If you take the Subte (subway) from the residential neighborhood of Belgrano all the way to the Catedral (cathedral) stop in Buenos Aires, you’ll be greeted by a blast of sunlight when you emerge from the tunnels and set foot on the sidewalks. And of course, in front of you, you’ll see the cathedral that gives the last stop on the green line its name.
The cathedral, however, is not large and imposing. There are no dark gothic stones or gargoyles as you’d be apt to see in some parts of Europe. Instead, the cathedral is a smaller, white-washed church, which seems altogether unimposing as it looks over the Plaza de Mayo, one of Buenos Aires’s central parks.
The simplicity of the cathedral’s exterior is somehow refracted and distorted into what could have been a mirror image directly across the plaza. But the building that stands opposite to the cathedral is not a mirror image: it is the more imposing and ornate presidential palace, the Casa Rosada, or the Pink House.
What happens weekly in the plaza, between the two buildings, defies the serene nature of the grassy squares, water fountains with stone basins, and birds, gently perched on black iron fencing.
There, on Thursdays, a group of mothers (the Madres) with white headscarves, march around the plaza.
Their children’s names are stitched into their scarves, and they have been marching since 1977, trying to find their children, who disappeared during the Dirty War of the Argentine dictatorship from 1976 – 1983.
Originally, the names on the scarves were meant to advertise their disappeared children, with the hopes that someone who had news of the children would contact them later in a safer setting. The Argentine government now estimates that there are around 9,000 disappeared people whose fates are still unknown. The Madres say that the actual number is closer to 30,000. Some children were taken away from lower class families and adopted by upper-class families, while others were allegedly sent to concentration camps or disposed of.
I did not visit the Plaza de Mayo on a Thursday, as it is generally advised that foreigners steer clear of demonstrations to foreign governments. And the current motives of the Madres have become muddied over the years.
After the initial period of searching for their children waned, the Madres kept coming in strong numbers to the Plaza de Mayo on Thursdays. However, the group split into various factions, and for some, the primary goal was no longer just to find information on their children. Instead, they adopted what some call a radical political agenda in their children’s memories.
For example, one faction led by one of the founding Madres, Hebe de Bonafini, allegedly praised the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. Now, some of the Madres support and founded a university, a bookstore, and other ventures.
Not all of the Madres are radical; some are still simply looking for their children, though, after so many years, many have died and the fates of their children, while still unknown, surely have begun to look more certain.
Like most things in Argentina, the position of the Madres is complicated. Former president Nestor Kirchner (husband of current president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner) began meetings with the Madres to give them the chance to be heard. This move was widely praised by some and criticized by others.
One thing that is infinitely less complicated, in many ways, is the simple image of white headscarves painted onto the asphalt in a circle around the May Pyramid in the Plaza de Mayo.
The simplicity and the whiteness of the image seem in line with the simplicity of the white-washed cathedral, which, from the outside, seems unassuming, and one would not guess that it houses the remains of Argentine national hero General Jose de San Martin.
First published last week by the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press papers.