This quote by Nora Strejilevech in her poem “Una Sola Muerte Numerosa” is the perfect representation of what we have witnessed at all of these detention centers. As we learned about the torture from each and every center and had the opportunity to speak to some, we learn about the lack of humanization. Losing their name is apart of that. This week we went to La Esma, AKA the Auschwitz of Argentina. This place was known for killing thousands of people. Only 200 or so survived from this center. As we walked on the sight, we see that this place was directly in front of the main road. Visible enough for people to see what was going on there. As we continue to walk we were informed about the numbers they were given. Their names were completely erased for the time being. That number to them was life or death. If they were called, the probably wouldn’t return. Not being called meant more time in their lives. As I think about this I also think about what it must have been like for my ancestors during slavery. Given new names, or maybe even numbers. I also think about what it was like for jews and them having numbers and not their original names. What is it like once you’re freed? This dehumanization is the reason the people felt the power to continue to do what they were doing. With this, they wipe away/try to erase who they were and where they come from. Whether it be temporary or permanent their numbers are not their names.
The first evening our group of students and professors from Georgia State University shared a delicious dinner of empanadas, picadas (sampler/appetizer platters) and delicious Argentine wine in the historic restaurant Alfonsina. It is named after the superbly talented yet tragic poetess Alfonsina Storni. It was at this restaurant that I first learned of her.
Despite my considerable familiarity with the literature and poetry of the Spanish language, it was the first time I had heard of Alfonsina. Hearing a brief description of who she was and how she died, my curiosity was spiked to learn more about her!
Alfonsina was one of Argentina’s and the world’s greatest poets of the 20th century. She was also a pioneer in woman’s poetry, feminist poetry and is considered a founder of the Spanish genres of modernismo and posmodernismo. She left us with a prolific body of poetry, but tragically left this world at the young age of 46 by committing suicide. On Tuesday, 25 October 1938, Alfonsina left her room and headed towards the sea at La Perla beach in Mar del Plata. Her biographers say she jumped into the sea from a breakwater, popular legend is that she slowly walked out to sea until she drowned. There was even a song composed about her Alfonsina y el Mar (Alfonsina and the Sea). Link to the song https://youtu.be/cNMhgC1yg_USadly, it is said that she committed suicide because she thought she was very ugly. I think you will agree with me that she was not ugly! She was not a 10, nor a supermodel, but I think she was actually a pretty woman. Her story and her poetry have made an impact on me and I am enjoying continued reading of her poetry. There are a few documentaries of her life on YouTube in Spanish, (I haven’t found any in English yet).
Throughout the trip, Fernando would quiz us on things within the area we were in that indicates an aspect of the State Terror, Peronism, or interesting little facts. For many of us hearing Fernando say “quiz!” meant it was time to start quickly searching so, that you could be the first one to solve the mini-mystery. It truly became one of my favorite things, out of many, from this study aboard trip.
In Buenos Aires, Fernando began quizzing us on the remembrance plaques across the city that indicate if one or more people disappeared there. Finding the different plaques gave me a somber feeling yet also a feeling of hopefulness that people remember the Disappeared, their names, and stories in a multitude of ways. Realizing that these plaques across the city express the proximity to which governmental kidnappings occurred on busy intersections, within residential areas, and in front of schools. The plaques on the streets represent the proximity of the State Terror to everyday life in the 70s and early 80, how easy it could be to turn a blind eye to injustice occurring because one doesn’t have time to stop and look or that they’re terrified to act on what they saw. And that fear is due to the disgustingly dehumanizing combination of kidnappings and clandestine detention camps being in busy areas to instill fear for people who would rebel against the junta, however; also make the Disappeared feel invisible to society.
La Perla, also know as La Universidad (the University), was a clandestine detention center used during the Argentine military dictatorship of the last century (1976-1983). While visiting, I naïvely queried as to what the facilities were used for both before and after its use as a detention center. I was disturbed to learn that the military had built the facility with the sole, specific purpose of detaining, interrogating (with the use of torture), people whom they considered to be dangerous and enemies of the state. It actually began functioning before the rise of the military dictatorship, in 1975 and continued in operation until 1979. It is located on the highway that unites the large city of Córdoba, Argentina’s second largest city, with the smaller city of Carlos Paz. Through its gates passed over 3,000 detainees, with only approximately 250 survivors. (After the dictatorship, it was used as a regular military training base.)
