“We Know Nothing. It isn’t Taught”: Secret Histories of Argentina’s Dirty War

To my astonishment, my students in the university city of La Plata were emphatic: “We know nothing. It isn’t taught.”

August 1999: a cold, blustery, winter night in the capital of Buenos Aires Province. We were crowded into the Aula Magna at the Advanced School of Social Work for the opening of an intensive, month-long seminar on the legacies of the Dirty War dictatorship entitled “Coercion and Complicity: The Social Codes of Terror.” Originally listed as a class whose enrollment was limited to twenty-five, the seminar over­flowed with over a hundred students, not one of whom was willing to leave. Their ages ranged from nineteen to forty-three; most were be­tween twenty-six and thirty-three. The vast majority were women. Many had come to class directly from their jobs in the villas miserias— the shantytowns—on the edges of the city, and from the poorest barrios within the capital. They had flooded in on a great wave of energy, many eating sandwiches on the run, several carrying small children, one man leading a big, babyish dog on a thick leather leash. I was pleased by the intensity with which they had listened to my opening lecture, and by their insistence on the need to study the dictatorship that be­tween 1976 and 1983 had “disappeared” some thirty thousand citizens. But I was startled, indeed disoriented, by their professions of ignorance.

After all, their school is housed in a former military base that, dur­ing the dictatorship, functioned as a transit camp for “subversives.” The traces of many individuals were lost here, including those of the two brothers-in-law of my host, Susana Malacalza, a beloved, outspoken pro­fessor forced into exile during the regime.

Architecturally, the place hasn’t changed. The turreted complex is traditionally colonial in style: fortress-like gate; white, arcaded buildings surrounding a central patio; semi-tropical gardens now wildly out of control. In the back of one of the main lecture halls you can still clear­ly make out the secret holding cells, their thick metal bars now pebbled with rust and streaked with greenish mold. Physically, the place is a wreck. When the desperately cramped University bought the complex from the Army, the plan was to raze the site and start anew. But the funds never materialized and arc no longer expected. “The Army took everything they could,” Susana complains bitterly. “Doors, faucets, floor­ing, all kinds of architectural details.” Many of the walls have holes; some of the former barracks have no walls at all. The only bathroom with a door that closes is the one in the old officers’ wing. The roof is so full of holes that when it rains, it rains inside.

Dilapidated and partly collapsed, the place yet pulses with color and activity. On every whitewashed wall the students have painted murals, poetry, and exhortations (“No one shall be forced to obey an immoral law”). The broken bricks of the central courtyard are stenciled with the signature white kerchiefs of the Madres de Plaza del Mayo. Run­ning the length of an exterior wall is a chain of full-length silhouettes representing the missing. The library is named for the School’s first desaparecida (disappeared). This was the first campus to decide that no class­es would ever be held on March 24, the anniversary of the Dirty War coup. How was it possible my students “knew nothing”?

From previous visits I knew that our class would include children of desaparecidos and individuals who had been raised in exile or in house­holds living semi-clandestinely. Historically, La Plata is the most politi­cized city in Argentina. Until the military regimes of the late 1960s, the National University of La Plata was known as the Sorbonne of South America. During the Dirty War, it lost more of its younger population (sixteen to twenty-seven years old) than any other city. Disappearances at the University were staggeringly high: about five percent of the stu­dent body in natural sciences; ten percent in the humanities; forty per­cent at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning. There was noth­ing subtle about the repression in La Plata: the streets often rang with gunshots; kidnappings took place in broad daylight; tanks sealed off any street that seemed “suspicious.”

During my opening talk, over a hundred people had leaned forward in their seats—a little tense, but clearly riveted and apparently ground­ed. We would consider the whole univers concentrationnaire created by the regime—the concentration camps and torture centers, as well as fife in what the generals termed “normal society.” We would explore the many forms of coercion and complicity, on the one hand, and of resis­tance and solidarity on the other. We would emphasize the “gray areas” in between. 1 emphasized that history is comprised of many histories, narrations, events, and anecdotes told from different angles, by particu­lar voices, with competing or conflicting or overlapping objectives. I promised that as they began their own primary research, they would come up against the same questions over and over: How can I verify these facts? How shall I present them? How must I connect them to tell a story? 1 had closed by expressing the hope that from the legacies of a devastating, silencing history we would create a space to be held in common, a space where any and all questions could be asked, any and all stories be told.

They stared at me in dead silence.

