The first half of the 1970s were a time of radicalization in Argentina. The country emerged from military rule in 1973 seeking the means to govern themselves peacefully, without attracting another anti-democratic, authoritarian military regime, but still divisions existed between union leaders, leftist organizations, and formerly aligned political groups of all interests. Ubiquitous populist leader Juan Perón ascended to the presidency for his second time in 1973, hoping to quell national anxiety over increasing political uncertainty. When he died in 1974, his wife Isabel took his place.
However, the unifying familiarity of the Peronist movement would not provide activists of the 1970s with the social progress they sought, nor could it convince Argentina’s ominous and omnipotent armed forces that the country could be secure as a democracy. The fears of political and military elites, seeking order in a time of widespread social anxiety, soon manifested in military action against Argentina’s civilian population. The armed forces constructed a vision of the proper Argentine: Christian, western, capitalist, and ultimately submissive to authority. During the Peróns’ reigns, the army began unlawfully and clandestinely disappearing “subversive” individuals: essentially, social militants, their family members, or anyone who did not fully embody their vision of the ser argentino (Argentine being).
On March 24, 1976, the Joint Chiefs of the Armed Forces of Argentina detained President Isabel Martínez de Perón, took operational control of the country and implemented marshall law and a state of siege. That day, hundreds of workers, students, trade union leaders and other activists were kidnapped, detained, and ultimately disappeared. In the years that followed, tens of thousands of “subversive” civilians throughout the country would be kidnapped, tortured in hundreds of clandestine detention centers, and murdered by a sophisticated, all-powerful military-police state apparatus. Official estimates suggest that 30,000 civilians disappeared at the hands of state terror in the 1970s and 1980s.
41 years later, on March 24, 2017, Buenos Aires was again full of people marching and shouting, loud crashing noises and smoky air, but the day felt happy, hopeful, and distinctly Argentine. Hundreds of thousands of people, young and old alike, took to the streets instead of uniformed military officers. Thick, rich smoke from meat on hot asados and infectious rhythms from marchers’ drums filled the air instead of sulfur and gunshots. The marchers of today were not armed with weapons, but with banners, flags, and signs: “Nunca nos fuimos” (we never left); “Memoria, verdad, justicia” (Memory, truth, justice); “Aparición con vida” (appearance with life); “Son 30,000” (they are 30,000); “30,000 razones para seguir luchando” (30,000 reasons to keep fighting).
These days, the anniversary of Argentina’s last military coup is called Día de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia; Remembrance Day for Truth and Justice. In practice, the day makes little reference to the actions of the coup or military juntas 41 years ago; rather, it is a day reserved for remembering the lives lost to state violence, who fought for the rights to speak, protest, and be their own argentino even in deadly circumstances.
The theme of memory has an enormous significance in Argentine politics. Its meaning originates with the Madres de la Plaza del Mayo, who rejected obstruction of truth and state mandates of “Argentine-ness” by marching in front of the Casa Rosada (the White House of Argentina), speaking out about their missing children, and demanding the end to disappearance and state terror. This stern, unwavering insistence of truth through memory is what enables human rights organizations today to continue pursuing justice through criminal trials; it’s what keeps Argentine citizens so dedicated to diligence and informed participation in politics; and perhaps most importantly, it is the means by which the Argentine people process a national tragedy and honor their lost friends and relatives.
When I went to march on Buenos Aires with a group of relatives of disappeared people, I expected an emotional, somber day. What I actually experienced surprised me. Well-rehearsed, exciting and infectious rhythms from groups of marchers toting whole drum sets animated the hundreds of thousands of people toting flags, signs, and photos of desaparecidos; it was impossible to resist the urge to wave your flag or pump two fingers (a “V” for victory) in the air as you stepped to the beat. The enthusiasm of this musical accoutrement confused me at first; today is about remembering 30,000 innocent lives lost, no? But these friends and family members of lives lost were singing and chanting at the tops of their lungs, condemning state violence but not without a beer, a choripan and an infectious smile.
Argentina is seriously passionate about politics, and especially passionate about protest. The protest is not just a political experience, but a time for social and emotional connection: people pass around mate or beer, smoke, gossip, and of course, engage in passionate rapid-fire political conversations and debates. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in the United States; it’s something truly argentino. The drums, too, are a crucial part of the experience, as they are a time-honored symbol of popular movements in Argentina. This March 24th, filling up the streets, shouting their dissent loudly and proudly, marching to the rhythm of that sacred instrument of protest, it is as though the Argentine people are still fighting against the juntas’ oppression and for their right to be their own argentino.
I don’t usually speak of heaven or hell, but on that day, I hope that those 30,000 souls wrongfully lost to state oppression were looking down on the Plaza del Mayo. I hope they saw the marchers, heard the shouts and drums, and smelled the choripan. I hope they heard their mothers and siblings saying their names, insisting on their innocence and demanding their reappearance. I hope they saw how passionately their friends and family exercised the rights they hoped, fought and died for 40 years ago: the right to speak, the right to protest, the right to be argentino. I can’t imagine a more fitting, perfect way to honor them.