COLUMN: Las Abuelas De Plaza De Mayo
Published: Thursday, September 26, 2013
Updated: Thursday, September 26, 2013 00:09
Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo) are a human rights group dedicated to finding los Ninos Desaparecidos (disappeared children) taken during the military dictatorship in Argentina in the ’70s and ’80s. They came to speak at BC last week and gave a very powerful talk about their experience. My reflections here are going to start with the end of their session with us.
Las Abuelas wrapped up by recognizing that we, as children born and raised in the U.S., have not experienced the kind of suffering in this country that the children of Latin America have, and it got me thinking about how true that is. Not in the sense that North American children do not suffer as much, but in that they (and especially certain populations) suffer in much different ways. In South America, there was a very obvious injustice—people against the regime were being taken hostage, and their children were taken and given to government officials to raise as their own. Las Abuelas therefore have a very clear mission: to find their lost grandchildren and establish a legal system for holding the perpetrators of those crimes accountable. But what about systematic oppression in the U.S. that is not so clear-cut? A lot of widespread injustice occurs everywhere, perpetuated by our current society, which goes unnoticed by the majority of the population for the duration of their lives. Let us look at the Trayvon Martin case. Something that Las Abuelas said that is very applicable to both the injustice that occurred in the Dirty War and in the Trayvon Martin case is that justice is achieved not when the criminals admit their crimes, but when the victims tell their stories. The difference between the experience in South America and the experience in the U.S. in these cases is that the South American victims have had their stories told and recognized as an injustice. When it came to the Trayvon case, many people of color told their stories, but they were written off as “thinking too much into it,” “being too sensitive,” or “playing the race card.” Just like many of the officials of the dictatorship in Argentina, the perpetuators of racism in the U.S. did not admit that they did (and continue to do) something wrong. But if people are crying for justice, more often than not it is for good reason.
It was hard to believe that at first, Las Abuelas sat by and watched as the officers of the regime took students off the streets in cars without license plates, then took the children born in prison and gave them to the officials of the regime to try to further silence their opposition. Their initial reaction was to keep their heads down, keep out of trouble, and keep their families safe. They pleaded with their children to stay home from school. These same women, however, soon stood for it no longer. They saw that something in their world was wrong, and did what they could about it. The president of Las Abuelas spoke to an officer in private, trying to figure out where her daughter was, risking her life (he had a shotgun present), and proceeding without much bargaining leverage to get what she needed. Our response to the kind of injustice that Trayvon suffered is to tell black children to keep their heads down, don’t look suspicious, don’t wear hoods or baggy pants, or walk alone late at night. Like Las Abuelas did, black mothers give this sort of advice to their children about how to survive in an oppressive world (this obviously does not come from my personal experience, but I have black friends who feel the need to ‘overcompensate’ for being black by acting or speaking extra politely or properly when they are in certain situations). But what if we had an association of Abuelas for Trayvon? What if instead of just trying to get by with the present regime, we started demanding retribution for the criminalization of black men? Incarceration rates are disproportionately higher for blacks than whites. What if we demanded that our criminal justice system give our black men back?
One thing that Las Abuelas emphasized was that this is our world. Anything that happens in any part of the world happens in our world, to us, and is everyone’s problem. This notion of solidarity surpasses borders, languages, and generations. So it does not matter that slavery happened centuries ago, or that we individually have never been directly racist (at least as far as we know—injustice is defined by the victims as we know). Racism is everyone’s problem—especially when it gets young men like Trayvon Martin killed. Las Abuelas reminded us, however, that they were not out for revenge—their concern was righting the wrongs and bringing justice. They want to find their children. The only thing they want for the people responsible for their crimes is recognition that what they did was wrong, and then the appropriate legal punishment. There were so many people that rejected the notion that race had anything to do with the Trayvon case. People argued over every little detail of the situation, trying to determine where the racial injustice occurred. The fact that people of color felt outrage at the outcomes of the case is all we need to know when determining whether injustice occurred. The difficulty now is how to achieve justice. Because when it comes to racism, pointing fingers gets us nowhere. Even if each of us individually took a vow of anti-racism it would not alleviate the problem. There are ingrained societal systems that make our world the way it is and the task at hand is how to undo some of the oppressive structures. It is time to take their spirit and do something about the injustice that we see in the world.