Two Handkerchiefs

By Luis Bruschtein on March 24, 2020

Photo: Bill Hackwell

White handkerchiefs are a reminder of the struggle of Madres de Plaza de Mayo, who continue demanding answers about the disappearance of their children during Argentina’s military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. I have two of them in my house spread out over the library. One belonged to my mother Laura Bonaparte and the other to Olga Aredes. Today I was able to overcome the reluctance to expose these endearing relics to the elements and hang them on the balcony of my house. I could have cut out triangles of white cloth but it wouldn’t have been the same. The 24th of March, Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice, passes by on the outside and also on the inside. And my mother’s and her friend’s handkerchiefs on the balcony, that’s what you’ll see, but that’s also what happens to me and what I understand happens to everyone on this day.

I remember in Mexico, in 1979 I think, my mother writing. I asked her what was she doing. And she said: “We have to write to the U.N. for it to declare forced disappearance as a crime against humanity.” It was an Amnesty campaign that she was collaborating with. I looked at her with skepticism and even pity. I thought at least that was good for her, that it was a comfort to her. I was the fool. She was thinking that it was the only way that the crimes of the dictatorship would be brought to light and could be tried sometime. And she was thinking about judging them when everyone else thought we wouldn’t even be able to go back.

The other handkerchief was given to me by Olga because I accompanied her to the first marches that were called in the town of Libertador General San Martin, in Jujuy province, for the Night of the Blackout (La noche del apagón), which were intentionally provoked in the town by the military with assistance of the owners of the sugar mill Ledesma. The blackouts were strategically planned in order to abduct workers in the sugar mill, students and political dissidents from their houses at night. I had also traveled when Olga made her rounds alone in the Plaza and no one in town dared to accompany her because they did not want to challenge the omnipresent Ledesma mill.

That day I felt so much shame, so much shame, when I saw her with her small poster made of stick and cardboard and her handkerchief, walking around the square alone. I could have been proud of her and the other mothers, but I was embarrassed for us. There’s no point in explaining to me whether I was right or wrong. She transmitted to me vulnerability, abandonment, lack of protection, infinite loneliness, blackness. Impossible to bear. I didn’t know where to go while she was walking.

But Olga, like the Mothers, – like my mother – put up with it, with her husband’s picture nailed to a stick with drawing pins. Her husband Dr. Luis Aredes, the former mayor who was kidnapped and disappeared. And she could put up with it because she was not thinking of her, as I was thinking of me, but of her disappeared relative. And everything else was relegated.

In every Mother of Plaza de Mayo, in the Grandmothers and Families, there is a story like that, which surpasses me. That powerful charge is like the diamond that emerges from the coal, a treasure forged in the most atrocious history of the dictatorship, which exceeds us as people and subtracts from those biographies choral music that is embedded in the popular soul of this country.

There we go looking for the noblest of things every 24th of March. It is them too of course, but it is more than them. It is the value, not of courage, but of purity, of detachment impregnated with love; that invincible vibration that sustained them at every lap.

This society knew how to give birth to the monstrous. And to defeat the monstrosity that had given birth, it brought forth the most virtuous. And so we witnessed that mythical duel between soulless giants and sublime souls. It is no longer the repressors and the Mothers, but what they mean. They were disembodied as in the Greek myths and became a paradigm, ethical and moral values, basic and hard emotions. They are the Argentine personification of a battle that began with humanity.

I hate being pompous. It’s not for me. But that’s how I explain what these two handkerchiefs mean to me, this date and this act that will not take place in the square but in people’s hearts. That’s what it means to me and what I think it means to the country. What an intelligent society can take advantage of to learn, to appropriate even the smallest crumb of this history that will be told and repeated for generations from father to son in Argentina.

For the first time in a long time, the virus managed to get the act out of the street, out of the cramped bodies and the hoarse shouting, out of the giant flag with the thousands of faces of the disappeared, with the Mothers and the human rights organizations in the front row. For the fighters, it has been an inexorable call. For others, it was the only day they were summoned.

Neo-liberalism never understood the essence of this profound mix between society and human rights. He failed every time it tried to stop the act. He thought it was like saying “there were always poor people” or “human rights work” and that was it. Mysteriously, every time he tried, instead of making it smaller, he made it bigger. He still didn’t realize, I think, that every time he did it he attacked a corner of the collective consciousness that took over history.

It is the first March 24th after four years of a government that was not friendly to human rights and the act will not take to the streets. It would have been once again an expression of their vitality to survive. There won’t be a march, but there’ll be lots of balconies with handkerchiefs. Physical health may be, but the moral health of this country is not quarantined. That one will be on the balconies, like the two white handkerchiefs I’ll get from my library.

And I know that neither my mother nor Olga will be able to see them, but I will remember them and all their friends and companions whom I had and have the enormous privilege of knowing and who granted me their affections and joys. It would have to be sad, wouldn’t it? Another mystery, because their stories were and are sadness. But fighting the source of sadness produces a joy. One that glows in the dark. Unbelievable, if it wasn’t for the fact that I met them.

There will be no act on the street, which will provoke more than one smile from the friends of the repressors. And they are wrong again as they have always been. Because I don’t know if you understand what I’m trying to say: There won’t be people on the street but it doesn’t matter because everything happens in people’s hearts.

Source: Pagina 12, translation Resumen Latinoamericano, North America bureau