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Sunday, December 8, 2013
Purple State of Craig
Because the conversation continues….
Memorial Day weekend offers an opportunity to honor fallen soldiers, those who fought on our behalf. But what about those who’ve been caught in undeclared wars, who were never officially in battle, but perished nonetheless? How might we properly remember civilians caught in political crossfire?
The most moving moment in my Argentine experience occurred on a Thursday afternoon. The Mothers of the Disappeared have been gathering at the Plaza de Mayo for over thirty years. Each Thursday at 3:30pm, they march behind a banner to demand justice, to seek answers, still longing to know what happened to their children. Closure remains elusive.
Their sons and daughters were arrested, tortured and murdered by government agents during the “Dirty War” that haunted Argentina from 1976 to 1983. During the tumultuous 1960s and 70s, leftist/communist forces resorted to kidnappings, bombings, and assassinations to destabilize the Argentine military regime. The government adopted equally harsh and illegal activities to stamp out the subversives. Students, intellectuals and others suspected of leftist leanings were arrested and ‘disappeared’ following police interrogation. Human rights organized estimate between 10,000 and 30,000 Argentines disappeared during the Dirty War.
Grieving and irate mothers of the disappeared slowly found each other. They banded together in solidarity to pressure the government for answers and apologies. Some wanted major changes in government policy. Others simply wanted their remains of their missing children returned for a proper burial.
Musicians committed to social change have celebrated the mothers in song. Way back on 1987’s Joshua Tree, U2 lifted up the “Mothers of the Disappeared.” (Check out a concert version here). Folk singers like Holly Near and Joan Baez offered a cry for los desaparecidos. Sting sang, “They Dance Alone” way back in 1988.
Perhaps so much international attention was bound to result in competition, jealousy and backbiting. With donations pouring in, The Mothers eventually split into two factions, one highly organized and militant, the other slightly beleaguered and weary. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo call for sweeping social change. They have formed a wealthy and robust political action group that has spawned publications, websites and even a university.
On our Thursday afternoon at the Plaza de Mayo, several of the madres staffed a book table. Their stories are told through books, magazines, even a cookbook. The crowd gathered around them wanted to touch, hug, and kiss these stirring symbols of national pain.
The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo—Founding Line focus upon recovering the remains of the children. They still want to bring former government officials to justice. Yet, the Founding Line engage in silent protest. How poignant to see them holding faded photos of their sons and daughters after so many years.
As they circled the center of the plaza, it felt like an extended wake. Worn down by so much grief and so few answers, they march as a living vigil, a way to remind us all of innocent people caught in an ideological war.
In marked contrast to the Founding Line, the other Mothers let their voices be heard. They arrived in a sleek van, covered with their iconic scarf symbol. As they entered the plaza, the crowd parted in a moment of collective respect and awe. Their fiery leader, Hebe de Bonafini, led the procession. As they ringed the same circle, these madres thrust their fists in the air. They crowd who followed them clapped in unison, shouting in Spanish. They called the government, “Cowards!”, asking them to acknowledge “The Plaza belongs to the mothers.” What vibrancy in their step and fire in the eyes.
Several Argentines told me they thought the madres had too much power. Charges of corruption have dogged de Bonafini’s organization. Evidently, she applauded the terrorists acts of 9/11 and defamed the Pope. Given my relative ignorance regarding Argentine politics, I will refrain from judging either faction. The marches of both groups brought tears to my eyes.
I was struck by how much moral force accompanied their protest thirty years on. They continue to fight, undoubtedly until death. They’re more like ‘Grandmothers of the Disappeared’, a vivid reminder of how much power the elderly can possess.
Congratulations to Argentina—celebrating their national bicentennial this week. I had the privilege of visiting the Plaza de Mayo where Buenos Aires first announced its independence from Spain on May 25, 1810. Patriotic flags lined the plaza, especially the Cabildo, where their revolution began. Ironically, this historic building is the only visual and architectural reminder of Spanish colonial rule still on the plaza. How did I get to Argentina for their bicentennial events?
My first year at Pepperdine concluded with a new faculty conference in Buenos Aires. The Lilly Foundation underwrote this initial investment in new faculty and Pepperdine has continued funding this opportunity to focus on our calling as teachers. Pepperdine has campuses across Europe (Florence, Lausanne, London, Heidelberg), Asia (Shanghai), and South America (Buenos Aires). So we flew as a group from Los Angeles to Argentina. I’m so happy that my wonder wife, Caroline, got to join this academic adventure.
