A history of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. A group of Mothers whose children had been killed and disappeared by the Argentinian government.
Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo campaign for democracy and the return of their “disappeared” family members, 1977-1983
Following a coup that ousted then-acting President Isabel Perón from power, Argentina’s armed forces established a military government in 1976, a year that marked the beginning of Argentina’s “Dirty War” period. Headed by General Jorge Videla, the new military junta dissolved Argentina’s Supreme Court, congress, and provincial governments, and implemented a government program known as the “National Reorganization Process.” This program sought to rid Argentinean society of perceived government subversives, and effectively institutionalized state-sponsored terror. Through this program, political and trade union activity were outlawed, detention centers were established, and special task forces were created to kidnap, interrogate, torture, and kill perceived subversives. And although disappearances were concealed and denied by the military government, as many as 30,000 Argentines were reported to have disappeared over the course of the Dirty War.
Although a climate of fear and silence prevented most from seeking out those who had been kidnapped, the sudden disappearances of beloved family members led a small group of mothers to begin searching for answers about their children’s abductions and whereabouts. In the spring of 1977, this group of fourteen mothers began their campaign by cautiously attempting to break the silence about the disappearances. They therefore decided to look for others who had lost loved ones, and to make their existence known to the public. But given the dangers involved in this endeavor, the mothers proceeded cautiously.
On April 30, 1977, the mothers gathered at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, a famous plaza that was located in front of the Casa Rosada presidential palace. Attempting to avoid swift punishment by the police yet needing to make their existence known to others who had lost loved ones, the mothers began first by sitting on the square’s benches with their knitting and standing in small groups. When the police ordered them to move, the mothers walked in twos around the edge of the square, eventually making their way to the center where they walked around the Plaza’s monument.
Over the course of the next few weeks, the mothers continued to stage weekly demonstrations during which they used an assortment of symbols to communicate with the public—sometimes they piled up personal belongings of disappeared children, while other times they “…carried carpenter’s nails to show their solidarity with the Holy Mother, whose son had also been detained and tortured to death” (Ackerman, p. 273). After two months of these weekly demonstrations and countless secret meetings, three of the mothers were given the opportunity to speak with the minister of the interior about their grievances. However, although the official told them that he had a list of names of those who had disappeared, he claimed to not know of their whereabouts or who had taken them. Frustrated and sensing that the minister knew more about the disappearances, the mothers declared that they would continue their demonstrations in the plaza until they received an answer from the government.
In September 1977, in order to provide themselves with an opportunity to share their stories with other Argentineans, the mothers decided to join the annual pilgrimage to the Virgin Mary at Luján, located 30 miles outside Buenos Aires. In order to stand out among the crowds, the mothers decided to wear their children’s nappies as headscarves. Following the pilgrimage, the mothers decided to continue wearing these headscarves during their meetings and weekly demonstrations at the Plaza. On them, they embroidered the names of their children and wrote “Aparición con Vida” (Reappearance with Life). As they continued to organize and share their stories with others, they slowly began to discover information about their children’s whereabouts and incidences of torture. The mothers also began a letter campaign to various human rights organizations including Amnesty International and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
In October of that year, the mothers placed a half-page Mother’s Day advertisement in the newspaper La Prensa, an advertisement that addressed the following message to the president of the Supreme Court, armed forces commanders, junta leaders, and the Church: “The most cruel torture for a mother is uncertainty about the destiny of her children. We ask for a legal process to determine their innocence or guilt.” Following the advertisement, the mothers sent the government a petition with 24,000 signatures and the names of 537 disappeared persons.
As a result of their efforts, the number of mothers grew from 14 to about 150 by the end of 1977. In addition, the mothers began to garner increasing internal attention as news media and foreign governments began taking notice of their letters and organizing efforts.
In 1978, the Carter administration sent a US envoy to Argentina to look into the stories of atrocities. 1978 was also the year that Argentina hosted the World Cup, during which foreign journalists also reported on the weekly demonstrations occurring in the Plaza de Mayo. A number of football (soccer) players also attended the demonstrations to show solidarity with the mothers. In addition to the World Cup, the mothers also gained news coverage during an international health conference that was held in Argentina during that same year.
