One of the most powerful parts of studying abroad is learning about history where the events really happened. Our internship with CPM takes place in the former headquarters of DIPPBA (Intelligence Directorate of the Police of the Province of Buenos Aires). DIPPBA collected and reported information about “subversive” activity. Their archives, which are protected and studied by CPM, stand as a testament to the repression and institutional violence which occurred throughout the last military dictatorship. It has been both a fascinating and really difficult experience to read through these archives in the same building where they were created.
Many of the documents in the archives were created by a number of intelligence agencies to conceal the truth about their role in forced disappearances. One of the biographies I wrote was about a young political activist who was involved in the armed branch of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (PRT), Carlos Benjamin Santillan. While sitting in the DIPPBA archives, I read through the paper trail of information (or lack thereof) regarding his disappearance: from an official letter submitted to the Ministry of the Interior by his father asking about his whereabouts or body, to the inquiries sent from the Ministry to other government organizations, to the numerous responses that essentially said “we do not have any information.” I cannot help but think about how many people were involved in generating all of these official documents and how that makes the systematic, institutional side of state terrorism so powerful and terrifying.
La Plata was one of the cities hit hardest by the violence of the junta. Two weekends ago we went to visit the Mariani-Teruggi House, which was a secret Montonero (Peronist guerilla organization) base of operations before all of the members who lived there were assassinated. There is nothing you can learn in a classroom that quite prepares you for physically seeing the bullet holes in the walls from the day the house was attacked.
That weekend we also went to visit ex-ESMA in Buenos Aires, which is a site of memory at the former Navy School of Mechanics. The school, which was originally used for training young officers, doubled as a Clandestine Center of Detention, Torture and Extermination (CCD) beginning in 1976. Roughly 5,000 people were detained and disappeared at this site. We quickly stuck out as the only Americans in the tour group. As the guide spoke about the effect of Operation Condor throughout South America, including the US government’s role in training the Argentine military in torture techniques, she would look in our direction. Learning about the history of US interventions in a classroom does not even compare to the shame and anger I felt as an American at a site of such extraordinary violence.
This weekend I went to visit Montevideo and Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. I was immediately blown away by the clean streets and the slower, relaxed pace of life. While in Montevideo, we went on a walking tour of the Old City. I was so impressed with how easily the guide switched back and forth between Spanish and Portuguese (most of the tourists in Uruguay are Brazilian). While we were standing in the Plaza Independencia, the guide asked us to point out which buildings around us were old and which were new. It reminded me a little of the College of William & Mary, where history blends so fluidly with the present.
I cannot believe my time in Argentina is almost over. My Spanish skills have vastly improved and I have even begun to use some slang words. I have never felt more proud than the night my host mom told me how she was excited that I have been speaking more frequently, with more confidence, and about more complex topics. It always strikes me when simple activities, such as getting something to eat for lunch, feel natural. During my first week, I could only point at which empanada I would likeand it would take me a few minutes to remember which pesos to use. Now, I can chat with the server, ask questions about which items they recommend, and not have them immediately ask “where are you from?” I thought I knew a lot about Argentina going into this internship, but now I no longer feel like such an outsider.