The vast majority of the victims were common workers, unionists and university students. The detainees were abducted from their homes, from the street and other locations. They were blindfolded, thrown into the trunk or rear floorboard of a car and driven to La Perla. Some were transferred from other detention centers. When brought to La Perla, their likelihood of coming out alive was very slim. When initially brought in, they were processed and interrogated, interrogations that involved torture. The average detainee was kept from a few days to two to three weeks. The vast majority were forced to sit and/or sleep in a small cramped space as pictured in the photo below:
The gentleman pictured is a son of one of the tortures, who denounced his own father for his crimes. His father forced him, as a teenager, to watch some of the horrible things that went on in La Perla. He says, that in his adolescent naïvete, he thought that they were doing good, that he was some type of secret agent. As he grew and matured, he realized his father had manipulated him. In the picture, he sits in the position that the prisoners were forced to remain day and night, except when they were being questioned/tortured or for the rare bathroom break.
The most shocking and disturbing thing of our visit to La Perla, was actually after the trip. Before our debriefing and discussion about the visit, I was thinking about what I would discuss. I looked through my photos and discovered this one:
I had not noticed before that my reflection was captured in the photo, that in the photo it appeared as if I were in the room that was used for torture! This shock reminded me of how vulnerable we all are to an “all-powerful” state, be it right-wing or left-wing. When a state, a government, feels that it has such power that it can kidnap citizens, whether guilty or innocent and question them, torture them, kill them and/or disappear them without due process of law, we are ALL in danger! Today you may be favored by an “all-powerful” government, tomorrow things could change!
One of the many detention centers and memory sites where the victims were abducted, tortured, and disappeared during the state terrorism that I was given the opportunity to visit was Parque de la Memoria. It featured a memorial wall of victims that suffered from the dictatorship beginning in 1969 and artifacts and sculptures in reminiscence of the victims. This memorial site specifically invoked many unexplainable emotions due to the stories and articles read about it.
While traveling to Parque de la Memoria, Fernando purchased flowers and gave each of us one to throw into Rio de la Plata in remembrance of the disheartening torture and death the victims faced. With Fernando, painting the mental picture of the victims being drugged and thrown out into Rio de la Plata out of airplanes, “death flights”, with receiving the immediate impact from the water made throwing the flower even more heart wrenching and difficult to fathom.
According to Janet A. Kamien, “In 1998, the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires passed legislation to create this riverside park at a place where a number of discarded bodies of “disappeared” persons had washed up during the Dirty War.” (Kaimen, 2012) The military forces strategically used this method of execution to destroy any remaining evidence that could imprison them for the persecution of those innocent lives. Rio de la Plata was a site used by the military forces to erase the identity and lives of those they violated.
Also, at the site was a sculpture of Pablo Míguez, one of the many children that were kidnapped with their families during the dictatorship. The sculpture is a portrayal of the concept of appearance and disappearance. In my perspective, that concept signifies that his body was not able to dissolve deep into the body of water due to his young age and weight, therefore was floating just above Rio de la Plata (appearance), however with the excruciating impact of the water caused an instant yet fatal death which symbolizes the concept of his remaining disappearance. Furthermore, depending on the weather conditions for the day one may or may not be able to see the identity of the victim.
All of these encompassing details made the site incredibly hard to fathom and even harder to walk.
Kamien, J. A. (2012). Sites of Memory: Argentina. Curator: The Museum Journal, 55(3), 267-277. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.2012.00151.x
Our last day in Argentina concluded with a tour of a secret detention center, El Club Atlético, completely unlike the previous ones we had toured. The majority of the building had been demolished to make way for a highway, and extensive rubble remains.
