"Las palabras que sobran,
The Words Left Over: Poetry and Resistance of the Mothers of Plaza de
In many conversations and analyses,
writers and observers have used the word "poetic" to describe
the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. They compare the Madres' actions to the supposed
simplicity and clarity of poetic language, to the way the form supposedly
distills truth from our surroundings and communicates it in beautifully
crafted words. They refer to the ritual of Thursday afternoons when the
women arrive at the main square of Buenos Aires, don their white head
scarves, and circle the center obelisk as they have for the last 25 years,
demanding memory and truth for their disappeared sons and daughters, demanding
in blue embroidered words "Aparición con vida," that
they be "brought back alive". These studies and observations
mention the way the Madres stand before crowds, speaking strongly and
lovingly of those children in whose name they fight. They point to the
way the women stand firmly, with their many years and small stature, in
the face of police, military and politicians, demanding a better country
and a better world. The Madres are called poetic for the way they raise
their fists and look to the sky when they call forth the memories that
guide them. They are called poetic for their negotiation of a seamless
relationship between quietness and screams, between pain and strength,
between stillness and action, between individual and collective, between
history and present.
Their political poetics are measured against an extremely violent context
in which a military junta, in power from 1976 to 1983, disappeared approximately
30,000 people in a campaign against subversion called El proceso de reorganización
nacional, or El proceso. These disappearances were not only the kidnapping
and murdering of those who were considered counterproductive to national
advancement, but a systematic elimination through clandestine torture,
an attempt to completely erase bodies, lives and any recollection of those
In response, the mothers who later called themselves the Madres de plaza
de mayo, took to the streets demanding the confession of these stolen
lives, demanding information over silence, truth in place of lies, lives
in place of empty spaces. Once they realized that the state was responsible
for the disappearance of their children, they understood that they were
at complete war with the junta and its massive string of lies; the military
employed every possible social tool, from the media to youth groups, in
order to control and scare the public, thereby initiating a war of language,
a war on bodies, a war of ideology and the claim over Argentina's past,
present and future. The Madres responded with both physical and linguistic
resistance, embracing a struggle of memory, bodies and words in the face
of the junta's terrifying silence.
Unfortunately, while their story has been recounted in numerous historical
texts, journals, documentaries, these histories rarely focus on the way
the Madres tell their own story in printed form. Of course through interviews,
the texts discuss the way the women understand their history and political
progression, but they rarely look to the texts the Madres themselves produce.
Except in footnotes, they hardly mention the histories they have written
of themselves Historia de Las madres de plaza de mayo and Como Vietnam,
Como los Nazis or the six collections of poetry and prose they have published
as an organization, in addition to manuscripts of testimonies and creative
pieces that appeared in newspapers during and after the junta period.
Few people really speak of the sustained presence of actual poetry in
the Madres' political work.
Matilde Mellibovsky's little known Circulo de amor sobre la muerte, Circles
of Love Over Death: Testimonies of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo was the
first attempt to let the Madres tell their own history. As a Madre herself,
she set out to recount their history through a collection of testimonies
and verse, demonstrating that their memories and their lives are fragments,
pieces of events, stories and memories, that can only be strung together
with time enough to gather up all the different elements that make up
a life, inserting tentative presences in place of disappearances. The
poems and stories in Mellibovsky's collection offer a different way of
understanding what happened to the Madres and the way they remember and
tell of the horrors, the unknown and the comfort in finding one another's
hands, hearts and eerily similar stories. Speaking of the transition from
futile searching to action through writing and marching, Mellibovsky writes,
"from this circle I began to write, out of my small and anonymous
place in the struggle."
Through a reconfigured body of words and history, these anonymous voices
were transformed into a collective and specific voice. They became the
voice of motherhood transformed, of motherhood forced into fragments,
and retranslated through fragmented words. They became the weapons of
the Madres who trust so much in language, who are "armed with truth"
and the ability to clearly communicate it. They demonstrate not only how
their movement, their actions, their aged and powerful voices are poetic
in description, but how they are literally poetic, how their actions and
words embodied the very essence of the Greek verb "poiein,"
"to create." Through their poetic productions, how do they meaningfully
translate their lives and their experiences? How do they weave together
the memory of a strand of hair, a red hooded jacket, a last sentence,
and thousands of searching footsteps, thousands of Thursdays, thousands
of tears, screams, and supportive hands? How do their poems unite these
stories in a way that nothing else can? An Their poetry stands as not
only a testimony, but a new kind of politics, a way of privileging creative
production as a means of developing and executing a social and political
vision that cannot be fully constituted any other way.
In their own poems, poems written for and about them, and poems recited
at demonstrations, there lies a specific testament through creative language
of their historical and political progression. There lies a testament
to their dreams, their memories, their hopes and their connection to one
another. In their poems they embrace memory, bodies and words as their
weapons; they analyze and track the moments of stepping on to the plaza
to retell history, to recreate disappeared bodies and memories by using
their own, to heal and rebuild a people and a nation. In essence, the
creative corpus of their organization simultaneously serves as a distilled,
lyrical record of their resistance as well as a re-legitimization of artistic
and emotional expression as a means of envisioning a positive future rooted
in memory, ethics, love and truth.
