Sometimes what touches us at an international meeting isn’t what’s on the agenda. It’s what was outside on the street. Sometimes it’s the crushing courage of tiny, fragile grandmothers who would not be stopped and who serve as an example to all social justice activists of what we are called on to do; how we are called on to live.
I actually thought there was a danger of being crushed. Roberto Baradel, one of the top leaders of SUTEBA, the union of educators in Buenos Aires, was holding my hand in a vice-grip and I was holding my husband Alberto’s hand in a vice-grip, and he was holding his camera in a vice-grip, and we were snaking our way through thousands and thousands of passionate protestors in the Plaza de Mayo where the presidential plaza, Casa Rosada, today maintains barricades against such protests. We knew that if we let go of each other, we’d be lost in the sea of marchers.
I was in Buenos Aires at a regional meeting of Education International. I serve as one of their regional vice presidents and was honored to be a part of several presentations. But this march was not on the official agenda. Roberto asked if I knew about Las Madres de la Plaza Mayo– the Mothers of the May Plaza. Of course, I had heard of them. In the 1970s and 80s when Argentina was ruled by the military, those who were critical of the government became “disappeared”. They were kidnapped, tortured and killed. Their bodies were disposed of in mass unmarked graves or tossed into the ocean from airplanes in routine death flights.
On April 30, 1977, a dozen mothers led by Azucena Villaflor came to the Plaza Mayo and stood in front of the presidential palace. They wore pictures of their “disappeared” adult children around their necks. They marched before Casa Rosada arm in arm. It was an act of unimaginable courage borne of unimaginable pain and outrage. These ordinary women without fortunes, positions or even rights to speak the truth came every week to walk in protest; to demand justice; and to shame their shameless government. Other ordinary people were inspired and began joining the weekly marches to demand justice. They took up a collection and bought a newspaper ad that contained the names of the Disappeared.
The night the ad ran, Azucena Villaflor was taken from her home, tortured and never seen alive again. The government believed that her cruel death would intimidate the others and end the marches.
It ended nothing. Thirty-nine years later, the gentle giant, Roberto, was pulling me by the hand and parting the crushing crowd to get me to where the remaining living Madres were preparing for their 2,000th consecutive weekly protest march. Fear could not intimidate them. Violence could not silence them. Even their own pain could not conquer them. These undefeated warriors wearing white scarves, some supported by walkers, waited with calm and patience in a small tent to lean on the arms of volunteers and present themselves as the living symbols that injustice must be challenged, and that ordinary people have power to organize themselves and win.
Because of their tireless persistence, international pressure was placed on the government for answers. Top military officers were prosecuted, convicted and sentenced for their crimes. Babies born to Disappeared women in the torture prisons were stolen and given to selected families after their mothers were murdered. Las Madres were successful in identifying hundreds of these children.
Roberto had to convince the volunteers guarding the Mothers that they should let me in the tent to meet them. It is a testimony to his own activism that they all knew him and trusted him and let me in. I have two adult sons. I couldn’t imagine what I would do if my government took them from me. The tears came at thinking of that pain, but also from the pride in the strength of these magnificent women. The youngest of the remaining Madres is 87 years old. There will not be a 3,000th anniversary where the original mothers will march. But the Plaza Mayo will be full. Sons and daughters and grandchildren and strangers like me will come. Their lost children will not be coming home, but Las Madres have built an organization of passionate fighters for social justice that concentrates on advocating for the poor and powerless – for today’s children who might be lost in a different way.
The power of Las Madres is a universal lesson. Women without rights; frail and mourning the deepest loss possible rose up. Their fearlessness inspired others. Their persistence brought murders to justice. Their vision is so clear that it will live beyond them.
As they left the tent and began to march for the 2000th time before the Casa Rosada, their thousands and thousands of children and grandchildren and adopted friends and strangers marched with them on the Plaza Mayo. We shouted in their honor:
Las Madres de la Plaza ¡el pueblo las abraza! Mothers of the Plaza, the people embrace you!
It’s not a slogan. It’s a reminder of what we are called to do when the injustices we face seem insurmountable and the forces against us seem almighty. Remember Las Madres. Embrace them. March with them. They show the way.
On 26 January 1993, Education International was founded through the merger of the International Federation of Free Teachers’ Unions (IFFTU) and the World Organisation of the Teaching Profession (WCOTP). On the occasion of the 25th anniversary, a special series of blogs #EI25, will be published throughout the year, bringing together voices and thoughts of unionists, education activists, partner organisations and friends, reflecting on past struggles and accomplishments, from which the organisation has drawn strength and inspiration to address current and future challenges facing education and the teaching profession. If you want to contribute to the series, please write to [email protected].