dirty wars and democracy

Arlene Dunn, December 2014

Editor’s note (July 2020): Arlene audited a stimulating and challenging Oberlin College course in Fall semester 2014, Dirty Wars and Democracy, with Professor Steven Volk, now retired. In addition to being a widely recognized expert in the history of Latin America, Steve was also the founding Director of Oberlin’s Center for Teaching, Innovation, and Excellence and was named the 2011 U.S. Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. Arlene found it daunting, though not surprising, when Steve told the class they would be trying a new pedagogical technique. They would each adopt as an avatar the life of an Argentine or Chilean person living through the brutally abusive dictatorships in these countries in the 1970s and ‘80s and into the present. One of their assignments was to write a journal entry in the person of their avatar each week, precipitated by specific events or time periods they were studying. Arlene’s avatar was simply “an Argentine woman born in 1950 to a Catholic family with a housewife mother and army major father in the city of Mendoza.” 

It was up to Arlene to build the rest of a life for her avatar as a basis for her entries each week in the journal. In the process of writing these journal entries, Arlene created a fascinating short story about how it might have been for an ordinary Argentine woman to live through these turbulent and terrifying times. As Arlene tells us in her reflections on the experience, it “ had a profound effect on my understanding of this time. It made me think about the impact of historical events on individual lives, which, in turn, provided insights into the extremes a regime is willing to go to in order to achieve its goals.”

We originally serialized these journal entries on our old Acornometrics blog (on Tumblr), but have decided to migrate them to acornometrics.com in a single post, for easier navigation. Our journey begins in 1968 and carries us forward across 46 years to 2014. Content warning: state violence and murder, repression, mention of suicide.

Cuidad de Mendoza, Argentina, 1968

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Sunday, June 2, 1968

My name is Isabel Juarez Morell. Most of my friends and family call me Isa. Today is Sunday, June 2, 1968 and I have just graduated from Santa Maria’s High School for Girls in Mendoza, Argentina. I am 18 years old and have two siblings, both brothers. José is older and attends Catholic University in Buenos Aires. My papá, a major in the army, wanted him to attend the National Military College, but he is more a poet than a soldier, which, of course, annoys my papá. My baby brother, Juan, is 8 years old and worships papá. He plays soldier all the time and wants to learn how to shoot already. I worry a bit about what might happen to him if I leave home to go to college. My mamá, who takes care of everything in the house, says not to worry – she will see that Juan has a normal childhood.

Eva and Juan Peron

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Monday, August 16, 1976

It’s been some time since I have written in this journal, so I must bring things up to date. I am married now to a wonderful man named Roberto, who is a doctor in a general surgical practice here in Mendoza, my home town. We have one child, Jorge, about a year old. I grew up in an upper middle class home never wanting for anything. We had some servants – in fact, Rosita, whom I have known my whole life because she is the daughter of my governess when I was young, now works for me a couple of times a week as a housekeeper. 

I’m not one to get involved in politics, although there were plenty of political discussions in my home as I was growing up. My father is an army major and when he was very young he served with Presidente Perón and has always talked about how impressive he was when addressing a large crowd. My father always believed that Peron was the man who should lead our great country by giving workers benefits while not turning over the reins of power from the industrialists to the workers. I think it is important to make sure people do not live in dire poverty but the last thing I would want Argentina to become is another Cuba!

After finishing high school I attended a nice college in Cordoba where I learned how to be an elementary school teacher. I taught for a few years while Roberto went through medical school. I am forever grateful to my parents who allowed us to live with them during those times. I am not working now but I do volunteer at our local church and really enjoy the tutoring work I do, especially the literacy classes. It’s so important that people know how to read and write. It’s important for them and it’s important for Argentina.

Roberto and I have a small house for ourselves now, but the last few years have become very difficult with inflation soaring. I never know when I go shopping just what I’ll be able to buy with the money I have in my purse. I worry some about Rosita and her family because we have had to cut back on her hours and cannot afford to raise her pay.

