I think those of us who decided to work with the Grandmothers have an easier time coping with what happened than those who stayed at home. Many people ended in mental hospitals or alcoholic or committed suicide. Silvina disappeared at 6:30 in the afternoon; by 7 P.M. I was already at the police station. Every day I would do at least one thing to find my daughter. One learns by doing. We did not know what to do until we started doing it. Sonia Torres

During the 197OS, as political instability mounted, Argentine women were reminded more strongly than ever that their primary role was in the home and that as wives and mothers their function was to ensure conformity and obedience to the state. Isabel Peron's government had instituted a series of measures that reinforced the subordinate position of women in the family. The president herself had vetoed the "patria potestad," a law that would have given both parents the same legal rights over their children.

Once the dictatorship was established, popular women's magazines launched what amounted to a psychological campaign designed to discredit human rights organizations and to rally women's support for the regime's economic and social policies. Articles denouncing " Marxist" infiltration in schools called on women to become the watchdogs against "foreign" ideologies. For example, one author, as she extolled Generals Videla and Viola and Minister of the Economy Martinez de Hoz, exhorted women to support the regime. She proclaimed: "The destiny of the country depends mostly on women. In our hands lies nothing more and nothing less than the education of our children. It is our struggle, our example, our interest in the affairs of the country that will help them to grow and mature. ...Our duty is to participate." In another well-known case, a leading women's magazine (Para Ti, published an interview with Thelma Dorothy Jara de Cabezas, mother of a disappeared young man, in which she denounced the human rights organizations for "using" her. She warned other mothers to be vigilant about their children so that they would not become dupes of the "sub- versives." It was later revealed that the "interview" had taken place while she was detained and tortured at the ESMA; she had never made the declarations attributed to her. The editors of the women's magazine clearly were directly connected to and complicitous with the repressive forces.

Eventually, the disappearance of their loved ones galvanized many women into political action, leading some to question the traditional patterns of domination and submission in Argentine society. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo challenged the dictatorship and trans- formed their personal grief into political activism. The efforts of the regime to ensure docile compliance backfired as individual women joined together and transferred their concern and love for their own children to all the oppressed and persecuted. In so doing the Mothers were creating a new form of political participation, outside the traditional party structures and based on the values of love and caring. Motherhood allowed them to build a bond and shape a movement without men.

Similarly the Grandmothers, many of whom first became active as members of the Mothers, stepped outside their traditional roles, refusing to be silent victims. With ingenuity and perseverance they searched for their missing grandchildren, whom they hoped the dictatorship had spared. Their protest had a clear, pragmatic focus: they wanted to find the children, return them to their legitimate families, and punish those responsible for the crimes committed. Though the Grandmothers always stated that their work was "for two generations"-both their children and grandchildren-their creative energy found its main outlet in the search for, the identification of, and the return of their grandchildren. They were mostly housewives and mothers, and their back- grounds and experiences varied widely. A few worked at typically female occupations, like teaching or social work. Grandmother Elena Santander describes them as a group of "common women who would otherwise never have met." Not interested in challenging the gender system and the sexual division of labor, the Grandmothers were committed to the preservation of life; and they demanded the right as "traditional" women to secure the survival of their families.

Dealing with the feelings of helplessness that naturally followed the horrors they had endured presented an enormous challenge. As middle- aged and older women, a group usually devalued in Argentine society, they elicited little support and even less interest from the general public. But instead of becoming overwhelmed and paralyzed by the tragic events that struck their families, and instead of retreating into their private pain, the Grandmothers reached out to each other. Against the odds, they organized and succeeded in restoring a sense of meaning and justice to their lives and to the larger community. The Grandmothers drew on the memory of their children and sustained each other to over- come fear as they challenged the official story. Their success in finding some of the grandchildren gave them hope, and support from other groups reinforced their sense of empowerment. The Grandmothers' courage, the clarity of their thinking, and their insights about their own processes of transformation helped them resist the dictatorship and inspired many others to follow their example. By 1983 the general public's perception of the Grandmothers had changed dramatically; now highly respected, the group was often celebrated and cheered when appearing at public events.


Grandmother Nya Quesada remembers:

People were totally frightened. It was horrible. That is why people did not protest, because they were paralyzed by fear. If everybody had protested, things might have gone differently. Let me give you an example. There was an episode called "La Noche de los L.!.pices" (the Night of the Pencils) in La Plata in September 1976. A group of high school students-fourteen to six- teen years old-were seized from their homes by the security forces. Their crime1 They had taken part in a campaign for student bus subsidies. They were treated like terrorists, tortured, and killed. Fear spread like wildfire in La Plata. Everybody felt incredibly hopeless. If that could happen to adolescents, what could happen to the rest.