After the announcement in 1810, it took six more years of active resistance before a united Argentina broke from colonial rule. General José de San Martín led the war for independence. His tomb resides just off the Plaza de Mayo, inside the National Cathedral. A massive Argentine flag was draped over his grave, with monuments also attesting to the independence Martin brought to Chile and Peru. Two military guards stand watch outside his mausoleum. It was strange to watch the changing of the guard moments before the Sunday Mass started. Yet, national independence and religious freedom are also interwoven in United States history.
While reveling in all the light blue and white flags waving from office buildings, we were jolted by the sound of explosions. Deep bass drums announced a massive movement of people. Would we be witnesses to yet another violent upheaval at Plaza de Mayo? Caroline and I considered our options. Yet, the police on the plaza seemed rather calm, setting up roadblocks in a rather mundane manner. The blasts turned out to be window-rattling fireworks.
A massive parade was making its way toward the plaza. We saw blocks of colorful flags proceeding from the obelisk of the 9th of July Boulevard. But these flags were not for Argentina. No, they announced another nation, or rather a series of nations, coming to downtown Buenos Aires. Native Americans were flooding the capital to protest (and precede) the bicentennial. While Argentines celebrated their break from Spain, native peoples like the Mapuche and Tehuelche were reminding us all who lost the most in the arrival of Spanish conquistadores.
A brief survey of Argentina’s violent history reveals the tragic Conquest of the Desert. After Argentina broke from Spain, they still longed to consolidate power across the vast pampas. General Julio Argentino Roca was rewarded for his efforts to exterminate native tribes across Argentina by becoming president in 1880. Foreign investment flowed into Argentina for the next fifty years, making it the fourth largest economy in the world prior to the Great Depression. The bloody legacy of the Conquest of the Desert had other visible results. Today, only 2% of Argentina’s population is indentified as native peoples.
It felt like all 2% were marching toward Plaza de Mayo. The parade was so large and so loud that Caroline and I jumped up on a street lamp. From our perch, we could see the drum lines, the dancers, and the signs of protest. Men, united by their ponchos and wool caps stretched across the boulevard. Women, young and old, wore the brightest ceremonial clothing possible. Kids of all ages and sizes danced with pride. It was a thrilling visual display.
The chosen symbols of their protest were quite jarring. Images of the last Incan king, Tupac Amaru were placed alongside Eva Peron. The legacy of Peru’s eighteenth century resistance leader, Jose Gabriel Condorcanqui (a.k.a. Tupac Amaru II) was elevated beside Che Guevara. Native peoples upheld those who fought for them, an unlikely amalgamation of fascists (like the Perons) and Marxists (like Che). Yet, their wear united in their support for the poor, the marginalized, the powerless. Where were the Christians amidst such tangled Conquests? Only the face of murdered priest, Padre Mugica, was painted on a bedsheet. Just five visible advocates scattered across five centuries. It was a sobering reminder that amidst wars for independence, there was plenty of collateral damage. Yes, colonies broke free from empires. But how much native blood was spilled enroute to nation building?
Only after the march, did I discover that the current Argentine government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner paid for the march. They bused in the native people from across the pampas. They made space in the official festivities for an alternative history. It is a small gesture, but definitely better than nothing. May the next two hundred years of history in the Americas add new heroes and advocates to the native story.
Are you still watching LOST? If so, you recognize what a huge week lies ahead–only two key episodes remaining. Will Lost actually tackle the nature of humanity? Will it try to solve the ancient struggle of good versus evil? Plenty of dedicated “Losties” complained about the recent revelations regarding the origins of the island. Are Jacob and the Man in Black stand ins for the ancient biblical struggle of Jacob versus Esau? What does it mean to protect the light emanating from the Golden Cave? I’m eager to find out!
Yet, after so many supernatural twists and turns across six seasons, Lost left plenty of devoted viewers behind. The Onion noted how annoying rabid Lost fans can be to those who never started watching. But if you’ve had seasons you followed (one and two) and seasons you avoided (the third one, anyone?), then perhaps you need a quick series recap before finale week. Time Magazine’s James Poniewozik crammed more than 100 episodes into a 108 second video summary. Die-hard “Losties” will note the significance of that number. Others may want to read the slightly slower print version of the summary. The two-and-a-half hour grand finale will take place on Sunday night, May 23rd. Will you be watching?
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