ON THE ART OF THE DISAPPEARED
IN A NEW TRAVELING EXHIBITION, TWENTY-SEVEN LATIN AMERICAN ARTISTS BEGIN THE LABOR OF RECLAIMING THE CULTURAL AND HISTORICAL REMAINS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY’S CAMPAIGNS OF REPRESSION.
When she showed me her photograph,
this is my daughter,
she still hasn’t come home
She hasn’t come home in ten years.
But this is her photograph.
Isn’t it true that she’s very pretty?
She’s a philosophy student
and here she is when she was
fourteen years old
and she had her first communion
starched and sacred.
This is my daughter
she’s so pretty
I talk to her every day
she no longer comes home late, and this is why I reproach her
but I love her so much
this is my daughter
every night I say goodbye to her
I kiss her
and it’s hard for me not to cry
even though I know that she will not come
because as you know, she has not come
home for years
I love this photo very much
I look at it every day
it seems that only yesterday
she was a little feathered angel in my arms
and here she looks like a young lady,
a philosophy student
but, isn’t it true that she’s so pretty,
that she has an angel’s face
that it almost seems as if she were alive?
That, from the Chilean poet Marjorie Agosin, is a poem titled “Buenos Aires.” In 2006, the citizens of Buenos Aires are marking the thirtieth anniversary of the launch of Argentina’s devastating Dirty War, which would presently come to see the disappearance of as many as thirty thousand of the country’s citizens—the term disappearance being both a euphemism and as such an evasion (for these people didn’t just disappear, they were disappeared, they were made to disappear) and also a cannily accurate description of their fate as seen from the point of view of their surviving friends and relatives: suddenly, horrifically, unaccountably (and this last was key), these dear people had just vanished without a trace and were no more. (The thirtieth anniversary of the launch of such campaigns of repression elsewhere in Latin America—Guatemala, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, and so forth—is already several years past.)
It was a diabolically effective tactic. If, as has sometimes been noted, repression is the effort by the Forces That Be to take people who had started behaving like subjects (instead of the abject objects into which role history had theretofore long relegated them), to take such people and turn them back into good little mute and neutered objects once again, one could hardly have come up with a better one. For the regime was able simultaneously to eliminate some of its most vividly effective opponents, to discombobulate the wider opposition as such (sending friends, relatives, and coworkers who might otherwise be working to overthrow the regime into ever more desperate and futile and isolating efforts at search and rescue), to demoralize the wider society through the whiff of terror such disconcerting tactics evinced—and all the while was able to deny that it had been doing anything of the sort. These people, after all, had just “disappeared”—how was the regime supposed to know what had happened to them?
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