Looking North from Buenos Aires: State Violence, Women’s Bodies, and What There Is to Lose

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In the summer of 2017, I drove with one of my children to pick up another at a camp in Western North Carolina. Having traversed the Appalachian Ridge on I-81 southbound, we planned to head a bit east on the way back home to visit friends in Charlottesville. We talked with them on August 11 about the rumblings of violence and hate on display that evening, and then as August 12 itself unfolded and we were making our way north, we decided to keep going. Bypassing Charlottesville meant bypassing the huge white nationalist rally underway there, and the street violence that followed it.

The rally organizers chose Charlottesville because the city had recently decided to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and rename the park that carried his name.

Memorials were on our minds. That fall, a group of black women activists encircled the statue of J. Marion Sims on Fifth Avenue and 103d Street – a statue I had passed dozens of times while running. They wore white hospital gowns stained with drips and splotches of red over their pelvises, symbolizing the experimentation on enslaved women that was Sims’ method as the “father of gynecology.” New York City pulled Sims down.

I. On history and its marks/markers

The summer of 2017 put in front of us the question of commemoration, the challenge of recognition and responsibility in the face of ugly histories. And I carried these questions to Argentina, where my family lived from February through July of this year. I was a visitor, a tourist, an observer there, not a scholar of Argentina’s history as I am of the U.S. But elements of that history captured me.

If slavery is at the core of many of our commemoration debates in the US, it’s la dictadura, the eight-year military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, that Argentines struggle with most visibly. How would the country mark this history – and especially the brutal crimes it contains, including the disappearance and murder of at least 8,000 – and perhaps as many as 30,000 – young men and women called los desaparecidos?

Avenida del Libertador is one of the capital city’s characteristically wide throughways – at least twelve lanes of traffic. Cars and buses pass all day and night. But it is just a street – sidewalks and pedestrians, an easy, level crossing of 30 meters or so if you wait for the light.

That distance was the same in 1976. On one side, people woke up in the morning, or stopped to run an errand, or came home with the groceries at night. On the other, across the sidewalk, a fence of wide-spaced wrought-iron bars and occasional brick columns – the kind that marks country clubs or botanical gardens. And behind that fence, the training school for the navy’s mechanics, the Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada. Within it the school sat an active naval officer’s club. And within it, a center for the detention, torture, and murder of Argentine citizens during the military dictatorship.

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We visited the museum that is now in the same space, the Museo Sito de Memoria ESMA. As we learned there, the overwhelming majority of the detained were young men and women, 18 to 36 years old. Years of finding partners, sealing bonds, making dreams of families. There were pregnant women among the detained. Some – at this detention center, at others across the country, were tortured for information they could reveal, then killed. One executioner remembered a woman “hours from giving birth,” in his estimation. On Libertador, and in some of the dozens of other clandestine centers in other cities and towns, babies were born. In three small rooms on the third floor, with covered windows, cold tile floors, and walls the soft pink of a newborn’s palms, captive women delivered their babies: over the years, a few hundred.

The noise of birth must have carried down the common stairway to the second floor, where naval officers had their rooms, their beds and dressers and closets of pressed uniforms. Maybe all the way down to the first, where a bar and dining room offered leisure spaces for those running the detention center and the staff of the surrounding naval training school. The commander of the school had a wing of the building for himself and his family, a tiled kitchen wall, a paneled TV room. His children sometimes invited friends to play.

Some days after birth, not many, babies and mothers were separated from one another. Like other detainees deemed no longer valuable to the information-gathering and repression machine that was the detention center, the mothers were drugged, loaded onto planes, and dropped to their death in the Rio de la Plata or the Atlantic Ocean. “Transferred,” in the lexicon of the operation. Wrung of whatever information they could offer as well as of their newborns, the military disposed of them. The babies disappeared alive – given to other families to raise, their links to their birth mothers and fathers erased in what became a profitable business in cash or influence.

