Friday, July 24, 2009

Horrors of Argentine Dictatorship

I got back from a writer's conference earlier this week and returned to piles of regular mail, email, bills, and things that needed to be taken care of immediately, like bathing my dogs that somehow must have had a run in with a skunk while I was gone.

But one of the good things I started this week was to begin reading a novel due to be released next month called Departing at Dawn by Gloria Lise. Since I'm still reading it, I'm not going to review it now (I will later), but the story is based on a period of Argentine history when the military dictatorship basically eliminated over 30,000 citizens who disagreed with them politically.

Having been raised in America, I have very little personal experience with events that have occurred in Argentina during my lifetime. But I do remember a time when my father decided that we were going to move back to Argentina. It was in the early 1970's, maybe 1974 I can't remember, but he sent my mother back with me and my little brother while he stayed in America to liquidate their "things" and get ready to start over in Argentina.

In Argentina, we lived with my grandmother, who owned a restaurant that happened to be situated in a traffic circle that surrounded a statue of Juan Peron. Peron's second wife Isabel was the president at the time. My mom enrolled me in school - first grade, and most of my memories are happy ones. Visiting relatives. Lots of parties and playing with cousins. Hanging out outside the restaurant and being invited by other store owners to sample their food (the ice cream store was the best), but I also remember riots in front of that Peron statue, and my grandmother having to close down the restaurant because the police would swarm the plaza and start clubbing the protesters and arresting them.

One morning I remember finding a bullet hole on the glass front of the restaurant, and my grandmother complaining that she'd have to get that fixed. There were many bomb threats, and many times my mom would have to go to my school and pick me up because someone had called in a bomb threat to the school.

Most of this didn't faze me. I really had no idea what was going on. My mom, though, told my father that she had no intention of raising her kids in this environment and called off the return to Argentina.

I didn't return to Argentina until I was a teenager and the military dictatorship had been removed. I was seventeen when I got to visit again, and heard bits and pieces of the things that had happened, but nothing specific. When visiting Buenos Aires and the "Pink House" (equivalent to our White House), hundreds of demonstrators called the mother's of the disappeared marched in front of the president's house demanding to know what had happened to their children. Some people called them crazy old women. Most people that I asked didn't provide much of an explanation about why they were there. No one gave any indication that something out of the ordinary had happened. Most people simply hated the military, which baffled me because here in Regan America, we loved the military.

So again, I didn't get much of an idea about what had happened. I thought Argentina was a pleasant, peaceful place to live. People lived simply, were happy to visit family and work long enough to buy their groceries for the week. They hung out at cafes or parks or window shopped downtown. Basically, I found it a great place to live. If I hadn't been raised in America, I might have been happy to stay there.

Only years later, as an adult did I actually learn about the horrors of the military dictatorship and the "disappeared" people. I recently saw a program on TV about a guy whose parents had been killed during this time. He was raised by another family who never told him that they were his adoptive parents. I found it hard to reconcile that the country they were talking about was the one I had visited and found so peaceful in the late-1980's.

So, I'm reading Departing At Dawn with great interest. I'm glad to see novels depicting this time period of Argentine history. I'm always amazed how many horrible things happen around the world, that no one does anything about . . . and I wonder if someday we'll stop allowing people with power to trample on those that have none.