It’s the middle of winter now, a few months since the military took over the government. There is at least a sense of order since then. There was so much chaos the last couple of years it was hard to know what might happen on any given day. The radical pro-Cubans were killing people seemingly at random and bombing all kinds of places – government buildings, factories, movie theaters. The police were doing their best to prevent these attacks but that resulted in so much violence that I was afraid to go out and find myself and Jorge in some kind of dangerous situation. When Presidente Perón died my parents mourned and said that Argentina would never be the same. When Isabel Perón became president, my mother wailed that if Eva Perón were alive today we would not be in such trouble. My whole family is happy to see this new government in place. There is less violence on the street, no doubt as a result of the police and military presence on every street corner. The government tells us that we must make sacrifices to bring our country back to greatness – so far that has not affected our family too much and I hope to God it does not. 

Argentina World Cup Soccer, 1978

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Saturday July 1, 1978

Argentines all over the country are still reveling in our first World Cup championship, but there is a dark cloud over our celebrations as journalists from all over the world keep asking questions about people being arrested, tortured and even killed. Worse yet, they pose questions about people supposedly “disappearing” as though our government is purposefully snatching people from the street and with no trial or anything, killing them or hiding them in secret locations. I just don’t know what to think about all this.

I have begun to worry about my brother, José. He completed his degree in Literature and has been teaching Spanish in a Catholic High School in Cordoba. Even though he lives pretty close to us, we do not see him very much. Father disapproves of his teaching of poetry to these young people, believing that they will go astray and not be patriotic enough in these days of reorganization. He is not welcome in our parents’ home and, as a result, I too have become distant from him. Meanwhile, my brother Juan has completed high school and has applied for the police academy. He really has this macho personality and talks about “kicking some ass” when he becomes a policeman. Juan, of course, speaks very disparagingly about José and says there is only trouble ahead for him. All of this makes me crazy as I try to live a somewhat normal life raising a family and being a good wife.

Plaza San Martin, Cordoba, Argentina

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Monday, March 5, 1979

It is now three years since the military took over the government and, though things seemed to have a good start, my life today feels very strained. Jorge is four and is going to a nice nursery school at our local church – he seems the happiest of everyone in my family. He loves school and especially when he can play with kids his own age in the playground. His happiness brings some sunshine into my life.I want another child but Roberto and I have decided to postpone more children until we feel better about the future. He is still working at the local hospital but there have been major cutbacks and we never know when it might affect his department. We have been able to save a little money in case his hours are cut back but the value of those savings seems to dwindle as inflation is back. 

The worst thing that happened to us was that we have lost track of my brother José about six months ago. We had become even more distant because he insists on teaching poetry to his students even though everyone says we should be teaching our children the technical skills to get a good job and be able to contribute to the growth of our country. Some months back when I tried calling him the phone was disconnected. I tried reaching friends of his I knew but had no luck there either. Mamá and I drove to Cordoba to see what we could find. The police were no help at all – they just yelled at mamá that it must be her fault that her son was missing, that she did not bring him up to be a good citizen. She broke down crying as we left that building. We went to the school and they could not help us either. They just said José did not show up for work one day and hasn’t been back since. Mamá has been getting more and more depressed as the days go on without word of José. She has talked to me occasionally about joining Las Madres–the Mothers of the Disappeared–but she is so fearful that she might be hurt, and also that papá would be so angry he might throw her out of the house. 

Recently there has been talk that we might have to discontinue the literacy program where I volunteer at church. This activity is so gratifying to me knowing that I am providing real, concrete help for people. This confuses me that the government wants the people to be educated to become good citizens but seem to be opposed to helping people better their lives by learning to read and write. What’s more, we don’t even have as many church picnics and other gatherings as we used to have. People we’ve known for years hardly go out except to go to work or shop for essentials. I see people in the streets with their heads down just determined to get where they are going and get off the street as though there’s a boogey man hiding in every alley waiting to jump them. 