Set in the context of the junta, women's social position and women's writing
in Argentina, their poetry becomes a site of actualization of the politics
they profess through their bodies, their stories, their souls; everything
that they speak of in their speeches. The page gives them a way to meditate
on their experience and develop a political understanding of themselves,
one another and their movement in a national and international context.
They do not come right out and say: "this is our political vision;"
however, the movement and word choice, the development of ideas and the
details of personal and national history reveal a distinct political perspective
based on a rejection of repression and arbitrary power and an embracing
of collective concern, an emotional, ethical investment in politics. The
poetry stands in as a both a tracing and a creation of history, of their
evolution as individual women, as mothers and as Madres de Plaza de Mayo.
The poems are a record of their political activity and development, but
they are not only that: they are a site for the development and communication
among one another and with their supporters, children, country and world
vision of a global community in struggle. It is in the poems that their
words sing and tell a different story, that they meditate upon their bodies
and present them as testaments; it is on the pages of their publications
that they re-stake claim to a language of honest patriotism, love and
struggle. In their poems, they forge a more meditative space, a space
with more time, a space to craft a physical and emotional response entirely
on their terms. From this position, they reemerge on the frontlines to
continuously confront horror and lies.
In his introduction to the last volume of work, Leopoldo Brizuela, who
organized and lead the writing workshops, characterizes their work this
way: [these poems] "are the history of a resurrection; and also the
indispensable resurrection of the desaparecidos, their resurrection back
to life through words, with the same love with which they were brought
to this world. And one more time, like that, the resurrection of all of
us from silence and infamy...".
Con este pañuelo blanco,
With This White Scarf
Con este pañuelo blanco
vamos juntas compañeras
el camino está marcado
ya la plaza nos espera
Caminemos bajo el sol
que es la luz de nuestros hijos
ejemplo de la dignidad
que marca este compromiso
En cada pañuelo blanco
el dolor del pueblo entero
la lucha de nuestros hijos
el sudor de los obreros
La unidad nos da la fuerza
contra el perdón y el olvido
contra todos los traidores
contra todos los milicos
Con nuestros pañuelos
anudamos un destino
a nuevas generaciones
les marcamos un camino
Camino de dura lucha
de coraje y rebeldía
con cada grito en la plaza
se forja una nueva vida
Cada jueves de la vida
trae un niñode la mano
lo alumbra una madre fuerte
lo acompañan sus hermanos
Con nuestros pañuelos
vamos juntas compañeras
la justicia está en la plaza
30,000 hijos esperan.
For the Madres to step into
the street as women, as mothers, as uneducated people, was a major social
transgression. They defied "not only the Argentine political culture,
but also a society that still upholds the image of woman as homebound
and submissive." Forcing themselves onto the political scene gained
the Madres national and international exposure, but it also brought increased
frustrations and danger. They were subjected to criticism from family
members who objected to their political activism on the grounds that the
Madres were breaking social taboos, abandoning the family or placing the
family in peril. In the media, they were either ignored or portrayed as
unsophisticated and even blamed for the disappearances. Consequently,
from the moment they set foot in the Plaza, they were called las locas,
the madwomen, immediately marked by their gender and stereotypes of hysterical
"Most of us were uneducated women, all with the same upbringing -
you mustn't get involved in politics, you mustn't talk about politics,
that was what the men did. We might have had discussions inside the house,
but outside, never. We only cared about our children and our families,
not about the world outside. Few of us even worked outside the home."
"We had to educate ourselves.
The majority of us had hardly been to school. This is a macho country;
we were used to talking about dress patterns and cooking while the men
discussed politics in another room. Women like us lived in an isolated
world which finished at the front doors of our houses. We were taught
to iron, wash and cook and look after the children and that politics was
Attempts to delegitimize their
actions were seated in a larger array of anti-woman propaganda manipulated
by the dictatorship. During the presidency of Juan Perón, his wife
Eva came to be a symbol of perfect Argentine femininity, and she distanced
herself from all women attempting to change social systems by calling
feminists and other activists in the public realm "ugly," "masculine"
and "old maids." The junta, in motivating its military men to
carry out the "guerra sucia," continued to exploit the metaphor
of the nation as a woman needing protection, thereby enforcing the desired
stereotype of the protective male, and the passive cloistered female who
cannot even think of rebelling. As Diana Taylor explains, the very definition
of the word Patria reflects this relationship: the Patria, from the Latin
Pater, belongs to the father, indicating a misogynistic and patronizing
relationship between the men and women of a society.
After frustrated attempts to locate their children in the face of such
terror, the Madres understood that their actions needed a more sustained
public presence. So, they placed a paid advertisement in one of the main
newspapers, La Prensa, on October 5, 1977, demanding the truth about the
desaparecidos. Titled "We Do Not Ask for Anything More than the Truth,"
it included the names of 237 mothers and their desaparecidos. They carried
out this brave move in a hostile environment where newspapers neglected
to print anything on the realities of military barbarism. The press was
silent, complicit and controlled by the military. Therefore, they printed
stories praising the junta's overthrow of Isabelita's unstable government.
When confronted with first hand accounts by released prisoners of the
torture taking place in the clandestine camps, newspapers often skewed
testimonies or invented new ones, leaving out horrid details, or suggesting
the guilt of the speaker, thereby representing the government's acts as
justifiable. As for the Madres, the newspapers rarely printed anything
about them and their actions, and when they did, it was usually negative.