The terror that the disappearances created was unmatched by any- thing the population had ever before experienced. Equating dissent with subversion had been extraordinarily effective in silencing even the mildest critics of the regime. Por algo sera {there must be a reason) was a common expression used when people learned of disappearances. Many coped with the stress by retreating into private worlds and turning inward. As they became separated from each other, their lives were controlled by the terror that influenced every thought, action, and feeling.

One sociologist, Guillermo O'Donnell, has called the tension of living with the continual experience of human rights abuses .'the culture of fear." The Grandmothers dealt with that fear permeating everyday life in many different ways. Elsa Sanchez de Oesterheld, whose whole family was destroyed by the dictatorship, was worried only about her surviving grandson, Miguel:

I never felt any fear for myself. The reason is a simple one. For me it was the same to live or to die. I thought that I was condemned, that I would be abducted or that I would be shot. The fear that I have not been able to over- come is the fear that something would happen to Miguel. To this day, when he is late or I don't know where he is I am afraid that something may have happened to him. That is the remnant of fear resulting from the terror that I lived through.

When the military came to Berta Schubaroff's home looking for her son, and demanded at gunpoint to know where he was, she realized that her fear of death was gone:

I answered a question that I had asked myself all my life and about which I felt a lot of shame. The question was: Would I be willing to give my life for my children- I did not want to face that question. I have always been afraid of dying. But that day I was able to answer it. I realized that nothing was going to force me to tell where my son was. I felt a great happiness. I realized that they would get nothing from me. Let them kill me.9

Elena Santander describes how the fear came and went:

My lowest point was the day when I came into the office and I tore up the notebook with all the names and addresses of the Grandmothers. I was so petrified I said,"1 do not want to have anything else to do with this group, do not bother me anymore:' After two or three days I recovered my senses and I came back.

Among those who paid a heavy price was Raquel Marizcurrena, as her relatives gave in completely to fear:

After my son and his wife disappeared, I never again heard from any of my seven sisters or my brother. They all avoided us. It has been seventeen years since I last saw them. They were terrified that the same thing would happen to them.

Haydee Lemos recalls a generalized sense of fear. Burning her daughter's books helped her relieve some of the anxiety:

Like many others, I burned books. They told us they were "subversive" books.1 did not want to do it; when I looked at them I felt I should be reading them. But I had to burn them, since the police could come into the house at any moment. When democracy returned, I bought some of the books back. One was Eduardo Galeano's book The Open Veins 0fLatin America. It was one of the books that really helped me open my eyes.

Otilia Argafiaraz, a Grandmother active in Cordoba province, notes that an important way to move through the fear was to face it:

I cannot say that I have not felt fear. Fear is human. Luckily we did not hide under the bed crying. We went out to face the situation and fight and that has helped to counter the fear. In Cordoba we have the church against us; the archbishop is extremely reactionary. He closed the doors of the church on us while they were taking away our children. Now we are already well known, so hiding would not make any sense, even if one is afraid.

But facing fear does not mean ending it. Rosa Roisinblit acknowledges that it is still a presence in her life:

I was very frightened. When I joined the Grandmothers and we met in coffeehouses to do our work we had to hide who we were. When they called the office and said they were going to bomb us, of course we were afraid. When I went abroad on behalf of the group I did not know if they would let me back into the country or if they would arrest me. Sometimes I think that even now something could happen.1 don't think that I have totally overcome the fear. One gets used to it, though. The love for one's children and grand- children, the need to do something, to work and get some results, is stronger than the fear.


When the Grandmothers asked the authorities about the fate of their children and grandchildren, they were met with denial, evasion, and outright lies. The knowledge they had of their children, their own sources of information, and their personal experiences all told them that there was something amiss.
Ignacio Martin-Bar6, a radical psychologist and Jesuit who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1989 for his commitment to the poor, described the "official story" that authoritarian regimes produce:

Above all, the object is to create an official version of the facts, an "official story," which ignores crucial aspects of reality, distorts others, and even falsifies or invents still others. This official story is imposed by means of an intense and extremely aggressive display of propaganda, which is backed up even by all the weight of the highest official positions. ...When, for what- ever reasons, facts come to light that directly contradict the "official story,'. they are "cordoned off." ...Public statements about the national reality, the reporting of violations of human rights, and, above all, the unmasking of the official story, of the institutionalized lie, are considered "subversive" activities-in fact, they are, since they subvert the order of the established lie.14