I hope things will be better soon. And I am desperate to see or hear from José.

Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Thursday, January 8, 1981

It has been two years since my brother José disappeared. Mamá has been in complete despair since then. After spending nearly a year inquiring at police stations and government offices, even hiring a lawyer to file a plea for habeas corpus, all to no avail, she has given up actively looking for José, but has not given up hope of seeing him again. She does not know what to believe – maybe he is in a prison somewhere and will be released soon. Papá tells her that José has turned his back on us and is probably in Mexico, even Paris, enjoying his life with other subversive poets and that she should give up on him and be a family with two instead of three children. She has stopped talking to papá about José, but she is not giving up hope.

Mamá comes to my house a lot because she cannot stand to be alone with papá. We have spent long hours talking, hugging, crying. But we also play with the children – yes, I do now have a second child, a beautiful little girl, Maria. Mamá gets much pleasure playing with the children and I am happy that she feels some joy in her life with my kids.

Mamá has confided in me about something she is doing now that is a secret from the rest of the family. Over a year ago, on one of her trips to Buenos Aires inquiring about José, she was in the Plaza de Mayo and saw women walking around carrying signs and pictures of their children who had also disappeared. She sat on a bench, pulled out the picture of José she carries around in her purse and cried. She was afraid to talk to anyone that day. Papá always says that the government and the military must take certain measures to insure a stable future for our country. People who are fomenting trouble must be eliminated or we will just end up in the mess we were in back in the early 1970s. 

So, on that first day in the Plaza, mamá sat there fearing for the lives of the women in the square and certainly did not think of joining them. A few weeks later, though, she lied and told papá that her cousin Louisa in Buenos Aires was very sick and needed her help. She went to the Plaza de Mayo and had the courage to speak to one woman, who told mamá about her daughter who had been kidnapped from her home in 1978 and has not been seen since. She told mamá that she refuses to believe her daughter is dead until the military produces a body. Mamá listened to this story and cried thinking about her José. 

She learned that the Madres walk in the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday afternoon at 3:30. She has told papá that she must go to Buenos Aires often to care for Louisa. He believes her because he thinks all women are hysterical and fall ill at a moment’s notice. Mamá stays with Louisa, who she has sworn to secrecy about her real reason for coming. Now mamá proudly marches with the Madres once every month or so. This does not increase her hope that she will ever see José again, but it helps her cope and gives her strength to go on with life.

Argentine naval officer Alfredo Astiz surrenders to the British Task Force in 1982 on HMS Plymouth

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Monday, June 14, 1982

Things are not going well for my family as the terrible economy has forced the hospital to cut back on Roberto’s hours. This has resulted in sacrifices for us like less meat on the table and definitely fewer clothes for the children, even though they seem to grow out of them in six months’ time. We expanded the vegetable garden last summer and that helped a lot but it seems every day is a struggle. 

The economy has been so bad that people have been taking to the streets again and I worry about what all this unrest will lead to. Of course, I am most concerned about my babies. They are so precious to me. I wish things would just get better and I don’t know what I can do to help that along. Meanwhile the volunteer work I have been doing at the church helping with literacy programs has been shut down. People aren’t getting the help they need and I’m not getting the satisfaction of doing some good in the world. What could possibly be wrong with people learning how to read and write?! 

At least that stupid war with England is over. Papá, who now has the rank of colonel in the army, was furious with the president when he ordered the invasion of the Malvinas Islands. He says the government should have been using all its resources dealing with domestic issues of fulfilling the promises of the military junta and bringing Argentina to a period of stability, not invading a few small islands that don’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things (although he also would claim that these islands belong to Argentina and were stolen by the British). Still, papá’s heritage is British and he worships the royal family and all the fanfare that goes along with it. I wish I understood him better. To make matters even worse, Rosita’s husband was seriously injured in the war and now is unable to work. We had to let Rosita go about a year ago and really see no way that we can hire her. We shared our vegetable garden with her last summer but we have no surplus now. 