“That isn’t going to work,” a student shouted from the back of the room. That too was met with silence. Then, tentatively, other voices joined in: “You have to teach us.” “Lecture.” “Give us lots to read.” “Maybe next year we can think about trying what you propose.”

I reassured them that any interviews they did would be processed— or even conducted—in supportive groups, that they were free to write, photograph, make videos—whatever form best suited them.

Their good-byes were skeptical and swift.

After six years of doing interviews in Argentina, I was no stranger to reticence, denial, and subterfuge. Peasants in a remote province near Brazil had told me of receiving a letter from the witness to their son’s kidnapping. “Do what you can to save this boy,” the missive conclud­ed. In terror, the father burned the letter, then died soon after of a co­ronary. In a seedy bar in a slummy neighborhood of Buenos Aires, I’d been told by one of the regime’s most bestial torturers that his mission was to “save Western, Christian civilization from the subversive hordes.” An ex-naval officer who participated in two death flights—with his own hands pushing thirty-one living, drugged, naked desaparecidos from official airplanes into the sea—told me he’d been absolved by the chap­lain when he made confession: “My son, you have not sinned. You gave ‘subversives’ a Christian form of death.”

When I first visited this campus in 1995, the students made plain they knew such raw essentials of the last dictatorship. Otherwise I never would have attempted this seminar.  Our basic text was my book, A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture. I had sought to ex­plore torture, and the myths and legacies of torture, by examining not just the great, but the subtle rents it leaves in the fabric of human lives and public institutions. The protagonists of this work are survivors of the torture centers and relatives of desaparecidos, whom I interviewed repeatedly over the years of my research. But though Argentina has in many ways become my second home, 1 am not Argentine and felt awkward about imposing my work on the most traumatic swath of their country’s past. This is part of their story; why should they be pas­sive recipients of History as Presented by Experts (including me)?

Our second four-hour meeting was to focus on the regime’s verbal sleight of hand. As though on cue, history began repeating itself: that very week Vice President Carlos Ruckhauf had issued some sinister dec­larations on security and order: as part of a crackdown on street crime, he was authorizing police to shoot first and ask questions later.” Citizens, he ranted, had every right to be secure, to have the freedom of their streets, to trust in authority. I was anxious to show my students that this was the same discourse he’d served when, as President Isabel Peron’s Minister 6f Labor, he had targeted trade unionists in a brutal crackdown. Isabelita’s government issued two decrees calling for “the annihilation of subver­sion.” These documents gave the military and police carte blanche to hunt down and preemptively kill anyone they suspected of being a “sub­versive.” According to most historians, the Dirty War began in October 1975 with the signing of these infamous decrees.

Again the Aula Magna overflowed. But the students were huddled stiffly in separate, small groups—silent, except to insist once again that they “knew nothing.” As I talked they wrote compulsively, their eyes cast down on their notebooks. Occasionally they looked up to stare at me, fixedly. They spoke only to me or to the other students in their immediate group. The way they were sitting, they didn’t even see many of their peers. Almost all their questions pressed for solutions: How did I plan to “fix” the verbal wreckage of the last dictatorship? How would I “heal” the cultural scars? What, they wanted to know, was my plan?

They seemed aghast that I had no plan. When I elaborated on the need to analyze context, isolate references, trace the trajectory of key words through history, they looked at me as though they’d never heard anything so feeble.

For the next class I asked them to do a survey among their families, friends, neighbors: What words and expressions did they use to talk about —or avoid talking about—the last dictatorship? How did their fami­lies refer to the leftist organizations?   Could they remember the very first words used by their parents to teach them about the 1970s? They had to talk to people of at least two, but preferably three, generations. Was there a group that might like to present their research to the class? To my infinite relief, a group of six women volunteered.

Over the coming days I remained perturbed by the dynamic in class, most of all by their attitudes towards each other. With a jolt I realized that my students were re-enacting the social habits of the repression: self-isolation, suspicion, distrust of their own powers of reason. Even their questions were designed to reveal as little about themselves as possible. They seemed to be asking me to dictate … which I was unwilling to do. My course was threatening in all the wrong ways, driving them into behaviors and postures I was sure they didn’t want. I realized, miserably, that I should end the seminar, taking all blame upon myself.

The freezing lecture hall was again overflowing with small, tight knots of students. The group of volunteers—Viviana, Marcela, Daniela, Isabel, Evangelina, Virginia—had stationed themselves in the far back of the hall, apparently trying to be invisible. But as soon as I finished greet­ing the class, for what I believed would be the final time, Daniela stood up: “Bueno, empezamos.” Okay, then, let’s start.

