SermonsMothers of the Plaza de Mayo

ESMA Museum and Site of Memory

Photo of  white building with four pillars.  On the top is written "Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada."  A blue banner drops down between the two left pillars reading, "Espacio para la Memorial"

The Armed Forces of Argentina installed the first ESMA (School of Navy Mechanics) institutions in 1975. Despite the name, the military/security state always intended to use them as clandestine centers for the torture, interrogation, rape, illegal detention and murder of people whom they deemed not worthy of membership in society. They accomplished all these atrocities with the help of U.S. tax dollars.

As I said when I wrote about Uruguay’s Museum of Memory, the museum in Buenos Aires reflects a more professional use of designers and certainly a greater availability of funds. But the dictatorship had these detention centers all over Argentina, and people in other regions have set up smaller memory museums in their locations as well..

I took the below pictures of these exhibits on the outside of the museum, because they have English at the bottom, explaining what happened inside. If you click on them, you should be able to read the explanations. We saw the stencil commemorating Tomas Canataro on the outside of the building. I wondered if he had been a union leader, journalist, or some famous Argentinian dissident.

But when I looked him up in the Museum archives, I saw the following,

So what had he done to incur the displeasure of the authorities? Did he have friends or family members they were looking for? Had someone overheard him criticizing the government? Who put up the stencil? His children?

“Presente” is something sung at memorial services to indicate that the deceased are still a part of the living and remain in their hearts and minds. Every year, hundreds of people sing it as people call out the names of those killed by trainees at the School of the Americas (which include Argentinian Officers) in Fort Bending, Georgia. It was one of the most spiritual protests I ever participated in.

We went inside the Central Pavilion, where Navy students had done their exercise. It is now dedicated to the 30,000 kidnapped, tortured, murdered and disappeared Argentinians. If the museum has a central theme it is to “undisappear” people. The dictatorship sought to sow terror among the population by making people disappear—and it considered them disposable, worth less than animals. The museum puts their faces everywhere, and includes their thumbnail histories to bring them back to life.

You will see I had some trouble getting all the faces on the windows, because the wall is so long.

Also around the room were testimonies before the Argentine Human Rights Commission of three women who managed to survive their time in ESMA.

Outside the Pavilion were exhibits of activists who wanted to make Argentina a more just and humane place. When I saw Patricia Roisenblit, I thought maybe the family’s name, was changed from Michael’s family name generations ago: Rosenblatt. However, now I think it’s more likely that it derives from Rosenblüt/Rosenbluth. Anyway, as I was googling around, I came across the name of Rosa Tarkovsky de Roisinblit, she was one of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and was a founder of Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Patricia was 8 months pregnant when she and her husband were disappeared. The Air Force Commander who kidnapped, tortured and killed the couple received a sentence of 25 years. The Air Force Civilian worker who took the baby, knowing where it had come from, received a sentence of 12 years. Rosa is alive and 104 years old.

I wanted to take pictures of all the activists, but as I looked down the long walk I knew that I could spend all day doing so.

However, one of the activists in particular stood out to me for some reason, possibly because the details of her life seemed like they could have been those of any kind-hearted person. Possibly because her face looks vaguely familiar, like someone I could have gone to school with. She grew up in a house with a garden, and her little sister remembers her as a friend and protector. She was youth minister in a Methodist church. The kids in her group gave her a Mafalda doll because of her brown frizzy hair and because she wanted to change the world for the better.

At the university, she was not as interested in participating in political activities as she was in working with poor children and listening to workers and homemakers. She later joined the Peronist Youth party, where she met Reuben Stockdale. Her sister remembers them always having noisy, lively debates together. They both worked in a textile factory for a while, presumably to be closer to the workers for whom they were advocating.

The authorities kidnapped Inés as she left work in 1976. She was two months pregnant. Reuben, who should have fled the country, as people associated with disappeared people typically did, decided to remain in Argentina and look for her. He was kidnapped in 1977. They both remain disappeared.

Inés Cobo. ¡Presente!

We next went to a small building dedicated to the Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo, whom I have mentioned in previous blogs

In addition to their regular Thursday public witnesses at the plaza, Grandmothers of the Plaza Del Mayo began Marches of Resistance in 1981. The atrocities were becoming more widely known internationally, and they wanted to keep up the pressure. Each march had a theme. RETURN OF THE LIVING CHILDREN TO THEIR FAMILIES “With our lives we carried them. With our lives, we love them.” RETURN OF THE DETAINEES-DISAPPEARED/ PUNISHMENT FOR THE GUILTY “The Plaza [belongs to] the Mothers and not to the cowards.” AGAINST THE LAW OF AMNESTY FOR THE APPEARANCE OF THE LIVING DETAINEES-DISAPPEARED. “There were no mistakes, there were no excesses. There were only the murderers in the military [who were part of] the process.”

