Uncovering History and Rematerializing the City:
The Hijos of Buenos Aires

[Conference: “Media, Arts, Politics”, The International Association for Philosophy and Literature, Freiburg, Germany]

How can we recount history, when the very subjects are vanished?  How can we retain or even construct identity, when the agents of memory cannot tell their stories?  Inasmuch as storytelling and history are intertwined what most fascistic and totalitarian organisations have learned in order to retain power is this:  take away the persons who eye-witnesses to the facts and you have destroyed most every chance that the 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 symbollic of a society that since the end of the junta militar in 1983 has searched for identity, both individual and collective.  Since the creation of CONADEP (Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas) and its subsequent publication Nunca Más (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 mentionned 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 subprefect, 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 adn left it next to her baby.  During the night the baby was taking away by a subofficial .  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 disappeard.  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 organized their disappearances (326-327).

This is the tenure and these are 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 civilized world be repeated” (11).  CONADEP together with other organizations such as Memoría Abierta, Archivos de la Memoría, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the Abuelas and HIJOS, have been working since the Junta Militar 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 together need to be studied.   Indeed, each cultural artifact 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 consistantly politically informed and encouraged to fight for unveiling the truth of the disappeared.  Their Thursday manifestations take place in the downtown center, 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”, 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 quotidien 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 reaason…  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 or merely an informal, even vulgar, consensus of narratives?

In Identification Papers, 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 objecct of love is converted into identification (35-37), Fuss notes “not all losses, it seems, can be recuperated.  Trauma, defined as the withdrawl 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 examines Johnathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs and Milwakee’s own Jeffrey Dalmer, the “real” Hanibal Lector, stating:  “Identification is itself an act of serial killing.  Viewed through the lens of psychoanlaysis, “seriality” and “killing” denote the defining poles of identificatory process… At the base of every identification lies a murderous wish: the subject’s desire to cannibalize the other who inhabits the place it longs to occupy” (93).  Fuss maintains that the sexuality of the cannibal Lector helps Clarice seek out, Jame Gumb, is purely somatic and spread out over and across the body via his fetish for making clothes with women’s skin and that his sexuality rests upon the camera eye which disembodies Gumb before the camera in the first part of the movie where he dances in front of the camera and we are shown extreme close-ups of his body which are in parallel to his brutal mutilation of his victim’s bodies.  And this tale is all the while told and preread to Clarice from the equally orally incorporating mouth of Hanibal Lecter who can spin words out as fast as he bites mouths and tongues.  The orality of sexuality and identification in Fuss bestows the reader with the tools to read anthropophagi, storytelling, prohibition and eroticism as the “primal secen 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.

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 merely a trope.  But what if identification were to be examined outside of a purely psychoanalytical approach and instead posited within the social and political repositories of storytelling, journalism, demonstrations and 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, idenitification 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 whereby the subjects who are removed, vanished it would seem, but the realities of most have indicated that they remain at the bottom of Río de la Plata where they were thrown alive from airplanes or in mass graves in and around city centers such as Buenos Aires.  As part of the process of identification, a somatic retracing of lost bodies, unconfirmined — ableit supposed — deaths, 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 desparecidos, as well as maintaining a memoría abierta,  a cultural dialogue regarding the critique of official history and memories. Indeed, the orality is removed, the disappeared subject can no longer speak.  In fact, the state during the junta laughs in the face of such an idea of desaparecidos:  ”Where are they?” was inevitably the response.  Hence the oralilty that becomes the root of social justice is transposed from the body of the disappeared to her mother, who speaks in clear and loud tones the crime and of the child, whose somatic presence evidences that there is another story obfuscated by absurd tales that would have us all believe that 30,000 Argentines went on holiday in Europe.  Were we really willing to believe this.

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 organization founded by both children of the disappeared and those who are sympathetic to the search for the disappeared because the HIJOS believe that the disappeared is not only a personal or familial problem, but it especially a social and mass political problem resolveable only by pressure on the government and by communication with communities through manifestations (escraches) set up to involve all of society at large in the recuperation of public space and public memory.  As Lola explains: «Todos somos hijos de la misma historia».  It is in this recuperation of space, history and memory that HIJOS realized 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 do it on your own.  Or rather if justice does not work, you have to use pressure as in the escrache, such an activity whereby you make justice.  If the judicial apparatus does not function, you have to make it function from the other side, let’s say».  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 recuperating and history making meet?  Or might theese be impossibiy at odds with one another is we are to believe De Certeau’s La fable mystique wherein he states that literature is the «proof, through language, of an ambiguous passage from presence to absence; literature attests a slow transformation from the religious scene to a lover’s scene, or from one of faith to one of eroticism; literature tells how a body «touched» by desire and injured, written by another, replaces the revealing and didactic word.  The mystics fight against mourning, this nocturnal angel.  For them, the medievale propédeutique froms an assimilation of the truth becomes one body to the next» (13).   I maintain that the recuperation of identity, commonplace in Argentina’s population aged between 24 and and 32 takes place through the orality of speaking out, the destruction of social codes of conduct within the space of the escraches, physical identification of DNA through the existing family members and the geographical reappropriation of public spaces as a means of recuperating the «restos», the remains, of the dead.

