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 vise grip and I was holding my husband Alberto’s hand in a vise 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, 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 – the Mothers of the 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 were “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. At least 600 educators were among those detained never to be seen again.
On April 30, 1977, a dozen mothers led by Azucena Villaflor came to the Plaza Maya and stood in front of the presidential palace. They wore pictures of their Disappeared adult children around their necks. They marched before the Casa Rosada arm-in-arm. It was an act of unimaginable courage born 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 took heart from Las Madres. Other ordinary people began joining the weekly marches to demand justice. They took up a collection and bought a newspaper ad that named the Disappeared.
The night the ad ran, Azucena Villaflor was taken from her home, tortured and never seen alive again. The government believed that the example of her cruel death would influence the others and end the marches.
It was not the end. 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 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.