When the military took power in 1976 there was at first a general sense of relief in Argentina. The media, the political parties, and business interests all painted a rosy picture, and many believed that political stability and economic well-being were around the corner. But Estela de Carlot to rejected the takeover and the fantasies of progress and order that it promised. When one of her friends called her to celebrate the coup she bluntly told her, "You are totally wrong. This is an illegal occupation. There is nothing to celebrate. They are getting rid of a constitutional government. It is a terrible event and we will cry a lot about this. Very hard times are in store for US." After her daughter Laura disappeared in 1977, Estela looked for her in vain for several months. When she was called in by the police to identify her daughter's body and was told that she had been killed in an armed confrontation, she did not believe their story: she accused them of killing Laura in cold blood. She was proved right. In 1985 the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team determined that Laura had been killed execution-style after having been held in captivity for several months.

Antonia Acui'ia de Segarra's three children disappeared in 1978. After her initial shock she contacted a lawyer about obtaining a writ of habeas corpus. He suggested that she wait before taking action, in case her children had simply moved without alerting her:

But I could not be still. I felt I had only two options, to kill myself or to get out and search for my children. I presented several writs of habeas corpus, which were totally ignored. This was during the World Soccer championship and Argentina was trying to create a good image for the rest of the world-an image of a peaceful country where nothing strange was going on and where we were all happy. But many people disappeared in 1978, including my three children, their two spouses, and my two daughters' babies about to be born.

When Elsa Pavon de Aguilar was repeatedly told by her brother-in- law, a policeman, that she would not be able to find her granddaughter, she steadfastly refused to believe him:

He said, "You will not get her back. She is probably in the hands of the chief of the kidnapping operation. It is useless. Give it up." I told him no, that I would continue looking for her and that after I found her I would bring her to him so that he could see for himself.

And she did find her granddaughter (see chapter 5).

Raquel Marizcurrena remembers her immediate reaction when her son and his pregnant wife were taken away:

They had come to dinner at my house to celebrate his birthday. After the cake and everything. we started to play lotto. The bell rang; it was the police. Six men came in and said that they were searching for certain books. My son showed them the books that one of their friends had left.

And the men said they had to go with them. that they would be back in an hour. I started to scream and cry. My husband and the others said, "Why are you crying~ They will be back soon.'. I told them that they did not know what was going on. that they should read the papers. that they would not be back.

They also directly challenged the official story publicly. Berta Schubaroff describes one episode:

For five years every Sunday I had a booth in a park. in an artisan's fair. I had pictures of the disappeared. the pregnant women. the children. I distributed the materials of the Grandmothers. A woman tried to provoke me. She had her little girl with her and I said: "What if somebody comes and takes away your daughter. what would you have done?'. She said that could not happen to her. I fold her that those things did happen. She started to insult me and said we should leave the children with the families that raised them. It got really rough. The artisans from another booth had to come to defend me.

In Powers of the Weak, Elizabeth Janeway suggests that certain \ resources are available to the "powerless" if they have the courage to use them. A crucial power she names is disbelief, a refusal to accept the dominant, official versions of reality:

Let us doubt, let us not take for granted, what the powerful say about events, their causality, their meaning and their importance. ...Disbelief, then, signals something that the powerful fear, and sligh as it may appear, we should not underestimate its force. It is, in fact. the first sign of the withdrawal of consent by the governed to the sanctioned authority of their governors, the first challenge to legitimacy.

The Grandmothers had the courage and strength to believe in and define their own reality, at moments when confusion and fear were paramount. They thus kept alive the hope needed to pursue their work. Fueled by their anger at the crimes committed against them and using the power of disbelief, they were able to hold their ground and join with others to engage in their search. And as the stories about the regime began to be confirmed and the disappeared children located, their insight, suspicions, and mistrust of the "official story" were vindicated.


Mistrust of those in power, as Janeway points out, is a necessary first step; but it must be acted on and validated by others who share one's doubts. Once this begins, when links start to form between disbelievers, then the ground becomes fertile for the growth of a movement. As the Grandmothers started connecting and began building a new framework of belief, trust in themselves and each other increased. This helped make it possible for activism to emerge. Though some of the Grand- mothers came from families actively interested in politics, they them- selves, with few exceptions, had never taken part in public action of any sort. Speaking up, demanding accountability from government officials, and joining with others in protests and marches were new behaviors that came to seem routine as they gathered strength and inspiration from each other.

