Argentina Confronts Its Past

Can America Do the Same to Its Present?

Something I noticed about Argentines while visiting Buenos Aires recently: they seem to have an almost unquenchable thirst for living. Maybe that’s because, a generation ago, successive governments deprived horrifying numbers of them life’s most basic right — that of continuing it.

Beginning after the May 1969 civil uprising in Córdoba and lasting until 1983, an estimated 30,000 Argentines became desaparecidos, citizens “disappeared” by right-wing dictatorships that ruled Argentina with stinging cruelty. Of particular barbaric note were the “death flights” which entailed flinging Argentines from aircraft to plummet thousands of feet into the Atlantic Ocean or the Río de la Plata, the immense river abutting Buenos Aires.

Today, Buenos Aires hums, a terrific city full of warm people, grand architecture, wondrous food. Oh, and non-stop energy, too, especially evident every weekend night, starting around one o’clock in the morning and lasting well into the next day.

This all-night singing, shouting and laughing prompted me to ponder — pondering that typically started every weekend night somewhere around, oh, one o’clock in the morning.

I drowsily considered: Was such exuberance a natural celebratory reaction, subconscious or otherwise, to having survived unfathomable horror, a response supercharged even further by a deep-seated psychological desire to drive a figurative thumb into the eyes of the monsters who terrorized their country for fifteen hellish years, or…

Do they just really like to party?

Actually, many of the revelers weren’t even born when darkness blanketed their nation, so none of them could possibly remember it. Still, Argentina itself is beginning to speak, if yet only in whispers.

Sporadic graffiti in Buenos Aires ensure the victims aren’t forgotten. Sidewalk plaques fronting at least three buildings in town mark where and when abductions took place, listing the names of innocents ripped violently from their homes and lives inside.

Then there’s the Parque de la Memoria, Argentina’s first official memorial recognizing the nightmare. Dedicated in 2007, the 31-acre site sits beside the Río de la Plata whose silvery brown waters still conceal the bones of many desaparecidos.

I visited the park on a perfect South American spring day. Large banners, attached to a fence inside, bore black-and-white photographic portraits of hundreds of the repression’s victims. A date, static and ominous, sat below each name. Standing before the grainy images, I announced quietly, as an Argentine friend had suggested, “Presente,” then walked to the memorial nearby.

Four long walls form a giant zigzag (“designed as a gash, an open wound…,” says the park’s Web site) that angles symbolically toward the river. Victims’ names and ages are engraved here, grouped by year of disappearance. Most were in their teens, twenties or thirties when they were stolen to be tortured and killed. The oldest age I saw: 77. The youngest? Five months.

You can never get those evildoers too soon.

A park guide, Iván, told me the walls hold 9,000 names. Only 21,000 more to go. Enough space has been left to memorialize these unknowns — if identification is ever made. Not an easy task, for various reasons.

Some survivors fled Argentina, taking their awful knowledge with them. Reprisal fears have silenced others, while others silence themselves because they approved of the governments’ actions. In yet other instances, some citizens with pertinent information, especially those in small provincial towns, may never have heard of the national commission formed in 1983 to investigate and report on the abuses (which it did to a shocked Argentina in 1984). Or, if so, they’ve little interest in divulging information to any government, be it military or otherwise, given the track records.

The most horrifying reason that some desaparecidos will remain unidentified: Some entire families were erased by the state.

The cut runs so deep that even Argentines unaffected personally by the brutality have been reluctant to discuss it. Change is occurring, however. Though Argentina still has “a long way to walk,” Iván noted that some primary and secondary schools now teach about the repression. Other factors for the shift include the passage of time, “the fact that (people in the military) are starting to be judged for what they did…” and the open-mindedness of both Kirchner administrations (those of former president Néstor and current president Cristina Fernández), all hopeful developments supporting Iván’s assertion that Argentines finally are “losing their fear and…starting to talk openly about this. We have movies, TV shows…and now we have a Memory Park.”

Even after visiting the memorial, it was still impossible truly comprehending Argentina’s horror. Nothing approaching that magnitude, for example, has ever happened in the United States. But — what about outside its borders? What of those America has tortured and “disappeared” in places like Guantánamo Bay, Iraq and elsewhere? Does it really matter these were not neighbors or relatives, as was the case in Argentina? All humans deserve to live unmolested, no matter what resources they stand atop.

