When writing the biographies about the two desaparecidos I had chosen from the city of Pergamino, I was immediately faced with daunting challenges. First, was the language—Argentinean court records are, obviously, entirely in Spanish. And these records are not in the conversational Spanish in which I have vastly improved over dinner with my host mom or in conversation with other Argentineans, but instead in a technical, formal, and often outdated Spanish. Second, was the lingering footprint of the propaganda of the junta. To give cover to their brutal persecution of political dissidents, the junta (or “la ultima dictadura” as it is often referred to here) crafted false stories of dissidents fomenting violence. They then used these pieces of propaganda as evidence of the “subversion” that supposedly required the draconian junta to counter. Third, was that many descriptions and biographies about the desaparecidos seemed to gloss over what made them human, instead solely focusing on political activity. It was up to us to paint the pictures of the desaparecidos in as human a way as possible.
This third challenge, in particular, was one that sprouted from a discussion that our team of human rights fellows had with Silvia Fontano, a key member of the organization Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. The organization emerged during the dictatorship and consisted of women whose daughters were detained and disappeared while pregnant. The dictatorship would leave the newborn children of these disappeared mothers in the care of Junta sympathizers or with adoptive families in random places throughout the country, and it has often taken years to recover the identity of these children. In some cases, their true identity has yet to be recovered. They and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo would march in front of government buildings to protest the junta’s persecution of dissidents, boldly defying the dictatorship even at the height of its repression.
Silvia Fontano’s sister was disappeared. She is a woman marked by great tragedy and great strength, having devoted her life to telling the stories of her sister and other victims of repression to ensure that the abuses which occurred under the junta never occur again. Our conversation with her was critical for understanding how to tell the stories of these victims most effectively. Though they lost their lives for the political causes in which they were involved, they were not solely defined by their politics: they were human beings who dreamed, wept, and loved.
After our conversation with Silvia, I was inspired to be more proactive in seeking out the human details at the core of the lives of the two desaparecidos I was studying—Víctor Vázquez and María Cristina Lanzillotto.
In the case of Víctor, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak with a granddaughter of his, Susana Corradini Vázquez. After a fascinating conversation that stretched nearly two hours, I came away replete with anecdotes about who Víctor was. Víctor devoted his life to the cause of the worker in Argentina, entering the Communist Party and the railroad union as a teenager and throughout his life was arrested nearly a dozen times. He was unique among the desaparecidos given his age—most on the list for Pergamino were college students when disappeared and Víctor was in his 60’s—and for his experiences—Víctor had experienced 43 years of the yo-yoing of Argentinean politics, between democracy and autocracy. From Susana, I learned of his relationship with his father, who would take the pre-adolescent Víctor to workers rallies and read with him alongside his mother. I learned Víctor once organized a peace debate with a future senator of the nation of Argentina in high school. I learned of Víctor’s love for books and how passionately intellectual he was and how he expected nothing less from his daughter or three grandchildren. How the last thing he did with Susana was take her to a book fair.
In the case of María Cristina Lanzillotto, I found two poems written by her twin Ana María, also disappeared. One described their childhood as one of many fathers and many mothers, a wondrous time in a household filled with energetic activists and a father who, from an early age, instilled a political consciousness in his daughters that would later in life sprout into deep participation in activism. Ana María’s other poems described her experiences in the ‘land of warlocks’ and the experiences of the ‘orphans’ of the junta’s crimes, experiences which María Cristina, detained in some of the same prisons and who also had two children disappeared, would have shared.
These details add to the humanity of the victims of the junta, a humanity that is essential to understand. There were 30,000 desaparecidos during the dictatorship—yet, in an oft-repeated framing by Comisión employees, these 30,000 victims aren’t just a collective but instead 30,000 individuals, individuals whose stories must be told with granular attention and detail. If we lose the individuals, we give in to the de-humanization and forgetting of the victims and do dishonor to their memory.