New books tell stories of the children of 70s radicals

Last Friday, myself and some friends, including two Mexicans and an Argentine who’d been living in Mexico City for the past several years, went to see a band called La Musical Mexicana (you can see a video of them performing live here). My new friend, Leo, the Argentine who’d been living in DF, told me the band was made up of three “argen-mex” musicians. This was a new turn of phrase for me, but apparently the number of Mexicans who are actually the children of Argentine parents, exiled in Mexico during Argentina’s Dirty War (1976-83), is so great as to merit its own moniker, especially now that their ranks have swelled to accommodate the many young Argentines who moved to Mexico City to escape the social and economic turmoil of Argentina’s 2001 financial crisis.

La Musical Mexicana

La Musical Mexicana

The band played a kind of south-of-the-border, retro-rock-country mix – or maybe that’s “neo-mariachi” – sung in both Spanish and English, with a mix of its own songs and some classics, which had my Mexican friend Cecy howling and singing along.The underground bar was decorated with Mexican paper-cut-out skeletons, like those used to celebrate the Day of the Dead. But the band members, the boys with their aquiline noses and mullet haircuts, and the tall blonde singer with her sharp outfit and lovely high-heels, had that hard-to-define yet impossible-not-to-recognise Argentine look about them.

During the 1970s, around 650,000 Argentines – mostly leftist Peronists or members of Marxist revolutionary groups like the Montoneros – fled their country as political exiles, escaping the brutal dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976-1983. Around 10,000 Argentines settled in Mexico, mostly in the capital, Mexico City (or DF, for Distrito Federal). Many of those exiles stayed in Mexico for good, while others were happy to return after the restoration of democracy in Argentina. But an interesting new study (published as a book, El Retorno de los Hijos del Exilio or ‘The Return of the Children of Exile’) shows that the children of returned exiles – whether born in Mexico, France, or any other country that accepted Argentina’s political refugees – have been marked by having left their country of birth to live in an Argentina entirely unknown to them. In fact, the study showed that 17% of people interviewed said they had “no nationality.”

“Going ‘home’ was just another forced migration for many children of exile,” said Roberto Aruj, a professor at the state University of Buenos Aires and co-author of the book. “They were born or raised abroad, and after adapting to their own uprooting or that of their parents, they had to drop everything and return to Argentina on someone else’s say-so.”

Meanwhile, another recently published book, called The Rabbit House, is said to be the first account of what it was like to grow up with parents who were waging a guerrilla war against the state. Laura Alcoba, at only six years of age, knew how to keep a secret, and how to tell if she and her parents were being followed in the street. Her parents, who were Montoneros, moved the family around from one safe house to the next, but after Alcoba’s father was caught and sent to prison, she and her mother went into hiding, living in a derelict house that masqueraded as a rabbit farm. Alcoba left school and she and her mother rarely went outside.

“It might seem strange, but for a little girl in that situation being in hiding just becomes part of everyday life,” the author, who teaches Spanish literature at a Paris university, told the Guardian newspaper. “She learns very quickly that in winter it’s cold, fire burns and we could be killed at any moment. But it’s overwhelming for a little girl because of the seriousness of any little gaffe she might make that could put the group in danger. She doesn’t always manage what she is supposed to say and not say. It’s as if she’s in a costume that’s too difficult to wear.”

Later Alcoba and her mother went into exile in Paris. Her father was eventually released from prison but her parents’ relatinship did not survive. Nor did most of their fellow revolutionaries who shared the rabbit farm – nearly every last one was killed by the military.

“People have said this is a story of stolen childhood,” Alcoba told the Guardian. “But I think it would be obscene to complain of my lost childhood when so many people lost their lives. It was violent, but it was a childhood all the same.”

Abuelas identify missing grandchild No 93

Last Friday, the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo (or Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, named for their silent marches around Argentina’s most famous square, protesting the disappearance of their grandchildren during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship) announced that another child of the disappeared had been identified.