Right now it feels like there is little to be optimistic about. I pray things will be better for my children soon.

Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín, President of Argentina, 1983 to 1989

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Saturday, December 10, 1983

Today Argentina celebrates the inauguration of our new president, Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín. It’s Saturday afternoon and my whole family is at my parents’ home watching the festivities on the television. My children, now 4 and 8, are bored with all this but are finding enough things to enjoy outdoors in the early summer weather.

Despite the festivities on television, there is tension in this household. Mamá, who finally revealed her secret participation in the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, is torn between joy at the end of the military junta and depression over the near certainty now of José’s death. Papá is a complete wreck. There are so many things, some very contradictory, that trouble him. He believes that the invasion of the Malvinas caused the downfall of the military government and worries about the resurgence of communists. He admits now that he knew all along that José was dead and not in Paris. 

Although he never understood José and strongly disagreed with his chosen career as a teacher, José was still his first born son and he mourns his death. He knows that the military, which means so much to him, is directly personally responsible for José’s capture and ultimate death. And that means he himself is responsible. He tries not to think about what torture José might have been subjected to. But I think he is most concerned about his own personal future and worries he may be facing a trial and possible imprisonment for acts he committed (or asked others to commit) during the military regime.

It is hard for any of us to have hope for the future with the dark cloud of possible prosecution for papá. It’s even more difficult because he really believes that the junta saved Argentina from the evils of socialism and communism and the influences of Cuba and the Soviet Union. Since José’s disappearance, I have studied a little about politics and economics and I don’t understand why papá doesn’t recognize that the junta was strongly influenced by another foreign nation, the United States. I wonder why we Argentines can’t decide for ourselves what’s right for us. Why should we be the puppet of any outside country? Our family will never be the same, and we lost only José. Other families have been completely destroyed. How could any political philosophy justify the loss and destruction of so many lives?

Carlos Menem, president of Argentina from 1989 to 1999

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Saturday, Dec. 29, 1990

Five years ago there was a trial for nine junta leaders accused of kidnapping, torture, disappearance and murder of several hundred Argentines. Five were found guilty and four were acquitted. Today Presidente Carlos Menem pardoned all the leaders of the junta. This leaves me with many mixed feelings, but mostly I wonder what might have been, had this action been taken earlier. Three years ago my papá took his own life using his army-issued revolver. He left this note for us:

I am haunted by thoughts that I may have had a hand in the death of my own first born son. I cannot look my devoted wife in the eyes. I cannot live with myself and can only hope for redemption in the afterlife.  

During the years leading up to his suicide, testimonies before the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons and trials for individuals involved in the unspeakable crimes against their own people created a tremendous amount of stress for both papá and mamá. The testimonies of survivors from this time forced them to ultimately accept the truth that José was really dead. For papá the possibility of a trial for his actions brought additional stress and concern. He retired from the army soon after the end of the junta. After that, he withdrew into his study most days and rarely spent time on family outings. We weren’t sure what he did in there and we did not talk openly of whatever was in the news about trials and testimonies. I wonder: if the pardons had come earlier, would papá be alive today?

As for myself, now that I have turned 40 I have made an important decision for my future. Much of it has been influenced by the personal history of my family, but I have also been influenced by the self-induced trauma this country has endured over the last 15 years. I have entered graduate school to become a history professor. I realize this is a little late in life to make such a decision, and women are not as welcome as they should be in those positions. But I am determined to make a difference. My children are 11 and 15 now and are not as dependent on my presence at home as they were when they were younger. Besides, mamá moved in with us shortly after papá died and with mama’s financial help, we are able to hire Rosita again to help around the house. I am really looking forward to this additional education and hope I can learn more about my country’s history and pass that knowledge on to the next generation.

