following the coup of 24 March 1976.
The relatives of the disappeared ran into each other as they carried out the bureaucratic search for their loved ones. They met at the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights and at an office of the Interior Ministry in the Government House in front of Plaza de Mayo, that had been assigned for the stated purpose of receiving complaints from relatives and offering information. The Mothers would also cross paths in the Stella Maris Church, home of the Military Ordinariate, where its secretary, Emilio Grasselli, met with the mothers but “took more information than they offered.”
It was in the Ordinariate where the mothers arranged their first meeting for 30 April 1977. The initiative came from Azucena Villaflor, who came from a political family and was convinced that it was only by joining forces and making demands in the Plaza de Mayo that they could achieve what they were failing at accomplishing separately. In the interviews recorded in the oral archive of Memoria Abierta, different mothers remember the beginning of their struggle: “The idea was to get together with those who were looking for someone. It turned out that we ended up being 14 mothers looking for sons and daughters who had disappeared. We were looking for them and looking for answers.”
The meeting date was chosen without consulting the calendar; it turned out to be a Saturday and the plaza was deserted: “It was us and the pigeons.” As the purpose was to make their demands visible vis-à-vis the authorities and society, they decided to reschedule the gatherings first to a Friday and then to a Thursday – the day of the week which became the mandatory meeting day of the mothers for the next 40 years. They continue to gather at the Plaza de Mayo today, every week.
That space was the stage that the mothers needed to denounce the disappearances, for historical and political reasons. It was Azucena Villaflor who insisted on meeting in the Plaza de Mayo, from where they could “cross [to the Government building] and make petitions.” She is also the one who recalled that “since time immemorial when the people had wanted to know, they had demanded news about what worried them at Plaza de Mayo.”
The mothers remember that they needed to get together because that was the only way that “allowed us to piece together the news that was denied to us.” They were overwhelmed by the lack of answers, the mockery and the contempt with which they were received in public offices. Because of the silence and fear of political and social institutions by most citizens, the goal was “for people to see us, but also for (de facto president) Videla to receive us.”
Without agreeing previously, they arrived at that first meeting with no bags so that nobody would think they could be armed. Some brought some fabric, or something else to sew; others carried purses under their arms, along with their house keys, IDs and public transport tickets: “We were able to grow because they belittled us.” During the first meetings, small groups of two or three took turns sitting on the plaza’s benches to talk, always under surveillance. They did not walk. There were soldiers with long guns and people who photographed them: “Anyone who says she was not afraid is not being honest.”
“We learned to walk in fear”
They began to walk because the police did not allow them to talk in groups: “Ladies, you have to move because there is a state of siege and there can be no meeting. You have to walk,” they were told. They would link arms in groups of two or three and walk as they had been ordered. Without leaving the square. Many times they were thrown out. “We learned to dodge and feint”. They would leave along one street, circle around and return to the square from another street. Several times they were arrested and argued with the soldiers: “No sir, this lady is unwell. She cannot leave [the square]. As you well know her son has been kidnapped.” They began to walk around the Pirámide de Mayo, a monument in the centre of the square. A group of women walking around a monument attracted attention. Little by little, another circle would form around the mothers: “People passed by and asked us, Who are you?” Friends, relatives and foreign journalists began to accompany the round. “Those were very rough times and, although we gathered the courage to go to the streets, we could not shake the fear that they were going to throw us out or arrest us, as happened several times. We lived torn between fear and the need to find our children.”
At first, they did not wear headscarves on their heads. But when they decided to participate in the traditional religious procession to Luján that same year to make their demands heard there, they agreed to place a white hankerchief on their heads, representing nappies (diapers) as a symbol of their children. “The headscarf first appeared when we made the first visit to Luján because we often got lost and could not identify one another… So the idea arose… it was not really a headscarf, but a nappy. Symbolically it was a nappy that we tied around our heads and, practically, it allowed us to recognise one another.”
In December 1977, eight months after the first meeting at the square, officials arrested three mothers who are still missing to this day. María Ponce de Bianco and Esther Ballestrino de Careaga were kidnapped from the Church of the Holy Cross on 8 December 1977, by a naval squad. Two days later, as international Human Rights Day was commemorated and La Nación newspaper published the mothers’ first petition denouncing more than a thousand disappearances, Azucena Villaflor de DeVincenti was also kidnapped, just steps from her home.
