BUENOS AIRES — In Argentina, the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo) are generally photographed together. Members of the human rights organization march on the streets, their instantly recognizable white handkerchiefs wrapped around their heads as they circle the governmental plaza arm in arm. The organization started with a group of mothers desperately searching for their missing children, kidnapped during the country’s 1976–83 dictatorship, but it became a globally recognized movement. Together, hundreds of women, with thousands of allies and family members, turned their grief into an ongoing lucha (struggle) to find the truth about what happened to their children. But in these unique individual portraits of their last years, they are seen for the first time in the intimacy of their homes.
In 2021, when the streets of Buenos Aires were empty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, photojournalist Leonardo Vaca was invited into the homes of 40 abuelas (taking all necessary precautions), who lived in different parts of the country. The project involved creating a free downloadable photo book titled Madres y Abuelas (Mothers and Grandmothers), proposed by the Argentine Human Rights Secretariat to celebrate 40 years of democracy reestablished in Argentina, with a cover design by Mariana Migueles.
“We have gotten used to seeing [the abuelas] together in public with their flags and white handkerchiefs, carrying images of their sons and daughters …. But the photographs in this book are a path inward,” writes Cora Gamarnik, a Doctor in Social Science at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and CONICET investigator, in the prologue. Vaca told Hyperallergic during a video interview that they all have incredible, and unimaginable, stories. He explained, “Each abuela is a unique constellation, their lives traversed by pain, horror, sadness, longing, hope, and love. They make up the DNA of our nation and our tragedy.”
In 1976, an ultra-right military coup backed by the United States declared martial law in Argentina. Intending to eliminate political dissidents labeled “subversives” and “communists,” the military junta, led by then General and later President Jorge Rafael Videla, opened around 600 clandestine detention centers in the country. Students, teachers, workers, and activists were kidnapped from their homes or off the streets, blindfolded, and taken to these clandestine centers, where they were tortured, sedated, and thrown into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean in the infamous death flights. This systematic plan to “disappear” the victims was the State’s terroristic way to erase all proof of criminal acts. Women gave birth in captivity and were then murdered. Their babies were offered in illegal adoptions to families who hid their identities. A total of 30,000 people were disappeared. Although 133 grandchildren have been found by Abuelas, the search is ongoing as it is estimated that 400 more people in their 40s live today not knowing their true identities.
The abuelas are now in their 90s. Some have experienced the joy of finding and meeting their missing grandchildren. Others fought hard and celebrated when fellow abuelas found grandchildren, but died without meeting their own. “That’s what hurts us the most,” Estela de Carlotto, one of the founding mothers, shared in a local radio interview. Vaca, who has been a photojournalist for 30 years, said of the abuelas, “They all welcomed me with so much love.” He always brought them flowers. Then, he turned on a recording device and listened to their stories. “Many abuelas were worried because their memory was fading; they thought they would forget everything.” However, as soon as that recorder was on, they remembered every detail with clarity. “It’s as if they were there again. As if they wanted to leave their last testimony on the record,” he mused.
Some abuelas experienced multiple historical tragedies. Sara Rus was born in Poland in 1927. She survived the extermination camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau by telling herself she would hold onto life for as long as possible; if she made it, she would relocate to Argentina after the war. In 1948, Rus immigrated there with her mother. Her son, Daniel, was born in Argentina. In 1977, the dictatorship murdered him. After decades of searching for Daniel, joining the Abuelas organization, and speaking for human rights, Rus, now 96, holds onto the hope of finding her son’s body so she can give him a proper burial. Vera Jarach came to Argentina with her family when she was 11, escaping fascism in Italy. But in her adopted country, her 18-year-old daughter, Franca, was kidnapped in 1976. In 2015, after years of looking for her, Jarach confirmed that her daughter’s body was thrown into the Atlantic during the military’s death flights. “When she received me, I could see that she was going blind,” Vaca said, “Nevertheless, her home was decorated with art and paintings and pictures of her daughter on the walls.”
Angela Barili de Tasca, whose daughter was kidnapped when she was five months pregnant and later murdered, maintained the hope of finding her grandchild. The day they reunited, 29 years later, “Angelita,” as she was nicknamed, told Vaca that their first hug felt like an “infinite embrace.” The phrase stuck with Vaca and he chose it to title his photography exhibit in Buenos Aires. “All of them are mothers who will never recover their children and constantly live with that grief,” he noted. “But I think the immense hope of finding their missing grandchildren and fighting for justice keeps them going.” Delia Giovanola died at 96, but she was able to experience the joy of finding her grandchild, Martín, in 2015 after 39 years of searching. Vaca had a chance to capture them together on camera. In our conversation, he expressed, “To think, 400 grandchildren still live among us.”
Regardless of a polarized political climate, legal proof has inspired a strong consensus among people in Argentina about what happened during the dictatorship. The 2007 and 2009 ESMA Mega-Case proved that crimes against humanity were committed inside the Navy School of Mechanics premises, used as a clandestine center (ESMA is the acronym for the Navy School). Already in 1985, Argentina was the only country in Latin America where a civilian government went to trial against the military junta. The Abuelas organization played a huge role, helping chief prosecutor Julio Cesár Strassera’s team by providing archives and documents they had collected over the years, as well as their own eyewitness accounts. Vera Jarach, an abuela who gave her closing remarks at the ESMA Mega-Case trial, said: “We know that Truth, Justice, and Memory are the best guarantees for “Nunca Más (Never Again). … With our efforts to promote Memory, we try to ensure that these tragedies don’t fall into oblivion.”
In late September, UNESCO nominated the ESMA Site Museum, a clandestine center for detention and murder during the dictatorship, as a World Heritage site. The nomination gave international recognition to the horrific events that took place there, validating and memorializing this part of Argentina’s history.
Photography is also memory, and if art has any power, it will serve as a way to safeguard these stories. This past August, Javier Milei, an ultra-right libertarian candidate who has publicly declared his contempt for “leftists” and “communists” while questioning the number of disappeared people and mocking human rights organizations and their employees, won the Argentine preliminaries. The vice presidential candidate, Victoria Villaruel, is known for her military apologetics, calling those who disappeared “subversives” and reducing the dictatorship’s crimes to “a construction of the left.” Regardless of whether they win the elections on October 22, the rise of historical negationism shouldn’t be taken lightly.
In 2017, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Argentina, Jarach, who was approaching 90, leaned in to speak with her, “My grandfather died in Auschwitz, and we never got to bury him,” Jarach told Merkel. “Then, during the dictatorship, my daughter was kidnapped in Argentina, and I never got to bury her either,” she added. “Tragedies can repeat themselves through time. And, I want to tell you that negationism is rising in Europe and also here in Argentina.”
Today, around 14 abuelas are left, and only six have enough strength to remain active, leaving most of the search for memory, truth, and justice to the next generations. “Some abuelas are turning 100,” Vaca stated, “and in the past two years, around 20 abuelas have passed away.” Vaca had the immense honor to photograph many of them for the last time. “I felt like the infinite embrace of the abuelas was also towards me […] I can now die in peace because I won’t ever be able to surpass such a project.”
Madres y Abuelas by Leonardo Vaca, a project of the Human Rights Secretariat of Argentina, can be downloaded here.
Un Abrazo Infinito (An Infinite Embrace), an exhibition of Vaca’s photography, continues at the Memory Cultural Center Haroldo Conti, located inside the Ex-ESMA Site Museum (Avenida Del Libertador 8151, Buenos Aires, Argentina) through October 16.