The Abuelas

The Abuelas

I was back with the abuelas on Thursday. They have a regular outing to the Plaza de Mayo on a Thursday afternoon at 3.30 so I planned my day around it. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this, a weekly ceremony that’s become iconic, a real destination event. So I was keeping my expectations low. After the emotion, noise and exuberance of Tuesday’s march at the same venue and with the same cast centre stage, I had in mind something more intimate, more contemplative. By the time the abuelas arrived in their minibus, about 300-400 people had gathered in the square to greet them, some with banners and flags, a few of us visitors but most, it seemed, local. Intimate, it was not.

The Madres of the Plaza de Mayo, pretty much own this piece of the city; their headscarf logo is painted on the ground all around the base of the Piramide de Mayo, the monument in the centre of the Plaza erected to mark a revolution that happened in May 1811. This is their territory. This is where, each week, they make their procession twice around the Piramide with a crowd of devotees behind them chanting their slogans in support. This is where the abuelas meet their public.

If you detected a bit of cynicism there, you were right. The abuelas, the madres, they carry an enormously heavy burden: their private loss is public property. They crystallise the tragedy of a whole nation and therefore, perhaps, its hope for the future too – a massive responsibility. They are revered, admired, almost idolised for their courage and perseverance. Of course they are. But for all that their pain is real and their search for truth and justice is noble, there is also something troubling about it all. I had the first inkling of unease when I saw a couple of vans parked up at the side of the Plaza bearing the bespoke livery of the Madres. A whole industry has built up around them – these vans, the staff, an office on the main drag about 100 metres from the Congreso, their logo painted on the ground here right in front of the Casa Rosada, the president’s palace. There is nothing wrong with all this; it’s just, well, perplexing.

Their grievance is part of the political narrative here; it’s embraced by the government and has been threaded through the Kirchner dynasty, with Nestor and now Cristina linked in solidarity with their cause. So what is this weekly event about? What do they seek? Are there further wrongs that they now want to right? I realised that this was also what confused me about the march on Tuesday. There is a powerful focus on past wrongs but it’s not clear what the present struggle is about? Where is the protest about the issues that face the country now, like poverty and corruption? Where is the campaign for change?

I don’t know any of the answers and I wonder if it’s blasphemous to even ask the questions. The abuelas are a brave and humbling sight, tiny women with almost 40 years of struggle riven in the lines of their faces. And there are still battles for them to fight, children to find and men to bring to justice. But protest this close to the locus of power loses some of its legitimacy, some of its autonomy and its license to challenge does it not?