This is the 93rd “grandchild” to have been identified through a combination of forensics and DNA identification since the Grandmothers began their campaign to “recuperate” all of the children who disappeared during the dictatorship.

When pregnant women were captured and imprisoned in the many clandestine detention centres operated by the military and police, or when female prisoners fell pregnant during their detainment, they were allowed to give birth before being executed – often by being drugged then thrown from planes into the sea in what have become knows as the “death flights.”

In the case of grandchild No 93, the woman in question was not seeking to discover her identity. Instead, the Abuelas provided the court with sufficient evidence to suggest she was a child of the disappeared, and the judge, in what is a relatively new and highly controversial measure, ordered that her DNA be gathered by collecting personal objects like drinking glasses, hair combs and toothbrushes. The National Gene Databank then analysed the material and found a match. The woman, whose name is Alejandra, has declined to meet her biological family.

Alejandra’s biological mother was 19 years old and a member of the Montonero guerrilla movement when she was kidnapped by the military in 1977. Her father, also a Montonero, was kidnapped at the same time. Neither of them was ever seen again. The remaining members of Alejandra’s family are hoping she will come to seek a connection with them.

The dictatorship, also known as Argentina’s Dirty War, saw the military fight leftist guerrillas, or revolutionary terrorists – but also various kinds of non-violent opposition – by way of extra-judicial imprisonment, torture and execution. While these facts are broadly known, the policy of illegal adoption is something that fewer outside Argentina are aware of.

In a sinister twist on what many now judge to have been a brutal campaign of ideological cleansing, the newborn babies of the disappeared were illegally or informally adopted by families loyal to or connected with the military, who raised them as their own, free of the “subversive” tendencies displayed by their true parents. Some were even raised by those involved in the torture and killing of their parents. The Abuelas believe there are up to 400 people who still don’t know their true identity as children of the disappeared.

The Abuelas’ campaign to recover their grandchildren, or at least to restore to them their true identity, became an important part of the campaign by human rights activists after the return of democracy. Unlike its neighbours, Argentina has sought to try its military leaders for crimes against humanity. The first post-Dirty War government, headed by President Raúl Alfonsín, set up an inquiry into the disappeared (which concluded that there had been at least 30,000 people murdered by the dictatorship, a far greater toll than any other Southern American country suffered) and the courts began to try the military officials responsible. Under immense political and military pressure, Alfonsín later limited the trials to the upper ranks of the military, and placed a deadline by which all cases were to be presented to court. When Carlos Menem won the presidency in 1989, a full amnesty was offered to both the military and those former guerrillas accused of terrorism.

It was under this amnesty that the Abuelas’ campaign became particularly important for human rights activists, as the illegal adoption or misappropriation of babies was not a crime that came under the amnesty. By proceeding with their investigations, the Abuelas could bring members of the military involved in the misappropriation of babies to trial.

When Néstor Kirchner became president in 2003, he revoked Menem’s amnesty, and since then the government (Néstor’s wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is the current president) has strongly supported both the Abuelas and their sister organization, Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) and has encouraged the courts to bring former military officials to justice.

In a landmark case earlier this year, 30-year-old Maria Eugenia Sampallo Barragán pressed charges against her adoptive parents for falsifying adoption documents and concealing her true identity. Her adoptive parents were sentenced to several years in prison.

Another case that came to light this year saw a brother and sister discover their younger sister. The two eldest siblings had been imprisoned in the infamous Naval Mechanics School, or ESMA (recently declared a National Monument and soon to become a public museum), with their parents – the brother, Marcelo Ruiz Dameri, was 5 years old and his sister Maria 3 years old. Their mother gave birth in the ESMA, after which the two elder children were abandoned at separate orphanages in distant parts of the country, while their baby sister was adopted by a military family. The younger sister, like Alejandra, was unwilling to give her DNA (which was gathered by way of a judicial warrant), and has not yet sought a relationship with her biological siblings.

The Navy Mechanics School, or ESMA (Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada)

The Navy Mechanics School, or ESMA (Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada)