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The Hijos of Buenos Aires:  When Identity is Political

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Photo by Julian Vigo.

How can we recount history, when the very subjects of history are vanished?  How can we retain or even construct identity, when the agents of memory cannot tell their stories?  Take away the persons who are eye-witnesses to historical facts and you have destroyed most every chance that certain stories can be told.  And when 30,000 Argentinians are disappeared, how can their stories be told?  More poignantly, how can we even know that they existed given that all traces of their lives have been quite literally disappeared?

Here at Pueyredón Parc is this statue of Uriburu, a 19th century Argentine president whose graffittied inscription below, “non sos lo que pensas,” is symbolic of a society that since the end of the military junta in 1983 has searched for identity, both individual and collective.  Since the creation of CONADEP (National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons) and its subsequent publication Nunca Más   (Never Again) (1985) which chronicles many of the atrocity of the «dirty war», there has been a concerted effort on the part of the Argentine government and private organisations to exact the identities of approximately 30,000 desaparecidos.

Alicia Elena Alfonsín de Cabandie was 16 years old and lived in the house of her in-laws, in Entre Ríos, her birthplace, when she was taken by the police  It was November 24, 1977, at 18h00 when she returned from the drugstore that ten men, dressed in civilian clothes, carrying arms, approached Alicia and arrested her…. Alicia was seven months pregnant… Ana María and sara S. de Osatinsky could see her in the ESMA (Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada) a few days after Christmas 1977.  In accordance with the testimony in the mentioned attachments, Alicia arrived at the ESMA with her hair almost completely shaved in “El Banco.”  She shared the room with other pregnant women and witnessed the separation of each of these women from their children imagining her luck would be different.  A few days later, just before giving birth, Alicia had a conversation with Mayor Minicucci, chief of the C.C.D. “El Banco.”who told Alicia that she too would be separated from her child… She had a baby boy between February and March 1978.  The doctor who assisted in the delivery was Dr. Jorge Luis Magnacco.  The baby stayed with her fifteen days.  Moments before the separation, the sub-prefect, Héctor Favre, asked Alicia if she wanted to sent a letter to her family advising them that she was detained and asking them if they would take care of her child.  Alicia wrote the letter and left it next to her baby.  During the night the baby was taking away by a sub-official .  Nobody knew any more about Alicia, her baby nor her husband, Damian.  The Commission received other complaints regarding pregnant adolescents who were also detained and who disappeared.  They are: Laura Beatriz Segarra, 18 years old, eight months pregnant; Inés Beatriz Ortega de Fossati who gave birth in the Commissariat V of La Plata; Nidia Beatriz Muñoz, 18 years old, four  months pregnant; Noemí Josefina Jansenson de Arcuschin, 18 years old, three months pregnant.  Nobody knows about the appearance of these people, nor about those who organised their disappearances (326-327).

This is just one of the stories of Nunca Más whose preface heralds a democratic expression of truth telling whereby: “[W]e can be sure that never again in our country will such acts that have made us tragically famous in the civilised world be repeated” (11).  CONADEP together with other organisations such as Memoría Abierta, Archivos de la Memoría, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the Abuelas and HIJOS, have been working since Argentina’s military junta  to name and denounce the crimes of the state during its eight years of terror, evidencing those criminals who, during the various Argentine governments following 1983, escaped prosecution and accountability. What is fascinating about these recuperations is not just their unique points of cultural performance, but moreso, it is their polyvalent approach to visual, literary, and performative cultures which merit examination.   Indeed, each cultural artefact does not function as an independent social process, but rather operates as part of a larger heterogeneous construction of public mourning  and longing to reconstruct that which is not there—memory and the body.

For instance,  CONADEP was a primarily literary venue for publishing various accounts of its investigations which were mostly judiciary.  The Madres, a private organisation of mothers of the disappeared, was formed during the junta militar and resulted in some of its founding members also being disappeared.  Largely due to the Madres, whose weekly marches through the present day demanding accountability for the desaparecidos, the people of Argentina have been consistently politically informed and encouraged to fight for unveiling the truth of the disappeared.  Their Thursday manifestations take place in the downtown centre, the Plaza de Mayo, and are but one of many physical recuperations of the city that I investigate here.

Diana Taylor’s book, Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1997), demonstrates the Abuelas who moved the fight from the streets into art galleries whereby photos of the disappeared women known to be pregnant with children were exhibited as the lineage, interrupted by disappearance of their grandchild, unaware of her destiny.  And finally, the HIJOS, the organisation composed of true hijos of the disappeared and those who are in solidarity with the hijos is a group whose very existence poses challenges for the writing of history when during the junta, lies were spread to cover the horrors of the state, lies which many reverberated within public and quotidian discourse, such as radio emissions that announced that many of the reports of missing students were false and that they students left for holiday in Europe.  As Ilda Micucci, a mother who lost two of her children during the “dirty war.”

