Bet You Didn’t Know There was More to Buenos Aires Than Just Tango

By Jerry Nelson
Jerry Nelson
Jerry Nelson
I´m often asked why do I do what I do. Through floods, stampedes, drug cartels, raging rivers and blizzards…why do I keep putting this old battered and used up body on the line. The answer is simple, but maybe hard to understand. I believe that photos can be used to change the conditions in which people live. For me, photography is both a path and instrument for social justice. I like to point the camera where images can make a difference — especially
September 30, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

Epoch Times Photo

Naive tourists from Bugtussle, Iowa come to Buenos Aires and never walk out of the glossy, Chamber of Commerce part of town. A visitor to Buenos Aires can learn more in an afternoon about the history of the country than a week in the postcard part of town.

Plaza de Mayo

The old woman with the white kerchief has been coming to Plaza de Mayo for 37 years. She wears a faded cotton dress that has seen too many washings. Her stockings, which seem to have collapsed under the hot Argentina sun, have cascaded into folds and wrinkles around her ankles. Tied snugly around her head is a white scarf.

As American tourists take cliched photographs of each other, more women join the old lady. Some wear pantsuits and are gloriously fashionable. Others wear jogging suits in the sky blue and white national colors. Some wear open toed sandals. Others wear sneakers. A few wear the fusty,, boxy styles that seem to belong on the feet of an old woman. But they all wear the scarves.

As children wheedle their parents for just one more gold and silver peso to buy corn for the pigeons, the women start to chat softly. In groups of three here, five there, they visit and peck at gossip like the pigeons peck at corn.

Together they’ll soundlessly condemn the military junta which stole their grandchildren. For an hour their presence is felt. Their silence screams loudly at the horror committed by the dictatorship which ruled the country from 1976 until 1983. Their silence turns a focused beam of shame on a government that has hardly done little more than give lip service to the country’s most recent indignity.

The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, or Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, started gathering on April 30, 1977. In the plaza, across the street from the Pink House, the women wore white scarves to identify each other. With pregnant daughters missing, the women wanted answers from the military junta. They weren’t intimidated by the government. More fearful Argentines started calling them ‘Las Locas’, or the “Crazy Women.”

The women still gather in Plaza de Mayo every Thursday at one in the afternoon, reminding people that their families’ fabric still has a gouge. Their pregnant daughters, seized from the streets, homes and schools of Buenos Aires, were held without any human contact until they gave birth. The new mothers, sedated, were taken from their cramped and dark third floor cells. Blindfolded and put on a plane, they were lifted to 3500 feet over the Rio de Plata. Their wrists and ankles tied, they were tossed from the plane.

Of the 500+ babies taken, only 114 have been found so far. The grandmothers still demand that the balm of justice be put on the still open scab which mars the psyche of Argentines.

And they still wear the scarves.

Belgrano

Five miles down Santa Fe and Cabilldo is the shaded barrio of Belgrano. Named after the designer of the Argentine flag, Manual Belgrano, the neighborhood is upper-middle class with high-rise and ultra modern apartment buildings tossed in among century old homes. Belgrano, like Buenos Aires, doesn’t know whether to grab on to the future or let go of the past. Sixteen foreign countries have their embassies in the barrio, not because of what it is today, but what it was 100 years ago; the Argentine center of philosophy, education, politics and the other schools of thought that could eventually produce the country’s president.

The current president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, was an activist during the Dirty War and she spent many evenings in Belgrano during her youth. Whispered conversations at the cafe, discussions lasting past the day’s end and into the start of the next, plans and goals for toppling the junta were shared, discussed and honed as ideas were considered and cast aside only to be replaced with more ideas. Speaking and protesting against the military junta, Kirchner could have become one of the disappeared.

On the sidewalks in Belgrano are hundreds of marble slabs. Each is about 1.25 feet by 2 feet and holds a name and two dates. The name is the person who was pulled from the spot and driven away in 1968 black and white Ford Falcon with “Policia” on the side. The first date is the victim’s birthdate. The second is the person’s last taste of freedom.

Kirchner’s name could’ve been on the sidewalk.

The United States, through the Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, was complicit in the Dirty War. Kirchner’s whispered conversations with comrades in the dusty upper rooms along Cabilldo helped crystallize the anti-American ideology which she clings to today.

ESMA

In the northern part of Belgrano is the Navy School of Mechanics, or, in Spanish, Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada. Locals just refer to it as ESMA. ESMA was the largest detention and torture center in Argentina during the Dirty War.

Stark white like bones that have been sun bleached, the white washed buildings of ESMA stand partially empty, still haunted by the cries and screams of victims of the military junta. During the Dirty War, historians estimate that 30,000 people in Argentina were made to disappear. Here in ESMA, 9,000 people whom the military government felt were subversives vanished.

ESMA sits three blocks from the citadel of Argentina’s second great religion: futbol. The stadium, home to Rivers de Plate Futbol, is sacred ground for fans who are so devoted they make a New York Yankee’s fan look ambivalent. If soccer, as it’s called in North America, is truly a religion, then the Rivers team are the Twelve Disciples and the referees are the priests that keep everything tidy and in order.

Many crimes throughout history have been covered up in the name of religion, so it’s fitting that the sacrament of soccer would be used to cover genocide. Located so close to each other, the screams and shouts from soccer matches would drown out the screams and shouts from the torture chambers in ESMA.

No one knows for sure how many people were butchered during the six weeks in 1978 when the world came to Buenos Aires for the World Cup.

Now a national historic site, ESMA contains a school of arts, several dormitories for young college students and a museum. To human rights.

Jerry Nelson
I´m often asked why do I do what I do. Through floods, stampedes, drug cartels, raging rivers and blizzards…why do I keep putting this old battered and used up body on the line. The answer is simple, but maybe hard to understand. I believe that photos can be used to change the conditions in which people live. For me, photography is both a path and instrument for social justice. I like to point the camera where images can make a difference — especially