Madres de Plaza de Mayo

   / Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo
   A human-rights nongovernmental organization that first appeared on 30 April 1977 in Argentina, though it did not become a formal organization until 1979. It arose out of the anger and frustration felt by women in their attempts to gather information about their missing children. A disproportionate number of desaparecidos were young, between the ages of 18 and 30. When inquiries at public offices, police precincts, and military barracks brought no results, some mothers decided to take their protest to the streets. On Saturday, 30 April 1977, at 11 o’clock in the morning, 14 women led by Azucena Villaflor de Vicenti met at the Plaza de Mayo in the hope of drawing attention to their cause. The plaza, situated next to the Casa Rosada (the Pink House, or presidential residence) had been the site of many political demonstrations, though theirs was the first demonstration since the coup. On this particular day, however, the Plaza was deserted, and they eventually settled on Thursdays at 3:30 in the afternoon for their weekly meetings. At first, the Madres were ignored by the junta, or at most dismissed as las locas de Plaza de Mayo (the madwomen of the Plaza de Mayo). They were mothers and hence perceived as politically insignificant. At the same time, their status as mothers afforded them protection. At the request of the Madres, fathers did not march alongside them. It was thought that men would surely be kidnapped and disappeared.
   But the Madres’ growing number—by June they had reached a hundred—and their increasing activism soon made them a political force. By the end of 1977 they presented writs of habeas corpus on behalf of 159 persons; met with Patricia Derian, the assistant secretary of the Bureau of Human Rights under Jimmy Carter; and demonstrated when Terence Todman, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, traveled to Buenos Aires to meet with General Jorge Rafael Videla. They had also formed alliances with other human-rights groups, such as the Movimiento Ecuménico por los Derechos Humanos (MEDH, Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights). As the Madres crossed the boundary between traditional motherhood and political activism, they became targeted as subversives. On 8 December 1977 a task force (kidnapping squad) from the Escuela Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA, Navy Mechanics School) broke up a meeting between the Madres and other relatives of the missing, abducting nine women, including Alice Domon, a French nun. Two days later—on 10 December, Human Rights Day-Azucena Villaflor and Léonie Renée Duquet, another French nun, were abducted from their homes. All of them were taken to ESMA and disappeared.
   In spite of the loss, the Madres persisted in their protest. In 1978 their marches were largely free of disruption. The junta was preoccupied much of the year with hosting the World Cup soccer tournament and enjoying the national frenzy that followed Argentina’s first cup victory. The respite ended on 28 December, when the police took control of the plaza, ejecting about a thousand women by force. The police disrupted the marches throughout 1979 and prevented them outright throughout much of 1980. When the Madres could not march, they gathered in churches. In 1979 they made their organization formal in the hope of keeping the movement intact. Under Hebé Pastor de Bonafini, their first president, they established relationships with other human-rights groups both at home and abroad, requested interviews with foreign presidents and legislators, and testified during the hearings held in 1979 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS). Although the repression associated with the “dirty war” had begun to ease in 1978, the Madres remained a threat to the military government. An improved human-rights record could not silence the Madres as long as their children remained unaccounted for and their abductors unpunished. In August 1979 the government attempted to put an end to the matter, announcing the Ley de Presunción de Fallecimiento (Presumption of Death Law), which would permit relatives of the missing to seek rulings from judges declaring the missing persons to be dead. The new law would apply to those who had disappeared between November 1975 and the date that the law was promulgated. The Madres, joined by other human-rights groups and the governments of several countries, attacked the law as a government effort to sidestep accountability. The fate of the desaparecidos remained an issue.
   As the government gradually loosened its hold, the Madres continued to demonstrate. On 12 March 1981, 68 mothers were arrested and held for several hours. On 7 July Pastor de Bonafini and María Adela Antokoletz, the president and vice president of the Madres, were detained for two hours at Ezeiza Airport; they had arrived from Houston, Texas, where they had accepted the Rothko Chapel award for human rights. (The award was confiscated.) The Madres were one of the few sectors of Argentine society to protest the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas conflict in 1982, and on 10 December, Human Rights Day, they staged a 24-hour march in which hundreds of supporters (men and women) participated.
   In 1986 the Madres split into two factions—the Línea Fundadora and the Asociación de las Madres de Plaza de Mayo (the Hebé Pastor de Bonafini line). In addition to the Rothko Chapel award, the Madres have received numerous honors.
   See also Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo.

Historical Dictionary of the “Dirty Wars” . . 2010.

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