People used to say when others were disappeared, “If they were taken, there must have been a reason…  The television and radio also disseminated that the missing students went to Europe.”  But I remember people who were good friends, who knew my children since they were small, who could not grasp when I would tell them the the government had detained my children in my house and that they took then away and that I didn’t know where they were because nobody told me anything.  They couldn’t believe it.  And they even said, “Could it be that they went to Europe” and I said, “How can you tell me this? How can you tell me that my children would leave to Europe without telling me.” But that is how certain people just didn’t “get it.”that they could have taken my children away and then they said nothing and they did nothing.”

At what point, then, is identity a socio-political reality constructed from the outside in, a forced consensus of narratives of sorts?

In Identification Papers (1995), Diana Fuss examines identity vis a vis Freudian theories of the self:  the incorporation of the other from the relation of the self to food in Totem and Taboo to the act of mourning in which the lost object of love is converted into identification (35-37), Fuss notes “not all losses, it seems, can be recuperated.  Trauma, defined as the withdrawal of the Other, marks the limit case of a loss that cannot be assimilated.  To the extent that identification is always also about what cannot be taken inside, what resist incorporation, identification is only possible”(39).  As Fuss’ work strives to decipher the OED definition of identification, “the act of identifying or fact of being identified,” it is mostly her reliance on Freud’s model of infection, the diseased subject, through which alterity is formulated and through which the subject is “taken over” whereby it becomes the carrier of difference.  But the notion of infection presupposes a the “fact of being identified” from without, rather than examining the interstices between this and the valence of identifying oneself or another.

In her chapter on homosexuality and anthropophagi, Fuss analyses Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs and Milwaukee’s own Jeffrey Dahmer, the “real” Hanibal Lector, stating:  “Identification is itself an act of serial killing.  Viewed through the lens of psychoanalysis, “seriality”and “killing”denote the defining poles of the identificatory process.  At the base of every identification lies a murderous wish: the subject’s desire to cannibalise the other who inhabits the place it longs to occupy” (93).  The orality of sexuality and identification, Fuss argues, bestows the reader with the tools to read anthropophagi, storytelling, prohibition, and eroticism as the “primal scene of identification (a scene in which the sexual is still indistinguishable from the alimentary) is founded by a criminal act—an act of carnal desire and corporeal violence” (96).

To the extent that Fuss’ notion of identification (to resemble and incorporate the other) is composed of historical, political, and linguistic factors, she relies heavily on metaphor as a means of proving that Freudian identification is much more than just a trope.  But what if identification were to be examined outside of a purely psychoanalytic approach and instead framed within the social and political repositories of storytelling, journalism, political demonstrations, multi-media performances, and installations?  For what Fuss has left out in her study is that identification might just be a conterminous act of identifying and of being identified.  As much a political act as is it psychological, identification is inevitably a part of what we call identity, those references gleaned from such acts to and by the subject, or even narratives recuperated in the name of the [lost] subject or a group dynamics (irrespective of the subject at times).  Identification of the subjects who are removed—vanished even—where the reality of their disappearance is that their remains lie at the bottom of Río de la Plata where they were thrown alive from airplanes, or in mass graves in and around city centres like Buenos Aires.
The process of identification has come to mean for Argentinian society a rehashing of histories, of teasing lies from truths, and of negotiating the masses in the struggle to incorporate a democratic voice for properly identifying both the whereabouts and the facts surrounding the desaparecidos.  This process attempts to challenge the former official narrative of a particularly dark period in Argentine history while creating a cultural dialogue and critique of official history.  In fact, the state during the height of Argentina’s military junta often mocked the notion of its desaparecidos.  “Where are they?” was inevitably the response may families heard from the local government official.  Hence the orality that becomes the root of social justice is transposed from the body of the disappeared to the living who speaks in clear and loud tones of the crimes against her loved one.  In the absence of the body, there is yet another story obfuscated by absurd tales that would have an entire society believe that all 30,000 Argentines went on a secret holiday in Europe.

During my research in Buenos Aires, I worked with many of the members of HIJOS (Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio) an organisation founded by both children of the disappeared and those who are sympathetic to the search for the disappeared.  HIJOS believe that the disappeared is not only a personal or familial problem, but that it is especially a social and mass political problem resolvable only by pressure being exerted on the government and through manifestations of a vocal public shaming of those connected with the desaparecidos (escraches) in the recuperation of public space and public memory.  As Lola explains to me: “Todos somos hijos de la misma historia” (“We are all children of the same history”).

