Mothers and the resistance

Photo by U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services

Ten years ago I went to Buenos Aires to meet with human rights activists and guides who are survivors of torture. Argentina experienced six successive coups d'états prior to 1983, and the friendly guides we met and worked with in Buenos Aires had survived the Dirty War, when the country was subject to state-sponsored terrorism.

These individuals had personally witnessed the forced disappearance of tens of thousands of fellow citizens, including members of their own families. During our visit, our guides shared their chilling personal testimonies and gave us a tour of a former government site that was a clandestine torture center, never before opened to the public.

At the time I was pregnant with my daughter Zola, and I became physically sick after touring the unimaginable: a former maternity ward comprised of several rooms, approximately 10 by 6 feet each. This was where kidnapped dissident women would labor and give birth, after which their babies were taken from them and raised by military families who hid the birth parents' history and identity from their children. Often the birth mothers were also among those forcibly "disappeared." 

Other experiences were more uplifting: we met with members of indigenous rights groups as well as environmentalists fighting pollution from oil refineries that devastated the health of those living in the vast shantytowns. And I shared meals, music and mate with Argentinian university students who enlightened me in aspects of U.S. history, the CIA and U.S. government that American students don’t learn about in textbooks. 

I also had the privilege to march with the Mothers of the Disappeared, or the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo, famous for organizing in 1977 and marching weekly in front of the president's palace to demand information and the whereabouts of their children, many of whom were killed and never found. The marches went on for years, generated worldwide attention and pressured the government in spite of the dangerous threats and forced disappearances of organizers. The final March of Resistance was in 2006, but subsequent generations and a few surviving members of the original organization still march for other social justice causes at the Plaza.

I'm recounting these memories because our nation is in the midst of a human rights crisis. Our government has supported horrific family separations occurring at our border, including concentration camps for kids and “tender age” facilities for infants. Reports of babies and young children of asylum seekers and immigrants placed with American foster care families echoes Argentina’s recent history of dissidents’ offspring taken away from birth parents to be raised by Argentine military families.

When Zola was born, I gave her "Argentina" as her middle name to honor the beautiful country and its courageous people. And while I've told her about my time spent there, it seems impossible to try to explain to her the crisis in our own country and the profound emotional torture we have inflicted on asylum seekers, immigrants and their children. It's tempting to suggest these horrors only happen elsewhere, but we cannot be disillusioned.

But so long as we still have our civil rights, we bear the patriotic responsibility to act and defy these gross human rights violations. Join a local protest and demand the immediate reunification of detained immigrant families and the end of family separations. In Argentina and elsewhere, a sustained, organized resistance has proven a powerful antidote for state-sponsored terrorism. Right now in the United States, we are leading a new coalition for the Mothers of the Disappeared: We must keep demanding answers and advocating for children who might never be returned to their families. 

Julie Ross