Any journalists who reported on them were harassed or even disappeared.
For the most part, they were just following orders: immediately upon seizing
power, the junta declared that "anyone who through any means whatsoever
defends, propagates or divulges news, communiqués or views with
the purpose of disrupting, prejudicing or lessening the prestige of the
activities of the Armed Forces will be subject to detention for a period
of up to ten years." Of course, the actual punishment was much more
severe than detention. On April 22, 1976, the junta issued another statement
regarding the media: "As of today, it is forbidden to comment or
make references to suspects connected with subversive incidents, the appearance
of bodies and the death of subversive elements and/or members of the armed
or security forces in these incidents, unless they are reported by a responsible
official source. This includes the victims of kidnappings and missing
persons." Jo Fisher explains that such regulations imposed a kind
of "self-censorship under the guidance of principles and procedures
drafted by the junta's press director. The press was to comply enthusiastically
with this form of self-censorship" and in most cases did just that.
The press was therefore part and parcel of the war of language that took
place between the junta and those resisting its terror.
Beginning with the advertisement, the Madres propelled themselves into
a war of words with the dictatorship, the struggle over the language to
describe and own Argentine past and present. This struggle did not stop
with a few ads in the newspaper, but rather greatly influenced the Madres'
strategies, using every method possible, from marches, to speeches, to
painting, to their newspaper to poetry. However, their writing in particular
constitutes a significant resistance not only to the specific military
juntas of '76-'83, but a way that the Madres propelled themselves into
a battle over language as the site for ownership of family, citizenry,
public and private spaces, nationhood and history.
The junta used all media of communication to discount the Madres' stories
and build a language of fear and forgetting, thereby transforming what
are officially genres of fact, i.e. newspapers, court proceedings and
government documents, into a web of lies and fiction masquerading as truth.
Every action of the junta served to corroborate this brutal masquerade
of facts, construing their "truth" as the "master fiction"
under which all national rhetoric was structured. This constituted a violent
disturbance of the categories of fact and fiction: the Madres responded
with a counter-disturbance by writing and publishing poetry that bears
witness to a truth that had been labeled fiction, for when the genre of
"fact" publishes only fiction, the genre of supposed fiction,
must enter to replace it. Since the official courts denied or overlooked
the horrors that Madres related, their poems serve as a kind of alternative
court, fulfilling the tasks that the government continues to neglect:
honoring the desaparecidos, condemning the torturers, and building a future
based on "non-violence, participation and solidarity in a struggle
for social justice."
The moment they gathered on the plaza, they carried all of these implications
with them, even if they didn't know it. In time, the Madres actively embraced
these implications and developed an unparalleled political ethic in a
nation paralyzed by fear. They went beyond simply being present to being
actively present and insisting on making present those facts and lives
which had been erased by the junta. Employing every possible strategy
to maintain their struggle and maintain themselves as mothers, as activists,
and as human beings with a painful reality, they set out to create an
alternative public culture.
By choosing poetry as a method of relating their stories, the Madres,
perhaps inadvertently, placed themselves in a trajectory of literary resistance
in their own country and a larger tradition in Latin America. In most
countries, nineteenth century ideas established artistic and political
identity as interwoven parts of a larger sustaining model of a nation.
In fact, from the times of Sarmiento, many writers became politicians,
irrevocably entrenching their political and creative lives. Consequently,
Latin American writers are notorious for tying their writing to a particular
political framework and being forward about this connection. It is not
uncommon for a writer to be part of a political movement and express their
political leanings: it is seen as a natural relationship rather than a
compromise of the artwork. In that sense, writers have historically been
integrated into the political process, thereby establishing a strong relationship
between politics and the arts.
Of course, men do not speak of women as central agents in a nation building
process despite the reality that their presence is completely necessary.
For example, many nineteenth century Latin American politicians said,
"gobernar es popular" (to govern is to populate) when speaking
of nation building by men. Although women are absent from the language,
their bodies are obviously central to this project. In this way, they
are used and then erased from the narrative of this process, categorized
in order to define man and nation, and then discarded.
The same disappearance of women took place with respect to national literature.
While there has been a respect for the convergence of politics and letters,
male dominated culture has never seen women as literary agents. In writing
and in life, they are expected to remain in the private sphere. Therefore,
even if women wrote, it was not supposed to be of the same charged nature
as men's writing: they were not to be the shapers of the nation. Instead
they were men's subjects, brought in to represent the virtues and values
of the nation.
Chilean poet Marjorie Agosín explains, "The history of women
who write is precarious in the sense that their access to a universal
or collective speech has been devaluated and considered to be subversive."
The Madres re-appropriate subversion, deciding that they if they were
to be called las locas and "Mothers of Terrorists," then they
would willingly direct their efforts at subverting and surmounting the
abusive state. Therefore, just as writing had often served the purpose
of nation building through exclusion, the Madres use their poems as a
kind of alternative nation building. They work from a tradition, but challenge
it to tell a different history, to build a new ethic to change the way
that writing, life, poetry, struggle and history can be collectively understood.