Berta Schubaroff remembers the rush of positive emotion when she first found the Grandmothers:

I first joined the Mothers; the Grandmothers did not exist yet. Then in 1979 I went to live in Spain and stayed there for five years. After I came back, I was rather depressed, feeling lonely, crying a lot, and one particular day it was raining and I was despondent. I found the Grandmothers' address in my address book. ! went immediately to the office. When they opened the door! saw all this light coming into the dark hall and I heard the strong voices of strong women. I felt like the sun was rising. They received me well, they gave me tea and cookies, they asked me all sorts of questions. From that moment on I joined the Grandmothers. When I found the remains of my son after fourteen years, I was accompanied and surrounded by the Grandmothers. I felt as if the hand of a mother was around me. I felt protected. I was not alone.

The story of another grandmother inspired Nelida Gomez de Navajas to have hope and to begin to search for her grandchild:

I went to the Grandmothers' office to deliver a letter from a relative. They asked me if I had a family member disappeared.1 told them about my daughter, who was two and a half months pregnant when she disappeared, and that I thought that she had probably had a miscarriage in the camp. Estela told me that her daughter had also been pregnant when she disappeared and that she knew that she had given birth to .a child, in spite of the fact that she had lost two pregnancies under normal conditions. They explained to me that they knew there were children born in captivity and that they were looking for them.1 immediately filed my case with them and have been a member for more than ten years.

Amelia Herrera de Miranda, too, describes the importance of discovering that she was no longer alone:

I saw that others had gone through even worse things. I realized I was not the only one who was suffering. I said to myself: .'The best thing here is to struggle together. All these other women are also suffering. there are many of us.'. And that gave me strength. I learned how to keep fighting. We are united here by our problems. our pain. and our hope. When I was alone. I was lost I did not really understand what was going on.

They actively tried to support and respect each other's pain. Antonia Segarra explains:

When we make public appearances and present our work it is our practice to speak in the name of all the Grandmothers. Not all the Grandmothers can travel and attend meetings. so it is our duty to represent them. Only if asked and after I have spoken about the work of the organization. willl give my personal testimony.

Rosa Roisinblit gives another example of this commitment to mutuality:

Our commitment here is for life, till the last day of our existence. We have several grandmothers here who have found their grandchildren and they continue working with the group. And I plan to do the same, after I find my grandchild.


By mistrusting the official story and coming together as a group, the Grandmothers created a safe environment where they could vent painful feelings and, at the same time, challenge hopelessness and despair. Truth- telling, collaborative action, and linkages with other human rights groups all helped increase their sense of empowerment and hope. Feminist thinker Dorothy Dinnerstein distinguishes "open-eyed hope, which by definition embodies uncertainty and counsels action," from "blind hope, which is passive and shuns available fact." "Open-eyed hope" describes well the Grandmothers' positive energy and clarity of spirit. A major source of that hope was the deep connection that many of the women had with their disappeared children. Because they cared for and trusted those children, the Grandmothers felt that their memory needed to be kept alive, their values upheld, and their idealism honored.
That motive is clear in Sonia Torres's account:

In the beginning what kept me going was the absence of my daughter and the need to find her. Afterward, when I realized I would not find her, it was the need to do something for her, to find her child and tell him or her who his or her parents were. They were not just regular parents, they were people who were willing to die for their ideas. After the first time my daughter was detained.1 wanted to send her abroad. She said : "No, I am staying here.1 have done nothing wrong. Why should I leave? If everybody that dissents leaves the country. what is going to happen here'.

Berta Schubaroff recalls her relationship to her son and how the insults her daughter-in-law suffered in the camp for having a Jewish husband strengthened her determination to fight:

I was extremely attached to my son. He was very sweet, intelligent, an excel- lent student. Always concerned about social justice. In elementary school they wanted to reward him with special responsibilities because of his competence. He refused, he said he would not accept a leadership role, that he believed in collaborative efforts. And he wrote a letter to the teacher, explaining his point of view. I still have that letter.
The guards at the camp asked my daughter-in-Iaw if it did not turn her stomach to be married to a Jew and they told her they were going to kill all those "shitty Jews." When I heard that I felt like a wall started to grow inside me. I felt strong and hard like a brick wall and decided that they would never be able to demolish this wall. That I was ready to fight these savages until the day I die.

