March in Argentina: two historical days to commemorate, and the first day at university

International Women’s Day 

8 March was International Women’s Day. In the days leading up to it, journalist Mariana Iglesias wrote that the past few years the enthusiasm for 8M marches had subsided, as many feminists felt that they had ‘won the battle’ after the legalisation of abortion. However, a few weeks ago, La Libertad Avanza, the party of president Javier Milei, made it public that they want to penalise abortion again. The news mobilised thousands of people to go marching all over the country. I wasn’t in Buenos Aires myself on 8 March, as my parents and I were still travelling through the north. However, throughout our stay in Tilcara and the region around Salta we noticed that intersectional feminism is not only celebrated on 8 March. During our visit to the salt flats in Salta as well as the archeological museum and the precolombian ruins in Tilcara, we met many activists fighting for indigenous rights and women’s rights. Refreshing experiences for someone from a relatively politically passive country like Belgium, where even 8M never really stands out as a special day. 

First day of school and a history lesson

Last week was my first day at the university, where I received a very warm welcome from my research stay supervisor and the people in the research group. They gave us a tour of the campus, which included a short history lesson. The campus of Humanities and Educational Sciences of the Universidad Nacional de La Plata is located in Ensenada, a municipality close to the city of La Plata. In the twentieth century, it used to be a marine base, and during the dictatorship it was used as a clandestine detention centre. After the dictatorship, it remained unclear what would happen to this lieu de mémoire. At some point, the premises were bought by a multinational company that wanted to build a supermarket and cinema there. The Ensenada community and human rights organisations in La Plata protested vehemently, for two reasons. First, they worried the independent commerce would suffer greatly and eventually disappear. Second, they deemed it unacceptable that such a symbolic place of problematic history would be erased by something as banal as a supermarket. The governing bodies agreed, and the supermarket plans were cancelled. 

To turn this historical place into a university campus, a place for learning and critical reflection, seemed a more appropriate solution indeed. Today, remnants of the detention centre are still visible. For example, the university preserved the centre’s outer walls with barbed wire on top.

24M 

Speaking of the dictatorship, 400.000 people gathered in Buenos Aires on 24 March to commemorate the period of state terror between 1976 and 1983. On 24 March 1976, the military overthrew the peronist government and installed a dictatorship. This was not the first military dictatorship in Argentina, but it was the last one, and an immensely brutal one at that. Those who opposed the regime were kidnapped and tortured in clandestine detention centres. Some were released after torture, but 30.000 of the kidnapped people were killed by the military regime, and to this date many families still do not know what happened to their family members. 

To commemorate the 30.000 desaparecidos, and to denounce the human rights’ violations that took place between 1976 and 1983, every year people march to Plaza de Mayo. This is where the residential palace, the Casa Rosada, is located, and it is also the place where the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, mothers of disappeared people, have been protesting every Thursday during afternoon since 1977. On Sunday 400.000 people marched with the Madres, which is apparently a higher number than the years before, which likely has to do with the government’s negationist attitudes towards the dictatorship. 

What I’m Reading and Watching

My first weeks included various museum visits and I even went to see a silent film from 1922, En pos de la tierra (my loved ones know that this is a big deal).  

At the Teatro San Martín, I went to see Andrea Bonelli’s Borges y yo, where she performed excerpts of Borges’s stories, alternated with tango music. Although this sounds a bit like an intellectual tourist trap, it was a very inspiring and serene evening, and the ideal experience to start off my cultural semester in Buenos Aires. 

My current public transport book is Mujeres by Eduardo Galeano, which is written in the same vein as Espejos. Una historia casi universal, in the sense that it conveys optimistic and hopeful versions of stories that could also be interpreted in a more pessimistic way. On every page, he celebrates a different woman by narrating their life’s story, so it is a read well-fitted for Women’s History Month. 

Last Saturday, I participated in my first book club in Buenos Aires. It takes place monthly in the La Libre book shop in San Telmo, and was founded three years by two lawyers who like to read. In preparation, we all read In vitro, an essay on in vitro fertilisation by the Mexican author Isabel Zapata. The essay is both an emotional account of the desire to be a mother, and the informative, almost clinical explanation of the in vitro process. For me, In vitro echoes a little bit of Andrés Neuman’s Umbilical regarding the anticipatory feelings of parenthood, and Guadalupe Nettel’s La hija única in how it discusses various forms of mothering. 

In the book shop’s back room on a warm autumn afternoon, twenty women and a few men gathered with cups of mate and banana bread, eager to exchange reading experiences and reflections on motherhood, relationships, and the passing of time. We left the shop at dusk with fresh recommendations added to our to-read pile. I’m already looking forward to next month’s book club. 

Moving to Buenos Aires from Edinburgh, which often feels more like a village than a city, is a big leap. Add an unstable economic situation to the equation, and it can easily get overwhelming. However, immersing myself in the city’s culture has led me to kind and wise people who have showed me a beautiful and mesmerising Buenos Aires. I cannot wait to explore more, but next week I will be travelling to Patagonia, and discover a whole other side of Argentina!

Where I’m going, and how I got here

When I first moved to Edinburgh, I didn’t know about the ghost stories. In fact, I knew very little of Edinburgh, and my image of it was almost entirely dependent on atmospheric pictures of foggy Old Town and videos of Stockbridge market that appeared on my Instagram feed. Only long after I felt securely settled in the city, I first heard about grave robbers and infamous murderers. However, since that first introduction took place in the context of a touristy ghost tour that a visiting friend forced me to accompany him on, I assumed these stories were either made up or at least blurred the boundaries of reality and fiction for narrative effect. Later, I found out that there was, in fact, historical consensus about the fact that these stories contained a certain level of truth, and that my idyllic Edinburgh was not free from a violent past. 

