Will Argentina’s Stolen Generation Be Forgotten?


BUENOS AIRES—On March 24, Victoria Montenegro, a 46-year-old member of the Buenos Aires City Legislature, arrived at the Avenida de Mayo with her son and grandson. For the first 24 years of her life, Montenegro lived by a different name: María Sol Tetzlaff. She was one of the more than 500 babies who were kidnapped by the military or born to imprisoned parents during a right-wing dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. Deprived of their identity, these children were raised in military families or given up for adoption to couples who were, in most cases, aware of the babies’ origin.

Montenegro was 2 weeks old when Lt. Col. Hernán Tetzlaff seized her whole family. The military disappeared her parents, Roque “Toti” Montenegro and Hilda “Chicha” Torres, who were communist guerrilla militants. Chicha was never found; Toti’s remains were identified by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team in 2012: He was thrown into the river during the infamous vuelos de la muerte (“death flights”) operation. Victoria lived for 24 years with the Tetzlaff military family, under a different name, without having any idea of her roots.

After an advocacy group tracked her through a whistleblower’s information, Victoria had her identity restored in 2000. Her son, Gonzalo Tarelli, was only 8 years old at the time, but even then, he saw his family change before his eyes: His grandfather was no longer the loving family member he had known, Tarelli told Foreign Policy, and he and his mother flew to the northern province of Salta, Argentina, to meet their new family. His mother changed her name back to the one her parents had given her at birth.

Gonzalo Tarelli marches with his mother.

Gonzalo Tarelli marches with his mother, Victoria Montenegro, and his son, Noah, in Buenos Aires on March 24.

Now, the family was joining tens of thousands of demonstrators who came to march at Buenos Aires’s Plaza de Mayo to commemorate the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice, which is held on the anniversary of the 1976 coup, when the military installed a right-wing junta and killed or disappeared more than 30,000 people as part of its systemic plan to exterminate any left-wing political beliefs.

The historic march, which was canceled for the first two years of the pandemic, recreates a tradition from the dictatorship. In addition to looking for their babies in every court, institution, hospital, and orphanage, the abuelas (grandmothers) and madres (mothers) gathered in Buenos Aires’s main square to demand information about their fate. Because gatherings were prohibited, instead of standing still, they marched.

Since the return of democracy, their march has become a nationwide movement, and the Abuelas and Madres are now human rights organizations that work year-round for truth and justice. So far, 130 babies like Montenegro have had their identities restored thanks to their efforts.

Under the Abuelas’ and Madres’ watch, memory in Argentina became public policy. The Argentine left adopted their cause, working to remember the disappeared, even as right-wing groups have long sought to erase them.

But the Abuelas and Madres are getting older—Estela de Carlotto, director of the Abuelas, is 91 years old—and Argentinians are still looking for many of the stolen babies, most of whom are now well into their 40s. Amid a rise in right-wing extremism, which threatens to sweep up Argentina’s younger generations, the Abuelas’ and Madres’ ongoing fight for memory and justice—which is essential to the country’s democracy—now lies in the hands of people who grew up long after the dictatorship.

A long banner with portraits of the disappeared is displayed in Buenos Aires.

A long banner with portraits of the disappeared is displayed in Buenos Aires on March 24.

Over four decades, the Abuelas and Madres have brought great cultural change and spurred government action. After the dictatorship ended, they took their search to government institutions that are still working today to process the DNA of families hoping to find their missing relatives. In 2004, then-Argentine President Néstor Kirchner apologized on the state’s behalf for the dictatorship’s crimes, marking the first time an Argentine president recognized the atrocities. Alberto Fernández, the current president, was Kirchner’s chief of staff, and his center-left administration continues to support the Abuelas’ and Madres’ work. On March 23, he paid tribute to their work during an awards ceremony. “They’re huge, they dared to do what no one else dared to do,” he said in his speech.

Furthermore, the Abuelas, Madres, and other human rights organizations have taken more than 3,500 cases to court, many of which are still ongoing. Former military officials and civilian accomplices have been tried and sentenced. In partnership with the government, memorials and museums have been built at former detention sites, such as the former Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA) in Buenos Aires and La Perla in Córdoba.

Along with these policies, “never again” became a popular cultural and political slogan, and the Abuelas and Madres have sought to attract younger Argentines to their cause through programs at schools and universities, allying with artists, and even taking part in soccer events.

Still, it’s challenging to sustain a political movement across generations. “I worry about what will happen when the Abuelas are gone and what will result from their fight,” Tarelli said.

Despite the Abuelas’ and Madres’ work, many young Argentines remain unaware of the history of the dictatorship.

Since the return of democracy, facts like the number of victims and the extent of the military’s torture have been systematically questioned and denied by far-right extremists and conservative groups—particularly those that benefited from the coup, including the Catholic Church, powerful local and foreign businessmen, and right-wing political leaders. In big cities, these attempts to downplay the dictatorship’s crimes haven’t had much power, but in more conservative towns and rural areas, their efforts have kept the memory of what happened out of schools and universities.