And as always, the pictures of the abducted stare the visitor in the face. The museum refuses to let them disappear.

The military, in a sadistic form of execution that extended torture to the very end, often killed its captives by flying them over the River Platte or the ocean and dropping them from the plane or helicopter, hands and feet bound, into the water.1 They referred to these prisoners as “transfers.” Sandra told us she remembers the bodies washing up on the beaches of Uruguay.

I took this picture outside the museum. Apple photos only identifies it as being in the Nuñez neighborhood, where the museum is located. It says, “A tribute to the popular 2activists, the detainees disappeared by state terrorism in the ESMA neighborhood. Memory and Justice. March 24, 2013.”

As I’ve prepared this blog post I’ve reflected on the proxy war that the U.S. and the Soviet Union fought on the continents of Latin America, Africa and Asia for decades, leaving behind a legacy of torture, slaughter and other atrocities. On the part of the U.S. it was all in the name of fighting communism.

I am almost certain that most of the powerbrokers in the U.S. who sent money and weapons to the Argentine junta never read Marx’s Communist Manifesto or Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, regarded as the foundation of Capitalism. Marx literally believed that workers should control the means of production, that is, they should make all the decisions about how a factory, farm, etc. is run, and all the profits should be split between them. He did not believe that the state should control the means of production.

Adam Smith believed that productive labor creates wealth, and self-interest motivates people to put their resources to best use. But before he wrote Wealth of Nations, he wrote The Theory of the Moral Sentiments in which he describe a social system that would ensure justice and welfare for all. He always assumed that people had read the earlier book as a companion to the later book. When he visited India, and saw the misery that the British East India Company inflicted on workers in the textile mills, he wrote that to prohibit a people,

“Adam Smith and the British East India Company: A Perspective on Competitiveness.” Tax Justice Network, 30 Apr. 2015,

Thus, predatory Capitalism, according to Adam Smith, is not Capitalism at all.

Communism and Capitalism are simply economic systems devised by two well-meaning men who wanted people to thrive. Authoritarianism was never part of the package. Treating workers like dirt was never part of the package. Creating hundreds of new billionaires, while the middle and working classes become ever more impoverished was never part of the package.

Acts 2:44-45 says that the first Christians “held all things in common,” which essentially means they were communists. I guess Priscilla and Aquila, the tentmakers who mentored Paul in Acts 18 were tentmakers, so I guess that makes them capitalists–or communists if they shared profits with Paul equally. It doesn’t matter much.

But committing atrocities against human beings over economic ideologies does matter

Epilogue: Patricia Erb, daughter of Mennonite missionaries in Argentina was kidnapped while she was a student at the University of Buenos Aires. Her statement to the U.S. State Department, began,

Because she was a U.S. citizen, the Embassy obtained her release. When she returned to the States, she made it her mission to tell as many people as possible what was going on in Argentina. A friend of mine at Bluffton College heard one of her talks, and said she talked about her rape by one of the Argentine soldiers. As he was raping her, she noticed a gold cross around his neck. She told him she was a Christian, and asked him how he, a fellow Christian, could be doing this to her. He stopped. But so many more soldiers wearing crosses did not.

Photo of Patricia Erb who recently received an honorary doctorate from Vancouver Island University

  1. Flying from Montevideo to Buenos Aires to was essentially a flight over the Rio Platte River basin. It looks like an ocean from the air. ↩︎
  2. “Popular,” in this context isn’t about trends. It means “of the people,” often used to refer to peasants or the working classes. In this case, it refers to those who struggled for the rights of all people in Argentina to live with dignity, receive fair wages, and be regarded as equals to everyone else in Argentina. ↩︎

First Two Days in Buenos Aires

At the Buenos Aires Airport, I noticed that the junk food had labels warning of health risks. The labels on the chocolate bar, for example, warn that it has too much sugar, fat, saturated fat, and too many calories.

Since we arrived too early to check into our apartment, a cousin of our new son-in-law, Eric, allowed us to drop our luggage at his apartment building. This pleasant yard is on the roof of his building.

As we walked around looking for a place to eat, we noticed some street art, mostly used for advertising.

Also Argentinians taking dancing lessons on the street.

The drink Michael ordered at the place we stopped for lunch had yet another warning. Because it contained artificial sweeteners, children should not drink it. I wondered why they would name a soft drink, “to be.”

We stopped at the AMIA (Argentine Israelite Mutual Association—the equivalent of Jewish Community Centers in the U.S) which had strict security outside, because of the July 18, 1994 bombing that killed 85 people and injured 300. Ansar Allah, a Palestinian front for Hezbollah, claimed responsibility for the attack However the investigation into the incident was incompetent, and driven by political interests, so today it’s not really “solved,” as such.

We had made an appointment to visit the Jewish museum ahead of time. Turns out, they are very picky about who they let in. A couple from Ithaca, NY wanted to visit but they had only copies of their passports, and that was not sufficient. Pro-tip: I have traveled to five continents and I have never found authorities in any countries who found a photocopy of a passport valid for identification.