In her study of female voices in nineteenth and early twentieth century
Argentine literature, Francine Masiello stresses the importance of women's
voices in the processes of nation building, not only as present in men's
texts, but also as the producers, the agents and the subjects of their
own writing: "women writers closed the seemingly unbridgeable gap
sustained by public and private sphere dichotomies to organize a dialogue
about the nation. The house, then, became the site of active debates about
nation building while also allowing women to reconsider formulations for
a national language." Despite its focus on nationhood, this writing,
she asserts, was regularly ignored throughout the processes of nation
building. She explains that consequently, one of the first ways for women
to enter into the public arena of debating nationhood was with print culture,
as women could be present in these virtual public spaces, even as they
were prevented form operating in other public spaces.
Therefore, for the Madres to insert their initial public critique through
newspapers was a brave re-appropriation of an outlet that had already
been laid as the ground on which women could enter into a male-dominated
world. Somewhat unknowingly, the Madres were tying loose ends established
as early as the 1930's, when women writers began addressing questions
of the relationship between public and private spheres and the way their
experience as women in Argentina complicated the pure separation that
men's literature attempted to impose on these spheres of culture. Furthermore,
these women writers began to focus on their home lives as a site of political
inquiry; they questioned the kind of language used by the status quo literature
of men and interrogate how that language had thus far ignored their voices.
Many sought out to develop an alternative language that would cross the
barriers between public and private, between home and work, in a way that
their lives and experience already had. They sought to question these
dichotomies and the way women were portrayed in men's politics and nationalist
literature in order to "alter the discursive space to redefine the
nature of literature and knowledge and to form alternative prestige systems
that test the dominant expressions of power through speech."
Just as the women writers that came before them, the Madres bring a philosophy
of questioning the state into everything that they do. "We're struggling
against the system. We don't accept the laws the governments have imposed
because they are the laws of corrupt politicians and judges, the same
people who were traitors during the dictatorship
that we can say there is justice in Argentina." With this refusal
to accept the status quo, they perpetuate nineteenth century women's "insinuation
[of] doubt into the binary structures that inform official history."
Their Thursday walk around the plaza continuously raises questions and
breaks the norms of public and private space, the role of motherhood and
the home in politics, the role of love, memory and ethics in a nation-building
project. With these questions, their actions demonstrate how just as male
politicians and writers excluded women from early-nation building despite
their centrality to the process, Argentine government and society often
attempt to exclude the Madres from official national memory despite the
fact that they are the storehouse for the true experiences of a people
and a nation.
Masiello writes, "with the image of the Madres emphatically present,
I began thinking about the kinds of alterations generated by women in
Argentine national culture" and "the compelling presence of
the Madres informs my meditations about women's participation in society
and the world of letters." This leads us to a critical point that
can really fuel a dialogue between the Madres and the women who came before
them. Just as their actions suggest a refusal to comply with government
and social regulations of how they should act a women, as mothers, as
activists, so too does their writing refuse to conform. They continue
a Latin American tradition of situating their writing as the meeting point
of their political and personal lives, and then take it one step further
by espousing a kind of collectivity, refusing the individual fame of writers,
always focusing on their collective struggle even when discussing a personal
"We don't see ourselves as individual writers looking for individual
recognition. We simply marvel at what each one of us writes."
Furthermore, the presence of literature in their movement goes beyond
their own writing. In 1999, with the help of young supporters, they opened
the Librería de las Madres, the Mothers Bookstore. The selection
includes their own work, hard-to-find texts by disappeared writers, as
well as work by international revolutionary writers, small presses, women
and newly emerging writers. The poetry selection is quite extensive, and
it is complimented by frequent readings and poetry discussions. With these
activities, they privilege literature as a place for envisioning and enacting
social change. They understand the bookstore as a place to learn about
and celebrate revolutionary language and action: "We focus a lot
of attention on the bookstore because we hope it can serve as a place
for young people to gather, to read, to share their thoughts and envision
the changes our children fought for."
With words like those in "Con este pañulo blanco", the
Madres continuously search for new means of telling and interpreting history,
constantly re-mapping public and private space, public and private language,
in an effort to reconfigure public culture. By taking an active role in
the presence and preservation of history, they position themselves as
social subjects instead of only the victims of state terror: they are
at once the authors and the subjects, the historian and the history, telling
the story themselves in their own words. Instead of being marginal to
history as the junta desired, they actively participate in its construction.
From the moment their children were disappeared, many mothers began committing
their feelings to words. Some, like Nélida de Chidíchimo,
even paid for the publishing of a few of her poems in Página 12,
a leftist paper. She says these works were not so much poems as screams
of pain, "gritos de dolor," and they stemmed from a need to
express in every way - through bodies, through walking, through tears,
through words - the pain that she experienced as a result of not only
the loss of her son, but the denial of his loss, the double disappearance.
Many Madres followed suit, composing short verses, small outcries to their
sons or daughters, small indictments of the dictatorship.
Once they became more organized they realized the power these words could
have, the power of creating a new political language to expose the hollowness
of the military. By 1983, when the junta finally fell, they had physically
and linguistically resisted and outlasted the junta, for despite the dictatorship's
torture of people and language, it was the Madres who were still alive
and united. Although the context had changed slightly, the fight for memory
and truth was still in full force and it became clear that their creative
voices needed a permanent place in their struggle. Therefore, they decided
to collect their writing in three small collections published in 1985
and 1986 entitled Cantos de vida, amor y libertad. These were the first
signs that collectively, their creative writing could tell a particular
story that was not being told in other ways. While their story continued
to be left out of government and schoolbook versions, their words on paper
emerged as an alternative textbook to accompany their relentless presence
in the plaza.