It is in this recuperation of space, history and memory that HIJOS realised dialogue that, though painful, approximate the next best thing to judicial justice when the government and courts fail.  Marco tells me: “Yes, it is what happens when there is no justice so you have to make your own.  Or rather, if justice does not work, you have to use pressure as in the escrache, whereby such an activity creates justice.  If the judicial apparatus does not function, you have to make it function from the other side.”  Or Maria, who maintains that she doesn’t want to forgot, nor to pardon or pity those who murdered her friends:  “At least we should speak out.”  But where do the valences of storytelling, truth-telling, memory recuperation, and history-making meet?  Or might these be impossibly at odds with one another?

In the 2000s in Argentina, the recuperation of identity for much of the population—especially those aged between 24 and and 32—took place through this public act of speaking out while destroying of social codes of conduct within the space of the escraches.  As physical identification of DNA through the existing family members revealed more and more children of the disappeared in Argentina, the use of escraches came to be part of a larger performance where individual lives were recognised—both the living child and the dead, disappeared parent— and where the geographical re-appropriation of public space becames part of this symbolic recuperation of  the “restos” (remains), of the dead.

On April 4, 2003 Horacio found out that he was the son of desaparecidos.  His father, and mother, both students, were killed and he was given to an “appropriating family.” (what Horacio and other hijos call the families who knowingly took children from unusual circumstances).  Horacio, then 27 years of age, discovered that he was an hijo and three months later, the remains of his father were found.  And three weeks before our meeting, Horacio’s mother’s remains were found.  He explains his new identity:

Identity is what marks you as a person, what makes you real as a person.  A person constructs his identity during his whole life, no?  But we say that adolescence is the stronger, when one goes seeking out this identity.  And for us today, to be able to discover our parents leaves us with an delayed adolescence because of the deceit and the charades.  Oh, well, it is well that I can reconstruct who were my parents, it is great to know that the tricks will not go on for generations, that my children will know the true history and not that which they wanted to impose on me.  And after all, it is all great, you know, to know my real name, my real date of birth.” “You changed your name.”I ask Horacio.  “Of course, I have the real one now.  Now I am called “Horacio.”before they called me “Césa.”  Before I had one birthday, now I have another. And this is identity.  It is something that your mother leaves you, that with which they mark you the day you are born.  It seems to me that to violate a child from infancy of this right just fucks with you, wouldn’t you say?

I remember what Ilda Micucci told me about the police as she showed me their neatly typed and perfectly sealed and signed letters which reported her children “not missing” simply because the police could not “find” them.   Horacio recounted his experiences with his “appropriating family,” how when he told them that a judge had summoned him to get tested in the Hospital Durand, a DNA forensics laboratory in Buenos Aires, the response from his mother was: “Let me see the paper.”  Horacio’s biological grandmother and aunt had left blood in Hospital Durand, and it was through this hospital’s samples of their DNA that he finally found his true identity.  Horacio joined the Abuela’s since and has been fighting for the location of other children of the disappeared and for what he believes is most important:  the social condemnation of the dirty war’s tactics. But what Horacio found when returning to his old barrio where he had been raised in Buenos Aires was disillusioning:

What happened in my old neighbourhood was crazy…I asked everyone, “Do you remember Lina, the pregnant woman? She who pretended to be my mother? They told me,  “No, that was so many years ago.  We were new in the neighbourhood and we didn’t notice.” And then shortly thereafter, I learned that everybody knew that I was the son of desaparecidos.  Because when they saw me, telling my story everyone surrounded me in building number 6, one block from my house and someone said, “I always knew, but everyone knew.  They would say the guy next door, a rumour, you understand?  “This kid is the son of a desaparecido.”  And this was the last that I heard of this.  It gave me a sense of having been defrauded, a bit, like I was offended and tricked by a ton of people.  

There is a double reading of Horacio by everyone surrounding him.  The reading of guilt in attempting to negate what people suspected about Horacio’s “appropriating family” narratives that people allowed, though nobody ever saw Horacio’s mother pregnant.  As Horacio grew up he realised he didn’t look like his parents, that he didn’t have anything in common with them.  He began to be curious about why there were no photos of him from the hospital, no photos at all of his mother pregnant with him.  The stories and the facts no longer matched and they were finally mended when in 2005 Horacio was given his mothers’ bones, finally putting an end to his curiosity and pain.  He turns to me and states, “It seems to me that this end is the most positive…It seems to me that I am going to close things, that there are kids out there who know all their life that they are children of the disappeared and that can never end it.”