The impact was devastating and frightening, but the mothers maintained their struggle and did not withdraw from the public space: “We held on to what Azucena had told us: ‘Even if I’m not around, keep going’.”
“What I learned from the streets, the protests, the discussions”
The mothers’ accounts indicate that using the square as a form of denunciation and demand was not something that was immediately successful. It was a gradual strategy. It started with meetings at the benches. It continued with the walks in pairs. Then, with the small round. Later with the extended round: “When we reached 70, I remember we celebrated.” That journey was not linear; there were interruptions, disruptions, comings and goings. “There was a time when we stopped going to the plaza because they were arresting the mothers. We started meeting in neighbourhood churches, early in the morning. Often, we were kicked out.” The mothers had not been involved in political activism before. They learned the value of their presence at the plaza through the very act of protest: “I completed higher education in the streets; I got it from the streets, the protests, the discussions.”
The marches taking place every Thursday symbolise the emergence of these women in public space at a time when the use of public space was forbidden for any social or political expression: no parties, no guilds, no neighbourhood associations or free press. The mothers’ presence at the plaza cleared the way for the fight for human rights in Argentina: “We joined to search for our sons and daughters; we did not decide to form an organisation with a specific agenda. We were born on the march.” The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo are part of the human rights movement that has maintained an activism that has at its core the claim for “trial and punishment” and incrementally incorporated a broad agenda of demands linked to other rights.
During the last stretch of the dictatorship in 1982, the mothers were the protagonists of enormous mobilisations, such as the Marcha por la Vida (‘March for Life’) on 5 October and the Marcha de la Resistencia (‘March of Resistance’) on 9 and 10 December. Other human rights organisations, political parties and some trade unions also took part in these marches. This confluence of actors was an early sign of the broad consensus against state terrorism that was present in Argentine society.
After the dictatorship, the mothers maintained their demand for justice for their sons and daughters, and the weekly ‘rounds’ by the mothers continued in Plaza de Mayo after the transition to democracy. The Madres have also taken to the streets for other social demands over the years, as their solidarity movement has spread to other groups and issues. Their white headscarves, their demands that their children be returned alive, and their fight for justice and accountability have over time been echoed in the struggles of families of victims of injustice around the world.
The mothers are a clear reference point for the human rights movement; their legitimacy has been strengthened by years of consistent and sustained struggle. More widely, they are a reference for a broad constellation of social and political actors who, despite nuances in outlook, have forged a fundamental democratic accord based on the rejection of the crimes against humanity committed during Argentina’s last dictatorship.
This social and political constellation has taken to the streets and occupied public space in critical moments of the country’s recent history, where the progress of justice has been threatened in various ways (due to military pressure, laws, decrees, judicial decisions). This has repeatedly happened since the end of the dictatorship, during more than three decades of democracy.
And this happened again in 2017 when some half a million people raised the white headscarves of the Mothers in an act of protest against what they considered an inadmissible form of impunity (a recent Supreme Court decision which sought to reduce the sentences of those convicted of crimes against humanity during the dictatorship), in that same square where 14 women met in 1977, united by pain and the fight for answers over their children’s disappearance.
Marcela Perelman is the Director of Research at the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS). She has written extensively on matters of social protest, state violence, security issues and human rights. Verónica Torras is the director of Memoria Abierta, an alliance of Argentine human rights organizations that promotes memory regarding the human rights violations of the recent past, actions of resistance and the fight for truth and justice.
This article uses testimonies of Haydée Gastelú de García Buela, María Adela Gard de Antokoletz, Vera Jarach and Taty Almeida, members of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, from interviews available in the oral archive of Memoria Abierta (Open Memory). This article is part of OpenDemocracy’s Right to Protest series, a partnership project with human rights organisations CELS and INCLO, with support from the ACLU, that examines the power of protest and its fundamental role in democratic society.
This article was originally published on the openDemocracy 50.50 website. Click here to access it. OpenDemocracy is a digital commons committed to promoting human rights, peacebuilding and reconciliation. We encourage you to take a look at this wonderful resource. All articles are published under Creative Commons licensing.