In the introduction to the first volume, they write, "When tears
flow and can't fight injustice on their own, words surge forth. They come
out from us at any moment. They explode suddenly, wanting to break the
veil of silence that intends to write history
" The words that
exploded from their mouths and pens came from a place of silence, then
of struggle, and finally of a desire to articulate a hopeful future. The
act of collecting and publishing them represents the next step in this
process from individual pain to sustained collective power; by gathering
their work, the Madres put their pieces in conversation with one another,
demonstrating the way history has similarly touched them all.
This same kind of transition occurred in their political perspective as
"As our movement grew,
we realized it was very hard not to pursue one's own individual interests.
The headscarves are an example: first we embroidered the names of our
children on them and hung a photo around our necks. But one day we tried
to do something more revolutionary, and each person picked up any photo.
That was an important step, which not all the Madres could take - it's
There is both a quietness and
an excitement in the pages of the three small collections, a gesture to
life and an indictment of death through songs, a celebration of the lives
of their children, the lives of one another, and the hoped for demise
of a dictatorship and a politics of terror. The poems offer a more private
moment for a mother to communicate with her desaparecido, and then let
others into this conversation to witness the way she remembers and continues
to communicate with her son or daughter and denounce the junta. These
leave a written record not only for what happened to them, but also for
the social and political visions that have come out of this experience.
With writing, then, the Madres fully resist: they resist forgetting, denial,
and destruction; they resist disappearance, censorship and a politics
and world that is not guided by love and emotion.
Their writing is part of a larger schema, a larger resistance to the national
project of false democratization, denial and forgetting. By pushing their
poetry and creative prose to the point of being a site of struggle instead
of just an instrument, their writing becomes part and parcel of the process
of developing not only an alternative history, but an alternative method
of understanding history, present and ethics of organizing and building
In this way, they embraced writing as a "secret place of liberty".
By publishing, they socialize and publicize that private place of liberty,
complete with an audience that can share in the imagining of freedom and
justice through the words on the page and the history and life to which
they refer. With their poems they offer a story, but of course it cannot
continue to exist if there is not an audience to read it. They therefore
enter into what is at first only a literary relationship with their audience,
and later becomes a fully engaged relationship that inspires a new generation
to reconfigure their past and build in the name of the desaparecidos:
Gonzalo Lopez Bordegaray, a student the Universidad popular Madres de
Plaza de Mayo says, "not only do the mothers not take a single step
back, they show us on a daily basis that it's possible to take a step
forward." Although this intergenerational relationship is not created
by their poetry alone, their writing is a strong force in communicating
their visions. "Art then, becomes the only possibility to rescue
and redeem life; art is the prolongation of life by pother means."
Theirs is the prolongation of the lives of the desaparecidos as well as
present and future generations. As the Madres see it, the current system
is one that is built on the backs of lives, on the backs of people, built
on a culture of death instead of a celebration of life. "That is
why we speak of life. We don't speak about death. That is why our poems
are written for the future"
The Madres see themselves as a constantly growing and changing organization,
always finding ways to renew their efforts and infuse their activities
with forward-looking energy. Their permanent slogan therefore, is "¡Ni
un paso atrás! Not one step back!" Considering this, in 1990,
a young poet named Leopoldo Brizuela came to the Madres with the idea
of beginning a writing workshop so that they could have an established
outlet for creatively analyzing their society. It had been four years
since they had last published, and he was convinced that they could continue
their literary presence as a way of maintaining a different politics.
At the beginning, approximately ten Madres attended and began to create
a language that could only be shaped in the calmness of a room in their
office, their collective home, what is knows as La casa de las madres.
Although at first they were nervous, they began to get comfortable with
the idea of writing down their stories in a way that they never had before.
" The workshop had already
been functioning for three years, but I only decided to go recently. I
attended one or two classes at first, but I left, convinced that that
I couldn't produce anything of importance
then I wrote about myself,
about my world." In time, they saw it as necessary to their organization:
"during the week we already started to imagine what we would write
on Tuesday [the workshop day], to think about what we wanted to say, to
ask, to hear
With our work, [Leopoldo] soon made us feel that we
could all write, that we only had to make the effort, that this activity
The weekly workshop forged
a new space for writing and reinventing a language that could simultaneously
speak for each of them individually and as a whole. "Like leaves,"
describes one Madre, "everybody is different, but all of us are part
of this great ripe sea that is our vision. The differences between us
are all new perspectives, perspectives that enrich us, lives that summarize
all our lives." The workshop consisted of reading and writing exercises,
as well as conversations about their experiences as Madres. They brought
their private experiences into a shared public space, the same way they
had done with their searches for their children.