Adolfo Scilingo convicted of crimes against humanity in Argentina’s “dirty war”

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Wednesday, April 19, 2005

On Tuesday morning, April 19, 2005, I woke up to the news that Adolfo Scilingo was convicted of crimes against humanity in a Spanish court and sentenced to 640 years in prison. I am pleased that someone who was responsible for so many deaths during Argentina’s Dirty Wars has been given a long sentence. I feel a sense of justice, but it cannot erase the hurt deep inside me that he may have thrown my brother José out of an airplane. This news brought more distress to mamá, raising to the surface once again the horrendous death her son must have endured. We will both grieve his death once more, without a grave to visit.

My students in the class, 20th Century Argentine History, spent the entire hour discussing this case and related issues. Although we had already covered Scilingo’s public confession that he was one of many navy personnel who participated in throwing people out of airplanes over the ocean, many students were still in disbelief that someone would actually hurl prisoners out of airplanes. They also talked about how inhumane it was to steal children from prisoners and give them to military personnel to raise. Once I saw a student look at a daughter of a military family with a quizzical look. This history is haunting to many of my students, but not all.

During the discussion, one student asked me if I had any personal memories from that time I would care to share with the class. I hesitated for a moment and decided to tell them about the disappearance of my brother. I told them that my mamá became hysterical when the Scilingo stories were first revealed. She had nightmares envisioning her José looking quizzically at the sky as he fell to the sea. It has taken some time for her to recover enough to live a pretty normal life, but this morning’s news conjured up more memories and she was nearly hysterical. I almost stayed home to console her but she said it was more important for our future for me to teach class today than comfort her. I told my students of mamá’s participation with the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo. Only a few students were even aware of this group. I found some images of demonstrations on my computer to share and there were definitely some tears shed.

Class discussions on these and related issues will be difficult for many of my students who have little or no knowledge of this past. I must work hard to balance objectivity as a teacher with the emotions of expressing my personal memories. But I think it is important to share those memories with this generation of Argentines who have no personal memory of their own from this time. For next class I will lead a discussion about the relationship between personal memory and collective memory. I hope my students will grasp an understanding that knowledge of our country’s history, including its very darkest moments, creates the narrative that leads to better public policy for the future.

Cuidad de Mendoza, Argentina, 2014

From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Thursday, December 4, 2014

It is early December 2014 and I am approaching retirement age. Roberto has already retired and really wants me to join him and begin enjoying life without the constraints of schedules and responsibilities. But, truthfully, I am not ready to retire. Perhaps it’s because I started my career so late in life. I enjoy teaching history to young people, the future of our country. I try to convey to them the importance of studying history, the only way we can know who we are. If we do not know all of who we are, especially the parts of our history we’d like to forget, we are indeed more likely to tolerate horrific acts being done in our name at some point in the future. How we teach history forms the narrative by which we live. We must be especially careful of our regrettable past and know what motivated it, what sustained it, who opposed it, and who supported it.

My daughter, Maria, now 35, has been making documentary films the last few years. I am so proud of her. I am so impressed with her talent, but even more, I admire her courage and belief in herself. My, have times changed! So many opportunities abound for women to excel and contribute to our culture. 

Maria recently approached me with an idea for a new film – the story of Argentina’s Dirty War through one family’s experience, ours. And she has asked me to work on the film as a consultant. At first I was flabbergasted, but I went back and read my journals from those years and believe this could make a compelling story. 

I wonder if working with Maria on her film and even writing a memoir that would include my personal experiences of Argentine history can create a satisfying pathway to retirement. If I were to significantly reduce my teaching load I could work with Maria, start my book, and spend more time with family. Mamá is getting old and it would be good for us both to enjoy my children and grandchildren – Jorge, who is a doctor following in his father’s footsteps, has 3 and Maria has 2.  

