- Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina
Searching for Life, Rita Arditti's rare gem of a book, has many facets, each of which reflects a different dimension of this inspirational story about how a group of "housewives" resisted the "worst dictatorship in Argentine history" and changed the world just as Margaret Mead says a "small group of thoughtful committed citizens" can do. In one of the best examples of truly interdisciplinary feminist scholarship that I have read, this well-researched nonfiction work reads like a complex story that is part horrifying global political history, part riveting mystery novel, part heroic quest journey, part roadmap for social action and community organizing, part model for how to use science in service of human rights, and ultimately, all about the kind of real courage that is born of great love—the love between mother and child.
In Chapter One, "Not Just One More Coup," Arditti sets the political stage by explaining enough Argentine history for readers to grasp how events conspired to create the climate for a military dictatorship to seize power and kidnap, torture, and murder over 30,000 citizens during its rule from 1976–83. Arditti explains how the Doctrine of National Security, the "political cornerstone of the regime," was based on the "West Point Doctrine" taught in counterinsurgency courses offered by the U.S. military to select Latin American leaders and how the key methodology for enforcing the Doctrine (abduction, torture, murder, and "disappearance") was based on Hitler's 1941 Night and Fog Decree. Arditti describes the magnitude of the abuses of power that existed at all levels (including within the judicial system and among the highest leaders of the Argentine Catholic Church) as well as detailing the set patterns for the disappearances, tortures, and murders. Fortunately, the vivid descriptions of the tortures (such as torturing children in front of their parents, torturing the [End Page 160] fetuses of pregnant women, and inciting guard dogs to attack) are mercifully brief. However, Arditti has a good sense of how important these details are to the unfolding of her story about the Grandmothers. Readers must sense the very real and horrifying risk the Grandmothers took if we are to appreciate the magnitude of their courageous resistance.
In Chapter Two, Arditti chronicles the confluence of events and social actions that contributed to "The Fall of the Regime" with a series of stories: 1) about unionized workers (who were among those targeted for disappearance) who organized work slowdowns; 2) about Rodolfo Walsh, an investigative journalist who "started an underground communications network to inform people of the daily abuses taking place" and was later disappeared; 3) about a visit by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights, which helped bring international attention to the disappearances with their report and a subsequent New York Times article; 4) about the impact of the 1982 Malvinas/Falklands War in weakening the credibility of the military dictatorship; and 5) about the formation of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. On April 30, 1977, fourteen mothers whose children had disappeared gathered at the Plaza de Mayo (which is flanked by the presidential palace, cathedral, and several ministries) to begin what later became a weekly march. They were inspired by Azucena Villaflor de DeVincenti, a woman in her fifties whose son and daughter-in-law had been abducted, and who later disappeared herself on December 10, 1977. In October 1977, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo was born out of this original group with the express purpose of returning the children of the disappeared to their legitimate families.
Chapter Three, "The Grandmothers Organize," provides a particularly vivid outline of the Grandmothers' social action efforts, thanks to Arditti's effective use of direct quotes from the Grandmothers themselves. Although Arditti's words frame the organization of this chapter, the Grandmothers' voices actually tell the story as...