After the death of her daughter, Estela de Carlot to committed herself to activism for the rest of her life:

After I buried my daughter, a new level of struggle started. People sometimes think that because one recovers the body one will say." All right, enough, this is the end of the story." Quite the contrary. My work was just beginning. I started to search for the murderers of my daughter and to search for my grandson. I found out that my daughter in the camp said to her friends. ..As long as my mother lives she is never going to forgive the military.'. And she was right. She knew me better than I did. If somebody had told me then that I would dedicate my life to searching for the truth and struggling against historical amnesia. I would not have believed it.

Nya Quesada attributes her persistence to the hope she still carries of seeing her daughter alive:

I have the feeling that I owe it to her, to keep going on. And a part of me still keeps hoping, having the hope of seeing her again. It is a hope with no basis. Reality is different and sometimes one does not want to see reality. I know that many years have gone by and I understand it is a stupid hope. Other Mothers have a different perspective.1 respect them. But each person has to find how to best cope and go on living.

Chicha Mariani, who had a close relationship to her son, felt that he was instrumental in helping her understand the wider social reality:

My son awakened my social conscience. It was through his example and the conversations we had that I understood about social issues. poverty. exploitation. Once I tried to warn him about his activism and he told me that yes. I had given birth to him. but his life belonged to him now. I fought with him; we had long discussions. me trying to stop him. When he was being chased and we wanted him to go abroad. he refused and stuck to his ideals.

For Amelia Herrera de Miranda, finding the remains of her daughter and grandchildren was extremely important. It confirmed that her daughter was dead and allowed her to focus on finding her surviving granddaughter:

It was not a happy moment but it put an end to the uncertainty of not knowing what had happened. She was dead, there it is. here are the remains. Now, I had to ask "Where is my granddaughter?" and I started to fight for her. I will search for her until the last day of my life. I will work so that this does not happen to anybody else. The disappearance of people is the cruelest thing that can happen to anybody. So one has to speak up; otherwise one becomes an accomplice.

Argentina Rojo de Perez gathered strength in a number of ways:

I never had any psychological help. I made myself strong because I knew I had to take care and fight for my remaining granddaughter. I survived because of her. Also, after the disappearance of my son, writing, putting my thoughts down, helped. It was like a form of therapy.

Delia Califano, too, reflects on the source of her resiliency:

What gives me strength ? The memory of my son and my daughter-in-Iaw. They were both wonderful. I cannot leave a child of theirs alone in the world. Some times I don't feel like fighting anymore.1 am seventy years old, I get tired. I only want to stay home. But when I think of them I gather strength. It is the least I can do

Alba Lanzillotto talks about the respect she felt for her disappeared younger sisters to whom she acted as a mother, and describes their ongoing presence in her life:

I respect their militancy because they chose it in full conscience as thinking adults. I did not agree with them in every point but I respect them because these two young women had everything. came from a comfortable back- ground. and became political activists. They went through a big change and they devoted themselves to a cause in which they deeply believed. They abandoned an easy and leisurely life. They were not in need for themselves but they had a sense of responsibility and obligation towards others. After all that has happened. I learned to understand and value my sisters even more. They would have been forty-six years old now. They had a lot to give to the world. They are always present in my family, they are still with us, never absent. My daughter loved them and she always remembers them. They are a part of our lives and we are very close to their children

Those occasions when their efforts succeeded were consistently mentioned by the Grandmothers as among the most exhilarating and empowering experiences of their lives. Having their hunches con- firmed, actually seeing and touching children who had been disappeared for years, provided an incredible boost to their morale. Bringing the children back to their original families gave them a sense that some measure of justice could, after all, be achieved and that their extraordinarily demanding work was worth the toll it had taken on their lives.

Raquel Marizcurrena worked on the case of Pablito Moyano, a child found years after his disappearance at the age of one:

One of the most beautiful moments of our work is when we find one of the children. We had published the pictures of the disappeared children in a magazine. An acquaintance called me. having recognized Pablito. He had disappeared as a baby and now he was six years old. He had the same face. the same big eyes. the bushy eyebrows. the long lashes. It was him. When we took his grandmother to meet him. he recognized her. he threw himself in her arms. It was a fantastic moment. It almost did not seem possible.

More generally, Antonia Segarra reflects on their years of hard work and the satisfaction they derive when finding the children:

The fifty-four children that we have found are the result of much sacrifice. But it is such a joy to see the children with their true families. Even when we do not know a child personally. it is beautiful. It gives us so much happiness. I can barely describe how it feels. It is as if each child carries a little piece of us.