Moments from the past can swing across time and space and clang against the present. Standing in the space of the museum, I feel their intersection in my body. There’s a low metal thrum in my head, and a heavy lump of dread forms in my stomach. It is one thing to cross Avenida del Libertador and visit a time of horror in Argentina’s history. It is yet another to be there as a citizen of the United States on July 4, 2018. Our taxi ride there was slowed by traffic, as the US embassy was throwing a party and blocking Libertador a few miles from the museum.

The US holiday fell on a Wednesday, mid-point in a week of new revelations about the scale, cruelty, and seeming bureaucratic acceptance of a policy to split parents from children – toddlers and infants, even – when families arrived at the US border seeking entry or asylum. Since then, a federal judge set a deadline for children to be returned to their families, and it passed with still hundreds of children still not reunited with parents. About 500 are still separated today. Where there have been reunifications, the children’s faces and bodies attest to the horrors of their experience. And some did not survive it.

Living in Buenos Aires fed questions about memory, horror, justice, and their presence in urban space. Alongside the regular Latin American complement of revolutionary generals on their horses and pedestals, the history of the last dictatorship here is marked on the sidewalk and the street-level landscape. Going to the park a few blocks from our apartment brings us past a handcrafted memorial on a quiet and green stretch of sidewalk. Small chips of colored tile alongside uneven printed letters mark out the place where state forces seized a young woman, Isabel, a political activist and student, from her home. We can imagine families, friends, allies gathering to make this history visible with this marker, when the law and the politics of the post-dictatorship era sought to deny the disappearances and the pain.

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The tile glaze still shines as it reflects the street light. Many use fragmented glass to add color, perhaps to remind us of brokenness.In other, more heavily traveled sidewalks, these informal markers are wearing down, the letters faint, diminishing.

Abductions during the dictatorship were both improvised and systematic, equally horrible in manifesting human capacity for evil. Some people were taken from homes – thus markers stand in front of residential buildings, like that on my street. Worker activists were many – so there are plaques next to gantry cranes in the newly-fancy Puerto Madero district with its riverside warehouses and docking slips turned cafes or car dealerships. Students were among the most active in resisting the dictatorship – and now entryways to one main university building has extensive mosaics listing dozens of names of the disappeared. At a major intersection near where we shop for groceries, we pass a marker down low on a building façade, in the same style as the one on our street but here surrounded by painted political graffiti and paste-ups.

It is in this landscape that I hear the first reports of family separation of those seeking asylum at the US border. First there are questions about missing children. Then revelations about detention centers with bunk beds or pads on the floor, foil blankets, ping-pong tables that manage to make the places seem yet more grim.

How will we, at some unknown future point, commemorate and reckon with the horror of anti-immigrant, dehumanizing treatment of individuals and families this year? To ask this particular question is a way to intellectualize and hide, to think beyond the current moment to the question of memorialization. Perhaps a way for a historian to cope.

One lesson from Argentina is that these wounds extend across generations. They mark children, families across decades. They mark everyone as they show some of the edges of what power can do, what a state machinery turned to evil can accomplish.

II. On women’s bodies and state power

Another juxtaposition. As a legal matter, those disappeared pregnant women were compelled by the state to be pregnant. In the 1970s, 1980s, and today (with a few recently-added exceptions), abortion is illegal in Argentina. Pregnant women had to stay pregnant. Usually, of course, hope and desire aligned with that legal reality. But sometimes it did not.

Now there is a vibrant new feminism in Argentina – young, self-consciously attentive to class and (within the limits of how race is understood in Argentina) race. It’s reshaping the conversation about abortion, creating the popular momentum that led the lower house of the national congress to vote by a tiny majority for depenalization – seeking to make abortion before 14 weeks no longer a crime.

In the fall and winter months in Buenos Aires, what had seemed like a small opening for incremental reform exceeded that expectation and generated a kind of rolling optimism. The streets were filled in mass demonstrations, and for the first time the majority seemed aligned around a cross-class commitment to women’s health and self-determination.

We watched from home on television, cheering especially the attention to class that ran through advocates’ comments. The question was not whether abortion was happening in Argentina, they explained. It was, and would continue. The question was whether only rich women would receive safe and sanitary access to it. Abortion-related complications are the greatest source of maternal death in the country.