President-elect Barack Obama’s watchword is change. Well, as a U.S. citizen, here’s some change I could believe in: a full and open airing of the current administration’s militaristic misdeeds, followed by the appropriate prosecution of those responsible for same.

For as another weekend night in Buenos Aires would unfold alive with laughter and song, the message was (very loud and) clear: despite the pain, Argentina, by confronting its hideous legacy, had at last begun its recovery process. Conversely, America’s spirit remains sickened, poisoned by senseless war and the intolerable abuse of others. Perhaps only when we Americans fearlessly address the toxic actions of our own government can our nation’s soul also begin to heal, thereby making it possible for us, too, to celebrate unfettered our place in the sun.

Even if it’s at somewhere around, oh, one in the morning.

Mark Drolette writes in Sacramento, California. He can be reached at: mdrolette@comcast.net. Read other articles by Mark, or visit Mark's website.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Ramsefall said on December 27th, 2008 at 9:09am #

    Mark,

    confronting the ghosts of society’s past is essential for Argentina’s therapy and for future generation’s understanding of their nation’s history, obviously being undertaken at present, finally. Thanks for sharing your observations.

    On a different note, as an expat living abroad in the Americas, perhaps you can appreciate refraining from the use of America and Americans? I might suggest Wright’s failed proposal of Usonian as a more culturally sensitive descriptor, it’s something that I consistently explain to my Colombian counterparts that I encounter, and they seem to appreciate the distinction since all they, too, are Americans by birth right.

    From my experience in Latin America, adhering to the use of American for your nationality, or America to describe the United States is non-productive in dissolving the stigma of gringo mentality and exceptionalism. On the other hand, embracing a cultural distinction that doesn’t linguistically alienate the entire region known as Latin America will bring you more success with your own cultural integration in that neck of the woods. Pay attention to how differently people respond to you and how much more you are able to integrate yourself in their culture. Unless of course you prefer to be perceived as a typical, culturally insensitive gringo, which I doubt you do.

    Just a friendly suggestion to consider.

    Best to you.

  2. Mark Drolette said on December 27th, 2008 at 11:26am #

    Hola, Ramsefall,

    Point excellently made, and taken. In conversations here in Costa Rica (or elsewhere in Latin America, for that matter), I ALWAYS refrain from identifying as an “Americano” or saying “America” for the exact reasons you so eloquently lay out. Typically, I call myself an estadounidense or say I hail from los Estados Unidos. Thus, I cannot claim ignorance for the use of “America” or “Americans” in the piece.

    I plead laziness. It’s simply easier to write “American” or “America” than try to come up with suitable (read: crisp) alternatives that flow.

    However, easier or no, it shan’t happen again. Gracias for (gently) calling me on it.

    Cuidate.

    Paz,
    Mark

  3. Brian said on December 27th, 2008 at 12:45pm #

    Nice article. A complimentary piece of Argentinian historical reclamation is Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine section describing its adoption of Friedmanite economics, that, like other places it was tried, nearly destroyed the country—though you wouldn’t know that reading the U.S. mainstream media.

  4. Ramsefall said on December 27th, 2008 at 1:41pm #

    Brian,

    ditto on Klein — a sharp scholar.

    ¿Q’hubo Mark?

    I’m pleased to see that you chose to take my contribution constructively as opposed to critically, always encouraging to encounter another open and like-minded expat.

    Estadounidense is a most suitable alternative to use when talking with folks south of the border, it is comprehended internationally. I like to use Gringolandia in place of the US, it usually gets positive reactions, smiles and chuckles from conversational counterparts. Gringo is also universal, although as noted in other articles and posts, in South America it refers to non-Latino foreigners as well. Not to mention, thin-skinned gringos are too easily offended by anyone categorizing them as such… juvenile, I know.

    In Mexico, what is properly spelled ‘huero’, not ‘guero’, and pronounced ‘where-o’, has a tendency to also be derogatory, but common nonetheless. The pitfall of semantics…

    I remember upon my stumble through Costa Rica that ticos/as are common affectionate names for male/female Costa Ricans. Besides gringo are there any other designations used for Usonians and other foreigners?

    Hope all’s well for you in CR.