Like the other Grandmothers, Reina Esses de Waisberg's belief in the importance of the children knowing that they were not abandoned by their parents gives her strength:

Every time we find a child it is as if I found mine. We fight so hard because the disappeared children have to know that they were not thrown away. that their mothers did not abandon them. that they were conceived with love. That they were wanted. I know this because of my son and his companion. They were very happy when they told me that they expected their second child.


The expressions of solidarity that the Grandmothers received from their families and from other groups working for social justice, both in Argentina and abroad, also empowered and vitalized them. Elena Santander says:

I was lucky to have supportive family and friends. They understood what was going on and they were very happy when we found the child. My daughter and my son came from Brazil to help me. Having my family at my side made all the difference. We have had support from many different quarters: not only the other human rights groups but gays, people with AIDS, prostitutes. During the trial of the military while I was in line waiting for the doors to open, I met a woman who said she knew who I was (I was wearing the hand- kerchief [characteristic of the Grandmothers] on my head) and that she fully supported us. She said she was the president of the prostitutes' organization. She told me: "The only thing I want to ask you is that you do not call the military 'sons of bitches: because we bitches do not give birth to such monsters." I thought that was fabulous.1 never forgot what she said. She still goes to all the marches.

Nelida de Navajas describes a similar experience:

One of the most beautiful things that came out of my work with the Grand- mothers was learning that there was so much interest and solidarity from people in other parts of the world. It was an extraordinarily positive experience. We have had support from the women's movement, from the CHA (Comite Homosexual Argentino), even the transsexual groups. We need to support each other. I hope that the younger generation will carry that vision and that we will be able to pass on what we have learned. A legacy of solidarity.

Their successful searches, the founding of the National Genetic Data Bank, their ability to influence legislation dealing with children's rights, and the support they received helped give the Grandmothers the determination to continue their work without wavering. Taking responsibility for their situation and dealing with it to the best of their abilities contributed to their strength.

The dynamic at work here has been articulated by Judith Lewis Her- man, a psychiatrist who directs training at the Victims of Violence Program at the Cambridge Hospital, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Drawing on her twenty years of practice with women who have suffered sexual abuse, she notes that while survivors of rape, war, and other trauma are not responsible for the injury that was done to them, they are responsible for their recovery: "Paradoxically, acceptance of this apparent injustice is the beginning of empowerment. The only way that the survivor can take full control of her recovery is to take responsibility for it. The only way she can discover her undestroyed strengths is to use them to their fullest."

The Grandmothers became precisely such survivors. In 1986 they stated:

Our work has not been easy. We started from scratch in October of 1977 in the midst of generalized terror. We were hurting like an open wound. If today we had to describe the predominant feeling of that time in one word. apart from pain. we could call it IMPOTENCE. ...We discovered that we had to walk alone. that we had to invent our paths. to look for unknown methods. as unknown as the horror in which we were living. ...In spite of the silence of some. the vacillations of others. the indifference of many. with the help of the people we will keep searching tirelessly for the hundreds of disappeared children to return them to their true homes. because only then will they return to life. It is a duty toward them. toward their martyred parents. toward the Argentine children that have lost their sense of safety. and toward the 30.000 disappeared who demand justice.

The Grandmothers engaged in truth-telling despite the terror that dominated life in their country, and they refused to believe the lies that the regime foisted on the population. They created a place in which mutual cooperation and shared purpose enabled them to nourish their spirits and move toward empowerment instead of despair. Love for their children and the exhilaration of finding some of their grandchildren sustained them through their struggle. And solidarity from other groups made them believe that other people cared and that their message would eventually be heard.


As the Grandmothers came together to build their organization, their husbands, sons, and other male members of their families generally played a supportive role, without directly participating in the work of the group. The traditional gender arrangement (women in the back- ground and men actively involved in the political arena) was reversed as the Grandmothers put themselves in the foreground. It was not, how- ever, their intent to exclude men. The Grandmothers expressed various views on the role of men in their movement. For some it was the greater vulnerability of men that kept them in the background; others thought that men had less ability to cope with pain; still others saw the need for men to earn a living as the reason for their keeping a low profile. Often the Grandmothers mentioned the specialness of the mother-child relationship in explaining the women's greater involvement:

Berta Schubaroff remembers:

When our country was taken over by the military and they started to torture, maim, and kill, women started to scream our pain, because they had taken away the most precious thing in our lives. We decided to get out into the streets, precisely because as women we were the most despised group. We did not want our husbands and sons to join us because they would have been endangered.

