This article was first printed in PETRIe 66 (2014). It is part two of a three-part series.
Read part one here.
EL PAÑUELO BLANCO
Zuzu Angel is not alone, however, in her experiences of loss and life. On the website of Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo – an Argentinean protest group - there is a video of one of their members holding a headscarf. She is frail and white-haired, and her voice trembles as she speaks. She shows the camera the names embroidered on the scarf, and then wraps it around her head. The names are those of her missing children. By the end of the short video, she is almost in tears. “La acaricio,” she says: “I cherish it.”
Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo were formed during the Dirty War in Argentina, a period of state terrorism from 1976 to 1983. Despite a military coup d’état in 1955, which had ousted the populist Juan Perón, there were still many extreme leftists supporting the exiled leader. As such, the military government instigated urban and guerrilla warfare to retain control. It often led to civilians being targeted, meaning individuals, and sometimes members of their family, went missing.
The group, Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, was founded by 14 women, all with missing relatives, who wanted information on, and the return of, their loved ones. The name derives from the site of their first demonstration in April 1977 in the Plaza de Mayo, in front of the Presidential Palace. These demonstrations continue even today. But whereas now the group is a recognised and respected force, in 1977 their actions could have been interpreted as dissidence. Public protest was violently suppressed, and the government did not welcome the discussion of the ‘disappeared’.
Jorge Rafael Videla, dictator of Argentina from 1976 to 1981, publicly dismissed the issue in a television speech, saying: “With regards to the disappeared, he does not mean anything. If he appears, then we’ll talk about a trial, because then he is a certainty. But so long as he’s a disappeared, he can’t have any special treatment. He has no identity. They’re not even there; they don’t exist, these disappeared, either living or dead.” Despite the attempts to bury the accusation, Las Madres had a natural justification for keeping it in the public eye - their motherhood.
While political protest remained dangerous as long as the armed forces remained in power, Las Madres did not openly campaign against the government. They did not criticise the policies of the regime, or call for investigations into the disappearances. The basis of their campaign was purely for the return of their loved ones. Their endurance was solely built on their identity as mothers with missing children. While they relied on traditional Catholic and Argentinean ideas of the roles of women in the household, their actions actually exceeded them.
As the movement grew, hundreds of women began to turn out for the demonstrations, often carrying signs with the names and photographs of their children. During the protests, the women wore the headscarves synonymous with the older generation of Argentinean women, embroidered with the names of their missing relatives. The scarves had so much emotional resonance that they became the official symbol of the movement; they emphasised the connection Las Madres made between their domestic and political duty - between fashion and family.
Although they initially set out to demand the right as traditional women to rebuild and protect their families from the military rule, the mass protest in fact cemented their place in a public political space. Their motherhood was intrinsic to their participation, and their headscarves were a poignant and effective symbol of this connection. Just as Zuzu was able to use her own talent to protest against the mistreatment of her son and others like him, Las Madres were able to form a group that could offer mutual support to severed families.
Archive: PETRIe INVENTORY 66
Words: Lucy Garrett
Image source: madres.org