The conclusion of my internship with the sitios team was a whirlwind. We largely focused on honing the biographies we had written about the victims of the military junta—for me, María Cristina Lanzillotti and Víctor Vázquez. Telling these stories can be a delicate task. As I wrote in my previous blog post, emphasizing the individuality of the victims while recognizing that these crimes were hardly personal in intent but instead were part of a deliberately-planned genocide that touched every sector of society.
Part of this balancing act is placing the victims’ stories in a larger context and highlighting how their persecution fit into what the junta was seeking to achieve through genocide and repression. María Cristina Lanzillotti’s story is part of the junta’s brutal persecution of university students in the political opposition. The junta planted propagandic stories in newspapers about María Cristina’s husband murdering an elected official.
This false story is part of a larger pattern of propaganda the junta created to justify brutal tactics towards its opponents, such as members of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (PRT) and the Revolutionary Army of the Republic (ERP)—both of which included María Cristina and her husband among their ranks. Through this, the junta isolated its political opponents from the rest of society.
We encountered an excellent example of this isolation when we visited a memory site in La Plata in which the junta brutally murdered another family of political opponents, in a very public and gruesome display in an upper-middle class neighborhood. By falsely justifying its crimes, the junta demarcated a line between the “lawless” and the “lawful”—removing any stake those not persecuted felt in the fate of the persecuted. Thus, despite the plethora of neighbors who witnessed the brutal murder, they didn’t speak out because of fear and they felt they didn’t have a stake in the outcome. Understanding the junta’s strategy to create the conditions that enabled their human rights violations is critical for understanding how we can prevent human rights violations.
Víctor Vázquez’s story is part of a longer tradition in Argentina—the brutal repression of organized labor. Víctor devoted his entire life to the cause of labor, through his participation in the Communist Party of Argentina and the railroad union. He rose to amazing heights and ran in nationwide union elections. He was also arrested on nearly a dozen occasions, by the repressive forces of multiple military dictatorships that ruled the country. He had suffered persecution at the hands of many, revealing how the junta built upon on the tradition of the repression of previous military dictatorships.
Víctor’s story also revealed how different the repression of the junta was, in contrast to that of previous dictatorships. As Víctor’s granddaughter told me, Víctor’s disappearance was particularly brutal in that the family had no closure over the fate of their beloved. The 30 Thousand Disappeared faced a brutal fate as the junta embarked on an unprecedented campaign of genocide and disappearances. Víctor’s story also reveals how widespread the repression was, touching every single sector of society. It’s important to illustrate the variety of stories of the disappeared, to demonstrate the humanity that distinguishes one victim from another.
These instructions for storytelling and more mechanical help with our Spanish were crucial in the final week of the internship. One thing I loved about my internship was that I didn’t just learn a series of technical skills or learn a set of facts about human rights, but instead learned a whole host of ephemeral challenges associated with maintaining and protecting human rights. Collective memory is as important for preventing the re-occurrence of abuses as anything else, and collective memory isn’t an algorithm and doesn’t require a regression model to solve. Instead, it requires something more difficult, recognition of feeling. I was incredibly honored and happy to have this experience and learn what only such an in-depth and immersive experience could have instilled in me.