As I read through my journal, I recognized an arc of a journey from an ordinary middle class Argentine girl, to an elementary school teacher, to a housewife, then a history teacher and now an historian. My personal history reminds me of the contradictory pulls from the military traditions of my papá and the painful loss of my brother. These cannot co-exist. 

My study of history has helped me understand that the government was manipulating everyone, including me, and molding the culture to believe that the junta was doing the right thing for our country. It is no wonder that I was confused in the early days following the coup. I realize now that the acts perpetrated against our own citizens were done in my name, especially since I supported the coup at first. Therefore, I, too, am responsible for the death of my brother. This new grasp of Argentina’s past created the transition for me from not just a teacher of history but to an historian.

This week Brazil and the United States released reports of terrible acts they committed in their pasts. I applaud them for taking this step, but I doubt that America will cease its tireless intervention and manipulation in whatever part of the world they deem they have an interest. I am quite sure they will repeat some of these heinous acts. I hope that Argentina has learned that no “ends” can justify the “means” used during our Dirty War. Those methods are irrevocably part of our past and without exposing them to open air and sunshine they will fester and we will not be cured of this disease.

Arlene Dunn speaking at a benefit for The March: A Civil Rights Opera

Epilogue: Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Imagining myself in the person of Isabel Juarez Morell living in Argentina as these horrific events unfolded and then writing her journal had a profound effect on my understanding of this time in history. It made me think about the impact of historical events on individual lives, which, in turn, provided insights into the extremes a regime is willing to go to in order to achieve its goals. Of course, I knew about Pinochet, Argentina’s disappeared, people thrown out of airplanes and the Madres, but writing in Isa’s voice brought me to the microcosm of one person and her family, rather than the macrocosm of statistics. The entire course filled in a lot of detail about the Dirty Wars that enhanced my understating of those regimes, but the journaling added a nuance that one rarely finds from a structured classroom setting.

During the course of the semester, I felt compelled to do some individual research to provide more context for Isa, such as the state of the economy at the time or more details of the Malvinas war (I did not remember the term Malvinas – I’m pretty sure I only heard of the Falklands war, reflecting the Anglo-centric perspective of the media in this country). If Steve Volk’s purpose for the avatar journaling in this course was to get students to do this independent research, it worked on me!

I set Isa’s life up for family conflict at the very beginning by deciding her brother, José, would be a poet. As these family conflicts unfolded I found myself writing some painful entries. Larry and I have a ritual of reading our writing out loud to each other – it helps us find typos, for one thing, but it also helps us make sure the work flows properly. There were times during this semester when it was hard for me to read these journal entries without tears welling up.

It was perhaps more natural for me than for the young students to build up 46 year of personal history for my avatar, as I lived as an adult through the entire time period we studied. But I hated history in high school and carried that into college so did not take many history classes at Brandeis. I began studying history seriously when I became involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. What I have learned over the last fifty years or so has led me to understand the sordid nature of our past and how the sanitized history we teach to our children leads to troubles we face in the present day, both domestically and internationally. Learning about the role the United States played in both Chile and Argentina was no surprise to me; I knew some of those details already. But furthermore, I have come to expect U.S. intervention wherever our capital interests take us (see Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer).

We Americans, as a people and a culture, have not reconciled with our own history of slavery and genocide and terror. That past haunts us to this day in the form of mass incarceration and the disparate use of police violence against people of color, an illegal and immoral prison in Guantanamo Bay, and torture of suspected terrorists. Our exploits around the world overturning legitimate regimes and supporting dictators have fomented attacks like 9-11 and groups like ISIS. I fell into the trap of excitement over the election of Barak Obama and now he sends drones to assassinate supposed terrorists and anyone who is nearby. The fact is that studying history depresses me. But I am driven by the need to understand and the hope for a better future. Writing this journal as Isa Juarez Morrell has helped me more deeply appreciate the value of that study. 

So, I continue on.