In her late twenties, Daniela wears wire-rimmed glasses, black jeans with several sweaters, and red streaks in her long, dark hair. Serious, solidly built, highly analytical, she is the opening spokesperson for the group. “We never used the word dictatorship. We didn’t want them tel­ling us what they thought we wanted to hear. We asked them to free-associate on the more neutral decade of the seventies, to just blurt out what­ever came to mind. We were surprised by how quickly our intervie­wees ‘slid’ from a single word into a whole story. A 45-year-old former activist immediately said, ‘Companeros. Someone took me in.’” A mem­ber of one of the leftist organizations, he’d gone underground on the day of the coup, went from one safe house to another until he reached the border with Brazil. “We were struck,” said Daniela, “at how he never mentioned specific places. We realized that until he got to Brazil, he never really knew where he was—he’d often travelled as ‘cargo,’ in farm trucks or commercial vans.” Viviana added, “He still seems lost. He’d located himself with his companeros, most of whom didn’t survive.” Isabel described a small-town, middle-aged man who insisted he came up blank. “‘Nothing really happened. Life went on,’ he kept saying. When I asked for a picture, he blurted, ‘The tank tracks on the asphalt.’ He was shocked, wouldn’t say anything more.”

Evangelina—a quiet, younger, model student—spoke last. Tall, pale, her abundant dark hair often worn in a bun, she’d gone home to her peaceful provincial town to interview her next-door neighbor—”a very proper senora.” Unbeknownst to Evangelina until the very end of their conversation, this woman’s son had been kidnapped by the Army while doing his military service; upon his release months later, he and his mother pledged never to mention it. But with Evangelina, this woman —who spoke almost entirely in the third person—ultimately broke her silence: “One would have done anything to save one’s child, (pause) In­cluding sleep with the military, (pause) Which I did on two occasions.”

Evangelina was deeply unsettled. “Not because she slept with the milicos—I’m not judging. Actually I think she was extremely brave, or if not brave, I don’t know,” she stumbled in a rush, “but all these years, she must have been so lonely.”

Evangelina fought back tears, looked out at her classmates, and asked for their help. “Porfavor, I’m having trouble thinking through this.”

For the next hour, the class collectively thought out loud, adding de­tails from their own interviews. Then, gradually, the room grew quiet. From the middle of the Aula Magna, a woman, sitting alone, slowly waved her hand. “I want us to talk about silence, about why in the first class we wouldn’t talk. I’ll start.” She faltered. “I have to do this by telling a story—of course, true.” She tells us she was raised in exile, that her father had been targeted, only left to save his wife and her, their in­fant daughter. “He was studying across town at the School of Archi­tecture—the day of the coup, he fled, never went back. We returned when the milicos left power, but socially my father stayed semi-under­ground. In 1995, when they were unveiling the monument to the dis­appeared and murdered students from the School of Architecture, he asked me to go, see if his name had been engraved. ‘Are you crazy?’ I asked him. ‘Are you mad?’ I remember feeling very impatient. Then he looked up from his chair—he was always sitting in that chair—and said, ‘There are lots of ways to disappear. From others, from oneself.’ So I went,” said this student, who hadn’t yet given her name, “and re­ported that no, he wasn’t there. I don’t know if it made him feel bet­ter or worse. One thing I do know: in more ways than one, I owe him my life. But I still have a lot of questions.”

The woman next to her blurts out, “Suspicion. I know that sounds hostile, and in certain ways I suppose I am hostile. The milicos found my parents because one of the neighbors gave them a tip.”

“We need to find out more about our parents’ political project,” says another child of leftist militantes. “To be able to reproduce it, to continue their fight for a better, more just society.” This brings applause— though not from everyone.

A slightly older woman, about twenty-six, interrupts. “But we know that project failed. Some of you hate me for saying that. But it’s true. So what went wrong? Okay, I know they were crushed. . . . But was that the only reason? There were betrayals on the left, not everyone was thinking clearly, but this isn’t talked about. No one likes my questions. Right? Right.”

“My father never recovered from the failure of that project,” begins Ines, a short, blonde, muscular woman who also grew up in exile. “He never stopped feeling persecuted. Shortly after returning to Argentina, he took his life. In my mind I know that he was a suicide, but in my heart I know they killed him.” Ines has been barred from the local chap­ter of HIJOS—the national organization of children whose parents were murdered or disappeared by the regime. “They say my status is ‘ambigu­ous.’ ” She smirks with shaky bravado.