As Fernández’s government faces many challenges—including rampant inflation, the impacts of the pandemic, and a controversial new agreement with the International Monetary Fund that threatens to harm Argentina’s economy—the far right sees an opportunity in the 2023 presidential election; Javier Milei, a current legislator and founder of the far-right libertarian Liberty Advances party, recently launched a presidential campaign. Meanwhile, far-right rhetoric—including that concerning the dictatorship—has only grown more extreme.

Extremist discourse even seeking to vindicate the dictatorship has become widespread on social media, especially among young white men, said Ezequiel Saferstein, a sociologist researching right-wing movements, a few days before the march. Quick YouTube searches lead to videos titled “The lies of March 24th,” “Why there were never 30,000 disappeared,” and “The circus of the military trials.” Some videos have more than 250,000 views.

“The young people I interviewed in my research say that they were not initially interested in what happened in the 1970s but were rather drawn to it through the discourse of some libertarian leaders like Agustín Laje, Javier Milei, or Nicolás Márquez,” Saferstein said.

These aren’t just members of fringe groups but individuals with real political power: In last November’s parliamentary elections, the Liberty Advances party gained five seats in Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies. Milei, who occupies one of those seats, has denied that 30,000 people were disappeared and says what happened was a “war” rather than a dictatorship.

Still, some young people—particularly descendants of the dictatorship’s victims—are committed to continuing the Abuelas’ work.

Tarelli, who once dreamed of becoming part of the army, has now turned to political advocacy and works as a parliamentary advisor in the Buenos Aires City Legislature, where he lobbies for human rights-based laws and policies. “Now, I’m committed to the struggle that my grandparents [Toti and Chicha] fought for,” he said, sitting in his office in the legislature on March 16.

On March 21, Martín Pérez Disalvo, known as Coscu, a 30-year-old internet celebrity with 3.4 million followers on Twitch, surprised his audience when instead of streaming his regular League of Legends game, he went live from the ESMA memory site, once one of the junta’s most well-known detention camps. With tears in his eyes, he shared that the military disappeared his uncle in 1977. His grandma searched unsuccessfully for him until she died in 2015.

For two hours, more than 45,000 viewers watched Coscu and his brother take a guided tour of the ESMA, where the military had tortured detainees and dropped them into the sea. Comments popped up as the video played: “Thanks for creating memory,” one user wrote. “A lot of people are learning about their identity on this stream today,” wrote another, echoing the surprise of many viewers, who said they’d never heard of the ESMA’s history. “Never again!”

Aside from individual action, the March 24 demonstration has remained an important rallying point bringing together all generations affected by the dictatorship’s crimes. The Abuelas and Madres led the march, followed by the Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Forgetfulness and Silence (HIJOS), the children of the disappeared who started to organize as they reached their 20s in the 1990s. Some wore handmade pañuelos (“headscarves”), which have become an international symbol of the grandmothers’ struggle.

The next generation is gradually starting to organize as well. During the march, as Montenegro and Tarelli walked with the HIJOS, more than 100 young people with a sign that read “Nietes” followed behind them, wearing masks that read, “They were 30,000” and “Memory, truth, and justice.” This new group was formed just before the pandemic by grandchildren of people who were exiled and imprisoned by the dictatorship, who mostly range from 20 to 40 years old. Their name is the nonbinary version of nietos (“grandchildren”).

The Nietes group, comprised of young adults and teens with colorful hair, trendy clothes, and green scarves—a symbol of the fight to legalize abortion—is putting a contemporary spin on the Abuelas’ agenda.

A family wears pañuelos with sayings calling for justice on them.

A family walks together wearing handmade pañuelos that read: “Never again,” “Memory, truth, and justice,” and “They were 30,000” in Buenos Aires on March 24.

One of Nietes’s first steps as an organization back in 2020 was inviting experts and victims to give talks in their weekly meetings so they could better understand the impact of the dictatorship on LGBTQ+ communities. On Instagram, they don’t just share content about March 24 and the dictatorship but also advocate for transgender and gender identity rights, spread science-based information on vaccines, demand the release of political prisoners, support the right to affordable housing, and condemn police brutality. Social media, for the Nietes generation, has become an alternative plaza.

“We know that human rights affect all instances of a life, and we vindicate the activism of the missing 30,000, but we also recognize the injustices that are being faced nowadays,” said 24-year-old Nietes member Martina Diaz at the march.

Despite the tragedies that March 24 evokes, the activists weren’t gloomy or mournful. Instead, the march was, as it’s always been, a commemoration of political organization, a reaffirmation of the power of restoring memory and truth, and a commitment to justice. As one widely known song that played at the march goes: “Como a los Nazis les va a pasar, a donde vayan los iremos a buscar.” (“Like it happened to the Nazis, no matter where you go, we’ll find you.”)

Demands pile up on a document read every year in the plaza. This year, among the usual demands, the demonstrators called for national financial sovereignty, Argentine sovereignty over disputed territories, and an end to police brutality.

As the families listened silently at the entrance of the plaza, teenagers came to look on from the sidewalk. One group rolled cigarettes and shared mate, before helping one another climb a large garbage can to see the whole demonstration ahead. After the demands were read, they joined the crowd in evoking the memory of their 30,000 missing comrades, chanting that the disappeared would be with them in spirit, now and forever: “¡Presentes, ahora y siempre!

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