Not only did they write pieces of their own, but also collective pieces
that weave their history together in concrete ways. "Con este pañuelo
blanco" is one of the best examples of this. To compose it, Brizuela
asked the Madres for a theme and they decided as a group how to construct
the verses. In that space they created a poem that at once expresses the
many facets of their organization and political vision. Collectively,
as a "we" they meditate on their pañuelos, communicating
the importance of using motherhood as their political base: it is that
perspective on maternity that brings them to the plaza and symbolizes
the pain, memory and future of the entire country, "el pueblo entero."
In the space of the poem, they communicate the politics that unite them
"contra el perdón y el olvido, against forgiving, against
forgetting," against the militarization of society, represented by
"los milicos." The collective reflection on the symbol of the
pañuelo brings them to the final image that unites them: the similar
fate of all 30,000 desaparecidos.
This kind of collective work provides strong ground to build together
out of what was destroyed in all of their lives, serving the need to create
after the destruction of people and infrastructure. Hebe says, "I
want to create. To constantly create, because creation is movement, it
is change, it is progress, it is growth, it is giving to others."
Therefore, the creation of powerful verse not only relates an otherwise
untold story, but also reclaims the very act of creation, of making something
out of silence, death, torture and terror, of making something out of
what was supposed to be nothing. They take back the language by using
the same words but changing the interpretation, changing what the words
signify and the kind of politics, ethics and human relationships to which
they are attached.
"We have gained a lot
of liberty from this workshop to express ourselves, liberty that now fills
us with happiness
I think it has helped us a great deal to understand
that writing is part of the same struggle, our struggle and the struggle
of our sons and daughters. The workshop is another space that [the desaparecidos]
have opened for us. As in all our actions, we understood quite well that
we had to surmount a powerful enemy: the system wants us to stay quiet."
The collectivity is also present
in the sharing of their work with one another: "we knew that the
only way to conquer silence was to unite; and this love we have amongst
us made us listen to one another with great interest; it made us respect
one another's differences, and it made us more anxious each week to get
to the workshop so that we could learn from each other and from ourselves."
" The workshop strengthened our friendships because we saw how each
of us could create such beauty. We always applauded, genuinely excited
about one another's work."
The writing that comes out of these workshops, like their marches on the
plaza, are conspicuous in a nation veiled by silence and the legacy of
the junta's terror. For that reason, although they do create a new persona
in their texts, the Madres do not separate themselves completely from
the voice of the poems: they write with a particular style of witness
to their own lives and the lives around them. These details cast them
as agents of this history and its interpretation. This witness is direct:
they speak from their own experience and from their own lives and collective
visions. They do not pretend to be someone else in the poem, but rather,
the women that they are, the fighters, the survivors, the mothers of desaparecidos
and fighters for the future.
This is not to say that their poems lack a lyrical beauty or imagination.
In fact, they understand their writing as a place to not only envision
a future, but also re-imagine a past: "this tragedy has brought us
back to the way we saw things when we were young: an outlook of purity
and love. And to write is one way of honoring this life that we see
is] to see as a child does. But to fight as an adult. Without obstacles,
without repression, in liberty. Being ourselves." This perspective
infuses their writing with a subtlety that walks a balance between testimony
of facts and imagination, between a direct address and a rhetorical, figurative
one. But, the poems are neither one nor the other. In that liminal space,
the Madres resist the junta's binaries, making a radical choice to refuse
complicity with Argentina's horrifying past and present.
Another important aspect of writing is that it appears to operate within
a sanctioned realm, but then begins to topple that realm: as Taylor argues
of most resistance writing "the medium obeys the status quo, but
the content subverts." It is not surprising that this occurs in the
Madres' writing as well because this is precisely the kind of political
style they embraced from the start at their first public gathering. Instead
of dispersing, they paired up and began circling the central obelisk.
They were "officially" obeying orders, but of course their motivation
was to subvert and frustrate these orders. Backed by this reality, their
writing also chafes against any attempt to cast writing as a simple diversion
instead of a politically charged activity.
Even before an examination of the poetry's resisting content, it is important
to note that just the very act of writing is in direct opposition to the
government precisely because the dictatorship violently censored any opposition;
many of the desaparecidos and exiles were writers themselves. If the junta
can be characterized by its terrorizing silence, then the very act of
speech and language begins to erase this silence. The Madres thereby re-claim
the act of writing and creation, taking back an activity that the junta
deemed illegitimate, useless and dangerous. The propaganda constantly
attempted to feed a script to Argentines, leaving little room for questioning
or individual thought and expression. To write then, is not only to oppose
silence for oneself, but also to reclaim the act for which so many were
murdered. With their words the Madres do what Agosín describes
as the power of literature to "rescue us from oblivion and make us
witness to our own history." To begin writing in the face of terror
is to wield a dangerous tool and proclaim this kind of work as legitimate
and important for the building of a nation, a people and a future.
In their writing they reclaim a language that the state had rendered unusable:
the corrupted concepts of mother, country, love and patria are re-appropriated
and redefined to serve a positive future instead of a silent dying one.
The repressive state colonized the language to serve its own purpose,
to enrich itself, and the Madres, in response, continue to fight for the
liberation and independence of that language, to bring it back to the
people to whom it belongs so that they may use it to build against death,
censorship and fear. By reclaiming the language, they take back their
stories and "redeem speech from the silence of pain." Their
poems report how the patria betrayed them, how its version of history
is suffocatingly false, and replace it with a story of survival, pain
with a purpose, pain with a voice and a vision. With this they created
"a language against authoritarianism, a language that accuses, denounces,
and feels; for words are the fundamental weapon against indifference,
fear and forgetfulness." This new language, a "home made language,"
is present in the pages of their books as well as their organizing philosophy.