El Club Atlético operated for a year and a half as part of a circuit of 3 concentration camps within a building belonging to the Argentine Federal Police. Legal police operations took place on each floor aside from the basement, which was strictly used as a secret detention center. It was reported that the space was designed to facilitate only 200 people, yet more than 1500 prisoners were subject to the horrors of the prison. As of today, 300 of the disappeared from Club Atlético have been identified, and there are 150 survivors.
Excavations of the site have uncovered an array of items, such as items of clothing, alcohol bottles, billy clubs and the ping-pong ball prisoners would constantly hear. One of the most intriguing pieces was a police cap with inscriptions of swastikas and the word “nazista” written on it. Anti-Semitism ran rapidly in the police department. Jewish people were specifically targeted during the regime, with reports of the among of Jewish people killed ranging from 1300 who have identified to 3000 possibly in total. Additionally, survivors report hearing Hitler speeches throughout the basement.
After the dissolution of the dictatorship, the site began to be used as a space to memorialize the victims in unique ways. In “Memorial Sites of Buenos Aires,” Janis Breckenridge provided an explanation of the ways in which the space was used. Starting in 1996, dance, costumes, puppet shows, speeches, chants, art pieces, among other expressive forms were used to commemorate the victims and “transform an inert space to a living memorial.” However, despite the efforts from neighborhood activist to call attention to the space, unknown agents would frequently destroy the same pieces. Today, further excavations of the site have been permitted. More puzzle pieces are expected to be fit together, as present-day Argentina moves towards finding out the truth of what happened in these detention centers.
Upon arriving to Buenos Aires, I was able to view this beautiful metallic flower, called Floralis Genérica, which was located in the center of Plaza Naciones Unidas. It was created by an architect Eduardo Catalano and gifted to this park in Buenos Aires. The flower blooms daily, opening at 8am andclosing at 8pm, above the reflecting water.
Also, while visiting the park we were given the chance to experience an event hosted by Kenzo, which is a perfume brand. The event was full of vibrant energy from the live music and karaoke to the red balloon’s and roses filled with their aromatic fragrance.
By visiting this park, I was able to the view the contrast of the city’s buildings and greenery which made my love for entire city deepen!
The beautiful Mafalda
In the countryside outskirts of Córdoba, I had the most incredible yet thrilling opportunity to ride horses in grassland and in the forest. In the photograph above is the beautiful Malfalda, the horse I rode during my adventure. Since I had never ridden a horse before, at first, I was overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety and fear due to my lack of awareness of the control I actually possessed over the horse. The people training taught me how to control the horse through pulling the bridle and kicking the horse however, I still never felt quite comfortable enough to do that. But throughout the adventure, I gradually became more comfortable with horse and was better able to just feel bliss and joy. In fact, I was so comfortable I began posing for photos and taking selfies!
Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA), which was originally an education site for the Argentine Navy, doubled as a secret detention center during the military regime. It operated during all 8 years of the dictatorship, with estimates of 5,000 victims passing through the doors. Only about 200 people survived. ESMA is recognized as the largest known detention center in Argentina at the time.
One of the most horrifying aspects of ESMA during its time of operation was their treatment of women, specifically pregnant women. Pregnant women were subject to the same treatment as other prisoners, including torture.
There was a specific maternity room designated for pregnant women. As women neared the end of their pregnancy, they were allotted small freedoms, such as removing one of their shackles or blindfold. They might also be given a piece of fruit. Their babies were delivered by licensed military doctors, and they were taken to a military hospital if there were complications with the birth. After 10 days with the baby, the baby was taken from the mother and given or sold to a military family or a family with some connection to the military. Shortly after, the mother would be killed. 37 babies were known to be born at ESMA.
Thanks to the work of Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, nearly 200 babies who were torn from their birth families and “adopted” into a new family, finally know their true identity.
Additionally, the reading “Nunca Más” notes that women in general were assaulted during their stays in secret detention centers, and ESMA was no different. The bathroom, which some prisoners regarded as a safe place to remove their blindfolds and have a minute to breathe, was another target on women. They would be sexually assaulted by soldiers in that space. I can see the anger and hurt that women experienced throughout history being channeled into the fight for safety and equality today.