Sonia Torres concurs:

We thought that men would be more vulnerable. that the security forces would not dare attack or torture women. We were wrong. they kidnapped the first Mother and others too. But also. I think motherhood gives women a special quality; fatherhood is more of a secondary quality. A mother would take the food out of her mouth for her child. I do not think that men are prepared to do as much.

Raquel Marizcurrena, one of whose sons disappeared, expresses similar views about the greater vulnerability of men:

We women went alone to the Plaza. because it would have been too dangerous for the men. We feared that they would arrest them immediately. But the men were behind us, supporting us and keeping an eye on us. I was afraid that something would happen to my other son because he has always been supportive of my work. I remember that Azucena Villaflor's husband and son were often there; her son would come to the Plaza and would say to his mother, please don't always stand in front, be a little less obvious.

But Nya Quesada thinks that men's greater difficulty coping with pain played a role in their relative passivity:

I think that men do not have as much resiliency as women. Many people ask us, where were the men? I believe this has something to do with the ability to stand pain. Men do not have the strength that women have. They suffer tremendously, of course, and love their children as much, but mothers do not give up. they keep looking for them. They want the whole world to know what happened to their children. My husband died after two years because he could not take it anymore. I know many cases of men that died because of their enormous grief. If they ever bother to collect statistics, that is what they will find.

Amelia Miranda agrees though her husband, Juan, was one of the few men who became active in the Grandmothers' organization; he worked with the investigation team until he became seriously disabled:

He fought hard for our children, until he got sick. For many men, the pain of the disappearance of their children was too much, they could not take it. I think that women are more persistent. We women went out to the streets to scream and protest. Men also suffered a lot but they kept their pain inside. Our work is like the ant's work, like housework, very slow, every day, little things that pile up. You do not see it while it is happening but after many years the children are grown, the house is in order. Men are more impatient, they want to fight, to get results right away. Women are more resilient, are in it for the long run.

The thoughts of Otilia Arganaraz run along the same vein:

I think men wear the pants but it is women who run the show. Giving birth is so painful and at the same time it is such an exhilarating experience that from the moment children are born one turns into a lioness to defend them. The happiness to have a child after so much physical suffering makes you ready for anything. Fathers seemed more broken by what happened. Even my brothers tell me to this day: "I envy you for being so involved. I could not do it:'

There were practical considerations as well. For Antonia Segarra, living in Mar del Plata and commuting frequently to work with the Grandmothers in Buenos Aires, her husband's earning a living made it possible for her to become an activist:

My husband is the one who stayed home. We needed money to be able to travel and do all the things that had to be done. He had to keep working. I think that is the hardest role.

However, Alba Lanzillotto believes that women's greater capacity for activism was responsible for the Grandmothers' leading role:

In this country when things get done it is because of the women. In the teachers' union, it is women. In the church, who does all the work? The women. Here, the grandmothers, not the grandfathers. They say that the men had to work and that they were afraid they would be abducted, but I think it is because women take the initiative. They are the ones who are more torn apart when something happens to their children. Women are stronger and more likely to act. There are many women in all the human rights groups here. Sometimes it is men who initiate projects but the women have the staying power.

Whatever the reasons that kept men in the background, the Grandmothers stepped into the public arena and participated fully in the blossoming of the human rights movement. In the process, they transformed themselves from "traditional" women defined by their relationships with men (mothers, wives, daughters) into public protesters working on behalf of the whole society.


Transforming powerlessness into social action, combining a practical outlook with the larger vision of a society in need of thorough change, and striving for justice, these "common women" irreversibly widened the field of politics and helped break down the boundaries between private and public. As mothers and grandmothers, they reacted to the attacks on their families by appropriating public space, challenging the notion that mothering is restricted to the private world.

Feminist theorist Sara Ruddick has written about the "demands" that are required by the practice of mothering: preserving life, nurturing off- spring, and shaping children's growth in ways that are acceptable to the mother's social group. As a corollary to the distinction between birthing and mothering, Ruddick makes the point that all mothers are "adoptive": "To adopt is to commit oneself to protecting, nurturing, and training particular children. Even the most passionately loving birthgiver engages in a social, adoptive act when she commits herself to sustain an infant in the world."
As "adoptive" mothers of their grandchildren, the Grandmothers wanted to continue the mothering work that had been brutally interrupted by the military regime. Their commitment to protect, nurture, and train their children's children was a statement about the continuity and promise that each new life represents.