The night of the rally, we watched, went to bed, and woke to see that debate was still underway in the Deputies’ Chamber. At 10 am, the vote was cast – and Argentina took one major step toward “aborto seguro, legal, y gratuito.” (The road was harder in the Senate, and on August 8 the depenalization effort failed there. But even so, these last months show a popular momentum mounting and hard to contain).

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Our 14-year-old American daughter watched and discussed this debate with friends, proudly attaching a pañuelo verde to her backpack. The green handkerchief is printed not only with the abortion rights demand but also the white logo of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, one of Argentina’s earliest and strongest advocates for attention to the crimes of la dictadura and the lives of los disaparecidos.

And then Justice Kennedy announced his resignation, and the threat to Roe and Casey becomes clear.

Not long after our visit to the museum on Libertador, my Twitter feed carries news of the president’s impending reality-show style reveal of his Supreme Court nominee for the seat vacated by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination brings with it the possibility that the US returns to an earlier era too much like Argentina’s past.

Perhaps it’s black women in the US who know the double-bind the best: of state violence against their bodies as women – family separation in slavery, family separation in incarceration – alongside the state-mandated pregnancies of those who cannot afford private abortions, those the state-enabled deaths of those unable to secure a safe one.

I think my philosophy taller (or workshop – we met weekly, one young philosophy PhD, three elderly porteñas who could barely sustain a thread of conversation for more than a sentence or two without diverging into recollection that was interesting but never linear) – tried to introduce me to Judith Butler’s idea that the core power of the state is the power to compel people to live. Argentina shows that too clearly – the power to compel babies to live without parents, women to live in the face of knowledge of their impending death, a society to live without facing its the past.

Family separation, robo de bebes or theft of babies, dangerous abortion. Women impregnated through sexual violation as torture in state detention centers, then kept alive, then killed. It all strings together. And it makes more sense if we hear Dorothy Roberts’s call to “expand our vision of reproductive freedom to include the full scope of what it means to have control over one’s reproductive life.” Roberts was speaking against a view of abortion rights as the only reproductive matter with deep political consequence, and against the exclusion of black women’s struggle for reproductive freedom from abortion focused campaigns.

Roberts helps us see a new set of intersecting and diverging moments in Argentina and the U.S. In the 1970s, when pregnant desaparecidas were kept alive until they gave birth, they experienced a compelled pregnancy that was at one extreme end of a continuum on which many other pregnancies sat. Reproductive labor shades to reproductive slavery.

Moving to “aborto seguro, legal, gratuito” is one part of moving beyond the horrors of the detention center. Moving away from Roe puts the US closer to those horrors. Not only because of the anti-democratic manipulations of the court, but because of the re-entrenchment of misogyny in the false veil of maternalism: the consolidation of the state’s power over women’s bodies, to compel life and death.

III.            Back home

Coming home to New York, I am at once more horrified at the state of things here, and more grateful. Thinking about the depth of U.S and Argentine state horror, past and present, means seeing the fragility of democracy and the fragility of the basic social fabric of trust and connection that I have at times taken for granted. I see how much is now at stake, in play, possible to lose, even while recognizing the ample imperfections and at times horrors in our own world. What we have, fractured as it was but still holding together in many ways, is being tossed about lightly and at great peril.

The juxtapositions show continuity more than rupture. About the continuity of evil, about the essential value of feminist interpretations of the state as dependent on the disciplining of women’s bodies, more so racialized women’s bodies.

I see US democracy as a thin glass balloon. Argentina shows some of what happens when that balloon teeters and crashes from above. I see more clearly now what we may well be in the process of losing, this flawed but precious place.

Ansley Erickson is an associate professor of History and Education at Columbia University and the author of Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits (Chicago, 2016). Her articles have appeared in the American Journal of Education, History of Education Quarterly, Journal of Urban History, Dissent, and Teachers College Record.

To read more:

Marguerite Feitlowitz, A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, Revised ed (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (New York: Vintage, 1998)

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