Children of Disappeared Create Archive of Identity

“We know that a rape or beating has certain effects on the victim. But growing up in a complete lie, with the possibility that those who raised you are your parent’s assassins or their accomplices, not even Freud had written anything about it.”
– Abel Madariaga, Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association.

Simone Duarte

“We know that a rape or beating has certain effects on the victim. But growing up in a complete lie, with the possibility that those who raised you are your parent’s assassins or their accomplices, not even Freud had written anything about it.”
– Abel Madariaga, Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association.

In a society that struggles with its past, a small group of youngsters in Buenos Aires is quietly taking active steps to address issues that haunt Argentines since the end of the dictatorship in 1983. In building an archive, the Archive of Identity, this new generation is recovering the identities of individual lives as well as helping to consolidate the collective memory and historical consciousness.

For most of their lives, Mariana Pérez and Juliana García have been hearing voices from the past. Both were babies when their parents were kidnapped by the military in the last military dictatorship (1976 to 1983). Both had their parents “disappeared” and killed by the state. Both mothers were pregnant when taken by the military. Their grandmothers, who have tried desperately to find their children and grandchildren, raised them. Mariana and Juliana, now in their twenties, were left with many unanswered questions.

Each began her own search. They became the pioneers of the Archivo de la Identidad (Archive of Identity) — a unique attempt by the new generation of Argentines to deal with the past; with “something that cannot be healed... something for which there are no words,” to quote psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Dori Laub.

By the time the dictatorship ended in Argentina in 1983, human rights groups estimate there were 30,000 “desaparecidos”—people who were kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the military—the government puts the number at 9,000. Among the “desaparecidos” were pregnant women and children who were taken with their parents.

Most of the children and babies born in captivity were given to families of military officers or policemen who couldn’t have children and were raised unaware of their true story. Besides giving babies to officers who could not have them, the goal of the regime was to raise the children “free” of the “subversive” ideas of their real parents. Five hundred children—now in their twenties—are believed to be living unaware of the truth.

Mariana and Juliana spent most of their lives thinking about the horror they and their siblings share. “The horror of finding out that they are not who they thought they were; they weren’t born the day they were told they were; their names are not the ones their parents gave them, the people they called ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ could have assassinated or tortured their real parents; the horror of spending your life looking for your siblings.” Since 1977, The Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo) have been trying to find their grandchildren. Today, 86 have recovered their real identity.

The Archive became a powerful tool to reconcile the grandchildren with their own history. Instead of accounts of tortures or reports on assassinations, the Archive collects personal stories, recounts life experiences, biographical accounts. In-depth interviews with friends and relatives of the ones who “disappeared” during the so-called “dirty war” and recordings of their stories allow the recovery of their memory while establishing a dialogue between past and present.

Monica Muñoz, one of the Archive coordinators, explains that there is a cultural heritage in the daily life of a family that parents pass instinctively to their children, a kind of chain. For the kids who were kidnapped, this chain was broken. The primary goal of the Archive is to help the youngsters when they are found to recover and reconstruct this chain and their own identity. One of the consequences of the state sponsored terrorism is the appearance of “desaparecidos” as a new social actor.

The “disappeared” are very present in Argentine society: all the accounts of tortures, assassinations, and kidnapping are on file. What is not present is who they were, what they were trying to do, why they disappeared. This is exactly what the Archive tries to answer. “In showing that they had names, families, which soccer team they used to support, the kind of food they liked, the Archive shows that there were people behind a number,” says Monica Muñoz.

For Argentine psychiatrist David Feierstein, to recover the identity of the disappeared as social subjects with their own history and practices rather than victims of hate crimes against humanity constitutes a practice of memory that allows the possibility that this past could be transformed into a new present. “Memory is not a spontaneous record but something constructed through certain frames that make it possible, as a social practice it requires supporting materials and instruments. In this sense, the Archive of Identity becomes a backup to memory, the identity of each of the disappeared is reconstructed, at the same time the whole social group has its identity restored benefiting the whole of Argentine society,” explains Feierstein.

In 1998, when Mariana and Juliana started interviewing relatives, friends, and people close to their parents, they were guided by survival instinct. But today, the work receives academic and institutional support from the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and the University of Buenos Aires. More than 30 professionals guided the project and a 100 university students have taken part in the project to reconstruct the identity of the “disappeared.” More than one thousand interviews have been done all over the country and stories of over 400 couples have been reconstructed.

Mariana found her brother a couple of years ago and is learning to reconcile herself with his own past. Juliana is still trying to find hers. Nine of the Argentines who were raised unaware of their real story have been given their parent’s archives. “It is important to sons and daughters when they are found to be able to recover their own identities. Even if they don’t want to live with their real family, they have the chance to know, so it becomes their choice,” concludes coordinator Monica Muñoz. “It contributes to two births: the child is born again, and the ‘disappeared’ themselves are reborn in the societal level; now with a past, with a history, with a name—not merely a figure or a symbol of terror.”

Simone Duarte is a Brazilian journalist whose credits include a 2002 International Emmy nomination for the news coverage of the 9/11 attacks and a 2001 Honorable Mention from the United Nations Correspondents Association for her television series on East Timor. She was the New York bureau chief of Brazil's TV Globo and has 15 years experience as a television producer, writer and correspondent. In 2004, she directed and produced En Route to Baghdad about the late UN envoy in Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello. The film was featured at the Tribeca film Festival in 2005 and was broadcast by PBS among other foreign TV stations in France, Nigeria, Brazil and Portugal. 

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