After five hours, we are all spent, wrung out. Before I can ask for next week’s volunteers, the students have organized everything themselves.

Over the next month the students presented their interviews with three generations of Argentines from the whole span of the political spectrum. One group focused on how context affects our reading of images. They showed six pictures to about ten people, including an ex-army sergeant who had served the dictatorship, and his wife, who re­peated everything her husband said. They were asked to free-associate on each image. The most unsettling picture showed a sculpture of a female figure kneeling on a slab of tree trunk—naked, pregnant, head bowed down, her arms pinned back by the heavy chains wrapped around her neck and torso. “What do you see?” they asked the ex-sergeant. “A pregnant woman,” he said without hesitation. “And this image in the context of the dictatorship?” “Penitence,” he said, without missing a beat. (His wife had nodded, looking down at her delicately folded hands.)

Toward the end of the semester a loud and ugly argument broke out when four young women proposed to interview some of the military and police who had run their town—where numerous disappearances had been reported—during the dictatorship. There were charges of “voyeurism,” of “crossing the line,” of “wanting to take tea with the tor­turers.” The girls themselves—Carina, Gabriela, Lisbeth, and Maria Candela—were shaken almost to tears but would not be dissuaded.

The following week they presented their work, which had been sharpened by the vehement critique. All of their interviewees consid­ered themselves “democratic by nature.” Social work itself proved to be a lightning rod. A refrain during one interview went like this: “I as a military man, you the subversive, 1 the authority, you the guerrilla. But now it’s democracy, so we can talk. Ask me anything you like.” “Why do you consider me ‘subversive’?” the student asked. ” Well, social work is always a breeding ground. But it’s okay,” he’d smiled, infallibly cour­teous, “You can see I don’t mind.”

The policeman said his profession was “undeniably a form of social work…. The information we received was intended to help us exer­cise healthy, proper, democratic social control … the police being the government’s private army.” Today he is that town’s chief of police.

The oldest interviewee had been the army-designated superintendent (replacing the democratically elected mayor). “Defacto is not a bad word. Many people pronounce it as though it were. A de facto govern-ment is hand-picked, after various consultations with the relevant figures, to see which candidate is most acceptable.” When asked why he had been “chosen,” he answered, “I don’t know. I wasn’t among those consulted.”

“He had this modesty, like a vestal virgin,” quipped his interviewer.

Even those opposed to the project praised the group for its guts and tenacity. “At the very least,” said Gabriela with newfound irony, “I learned that some of my neighbors consider me ‘subversive.’”

From left to right: MF, Iris Torres, Mario Villani (survivor of five “Dirty War” concentration camps, who, together with his wife, Rosita Lerner, addressed our seminar), and two students, Daniela García and Virginia Maté.

Five young, fresh-faced women from the deep interior now pro­posed to contrast life in the countryside with that of La Plata. “Listen­ing to all of you,” they said to their classmates, “we feel like we’re from a different country. Nothing happened in the hinterlands. Everything was calm.” So they wrote to their mothers to ask for details of village life during “the time of the generals.” Their mothers got together with their neighbors and wrote a collective letter—detailing the kidnappings, disappearances, and deaths that had never been talked about. Their daughters were dumbfounded: “So now what do we do?” Keep going, I told them. And they have: together with their mothers and neighbors (all women), they are making an archive for their village.

The seminar itself—during which the students presented their work —became an “event,” drawing visitors from all over the city and be­yond. One of the most moving visits was from the former secretary of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning—who saved more lives in La Plata than anyone else. A proper-looking woman from a bour­geois family, she had stolen all the students’ photographs she could find, took them home, and hid them in her house. “The police would come looking for any information that would help them ‘suck up subver­sives.’ ” She had never given an interview, never allowed her name to be published, and when she finally realized the extent of the massacre at her campus, had a breakdown. But now she stood before a hundred students and said, “I want you to know my name—Iris Torres—and to recognize my face.” Iris came to several more class meetings, just to lis­ten. Students picked her up and drove her home, and several, I learned, now regularly visit her.

When my students had insisted on their ignorance, they were only partly right. “We know nothing” was in truth a code for what they didn’t dare to articulate: the unspoken, sneaky ways in which history had defined, located, and divided even those who had been infants dur­ing the repression. Here was the real danger zone. Who were they, in relation to the last dictatorship? What did they wish to be? How could they carve out personal identities against the ravages of history, without betraying their loved ones—their dead, their desaparecidos, their good, gray parents?

At last they were posing these questions out loud—really looking at one another, really listening.