Oración de madre, A Mother's Prayer
Soy de América Latina,
mi tierra es Argentina,
madre coraje de estos días,
de historia energrecida,
amputada de un hijo, arrastro mi calvario
sin rencores, sin odios,
recordando los ojos de ese hijo,
tan limpios, tan puros, tan hermosos,
esto alcanza para subir la cuesta de la vida,
para bajar a la fosa de la muerte,
cuando sea, sin temor a lo desconocido,
Por esa flor tan Hermosa con espinas,
que Dios puso en mi camino,
mi sangre es manatial de amor
para los hijos que pueblan este suelo
si esta semilla crece, habrá madres felices
habrá mas hombres buenos,
habrá una patria libre,
entonces la deuda me sera saldada.
I am from Latin America, my land is Argentina
a mother emboldened by these days
of darkened history
amputated of a son, I carry this cross
without resentment, without hate,
remembering the eyes of that son
so clean, so pure, so beautiful,
it is enough to overcome what
life asks of me
enough to go down to the grave
without fear of the unknown.
For this flower that God placed
so beautiful with thorns
My life springs from love
for these sons that inhabit this soil
If these seeds do grow, there
will be joyous mothers
there will be more good men
there will be a liberated nation
and my debt will be settled.
María del Rosario
María del Rosario's "Oración de madre" at once
answers the junta's religious language of terror while creating a new
understanding of the relationship between her experience as a Madre and
her Christian faith. It encompasses a collective understanding of the
experience as well as an individual story through her particular religious
In the first two lines she immediately locates her geo-political place
in history. Moving inward from the general to the specific, she names
herself de América Latina, then de Argentina, and finally a "madre
coraje". With this she reveals that the story she is about to present
is not specific to her; unfortunately, it is the story of so many people
in all of Latin America. The Spanish "de," meaning "from"
is significant here in that it literally means "of" which makes
her organically a part of this land, this country, this history. In this
way she places herself inside the history, as a natural element instead
of the aberration that the junta named her.
Located in the particularly brutal context of the Videla regime, María
opens her reference to an entire country with 30,000 mothers like her.
However, her situation becomes more specific as we are told that not only
is she a mother among thousands, but particularly a "madre coraje."
With this naming, she explains her specific reaction to the events that
happened to so many people. As a "madre coraje," she is both
toughened and courageous. She calls forth images of Bertolt Brecht's Mother
Courage, which in its Spanish version is called Madre Coraje. His Mother
Courage stands as the symbol of a nation's morality, putting herself on
the line for her own and all children. This is not only evident through
the poem, but also the facts of her involvement in La asociación
as one of the most active Madres in the early stages of the organization.
Her poem proliferate the first three volumes of poetry and her story,
told wryly and confidently, is prominent in a number of documentaries.
"Coraje" also defines the way she understands the history, or
destiny, that she's been given. She defines "coraje" as "sin
rencores, sin odios;" it is not a courage that is built on hatred.
What then is its fountain of strength? She answers this question immediately:
it is the lost son with beautiful eyes. He is the fuel for her passion,
what drives this poem and what drives María's part in the Madres
struggle. This definition of "coraje," courage, is in direct
opposition to the junta's militaristic patriotic language. While the junta
appropriated courage as the motivating force for serving in the armed
forces, the death squads or the patriotic campaign in the Malvinas Islands,
María's version is entirely different. It does not harbor the hatred
that the junta expressed for subversives, nor the resentment it expressed
for anyone who dared to criticize its actions. Furthermore, she takes
charge to define her own response to what the junta has done to her. One
might think that the only possible reaction to the disappearance of a
child would be hatred towards those who committed the crime. The only
response that the junta desired was the forgetting of the person, or the
quiet sullen mourning that would keep mothers quiet. In defiance of the
junta, she refuses to respond in such a way: not only will she define
her own mourning, it directly opposes what the junta attempted to instill
in the survivors.
The religious language in the poem serves two functions. On the one hand
it is an answer to the junta's perverse appropriation of Christian values.
The junta continuously couched its actions in religious language, framing
El proceso as a movement back to good Christian values, claiming that
the "subversives" were godless, anti-western guerrillas. In
one speech, General Videla explained that "a terrorist isn't just
someone with a gun or a bomb, but whoever spreads ideas which are contrary
to western and Christian values." Imagery of Christianity as the
moral ground of the junta permeated Argentine society during the dictatorship.
As Frank Graziano explains in Divine Violence, the military based its
rhetoric on a sense of Natural Order, convincing themselves and the nation
that "the authority for the 'dirty war,' like any just war, came
from G-d, and its punitive Christian wrath was therefore 'a sign of love
and mercy in imitation of Christ.' " By rendering their actions in
light of Natural Order, the Junta paved the way for the justification
of all kinds of torture in the name of G-d and the survival of la patria.
Disappearing, torturing and murdering "subversives" was cast
in deference to G-d and supported by a violent religious rhetoric.