In the first room was a permanent art installation meant to indicate a Shabbat family dinner for missing people. Originally, it had shown photos of people who had disappeared during the Dirty War, but now the photos are of Israelis Hamas is holding hostage in Gaza.

Maurycy Minkowski

A small room displayed a temporary exhibit of the works by the artist Maurycy Minkowski. Famous for painting on themes of immigration, Minkowski eventually ended up in Buenos Aires, “where,” the exhibit notes without further explanation, “he lost his life tragically.” Of course I wanted to find out what actually happened to him and found the following on Wikipedia. An illness had left him deaf as a child, but he got the education he needed to work as an artist in Europe:

Brief summaries of significant eras for the Argentinian Jewish community.

First, massive waves of immigration took place between 1889 and 1930, for the same reasons that Jews were fleeing to the United States and other countries. The pogroms in Russia and Eastern European countries made emigration a life and death matter.

In the Decade of Infamy, marked by a 1930 coup, Great Depression, electoral fraud to keep conservative parties in power and another coup in 1943, were a time of rising antisemitism. Juan Peron, who was a colonel in the army that overthrew the government in 1943, was a sympathizer of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

Under the first Peronist government, antisemitism rose sharply, but it did in the U.S., Canada, and Europe as well. Despite Peron’s fascism, he appointed Jews to positions in the government and passed a law allowing Jewish army privates to celebrate Jewish holidays while they were serving in the military. U.S. Ambassador George Messersmith said, after a visit to Argentina in 1947, “There is not as much social discrimination against Jews here as there is right in New York or in most places at home….” Historian Raanan Rein has noted, ” “Fewer anti-Semitic incidences took place in Argentina during Perón’s rule than during any other period in the 20th century.” Frequent coup d’etats occurred in the 1950s-60s. Fragile civilian governments rose and fell. An urban guerrilla group who expressed an affinity for Nazi ideals, the Tacuara Nationalist Movemen,t opposed secular society and liberal democracy:

In 1973, Peron returned to power. He died in office, and his widow, Isabella Peron succeeded him. The army, led by Commander-in-Chief General Jorge Rafael Videla, overthrew her government in 1976. Thus began the bloodiest episode in Argentina’s modern history, which the next blog post will cover. Cabildo a Catholic Church publication peddled antisemitic tropes heavily during the dictatorship. It falsely asserted that 3 million Jews lived in Argentina when the number was a tenth of that. Even though Jews represented only 2% of Argentina’s population, they were more than 10% of those the Argentine Secret Service kidnapped and disappeared. A lot of Michael’s friends at Tel Aviv University were young people from Argentina, Chile and Uruguay who had fled the coup regimes in those countries.

The final placard talks about the democratic reopening of Argentina.

The museum’s synagogue has four marble memorials for mass casualties that Argentina’s Jewish community has suffered over the years. Two list the names of those killed and disappeared under the “Argentinian Dirty War” from 1974-1983. Another lists the name of 29 killed during the Israeli Embassy bombing in 1992, although there appear to be more than 29 names on it, and I cannot read the brass plate from the picture. The fourth records the 85 who died in the July 1994 bombing.

After our visit to the Jewish museum, we headed out to the Plaza de Mayo, the scene of some of the momentous events in Argentinian history. The Palacio Rosado (Pink Palace) houses Argentina’s seat of government. The backlit pyramid was erected to commemorate Argentina’s 1811 revolution against Spain. That square rock lists the names of the soldiers who died in the pivotal battle of Tucumán, during Argentina’s War of Independence.

Political protest has also characterized the history of the Plaza. The Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo probably deserve the biggest accolades for the length of the their protests—so long they are now the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. They wore scarves made from their children’s diapers initially, which evolved into plain white scarves on which they embroidered the names of their children whom the army had disappeared. Meeting weekly at the Plaza de Mayo, they demanded that the government return their children. “You took them alive; we want them back alive,” was one of their chants. They also deserve accolades for their bravery.The military kidnapped, tortured and murdered some of the Mothers, as well as French nuns who supported them, but more mothers kept joining the group in the Plaza every week.

The black base extols heroes from Argentina’s War of Independence from Spain, but I like what someone has added at the end: “For all the dead human beings, and those who struggled to save them.” The Hebrew reads,

I was trying to figure out what all the the rocks were doing at the base of the pyramid erected to celebrate Argentina’s Independence, and then I realized that the people designated on the rocks had all died in 2020-21. Apparently, they remained from a protest regarding how the Argentinian government had handled the Covid epidemic.

At the end of the day as we took a taxi back to the apartment where we were staying, we noticed our driver had a quotation by Martin Luther King on the back of his seat: “It is always the right time to do the right thing.” It seemed an appropriate way to end the day.