Contested Memory and Conversation in Argentina

A tour guide in conversation with students at the ex-ESMA, a former detention center in Buenos Aires.

Argentines are careful with the word disappeared. It is rarely used for car keys or scraps of paper, the ordinary objects that get lost and found each day. Here, memories of people taken from subway stops, apartment buildings, cafes, buses, office buildings, sidewalks, and schools echo in the word. Los desaparecidos, the disappeared, refers to 30,000 Argentines who were tortured and killed by a military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976-1983. Their bodies were never found. Disappearance was both public and private, hidden and impossible to miss.

Divides about the nature of the dictatorship and its legacy in Argentina run deep. Not everyone experienced those seven years the same way. As a Yale Howland Research Fellow in Buenos Aires this past year, I researched how schools today approach the challenge of teaching Argentina’s history of dictatorship.[1] How do Argentines of my generation learn, feel, and talk—or remain silent—about the military dictatorship that ruled their country in the decades before they were born? In what ways do parents, museum guides, and teachers tell the story of the dictatorship, and how might they bring to the telling a commitment to dignity[2] and dialogue, two of the values those in power cast aside as the story unfolded?

I don’t have answers to these questions. The answers surely aren’t the same for each person, or even for one person over time. Interviews have given me glimpses of spaces where this history is discussed, and those glimpses have made me want to learn more. I spoke to high school students who grapple each day with the difference between their parents’ experiences with politics and their own, teachers who make decisions about whether and how to discuss the dictatorship in their classrooms, and museum guides who lead tours of former detention centers and carry the responsibility of presenting a history to which may of the people they’re speaking have deep but not always immediately identifiable ties.


“No Te Metas (Don’t Get Involved)”

I was struck by students’ and teachers’ reflections about what it means for parents who grew up under dictatorship to raise their children in a democracy. The first school I visited in Buenos Aires, a public high school called Normal 10 (N°10), has a complex relationship with the dictatorship: it is located near a former Naval Academy called ESMA, which served as one of the largest clandestine detention centers in the country. Classes went on as usual at the Naval Academy while people were tortured there. Many naval officers’ wives lived in the neighborhood and taught at N°10.

Patricia Villegas, a history teacher at N°10, believes that teaching her students to develop their own opinions is the most important part of her job. Students asked her to speak on a panel they organized to commemorate the anniversary of the military coup, a national holiday called Día de la Memoria. During the debate, Patricia urged students to develop opinions and make them heard. This is what my generation fought for, she told them, and what yours can do to keep the terrible repression we lived through from happening again. “Today we can say what we want. That’s something we have to defend.” But it’s not easy, she told me later, to encourage students to express their opinions after thousands of people her age were murdered under the dictatorship for speaking their minds. “The parents of my students are children of the dictatorship,” she said. “We grew up in terror. So how do we raise our kids?” How do we teach our kids to have opinions, I heard her saying, when opinions cost so many of our generation their lives?

Gabriel Lopes, a senior at N°10 who organized the school’s Día de la Memoria event and is a leader of a city-wide student movement, said his mother supports the changes for which he’s fighting, such as reduced prices for students on public transportation. But she grew up with the warning “no te metas,” don’t get involved, and it’s hard for her to let that line—or her son—go. She knows what would have happened to a student leader like him thirty-five years ago.


You Don’t Know Who’s in Front of You

The former naval academy and detention center, known as the ex-ESMA, is now a space devoted to memory and human rights. In a controversial move, the buildings in which torture was carried out have been preserved, and guides run tours through these spaces. Tours last two to three hours. Several school groups visit each day, and students’ brightly colored uniforms stand in stark contrast to buildings that appear at once stately and fatigued. Andrés Centrone, the ex-ESMA’s education director, explained that each guide runs only two tours a week, and spends the rest of the week doing research on which they can draw in future visits. “The idea is not that people come and say, ‘Ay, they tortured people here,’ and nothing else,” he said. “The idea is the visits shouldn’t sound like a routine or a cassette tape…There’s something else we’re searching for, and that’s a decision.”

“I think it also has to do with who you have in front of you,” said Camila Del Rio, a historian who works as a guide. We want to really speak to the people in each tour, she said, and focus on “what will wake up something in them.”

That’s not an easy task when even human rights organizations disagree about how to present this history, and all you know about the people in front of you is what they choose to say. You don’t know if someone in your group lost her father to the dictatorship, or worked as a torturer in these very rooms, or is eager to learn more details about this history, or has spent a lifetime trying to forget. When a school group comes through, you don’t know if there’s a student in front of you who has never met his disappeared grandmother, or who grew up on stories of the shining naval academy, or whose family doesn’t talk about the dictatorship at all. You can’t know without asking what exactly los desaparecidos means to each of them.

Teachers of all kinds—classroom teachers, parents, guides—face difficult questions when they take on the challenge of teaching young citizens about a dictatorship whose details and legacy are still deeply contested. What narrative do you tell? Does it have to be a coherent one? Do you present multiple sides? Is there a way to tell the story that leaves everyone’s dignity intact, including your own? Some know the details of the dictatorship well, and others talk as if it ended three hundred years ago instead of thirty-five. How do you talk to all of them about torture?


“No Conclusions Here”

In the face of genocides or dictatorships or other traumas big or small, I can’t imagine that it feels like enough to present to students a range of contested versions of the past without further discussion—to say, as high school students told me some of their teachers do, “The dictatorship did some good and some bad” and then move on. Whatever “side” you’re on, whatever version of this history you would tell, a teaching technique that may be effective with distant conflicts strikes me as inadequate for conflict so close to home. If you are presenting a history that deeply shaped your life or the lives of people you love, holding back your own beliefs and experiences could feel like betraying the people whose dignity you promised yourself you’d uphold.

So what’s the way forward? Some of the people I’ve interviewed, such as the head of the history department at the military academy in Chile, a neighboring country with its own history of brutal dictatorship, believe they have this figured out. (His approach: Explain that political changes have unavoidable human costs. Then move on.) Most people don’t. I’m drawn to the stories of those who aren’t sure how to do this but are trying all the same. Andrés told me the education program at the ex-ESMA is constantly evolving, but that one thing is for sure: whatever students say, whether or not their comments and questions align with the views of the guides, “We try not to negate them. Not to hide them.” Guides provide a lot of information, but they’re not the only ones who speak. A guide began one of the tours I observed at the ex-ESMA by encouraging students to ask questions. “This visit is for you,” he said. “There are no conclusions here.”

“For kids, fewer topics are taboo,” Andrés explained. “They’re willing to be politically incorrect. We can work with what they say. It pushes us to figure out how to respond, and sometimes students respond to each other.” Often a response turns into a discussion, he said, and the guide’s role becomes that of a facilitator, helping sustain a safe space for conversation without controlling where it goes. “There are things an adult thinks but won’t say,” Camila said, “because they worry that it won’t sound good, or that in this space it won’t be well received. But the kids say what they think, and in the end their questions leave me thinking about what I believe.”

[1] For a detailed and compassionate account of the Argentine dictatorship, and in particular of the ways in which language was shaped by the dictatorship, see Marguerite Feitlowitz, A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture (Oxford University Press, 1998).

[2] My understanding and use of the word dignity is shaped by Donna Hicks’s recent book Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict (Yale University Press, 2011).

About Emma Sokoloff-Rubin

Emma Sokoloff-Rubin spent the past year in Argentina and Brazil as a Yale Howland Research Fellow. She co-authored Sustaining Activism, a book about a women's movement in Brazil, and currently reports for GothamSchools in NYC.

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