Radical Christian imagery permeated everything the junta did, from speeches
to torture methods. For example, some survivors reported being tortured
in front of icons of the Virgin Mary. Jewish prisoners were barraged with
Anti-Jewish slogans and Nazi imagery, often tortured more severely simply
because they were not Christian. It is also important to mention that
the Argentine church was complicit in the dictatorship, going so far as
to counsel torturers for the traumas they experienced by performing sadistic
acts. "Oración de madre" confronts this bastardization
of religion in order to re-appropriates religious imagery to serve the
Madres' vision of this history.
The religious language also frames the Madres struggle in an active fashion-
if this is religious destiny, then they must fight and struggle against
the forces that killed their children and refuse to tell that story. Therefore,
instead of being a struggle forced upon them, something in the hands of
the government, it is a struggle that they choose to take on. Furthermore,
rather than accept fate as the junta wished, rather than swallow the disappearance
of their children as something necessary for the growth of the nation,
they choose to speak of this destiny, to frame it in a different light,
one that they themselves create and one that shines on them from their
children, presumably in heaven. "We don't see our children as being
we know that they are walking with us even though we can't see
them. They are there. They gave us a direction to fight for justice and
we are doing it. They were killed for trying to change this society, so
we are trying to do that for them."
In this way, María reverses all the images, language and desires
of the junta. While they spill blood and erase lives presumably for the
good of the nation, María takes this blood to be a source of life
instead of a symbol of death. Again, like her definition of coraje, she
responds in opposition to the junta, for instead of bleeding and suffering
along with her disappeared son, she creates new life, passion and visions
for the future out of this blood. The blood spills love for "los
hijos que pueblan este suelo," the sons and daughters that are naturally
a part of this country. The choice of "suelo" indicates both
country and soil. By placing the disappeared sons and daughters in the
soil of Argentina, the "tierra," she offered us at the beginning;
they become a natural part of the country, land and society instead of
subversive foreign elements. By being the children of the soil, they are
good for the country, they are its sustaining force. And from them springs
María's vision of joyous mothers, good men and a liberated nation:
from the disappeared, in person and in ideals and visions, springs a better
Most importantly, the mother becomes Jesus carrying the cross, carrying
the weight of a people's sins. This image also serves multiple functions.
Because the military generals cast themselves as Christ, bearing the sin
of committing torture in order to save the Argentine people, María
replaces them with the mother who is literally suffering because of the
junta's sins. She is the one who suffers the amputation of a son; in the
end, she bears the weight of the junta's death squads. However, on another
level, she is the one who bears the weight of the supposed sins of her
son. According to the junta, the disappeared were killed for being subversives,
for plotting to drive Argentina into the ground with their Marxist ideals,
and she is the one who receives the brunt of the punishment. However,
María reverses this punishment in that she actively lives for these
"sins" and carries them, not in punishment, but as motivation
and reminder of the disappeared.
In her essay "The Dance of Life," Marjorie Agosín speaks
of the Mothers of the Disappeared in her home country of Chile, illuminating
the way history is not only reflected on their bodies, but also how they
actively embrace this writing of history onto the body by physically and
publicly positioning themselves inside this it. She describes their ritual
of dancing the cueca sola, a solitary version of the official national
dance. By dancing alone, the Chilean Mothers call forth a physical memory
of their desaparecidos, and publicly invert the symbolic nationalistic
aspect of the dance. She argues that this performance, like the Argentine
Madres' activities, turns them from objects into subjects, as they insert
themselves on the national stage to remember and reconstitute the bodies
of their loved ones. "The bodies of the persecuted come to life in
the bodies of the women who invoke them with their hands, feet and kerchiefs
in the air...They dedicate their free whole bodies to the cause."
However, such a celebratory configuration of the body can only be understood
against the violence committed upon bodies under the junta. Taylor describes
the way disappearances destroyed the body both physically and emotionally:
"In the torture scenario, the torturer claimed total control of the
social 'body.' Torture functioned as a double act of inscription: first,
in the sense of writing the body into the nationalist narrative, and,
second, in the sense of writing on the body; taking a living body and
turning it into text - a cautionary "message" for those on the
outside." Frank Graziano describes the situation similarly, emphasizing
how under repression, the sequestered and tortured body became the property
of the state, disassociating the person from their physical self. Once
it is controlled and owned by the state, the body was the site on which
manifestations of power were actualized.
When they thrust themselves wholly and freely into their written creations,
the Madres simultaneously rewrite the body and rewrite on the body in
opposition to torture. In response to a regime that erased and mutilated
bodies, they privilege their bodies as record of history, and also create
a body of creative writing. This establishes a constantly shifting and
reflexive relationship between bodies and writing and opens the way for
a new kind of politics. It is a politics that demands a transformation
of whole people through bodies, memories, language and conscience; a politics
that challenges us to create with all possible tools. Through their artistic
creations, they re-map history, they educate, and they tell a story that
is not otherwise told; they build a stronger present and future. With
words, the Madres relate their desire for historical, economic and racial
justice in Argentina and throughout the world; they realize and articulate
beauty, historical memory, and care for both individuals and groups of
people. Their poetry, then, is not only a collection of dreams and ideals,
but part and parcel of the process of realizing those dreams, of connecting
with their desaparecidos through words. The poems are not only testimony
to struggle, but tools of the very struggle itself.