Horacio

On April 4, 2003 Horacio found out that he was the son of desaparecidos.  His father, a student, and mother, a student of psychology, were both killed and he was given to a family by a military family to the «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 «César».  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 discovering his new identity and has been fighting for the location of other hijos 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 neighborhood 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 naighborhood 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, teling my story everyone surrounded me in building number 6, one block from my house and somone said, «I always know, but everyone knew.  They would say the goy next door, a rumor, you undestand?  «This kids is the son of a desaparecido».  And this was the last that I heard of this.  It gave me a send of having been defrauded, a bit, like I was offended and tricked by a ton of people.

There is 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 realized 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 are finally mended two years ago when Horacio was given his mothers’ bones putting an end to his curiosity and pain adding «It seems to me that this end is the mas positive…It seems to me that I am going to close things, that there are kids out there who know all thier life that they are children of the disappeared and that can never end it».

 

Juancito

I learned of Juancito from Horacio who told me that one day all of the hijos were meeting up one day, each one explaining where they were born.  When it came to Juancito’s turn, Horacio tells me,  he said that Juancito bragged saying  «Pero yo nací en la avenida del Liberador». And Horacio laughs while telling me the story.   Avenida del Liberador is, in the Center of Buenos Aires much like Park or Madison Avenue, holding some of the richest residences in the city.  But it stretches far out from the city center, where it holds the ESMA  (Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada) where Juancito was, quite literally born, 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 by the name of Montoneros.  When they were taken away, Juancito was not yet born:  his father taken to Atlético and his mother, la ESMA.   Juancito was born in sometime mid March 1978 and is with his mother only twenty days before she is killed.  He was given to a federal police officer to bring home as his own.  Juancito found out he was an hijo January, 2004 since which time Juancito participates in hijos and in the escraches siluetazos which have led to the ESMA being created as a space for Memory and will soon serve as the museum for Memoría Abierta.

HIJOS organize escraches in front of the homes of ex-military officers who have excaped 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 neighborhood, and often, as they are mediatized, 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 thoought they are abstact or, for example, «sad», these persons who were once sad now know what sadness means, because we understand sadness.  I realize that when we say  «memory», there is not one particular sensation that the word «memory» 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 fo creation of this person who is missing.  Yes, missing physically, and also spritually; 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 recommemorations take place at all the former detention centers, such as Garaje Olimpo, where outside are posters, signs, books being sold, and the Hermanos y Vecinos, another group of disappeared hosts an event that will rename a street upon which 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 graffitti on Olimpo’s walls as I try to take pictures from outside hoping to see inside as he explains that this is a day for recuperating no only memory, but space, of renarrating history for everyone in the community and their children.  Gabriel informs me that people have tried to have the name change of Calle Falcón, and even the square down a bit, they want to name Ché Guevara, and he laughs.

Claudio Carlotto, director for Archive de la memoria 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 question their origins leading to  generational crisis of identity in which everyone is searching for themselves regardless of being an hijo or not.  We discuss the mas movements of Argentine youth to the Virgen de Luján, a place of pilgrimmage just outside of Buenos Aires, where youth religous or not, make trips each year to reach the Virgin.  And her story is interesting and varied in each retelling:  she is supposed a virgen whose body was brought down the river from Brasil (Horacio told me Salta), and she was brough to a church in a great carriage pulled by animals who could no longer make the trip.  In one version of this story,her body floated in the river and where it landed a church was built in her honor, the Iglesia de Luján becuase, accordign to Horacio «she obviously did not want to go away from there».  She is the patron saint of Argentina and it is through this search for the metaphorical bodies lost in the Rio de la Plata that this society continues to tell its stories and manifest for a history that is democratic and inclusive of the voices of those who are still floating in the polyvalence of possible meanings and utterances.