Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Marching with Las Madres

In early December 1999, I flew to Buenos Aires to meet my husband Bill who was working in South America. I arrived to find the streets of the city blockaded by banks of police and their motorcycles. Helicopters stuttered overhead. The taxi driver told me it was inauguration day and Argentina's new president, Fernando de la Rua, was moving in ceremonial cavalcade toward to Plaza de Mayo. To get me to the hotel, the driver had to convince the police that we had authorization to enter. I sat very tall and tried to look important as he nervously talked us through.

I'd like to tell you that I immediately dashed into the crowds to watch the inauguration. I’d like to boast that my Spanish was fluent enough to allow me to understand the speech de la Rua made from the balcony at the Casa Rosada. But the reality was that I was fearful of going into the city alone.

Then reason kicked in. I was going to be there for 10 days and Bill would be working most of that time. It was either head into the crowd or spend my vacation at the hotel swimming pool. I chose the crowd.

By the time I found my way to Plaza de Mayo, all that remained of the festive crowds were metal barricades and a ground littered with celebratory paper and political leaflets. I bent down to pick one up and noticed that it lay on what appeared to be the outline of a human body painted on the paving stones. Inside this outline were a name and a date. These painted figures were everywhere. When I straightened up, I bumped into a woman standing near me. I wanted to ask her what these figures symbolized but my Spanish was limited. I'd spent the last two weeks studying phrases like the one that discusses the peculiarities of keeping an elephant in one's house . . . not exactly the words I need now.

I excused myself for bumping her and began to walk away, but she smiled. Encouraged by the warmth of her smile, I decided to use my fractured Spanish to ask her what the symbols meant.

"Ah," she replied, "they are 'los desaparecidos.'" The disappeared! I shuddered. She then took me by the hand and lead me toward the Plaza obelisk where there were other symbols – she told me that the doves were actually kerchiefs. The "panuelos blancos" that symbolize the mothers of "the disappeared" who, since the mid ‘70s have gathered every Thursday in Plaza de Mayo to protest the disappearance of their children.

We sat on the grass to talk because Esther had phlebitis and though she had been warned by her doctor to stay at home with her leg raised, this retired history professor refused to miss such an "important event." She had traveled by bus since early morning from a mountain town several hours away.

We spent the rest of the afternoon together, wandering through historic sites and chatting, and as we talk the barriers imposed by language crumble. I bless the spirit that urged me away from the hotel and into the square. It has enabled me to do what I love best -- to see a place through the eyes of the people who live there.

© Beryl Singleton Bissell 2008

See Finding Time for God for Beryl's blog on living a contemplative life in a busy world.


Steve | Travel China said...

What a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. I often try to get "lost" and wander the city with no destination in mind. You meet some interesting people. That's much more memorable than the hotel pool.

tinker said...

How inspiring, Beryl, that your bravery was rewarded with both the information you sought - and a new friendship! I need to remind myself of your story here, next time I choose the 'safer' route...thank you!

Novel Nymph said...

your writing style is fluid and magical...i cannot wait to read your novel. thanks for visiting me...

i think education does not stop until we stop...


David Rochester said...

I get more out of your blog, I think, than I would out of traveling to these destinations myself. :-)