Surprised by the growing global attention the mothers were receiving, the Argentinean government responded by calling the mothers “las locas” (the madwomen) in an attempt to discredit the women and deter foreign journalists from asking about them and their demonstrations. The government also attempted to frighten the mothers by targeting the mothers, detaining their members, beating them, and threatening them with death. Some of the founding leaders of the mothers, including fiery organizer Azucena Villaflor de Vincenti, were taken away. In addition, spies, who posed as individuals that had lost loved ones, infiltrated the mothers’ group and informed the police of their whereabouts and proceedings.
However, despite the repression, the mothers continued their protests and formally registered their group in August 1979 as the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. By this time, they had created hundreds of linked chapters throughout Argentina, and many other human rights groups were beginning to form (such groups included Families of the Disappeared for Political Reasons, the Ecumenical Group for Human Rights, the Permanent Assembly on Human Rights, and the Center for Legal and Social Studies). In August 1979, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also visited Argentina to explore reports on illegal detention, torture, disappearances, eventually writing a report that condemned the junta for the atrocities.
In response to the mothers’ refusal to back down, the military government escalated its repression so much so that the mothers were forced to temporarily abandon the Plaza de Mayo. But by February 1980, the mothers returned to the plaza and diligently continued their weekly protest.
The period between 1981 and 1983 marked a time of political transition in Argentina, largely due to political unrest that had been fomented by the protests of Las Madres. In April of 1982 the regime made a last ditch effort to regain popular support by attacking the British controlled, but contested, Malvinas (Falkland in UK) Islands. Although this tactic did increase nationalism and support for the regime for a couple months, it ended up being a complete disaster for the government when Argentina was brutally defeated by the United Kingdom. This defeat demonstrated the regime’s desperation to maintain power as well as their military weakness. The day after Argentina surrendered, the largest protest since the dictatorship gained power was held, with 7,000 chanting, “it’s over, it’s over, the military dictatorship is over”. In October las madres held a “march for life”, despite government threats and statements calling las madres the mothers of terrorists. In December labor leaders organized a general strike, and in the next three months two more followed. In June of 1983 the first large scale protest was held in which 50,000 people marched to demand the truth about the disappeared.
Finally, in July of 1983 the dictatorship agreed to hold elections on October 30 and in August unions and political organizations were legalized. In the months leading up the election of Raúl Alfonsín as president, human rights groups continued organizing large protests against proposed amnesty laws and continuing to call for the release of the disappeared.
Following the fall of the military government, the mothers continued their search for their missing family members, but instead of protesting the disappearances, they now sought to bring their children’s assassins to justice. Over the next several decades, the mothers organized to hold former military officials accountable for the disappearances, continuing their weekly demonstrations.
“Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo: History of Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo.” http://www.abuelas.org.ar/english/history.htm. Accessed 14 June 2011.
Ackerman, Peter and Jack Duval. A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. Palgrave, New York. 2000. Pp. 267-279
Bouvard, Marguerite Guzman. Revolutionizing Motherhood: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Scholarly Resources, Inc., Delaware. 1994.
de Bonafini, Hebe and Matilde Sánchez. “The Madwomen at the Plaza del Mayo.” The Argentine Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Duke University Press, London. 2002.
Fisher, Jo. Mothers of the Disappeared. Sound End Press, Boston. 1989.
Gorini, Ulises. La Rebelión de Las Madres: Historia de las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, Tomo I (1976-1983). Grupo Editorial Norma, Argentina. 2006.
Mellibovsky, Matilde. Circle of Love: Testimonies of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Curbstone Press, Connecticut. 1997.
Munoz, Susana and Lourdes Portillo. “Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo.” 1986. Documentary. (Not viewed)
Paulson, Joshua. "Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo, Argentina -- 1977-1983." In Gene Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 2005.
Restitución de niños: Abuelas de mayo. Editorial Universitaria de Buenos Aires, Argentina. 1997.
Schweimler, Daniel. “Argentine mother’s march for justice.” British Broadcasting Company. 24 May 2007.
Avritzer, Leonardo. Democracy and the public space in Latin America. Princeton. Princeton U Press. 2002
Brysk, Alison. The Politics of Human Rights in Argentina: Protest, Change, and Democratization. Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA. 1994
Loveman, Mara. High-Risk collective Action: Defending Human Rights in Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina, in the American Journal of Sociology. Vol 104, No. 2. Sept 1998. Pp 477-525
Edited by Max Rennebohm (10/09/2011)
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy:
Aden Tedla, 20/06/2011, and Shandra Bernath Plaistad, 16/02/2009
Published for the Global Nonviolent Action Database