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Mothers March On
Américas / November-December 1999

By Larry Luxner

BUENOS AIRES -- Nov. 9, 1976, was the last day Juana de Pargament saw her son Alberto José. Sometime that night, soldiers kidnapped the 31-year-old leftist doctor and dragged him away, leaving behind his wife, who was six months pregnant.

One afternoon in 1993, a 17-year-old boy walked into the office of the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo, looking to buy a book. "I immediately recognized him as my grandson Javier," said the woman, who had kept the boy's photo on her desk all those years but had never actually met him. "Javier now lives with his other grandmother. He studies and works. I see him very often."

De Pargament, 85, tells her emotional story without tears, having told it many times before. As treasurer of the association, she's just one of thousands of mothers who, during the late 1970s and early 80s helped catapult the fate of Argentina's 30,000 desparecidos into the world's consciousness with their weekly protests around the Plaza de Mayo.

Now, with their numbers diminished by age and exhaustion, the madres have found a new avenue for publicity. Earlier this year, the association opened a trendy café in downtown Buenos Aires. The Café Literario Osvaldo Bayer, located at Hipólito Yrigoyen 1440, is crammed with thousands of books and periodicals ranging from works by Leon Trotsky, Máximo Gorky and Ché Guevarra to the latest issue of Cuba's communist newspaper, Granma.

"Ché, for us, is an example of a true revolutionary," says de Pargament, while Bayer, a Marxist historian and author of the book La Patagonia Trágica, "is one of our best friends, an anarchist and a free thinker."

Not surprisingly, the walls of the little restaurant are cluttered with Ché posters, while the background music consists of protest songs like "Imagine," "Give Peace a Chance" and "We Shall Overcome."

The café -- which occupies the first floor of a building owned by the mothers' association -- was the brainchild of six militant leftists who not only decorated the place but take turns preparing coffee, pastries and light snacks, all of which are served on little ceramic saucers emblazoned with the association's logo, a woman wearing a white scarf. For $1, visitors can get either a cup of coffee or an attractive propaganda poster entitled "Combate y Resistencia -- Contra la Impunidad y la Falta de Trabajo."

"This café is a way of vindicating his memory," said Elsa de Manzotti, an elderly woman who, like de Pargament, lost her son during the 1976-83 dictatorship.

"We're not always bitter. We have nice moments, too," she told the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación. "If people think they'll come here with the idea they'll find a group of crying old women, they're wrong."

For the association's president, Hebe de Bonafini, the new café represents a long-awaited dream.

"This is the first step towards having our own cultural center, which will have a library, discotheque, debate hall, printing press and radio station," she said in an interview with Argentina's Clarín. "We must achieve this by our 25th anniversary [in 2002]. I don't want to die without seeing this come true."

In fact, since its inauguration in April, the Café Literario has already hosted numerous poetry readings, political debates and theatrical productions. In so doing, it has also helped raise money for the 2,000-member assocation, which for awhile was struggling financially.

"In the beginning, nobody wanted to lend us a place where we could attend the public, because we were the mothers of subversive young people," de Pargament told Américas. "But now we're getting help from Canada, Italy, Spain and Holland."

De Pargament, who despite her age works at the association's little office every day from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., says the weekly protest marches around the Plaza de Mayo still continue, although only 15 or 20 mothers participate.

"We're still marching every Thursday at 3:30 p.m., and at 4 p.m. we have a discussion. It doesn't matter to me if it's too hot, too cold or raining. We don't feel well when we don't march with the other mothers," says de Pargament. Nevertheless, she adds, "many mothers have died, and others have no money to travel to the Plaza de Mayo. They live far from the center of Buenos Aires. Many have said, 'I will never recover my boy or girl, so I'm not going to march anymore.' But now we're marching with many young people and friends who understand the meaning of our struggle."

In the 22 years since they've been marching, the Plaza de Mayo demonstrations have become one of the most imitated protests in the world. Other local groups have copied their style, including a Jewish organization known as "Memoria Activa," which gathers in front of Argentina's Supreme Court every Monday at 9:53 a.m. to demand answers into the 1993 car-bombing of a Jewish cultural center that killed 86 people and injured hundreds.

With the help of young sympathizers, the madres have now taken their struggle into cyberspace, where they have their own website, http://www.madres.org. They can also be contacted via e-mail at madres@satlink.com.

"When we walk in the street, everybody comes and kisses us," says de Pargament, "while the murderers remain in their comfortable houses."

Asked if it's time to forgive those responsible for the atrocities of 1976-83, the old militant responds with a defiant "no."

"We will never forgive, and we will never forget," she says. "We don't want the children of the next generation to inherit these problems. We want them to know what happened during those years."

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