Laina Lamont ’24 – Entry #3 – Week Six

I did not expect to feel culture shock when I returned to the United States. In many ways it felt like we were in Argentina forever. I had finally adjusted to my daily routine and to the pace of life in La Plata. In other ways it felt like we had just arrived. There were still moments when I felt like such an outsider, particularly as I still stumbled over words in Spanish on my last day at the Comision. Still, it is crazy to think about how much I have changed in just six weeks.

My last week absolutely flew by. I finally went to visit the vibrant neighborhood of La Boca in Buenos Aires. Every restaurant had live music and a couple performing the tango. I hope that I will have the chance to come back to Argentina one day to see a Boca Juniors game. I finally bought my own mate while in Buenos Aires. My host mom helped me cure it. It blows my mind that we don’t drink yerba mate in the United States and that many people have never even heard of it. It is funny how different cultural norms can be around the world and how much my own habits have changed. I am really excited to introduce my friends and family to mate.

When Daniel and I went into Buenos Aires again on Thursday we saw the weekly protest that the Madres de Plaza de Mayo hold in the Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada. While there were only a dozen or so people marching, it was still so powerful to hear the names of the disappeared read as the group made laps around the Plaza. One Mother, who had to be at least 90, was pushed in a wheelchair. After they finished reading the names, the group congregated on one side of the Plaza as the Madre spoke.

On our last day at the Comision, we put together the physical version of the biographies we have been working on over the past six weeks. At first I was a little uncomfortable with decorating a booklet that talks about how someone was imprisoned and tortured. On the surface, it felt a little insensitive. Malena and the other people at the Comision did not feel that was the case. Instead, they saw these booklets as an artistic and engaging way to honor someone’s life. I had never thought about memory work in that way before.

We all cried when we said our last goodbye to Malena. I did not expect to feel as emotional as I did as we walked out of the doors of the Comision for the last time. I was especially emotional when we said goodbye to our host mom, Roxana. Astrid and I cooked “breakfast for dinner” for Roxana and her two sons, Camilo and Fermin, on our last night. They had never had pancakes before. My host mom carefully wrote down the recipe in her journal as I cooked. Camilo and Fermin spoke some broken English, which mostly consisted of references to movies and TV shows.

I accidentally said “gracias” to the cashier at the Charlotte airport. It took me a second to realize my mistake. I was floored that using Spanish had become like second-nature to me in just six weeks. That was when it hit me just how far my language skills have come since I first arrived in La Plata. I remember the panic I felt in my first few weeks when someone would ask me a question. Even something as simple as ordering food felt so uncomfortable. It is mind blowing that now, in the airport in the United States, I did it without even thinking.

I am so incredibly grateful to William & Mary, Professor Tandeciarz, Malena, Diego, the Reves Center, Charles Center, Government Department, Global Research Institute, Hispanic Studies Program, Public Policy Program, my host mom Roxana, and everyone we met in La Plata for giving me this incredible opportunity. I know that I will carry the experiences I had in Argentina with me for the rest of my life.

La Boca is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, even though it is by far the most touristy!
Me, Astrid, and our host mom, Roxana.
One of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo.
One of the biographies I worked on was for a young man named Hugo Roberto Serenelli. Here is a photo of me with the final product.
Me, Giselle, Malena, Astrid, and Emmy on our last day at the Comision.

Laina Lomont ’24 – Week Four Blog Entry

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.

There is so much street art throughout La Plata. I pass by this mural on my way to the Comision every day.
A photo of Carlos Benjamin Santillan from the DIPPBA archives.
The bullet holes in the walls of the Mariani-Teruggi house.
The exterior of ex-ESMA.
A photo of me standing with the famous Montevideo letters, with the city skyline in the background.

Laina Lomont ’24 – Week 2

One of the most impactful moments I have experienced in Argentina so far was on our fourth day in La Plata. After returning from lunch, we had the incredible opportunity to hear from two women who work as activists with the Abuelas and Madres de Plaza de Mayo. One of the women, Silvia Fontana, talked to us about the biography she wrote about her sister who was pregnant when she was disappeared in 1977. Silvia’s mother dedicated the rest of her life to finding her missing daughter and grandchild. In 2006, with the help of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, Silvia’s family recovered the identity of her nephew. He became the 84th lost grandchild to be restored by the Abuelas. After her mother passed away a few years ago, Silvia explained how she now works to honor and preserve the memory of both her sister and her mother. It was so inspiring to hear from the women behind such powerful human rights organizations. Silvia came into the Commission again last week to speak with us a bit more in depth about the process of writing a biography. As she was leaving, she asked how old we were. When I told her that I am 20 years old, she teared up and said her sister was 20 when she was kidnapped and murdered.

Within our internship with the CPM, we are each working on different teams that have different areas of focus. My team is writing short biographies about people who were disappeared from Pergamino using sources we find on the internet as well as the DIPPBA archives. DIPPBA, the Dirección de Inteligencia de la Policía de la Provincia de Buenos Aires (the intelligence unit of the Buenos Aires province Police Force), operated in La Plata between 1956 and 1998. In 2001, the Comision Provincial por la Memoria (CPM) was created to preserve the DIPPBA archives, which contain hundreds of intelligence documents tracking “subversive” activity. It has been so unique to have such hands-on experience with the documents and their history. Constructing these biographies is a reminder that 30,000 is not just a number. Each number represents a person with a life, family, interests, hopes, and plans. I always think about Silvia and her family while I am working. Jorge Rafael Videla, one of the most brutal orchestrators of the “War Against Subversion,” famously said that the “disappeared” do not exist. Writing these biographies, which memorialize the lives of people whose identities were stolen, feels like a small way of helping the fight against the state terrorism which occurred in Argentina.

When we visited Buenos Aires for the first time we went to see the Plaza de Mayo, where the Madres and Abuelas have famously held protests every Thursday at 3:30 since 1977. They were not allowed to congregate in large groups when they first began protesting, so they would walk in pairs around the Plaza wearing white handkerchiefs, or “pañuelos,” embroidered with the name of their missing child. The bricks in the Plaza are painted with large white pañuelos, forever marking the Madres’ place in Argentine history. As we were leaving the Plaza, we heard loud noises coming from the streets around the Plaza. When we walked to see what was going on, we saw a mass of people carrying flags and banners. We learned that different leftist groups coordinated a protest together. A large banner in front of the Casa Rosada, the office of the president, read “No al Pago de la Deuda Externa – Fuera el FMI” (No to foreign debt payment – IMF Get out).

The idea that multiple political groups, all with different views, could organize, coordinate, and mobilize that many people was mind blowing. We saw banners for socialist groups, anarchists, Trotskyists, center-leftists, and Marxists. As the economic situation in Argentina continues to worsen, it has been incredible to see people come together. That Saturday reminded me of the power of protest and the energy of mass mobilization. It also reminded me about the importance of place and legacy. I am so excited for the rest of our time in Argentina, and I know I will be taking many powerful lessons back to the United States with me.

Laina, Daniel with Silvia Fontana
MST (Workers’ Socialist Movement) protesters in the Plaza de Mayo
A banner hanging in the Plaza de Mayo, with the Casa Rosada in the background
Protesters from the Movimiento Libres del Sur, a center-left political party, marching toward the Plaza de Mayo