For Hebe de Bonafini (1928-2022) and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo

Those who have lost whom they love, those who say “I have a right to cry, and I still don’t cry because I need to know where and how my loved ones died”, are linking demands for justice with the very ability to access grief. There will be no mourning if there is no justice and accountability, and being deprived of the right to mourn is in itself an injustice. Mourning and the demand for justice go hand in hand and need each other; they bring together pain and anger in an effort to build a new consensus and a new solidarity against violence.

Judith Butler, El País (10/07/2022)

For Hebe de Bonafini, a founding figure of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who died last Sunday, on the 20th of November.

The greatest agitator of our time

Diego Sztulwark (From Lobo Suelto – 22/11/2022)

Despite the feeling of being orphaned that circulates on social networks and the comments of so many friends, I think that Hebe de Bonafini did not leave us aground. Rather, she prepared things properly so that we can continue with the fight of the Mothers. Hers is the most moving “heroic deed” [gesta], an expression (well chosen by Osvaldo Bayer) that accounts for the engendering interplay between mothers and children, but also between children and mothers and finally between mothers and the people: a few mothers of some revolutionary militants defeated during the nineteen-seventies, alone before the terror and the power of airplanes, torture chambers and weapons; a few headscarves as a distinctive mark of an unarmed struggle, there, where their children would simply disappear; a few mothers who proposed to set the stage for a justice that was always postponed, while taking care of the stage and the meaning that made their children’s struggle understandable and memorable. A whole lesson from the Mothers: where State terrorism took repressive secrecy to its maximum state expression, they wove a painful and popular counter-narrative, with an enormous charge of defiance of power. Where the truth of power tortured and killed, the truth of these engendering/engendered women was born from the care of bodies. This was a counter-truth that would soon be the only one capable of animating a meaning for a country that was increasingly left without any other truths.

The thousands and thousands of Thursdays in the Plaza de Mayo showed something more than stubbornness. The ritual allowed thousands of people to initiate the task of mending an unprecedented modality of memory, capable of linking present and past rebellions, and of hosting the compendium of social struggles that have never ceased to occur in the country since then.

The Mothers were the divine fact (divine: that which gives life) of the counter-revolutionary country.

Already under constitutional government, the Mothers were the inescapable and extra-institutional source of a democracy that represented itself exclusively within parliament and the courts. Without them there would have been no trials or convictions. And thanks to them, and to the broad collective that welcomed those of us who accompanied them, it became clear that the strength of their testimony was greater than that of institutionally conceived politics. For this reason, when the modest justice of the judiciary – which lacked the capacity to raise its sights towards the heights of power – of business or ecclesiastical leaders – began to peel away in policies of impunity, the voice of the Mothers revealed again – from the streets and to the entire world – the beginning of another politics. If Alfonsín gave instructions to the public prosecutors to legislate on the Full stop law and then on the Law of Due Obedience, to “preserve democracy”, and Menem then pardoned the military juntas so as to “pacify” the country, the Mothers and other organisations and militants of social and political groups gave voice to the unprecedented clamour capable of affirming, in a great popular cry, that democracy would belong to murderous powers if the genocide was not investigated in depth. I was 15 years old when the 1987 Carapintada military mutiny took place during the Holy Week of 1987. It is for me a memory of initiation. We were in the Plaza de Mayo with the political parties in defence of the constitutional government, when a loud group of women burst into the Square shouting “they are not rebels, there are no loyalists, the soldiers are all criminals”. I remember being swept away by them, and through this, gaining access to the history of my country. It had for me the effect of a watershed. From then on, and for years, the principal reference for my activities passed discreetly through the house that the Mothers occupied on Irigoyen Street in Buenos Ares.

What was it that made the Mothers so extraordinary? They prevented the prevailing rule of law from being confused with democracy. They denied all legitimacy to a State incapable of reviewing the structures derived from State Terrorism. And they did it through a procedure as simple as it was forceful: they affirmed that until the Argentine State clearly explained where their disappeared children were, what they had done with them, there would be no just law possible. What did the Mothers intend with this? Everything, because by demanding a truth from the State that it could not – and still cannot – give them, they were confronting with a will to truth one that was compromised by lies (to this day, the reactionaries say that organisations manipulate the truth when speaking of 30,000 disappeared, without themselves ever demanding that the State give an exact account of its actions and responsibilities for the genocide). But, also, in acting as mothers engendered by their disappeared children, proud of their struggles, they prevented any definitive separation between a reparatory and a revolutionary idea of justice. Their message and their activism were so courageous and had such moral force that they ended up producing, from their claim, a new type of politicisation, a mixture of painful memory, with remnants of “plebeianism”,  in a destroyed country. That powerful and lasting mixture was what emerged on December 20, 2001, when among thousands and thousands of people, we saw ourselves summoned to the centre of the city of Buenos Aires on seeing on television the old ladies with handkerchiefs fighting against the mounted police. That was the last moral turning point in Argentina, and from that moment everything that has been done these years by dint of taking care of the fusion between the struggle for memory and popular struggles has followed.

The coming together of the piquetero movement and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo made another country visible in 2001.

Hebe had declared years ago: “I do not want you to understand our pain; I want you to understand our struggle.”[1] That understanding was what then reached an unheard of scale. And it is precisely – paradoxically – that same understanding that acted as a wakeup call for the reorganisation of the most reactionary right. Aware as never before of the danger that this type of popular sensibility represented for it, it began the work of destroying all of the seams that held between and sustained community struggles, wage demands and historicity.

We remember all too well what came next. On the one hand, the surprising articulation, previously unimaginable, between human rights organisations and the State, during the government of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández, under whose government the trials were reopened; but also the enduring communication between the struggle of the Mothers and those of many kinds of feminism. Throughout all of these years, we have seen Hebe as active as ever. For many, it is true, having known her before, we were surprised to see her pass without explicit elaboration from her old distrust to her new inclusion in Peronist rhetoric. But in Hebe, arbitrariness and justice always coexisted, one as a marvellous condition for the possibility of the other. My impression is that in recent decades Hebe dedicated herself to fulfilling her task with more lucidity and intensity than ever before: to depart from a country in which the propertied classes and their intellectuals cannot cover with moral legitimacy those who hold power. If the fusion between memory and plebeianism has matured among us, Hebe was its principal architect, the greatest subversive, the most relevant agitator of our time. Hebe taught us to breathe in the midst of suffocation. In recent times, she took pleasure in rewarding militants, artists and intellectuals with her headscarf. Now we honour her, her proud children capable of following the path.

[1] This quote was taken from the book La historia de las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, in two volumes, by the historian Ulises Gorini. The main value of this book (published by the National Library, managed by Horacio González) is the systematisation of the documentation available for the years 1976/1986.

Todos son mis hijos/They are all my sons (with subtitles in multiple languages)

(There is a considerable literature dedicated to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which we cannot even begin to adequately reference. For a brief history of the movement, in English, we can cite a piece posted on, entitled “1977-83: Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Protest Disapearnces in Argentina”. There is however far more that can be explored.)

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