"Memory is like the blood of time, and we are seeking the DNA
of broken dreams, of lost Memory; blocked, silenced, exiled."
—Viviana Ponieman, visual artist, writing about the memory of the disappeared in Argentina.
The Intersection of Culture and Human Rights
What is the relationship between human rights, repression and culture? How did visual artists, writers, activists and lawyers respond to the disappearance of over 10,000 people during the brutal years of the military dictatorship in Argentina? These were just a few of the questions we set out to investigate during the May Term Global Seminar "Human Rights and Collective Memory in Buenos Aires" in May of 2008. The experience was a success, and a new group will return to Buenos Aires for May Term 2009.
While violations of human rights during the decades of the 1970's and 80's were not unique to Argentina, the response of those most closely affected by violence and disappearance is singular and moving. During the first Global Seminar session in 2008, students became familiarized with the complex issues surrounding human rights in Argentina, and heard first hand the gripping stories concerning the thousands of desaparecidos or disappeared. While visiting the "Casa de las Madres," or the house of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, students dialogued with women whose lives were forever changed when their children disappeared. Mirta, Nora and Carmen - tireless human rights activists who are now in their 80's - recounted the night their children were taken from their homes never to return. Well-known author Liliana Heker shared her reflections with the class about living under the military regime and how she took a stand against repression via the written word. Marcelo Brodsky's testimony of nearly being "disappeared" himself became all the more poignant once we viewed his photographic essay along with the last image of his brother Fernando - an image that was smuggled out of the clandestine torture center where he was detained.
While in Buenos Aires students also visited the art studio of Viviana Ponieman, a painter who has interpreted the events of the military period in large-scale paintings and via public art installations. One of the foremost NGOs in Argentina, the Center for Legal and Social Studies, informed students of the legal perspective towards human rights violations. Students also had the opportunity to attend a hearing where lawyers presented a 30-year-old case of a crime against humanity committed during the military regime. One of the highlights of the Global Seminar was a visit to our class by Julio César Strassera, the prosecuting attorney at the Trial of the Juntas, where military leaders were put on trial for their actions during the "Dirty War." Strassera's powerful lecture reflected his singular commitment to justice and determination to bring those responsible to trial- a first in the world-wide struggle for human rights.
Besides lectures and site visits in Buenos Aires, the Global Seminar gave students the chance to volunteer at a local community service organization in La Boca, an underprivileged neighborhood in the capital. Weekend excursions included a visit to a "hacienda," where students enjoyed typical Argentine food and were led by gauchos on a picturesque horseback ride through the "pampa húmeda;" a trip to Montevideo, Uruguay to see the Monument to the Disappeared; and a student-led trip to Iguazú Falls, one of the most impressive natural attractions in Argentina.
Aside from the academic component of the course, all the students received a healthy dose of Argentine culture, which included dining on pasta, pizza, empanadas and free-range beef; attending late night tango shows and taking tango lessons; consuming inordinate amounts of "dulce de leche" and ice cream; and going to bed after 3 in the morning on more than one occasion.