I learned of Juancito from Horacio who told me that one day he met up with many other hijos, each one introducing themselves, stating where they were born.  When it came to Juancito’s turn, Horacio tells me,  he said that Juancito bragged saying  “I was born on the Avenida del Liberador.”  Horacio laughs while telling me the story because Avenida del Liberador, in the centre of Buenos Aires, is much like Park or Madison Avenue for Manhattan, with this particular avenue holding some of the wealthiest homes in the city.  But it stretches far out from the city centre towards the ESMA  (The Higher School of Mechanics of the Navy), the detention centre where Juancito was, quite literally born in 1978.  His father, Damián Cabandié, was 19 when he was disappeared, his mother, Alicia Alfonsín, 16, on 23 November 1977.  His father fought in a resistance group, Montoneros.  When his parents were taken away, Juancito was not yet born:  his father was taken to Atlético and his mother, la ESMA.   Juancito was born in sometime mid March 1978 and was with his mother only twenty days before she was killed.  Juancito was then given to a federal police officer to bring home as his own.  Juancito found out he was an hijo in January, 2004 since which time he also joined HIJOS, participating in the escraches and siluetazos (paper body silhouettes posted throughout Argentina’s sites of disappearance which represent the disappeared).   Through much protest, the ESMA was finally created as a public space for memory and now serves as the museum for Memoría Abierta.

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Photo by Julian Vigo.

HIJOS organise escraches in front of the homes of ex-military officers who have escaped trial, priests who were often complicit with Videla’s government, and police who were henchman for the government.  These escraches have come to mean justice and performances of truth telling for the neighbourhood, and often, as they are mediatised, for the country.  Martín, a participant in escraches who is not a member of HIJOS says he participates to say, “Well if I don’t judge you, then let the people judge you, that they might know that you are a shit and that you have to go to jail.”  Or Silvina who tells me she has been contemplating memory a lot lately:

There are many words that one uses that are, that one uses more because, even thought they are abstract or, for example, “sad.”these persons who were once sad now know what sadness means, because we understand sadness.  I realise that when we say  “memory.”there is not one particular sensation that the word “memor.”brings, not one sensation of memory.  The reconstruction of memory has to do with the question of creating in the body, of living the memory.  To create in the body, in the veins, that which is memory.  The memory that we reconstruct not that we make in the head, we don’t create this because it is a thought in theory.  They always live in memory, means to find our parents, in this case my father, to find him in myself…So what is memory?  I begin to feel that memory is a space of creation of this person who is missing.  Yes, missing physically, and also spiritually; his desire that I might be free, happy, the daughter he dreamed of, that I go on living.  This is memory for me.

The escraches and street re-commemorations take place at all the former detention centres, such as Garaje Olimpo, where outside are posters, signs, books being sold.  Hermanos y Vecinos, another group hosts an event that will rename a street upon which Garaje Olimpo stands, the Calle Coronel Ramón L. Falcon, named after one of the cruelest military actors in the dirty war.  Gabriel, whose brother was disappeared, recounts each graffiti on Olimpo’s walls.  As I take pictures of these murals and inside the infamous garage/torture centre, Gabriel explains that this is a day for recuperating not only memory, but also space, where we can re-narrate history to include everyone in the community and their children.  He informs me that people have tried to have the name change of Calle Falcón, and even another square down the road.  They want to name it Ché Guevara, he tells me laughing.

The 2000s in Argentina was a time of change for the country where even those who were not disappeared, were never certain of their true identity.  Claudia Carlotto, director ofComisión Nacional por el Derecho a la Identidad, reminds me of the vast numbers of Argentines coming to register as possible hijos: 1,200.  Out of this number, only 12 are truly children of the disappeared.  Many Argentine adults began questioning their origins which led to a generational crisis of identity in which everyone is searching for themselves regardless of being a true hijo or not.

Claudia and I discuss the mass movements of Argentine youth to the Virgin of Luján, a place of pilgrimage just outside of Buenos Aires, where youth—religious or not—make trips each year to reach this famous place.  And the story of this national figure is interesting and varied in each retelling I would hear.  Luján is a virgin whose body was supposedly  brought down the river from Brazil.  According to one myth, she was brought to a church in a great carriage pulled by animals who could no longer make the journey.  In yet another version of this story, her body floated in the river and where it drifted ashore a church was built in her honour.  There her image and memory would be rendered permanent within the Iglesia de Luján.  According to Horacio,  “She obviously did not want to leave there.”  The Virgin of Luján is the patron saint of Argentina and it is through this search for the metaphorical bodies lost in the Rio de la Plata that Argentina continues to tell its stories and fight for a history that is democratic and inclusive of those disappeared.

Indeed, when history is interrogated and put back to include the silent and the dead, it must be stated that none of us are not what we think.

More articles by:

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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