Because the Grandmothers' Association is a women-led organization, the question inevitably arises: Are the Grandmothers feminists? For that matter, what does .'feminism" mean in Latin America? In their important article analyzing the regionwide feminist Encuentros convened biannually since 1981, Nancy Saporta Sternbach, Marysa Navarro-Aranguren, Patricia Chuchryk, and Sonia E. Alvarez write of ."feminisms" because it is difficult "to generalize across countries in a "region as diverse as Latin America when discussing any sociopolitical phenomenon." They argue that Latin American feminisms, forced to deal with state repression and extreme economic exploitation, have developed a solid political base that sets them apart from feminist movements in more affluent parts of the world. Feminists in Latin America, who have had to confront militarism, understand that "the dictatorship, which institutionalizes social inequality, is founded on inequality in the family."

Latin American feminisms call for a revolution in everyday life, one that will challenge class and race privileges as well as the patriarchal, sex-gender system. A key theme for Latin American feminists has been their relationship to the overall struggle for social justice-particularly to the 11lovinlielltos de muieres, women's grass roots groups, which organize to provide for the basic necessities of life and usually do not make gender oppression central to their analysis. The dialogue with women active in these movimientos is a rich source of ideas and challenges that keep the definition of Latin American feminisms fluid and constantly under revision.

None of the Grandmothers called herself a feminist, though some, like Elsa Oesterheld, express enthusiasm for the struggle for women's equality:

I was totally disillusioned about humanity until I met the women's movement. It has given me an injection of hope; I have faith again. That is some- thing incredibly new and people have not yet realized what it means. I believe that this will bring unforeseeable possibilities for the future. I am sorry I will not live another fifty years to see how the participation of women will change the world. The next century is going to be the century of women.

Elena Santander also was clear about the positive energy of the women's movement, but she saw the dangers of becoming an activist:

I like it when women defend their rights. The rights of women and of all human beings. The right to a home, to a fair salary, education for their children. Here we have the Argentine Women's Union, and I go to their celebration for Women's Day. They organize trips to Cuba, they fight for the rights of all women. But I am afraid that if women become part of political movements, they will lose the most important thing they have, which is their families. They may lose their own world. I have seen this. Many of us with husbands could not give them much attention because we were always working with the Grandmothers. It happened to me. I lost the companion I had because I abandoned everything for this work.

Amelia Miranda reflects on her marriage and on the roles of men and women:

I believe that a woman who works should have the same rights as a man. Equal pay for equal work. And if she has children. she has to have maternity benefits and a leave of absence. Women deserve opportunities. I do not think that all women should be at home washing dishes and having babies. If one has other interests, one should be encouraged to cultivate them. In fact I believe that if we had more women in leadership roles we would have a better society. I don't call this "feminism:' I call it "justice." Regarding marriage. I am one of whose who got married forever. I do want to be listened to and respected, I do like freedom, but I do not want to get rid of men as some feminists do. We are not perfect, and neither are they. We all have our limitations and God made us male and female.1 think that is how it has to be.

Bertha Schubaroff concurs with Amelia:

The struggles that women are carrying out in all fields are truly important. We are as good as men, but not better than them. Without men, we would miss something very important-love, sexuality, companionship. I could never separate women from men. However, I have a sister who never married, has a great profession, has done research, has a life full of friends, earns good money. It is not necessary to have children and a traditional home. She chose other things. That is the point, that one should be able to choose what one wants.

Reina Waisberg expresses her appreciation for the work of women activists:

I like the women's movement in Argentina. I believe that women must have the same rights as men. I support liberalizing abortion. It makes me very angry that the Catholic Church is against it. When I was eighteen years old my mother died of an illegal abortion and I had to take care of my siblings. She would not have died if abortion had been legal.

The Grandmothers have taken their message to national and inter- national women's conferences where they have sought (and received) support for their work and demanded a condemnation of the amnesty laws and the presidential pardons that were given to the members of the juntas. At the VIII Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres held in Tucuman in 1993, Grandmothers Amelia Miranda and Otilia Argaflaraz spoke about their experiences as women and mothers whose children and grandchildren were victims of the dictatorships. They reminded the audience--over 6,000 women from allover the country- the "thousands of women, our daughters, who fought heroically for a better country" and who gave birth and nourished life in the regime's secret detention camps.

In Latin America, at the end of the twentieth century, new social movements have emerged-movements that go beyond traditional political structures and institutions. In particular, the growing participation of women has clearly changed the established models of political mobilization. People speak of a "new form of politics," of a new conception of what is political, of a transformation of the public arena. In Argentina, the image of the Grandmothers as the guardians of the cycle of life has entered this shared understanding with unprecedented force and has become a fixture of the new political landscape.