Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo

Defying a Military Regime for the Disappeared

Amid all the current crises around the world, there are old conflicts that still are writing new chapters. In the 1970s and 1980s the brutality of dictatorships in Latin America and civil wars in Central America filled our news. In recent years, some moving stories have come to the fore. In Argentina a child stolen from his arrested mother (who was later killed) was reunited as an adult with his grandmother. And Pope Francis lifted the ban on the beatification of Oscar Romero of El Salvador who had been assassinated by a Salvadoran death squad. Please, join us in discovering, once again, that some old war stories eventually reach final chapters full of healing grace.
Daniel Buttry

President Cristina Fernández greets members of Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo during an event at the Casa de Gobierno in Argentina.

President Cristina Fernández greets members of Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo during an event at the Casa de Gobierno in Argentina.
Casa Rosada/CC BY-SA 2.0/Wikimedia Commons

Las Locas de Plaza de Mayo they were called—the madwomen of the Plaza de Mayo or the crazy ones. They must have been crazy to challenge the Argentine military, which had seized power in a 1976 coup. They must have been crazy because their own children had been seized by the military or police and disappeared. They must have been crazy because some of them were arrested and never seen again. But they kept coming to the central square in Buenos Aires in silent vigil to protest the systemic violence of the military regime. Eventually the madwomen became the conscience of a nation seared by violence and fear, leading the way out of one of the darkest chapters of Argentina’s history.

Military coup d’état in Argentina

The Argentine military overthrew a stumbling democratic government and launched a national security policy that sought the extermination of all subversives. A subversive was not just a member of the small leftist insurgency, but anyone who opposes the Argentine way of life—as defined by the nation’s generals. General Ibérico Saint Jean said, First we will kill all the subversives; then we will kill their collaborators; then … their sympathizers, then … those who remain indifferent; and finally we will kill the timid.

Atrocities of the Dirty War

The generals cast a wide net of repression in what was to be called the Dirty War. First in night raids, then in broad daylight, soldiers or police seized students, academics, journalists, artists, union leaders, and anyone who raised any kind of a voice of protest as well as people who seemed completely apolitical. Those seized were subjected to torture: beatings, electric shock, near drowning, faces smashed with hammers, dislocated bones, rape, and being hung upside down. Babies born to pregnant prisoners were stolen. An estimated 30,000 of those detained disappeared. After the regime was overthrown, it was revealed that many of those who disappeared were taken in helicopters and dropped into the ocean. A mother said, Nothing can do more human harm than the pain of such long years of uncertainty—of simply not knowing. The passing days with their alternations of feeble, fading hope and hopeless depression cause a grave deterioration of spirit and body. All of Argentina was paralyzed with terror.

Argentine Women Organize

A few women began to recognize each other in the lines at the police stations of those seeking information about missing relatives. One of the hurdles they had to overcome was the shame and suspicion that came from the government-promoted notion that anyone arrested was guilty and deserved harsh treatment. As these women talked together, they realized that their loved ones did not deserve this. Provoked by their grief and anger, they decided to act. On Saturday, April 30, 1977 fourteen women gathered at the Plaza de Mayo in the center of Buenos Aires to protest the disappearance of their children. Then they realized that Saturday was not a good day to confront officials since government offices were closed, so they switched their upcoming actions to Thursday.

Growing Numbers

The next Thursday twenty women gathered—the numbers swelled each succeeding week. The women wore white scarves. Sometimes they carried photographs of their children. They filed a collective petition of habeas corpus in the courts. The police drove them away with guns. When that did not keep them away, the police arrested them. Eventually some of the women disappeared themselves—but more stepped forward.

The distinctive white shawl protest graffiti of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo makes its mark in Bariloche's central square.

The distinctive white shawl protest graffiti of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo makes its mark in Bariloche’s central square.
McKay Savage/CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia Commons

Nonviolent Action

Published Resistance

In spite of the heavy censorship, the Mothers published a paid advertisement in the La Prensa newspaper. Boldly resisting the fear that the military repression had instilled in the general population, 237 women signed the advertisement demanding to know where their relatives were. It was the first message of resistance to the policy of the generals that went out in the press.

Petition for Investigation of Disappearances

Then the Mothers developed a national petition that listed 571 people who had disappeared and 61 people detained without charges, demanding an investigation and due process of law in these cases. They gathered more than 24,000 signatures from supporters. During a demonstration of 800 Mothers, they presented the petition to the government.

Military Repression

Initially, the Mothers had been ignored. Then they were called madwomen, las Locas. As their resistance expanded and grew in boldness, the military knew they had a serious challenge on their hands. A high-level military officer infiltrated the group and called in a police raid. A dozen people were arrested. Then in a follow-up raid Azucena De Vicenti was kidnapped. She had been one of the founders of the Mothers and a leader. None of those arrested were ever seen again.

Continued Resistance

Surviving members of the group continued their actions. They appealed to the world press. When international dignitaries visited, they set up demonstrations at the statue of San Martin, the liberator of Argentina, a traditional stop for foreign visitors. During the 1978 World Cup soccer championships the women exposed their vigils to the international press, prompting the military to engage in a strong propaganda campaign against them. Though the repression continued, the women found a variety of creative ways to continue their protests at places of relative safety where their voices could be heard by larger audiences. Matilde Saidler de Mellibovsky, whose 29-year old daughter had disappeared said, We were showing our countrymen the dreadful truth the dictatorship took pains to hide in thousands of ways.

At one point, the women, who had seemed to be in a slight decline under the military pressure, mobilized a major demonstration when the Organization of American States met. From that point on, there was a discernible shift in power as the women were never again forced out of the plaza. The resistance spread, and in 1981 a general strike was launched to protest the dictatorship.

Collapse of the Military Regime & Subsequent Work

In 1983 the military regime collapsed and democracy was restored to Argentina. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo continued to advocate for an accounting of the disappeared and to bring perpetrators to justice. They searched for the children born in prison to women who were pregnant when arrested. Eventually they found more than 80 grandchildren who were reunited with families.

The Mothers also extended their work for human rights beyond Argentina. They joined in solidarity with other movements against disappearances, torture, and extra-judicial killing throughout Latin America. As one Mother said,

I don’t want another mother, in this country or in any other, to have to live through what I have. Beyond my personal case is the basic principle of the systematic use of repression and state terrorism as a method of government, which I must denounce and combat.

Our love for our children made us defy their whole repressive apparatus.

Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo with former president of Argentina Néstor Kirchner

Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo with former president of Argentina Néstor Kirchner.
Loco085/CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia Commons

In the face of one of the most vicious military dictatorships in the world, grieving women made a nonviolent stand. Enriqueta Maroni who lost two children and a son-in-law said, Our love for our children made us defy their whole repressive apparatus.

Their courage eventually cracked the powerful structures of repression and brought the regime down. It was a poignant victory because so many loved ones were never found. One of the Mothers wrote:

We had always been at home, busy only with the family … When we went to look for our children we found a new world where everything was rotten … We learned to put aside our self-centeredness, always being concerned with ourselves and our families … Now we began to really understand many things, which our sons and daughters had told us and which, in those times, we did not want to accept and we could not imagine. The disappeared represented everyone and the struggle had to be everyone’s struggle.

See Also

Related Interfaith Peacemakers Profiles

Relevant External Resources