I am now moving to a different continent, and my arrival in Argentina is preceded by a somewhat more fragmented understanding of the country. For years now, I have admired Argentinian authors and have been learning from accomplished Argentinian researchers. I have counted the days until I could experience life as a porteña,visiting as many of the museums, galleries, and 700+ bookshops as possible in Buenos Aires and travel through the breathtaking landscapes in the provinces. Moreover, I have not been able to keep count of the number of people who insisted that Argentina was an exceptional country.  

However, Argentina’s history also contains episodes of violence of which the social and cultural effects are still tangible today. While this blog post can in no way do justice to the work of scholars who have studied Argentinian history, culture, and society, I want to give an insight in the complexity of studying Argentinian literature, and how I decided on my PhD topic. 

Ezeiza and Sergio Chejfec: bringing history and literature together 

Our plane will land in Ezeiza, which in Argentinian collective memory is unfortunately associated with the masacre de Ezeiza on 15 June 1973. This was a violent confrontation between left-wing and right-wing Peronist factions upon Juan Domingo Perón’s return to Argentina after an eighteen-year-long exile. Perón’s politics are difficult to summarise, not only because Perón himself changed gears throughout his life, but also because Peronism was divided into multiple, very divergent strands. Perón was president from 1946 until 1955, when he was overthrown by a military coup led by Eduardo Leonardi. The dictatorial regime remained in power until 1973 (for full transparency, this should not be confused with the military coup and start of the last dictatorship in 1976). 

I also associate Ezeiza with Sergio Chejfec’s Los planetas, in which the protagonist recounts how he and his friend walk through Buenos Aires and have an odd conversation with a man looking for Ezeiza. Los planetas was one of my first interactions with Argentinian literature, and it tells the story of S, who tries to process the loss of his best friend by walking through Buenos Aires, like they used to do together.  

S’s friend is a desaparecido, someone who was disappeared by the dictatorial regime between 1976 and 1983. When someone was kidnapped by the regime, they were brought to secret detention centres, where they were imprisoned, tortured, and often killed. Towards the public, the regime maintained that they were not alive, not dead, but were disappeared. In this way, the regime did not only kill civilians, but also denied their families and loved ones closure and information about what happened to them while enforcing their reign of terror. 

Linking past and present 

To this date, authors and artists in Argentina thematise the last military dictatorship in their work. It is through reading authors like Sergio Chejfec (who I wrote my second master’s thesis on) and Patricio Pron that I ultimately ended up with my current PhD project on gender-based violence in Argentinian women’s writing and Anglophone translation. It quickly became clear to me that the scholarship on dictatorial violence in Argentinian literature was already abundant, as opposed to gender-based violence in literature. This is surprising, given the many Anglophone translations and prize nominations for recent women’s writers from Argentina (Claudia Piñeiro, Samantha Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez, Selva Almada, Dolores Reyes, Ariana Harwicz, to name but a few), which indicate a high level of interest from a variety of readerships. 

Moreover, gender-based violence tends to be present, be it latently or explicitly, in many works on dictatorial violence, because, as research has shown, the violence committed by the regime was often gender-specific: in detention centres, women were forced to give birth in inhumane circumstances, their babies were taken away, and they were killed right after giving birth. 

These intersections between dictatorial and gender-based violence have been addressed by contemporary  women writers. In that regard, I would like to quote Argentinian author Selva Almada, who said the following in an interview with Lisa Couderé for Belgian magazine MO: 

The dictatorship in Argentina was only possible with the complicity of society. Recently, we have also recognised this: it was not a purely military, but a civic-military dictatorship. The machismo and misogyny are cultural problems. That such a dictatorship was able to take place, with the support of society, says something about our culture. In my book, I show that the police at the time of the events were the same as those who worked for the dictatorship. Still, 40 years later, the police is a very machistic structure. Officers are violent and do not care much about a girl’s disappearance. There is a great reluctance to take gender violence seriously. […] During dictatorial rule, when someone disappeared, neighbours would say: “They must have done something”. Today, the same happens when a girl disappears. Especially when she is young and comes from a poor background. (my translation) 

Although my research does not focus on dictatorial violence in literature, it is important to recognise the links between different types of violence in Argentinian society. However, what is even more important but equally difficult is painting a nuanced picture of Argentina: it is a fine line between avoiding to talk about violence, which paints an ahistoric and exoticised image, and overly focusing on violence, which contributes to an image of Argentina (and Latin America more broadly) as a dangerous, unsafe place where authoritarian regimes are always brewing and all men are misogynistic. Hopefully these blog posts manage to strike a balance. 

I should emphasise that I am very excited and grateful that I get to spend a semester in Argentina. The stories outlined above do not take away from how rich and diverse the Argentinian cultural landscape is, and I cannot wait to see it with my own eyes. 

Further reading: 

For further reading on Argentinian history, I recommend Ezequiel Adamovsky’s Historia de la Argentina: biografía de un país: desde la conquista española hasta nuestros días (2020), A Lexicon of Terror (1998) by Marguerite Feitlowitz and The Memory of State Terrorism in the Southern Cone: Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay (2011) by Francesca Lessa and Vincent Drulliole.

(About the photo: since I don’t have pictures of Argentina yet, here’s a photo of me reading while travelling through Georgia. Photo credits: Daan Delespaul)