Reading dictators’ documents

In my last post, I talked about my frustration with not being able to find media sources from during Argentina’s last dictatorship that talked about the activities of human rights organizers such as the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. The press was ordered by the government not to report on protests and civil disobedience, so there is extremely unfair reporting on and representation of groups such as the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in these public sources.

However, the dictatorship knew these groups existed, and because of their dissenting nature needed to keep a very close eye on their activities. The Madres especially were an early target for the dictatorship; they were loud, they were visible, they marched every week, and they had and used the special moral authority of motherhood in their activism. So, the police kept an eye on these “Mad Mothers” and “Mothers of Subversives” and kept detailed documents on each of them.

I spent a lot of time at the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria in my last few weeks in La Plata, Buenos Aires, searching through the thousands upon thousands of archives they have that relate in some way to the Madres. I had absolutely no idea where to start at first; I used a general search for the word “madres” and received upwards of 9,000 hits in the Comisión archives of police documents from the 1950s through the 1990s. So, I specified my search. Since I’m seeking information on the Madres‘ radicalization and evolution into economic justice causes, I combined the search for “madres” with “miseria” (poverty), “desocupación” (unemployment), and “hambre” (hunger), among other keywords.

I narrowed down my responses to a whopping several hundred. Included in the documents were police reports, photocopied newspaper stories and interviewed, fliers and pamphlets for a variety of different activist groups, and information on the Madres’ identities and families. Given the general lack of information on the Madres in the media at the time of the dictatorship, I was absolutely shocked to find so much information in these police archives; they truly viewed these middle-aged ladies as a threat! I spent many hours paging through and trying to find the most compelling clues for the Madres‘ evolution, such as groups they’ve organized with, rhetoric on pamphlets and fliers, and responses to traumatic contemporary events. I ended up selecting around 100 documents to keep with me, and my advisors at the Comisión sent me off with a folder full of hard copies of all my evidence.