Memorial Day weekend offers an opportunity to honor fallen soldiers, those who fought on our behalf. But what about those who’ve been caught in undeclared wars, who were never officially in battle, but perished nonetheless? How might we properly remember civilians caught in political crossfire?
I was in Buenos Aires this week for Pepperdine University's new faculty conference. The most moving moment in my Argentine experience occurred on a Thursday afternoon. The Mothers of the Disappeared have been gathering at the Plaza de Mayo for over thirty years. Each Thursday at 3:30pm, they march behind a banner to demand justice, to seek answers, still longing to know what happened to their children. Closure remains elusive.
Grieving and irate mothers of the disappeared slowly found each other. They banded together in solidarity to pressure the government for answers and apologies. Some wanted major changes in government policy. Others simply wanted their remains of their missing children returned for a proper burial.
Musicians committed to social change have celebrated the mothers in song. Way back on 1987’s Joshua Tree, U2 lifted up the “Mothers of the Disappeared.” (Check out a concert version here). Folk singers like Holly Near and Joan Baez offered a cry for los desaparecidos. Sting sang, “They Dance Alone” way back in 1988.
Perhaps so much international attention was bound to result in competition, jealousy and backbiting. With donations pouring in, The Mothers eventually split into two factions, one highly organized and militant, the other slightly beleaguered and weary. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo call for sweeping social change. They have formed a wealthy and robust political action group that has spawned publications, websites and even a university.
The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo—Founding Line focus upon recovering the remains of the children. They still want to bring former government officials to justice. Yet, the Founding Line engage in silent protest. How poignant to see them holding faded photos of their sons and daughters after so many years.
As they circled the center of the plaza, it felt like an extended wake. Worn down by so much grief and so few answers, they march as a living vigil, a way to remind us all of innocent people caught in an ideological war.
In marked contrast to the Founding Line, the other Mothers let their voices be heard. They arrived in a sleek van, covered with their iconic scarf symbol. As they entered the plaza, the crowd parted in a moment of collective respect and awe. Their fiery leader, Hebe de Bonafini, led the procession. As they ringed the same circle, these madres thrust their fists in the air. They crowd who followed them clapped in unison, shouting in Spanish. They called the government, “Cowards!”, asking them to acknowledge “The Plaza belongs to the mothers.” What vibrancy in their step and fire in the eyes.
Several Argentines told me they thought the madres had too much power. Charges of corruption have dogged de Bonafini’s organization. Evidently, she applauded the terrorists acts of 9/11 and defamed the Pope. Given my relative ignorance regarding Argentine politics, I will refrain from judging either faction. The marches of both groups brought tears to my eyes.
I was struck by how much moral force accompanied their protest thirty years on. They continue to fight, undoubtedly until death. They’re more like ‘Grandmothers of the Disappeared’, a vivid reminder of how much power the elderly can possess.