    Best to you.

  5. Mark Drolette said on December 27th, 2008 at 2:32pm #

    Buenas, Ramsefall,

    Constructive n’ friendly criticism is always welcome, especially when it concerns matters of cultural sensibilities/sensitivities.

    I visited Madrid once. My then-wife and I were at an outside cafe table having espresso one evening, watching what I called “the stroll,” heaven if you’re a people-watcher (which I am). There was a rather large group of very large Amer–, uh, citizens (see, I can learn), at the two tables beside us. (I called them the “pod.”) They weren’t conversing, they were braying, going on loudly about nothing at all and at times making disparaging remarks about Spaniards, as if no one within (considerable) earshot could understand a word they were saying though it was highly likely most did. (Not that they cared.) I cringed the whole time. It made me want to tell people I was from Canada.

    The point (yes, there is one) is this: From the beginning of my very limited foreign travels, I have wanted to be as respectful as possible of the local language, customs, etc. You know: a human. Yes, it is indeed terrific visiting museums and looking at thrilling architecture and tasting exotic foods (uh, sometimes), but what really makes travel exhilarating for me is the people, the personal exchanges. If I’m out there being a xenophobic clod, well, what’s the point?

    I digress. (No kidding!) Other names for gringos here, you ask? The only other one I can think of is “norteamericanos,” but I don’t use that one, either, because that could mean someone from any one of three countries. And, yes, you’re right about “gringos”: technically (for lack of a better term), “gringos” here means a non-Latino foreigner, but I think the most common inference is that it it refers to some from the U.S.

    Oh, and yes, in Costa Rica, you are correct: hay Ticos y Ticas.

    Paz,
    Mark

  6. Mark Drolette said on December 27th, 2008 at 2:41pm #

    Because I’m a writer (and anal):

    Corrections:

    “what really makes travel exhilarating for me ARE the people, the personal exchanges.”

    “‘gringO’ here means a non-Latino foreigner, but I think the most common inference is that it refers to someONE from the U.S.”

    Thank you for (re-)reading.

    Paz,
    Mark

  7. Gordon Pasha said on December 27th, 2008 at 3:42pm #

    Hello

    The number of disappeared in Argentina was estimated at around
    8961 by Conadep, an independent commission that evaluated the
    situation in detail after the return to democracy. Currently the
    Secretary of Human Rights of the Argentine government claims
    13,000 cases have been registered.

    The figure of 30,000 has been conjectured by
    human right groups without any substantiation.

    See for instance,

    http://www.clarin.com/diario/2003/10/06/p-00801.htm

    Regards
    Gordon

  8. Ramsefall said on December 28th, 2008 at 8:15am #

    Mark,

    I wish I had a ten spot for every occasion that I encountered loud, boisterous, and obnoxious paisanos de nuestro país mientras de que conozcamos mejor el mundo — the kind of folks that will certainly prompt a response such as, “Are you kidding? No, I’m from Canada.” Not to generalize, it’s just that I never see Brits or Canooks behaving so inappropriately. When the locals are staring and shaking their heads, you know that they’re pesky foreigners from the States. At least that’s my experience.

    You hit the nail on the head, traveling is certainly about meeting the locals and conversing with them, hence the reason for learning foreign languages to begin with…the real key to cultural understanding. And people-watching without criticism, just observation, is an easily adopted pastime, especially in Spain.

    You too have an Ex from Spain? Aren’t we the lucky ones?

    We should continue this discussion elsewhere, I’ve got other questions for you, Mark. Drop me a line at: moc.liamgnull@ognirgtapxe, we’ll swap stories and experiences.

    Best to you.

  9. Lily Langtry said on January 1st, 2009 at 1:18pm #

    Actually, Gordon, the CONADEP documented 8961 specific cases, it didn’t estimate the number. It freely admitted that there were more cases, but due to time and financial constraints it couldn’t list them all.
    http://web.archive.org/web/20031014130919/nuncamas.org/english/library/nevagain/nevagain_209.htm

    The number of 30,000 is taken from cross-referencing differents list of the missing and reports from families. ‘Up to 30,000′ may be a more accurate way of expressing it; some academics use lower estimates of between 15,000 and 20,000, but I am not aware of any who suggest that the CONADEP figure is a maximum number.