¿Vos sabés quién sos?
Do you know who you are?
The question rang throughout a Cornell University lecture hall on Sept. 27, as my Spanish theater classmates and I performed “A propósito de la duda.” This Argentinian play brings attention to human rights violations during the military dictatorship in Argentina from 1976 to 1983.
When Annette Levine, associate professor of modern languages and literature, told our group of mainly non-actors and non-native Spanish speakers that we would be performing in front of two hugely important human rights activists and Nobel Peace Prize nominees from Argentina, my initial thought was, “Who are we to perform this?” It seemed as Americans and 20-somethings, we were too far removed from the context of Argentina’s military dictatorship to truly understand our characters.
On March 24, 1976, a military junta overthrew the government in Argentina beginning seven years of state terrorism. An estimated 30,000 alleged political subversives “disappeared” to detention centers. Pregnant women gave birth in captivity before being killed. Their babies were appropriated by military families and raised without knowing their true identities.
Las Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo have fought for more 30 years to uncover the fate of these “desaparecidos.” They have identified 109 of an estimated 500 “nietos,” or grandchildren, those born in captivity and raised by the military. Our Spanish class performed for two members of Las Abuelas, Estela de Carlotto, president of Las Abuelas, and her colleague Buscarita Roa. They were the honored guests at the Democracy and Dictatorship Conference sponsored by the Ithaca College and Cornell Latin American Studies Programs. Carlotto began to fight state violence when her 23-year-old pregnant daughter, Laura, was killed in 1978 after giving birth in captivity. Carlotto continues to search for her grandchild.
Roa’s son and pregnant daughter-in-law also are among the “disappeared.” Roa found her granddaughter 13 years ago.
“The best thing that could have happened was that she learned who she really was,” she said. “She has said to me, ‘Thank you, grandmother, for finding me.’”
The Abuelas’ fight has grown into an iconic movement for human rights, justice and truth. Their struggle has raised questions that go beyond the dictatorship and Argentina: What is identity? What does it mean to know who you are? Is it better to live in a comfortable lie or face a difficult truth? How is truth empowering?
We could all benefit from asking these
questions. Though what we recited may have seemed far removed from U.S. history, the U.S. and Latin America were and are still intertwined. From torture and economic policies to support of the generals’ efforts, the U.S. government was involved in supporting Argentina’s dictatorship.
As Carlotto and Roa watched our performance, I realized the script’s message resonated on a global stage. We shouldn’t wait for the fight to become personal to make it personal. We must stop denying aspects of our identity solely because they’re difficult to face. We cannot begin to know the rest of the world until we ask the question Las Abuelas have asked: ¿Vos sabés quién sos? Do you know who you are?