Estela de Carlotto hunts for Argentina's grandchildren 'stolen' decades ago (+video)
Estela de Carlotto heads the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, who seek to reunite children taken from their mothers during Argentina's military dictatorship with their real families.
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"There aren't any more grandmothers that want to do the work that I do because I dedicate 24 hours a day to it," she says. "There were grandmothers that didn't want to become president or couldn't because of work commitments. I was able to retire because of my husband's work. So I had the time but also the character – I have a leadership personality."Skip to next paragraph
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Carlotto's teaching career has clearly helped in her work. Both she and the rest of the Abuelas have had to help nurture and then rebuild a polarized Argentine society licking its wounds from years of horrific crimes after the return to democracy in 1983.
The Abuelas president admits that "we've done a lot of teaching" over the years. Her organization tirelessly campaigned against laws from the 1980s and '90s that pardoned most of the dictatorship's henchmen (the laws were repealed in 2003). It also set up a DNA bank (the world's first) in 1987 to help find missing grandchildren, and it continues to take an active role in ongoing human rights trials against former military officials.
Carlotto talks with utter poise. Wearing her trademark pearl earrings, she comes across as an eloquent and elegant señora, forced by her circumstances to relive a terrible past.
"Estela has an utterly sweet character," says Guillermo Perez Roisinblit, one of the 107 grandchildren (now an adult) who have discovered their real identities through Abuelas. "And all this despite the troubles she's had to deal with in her life, including the kidnap and murder of her daughter Laura and the nearly 34-year search for her grandson Guido.
"Yet despite all this, she still wants to help other grandmothers with the same spiritedness as ever, and without succumbing to hatred, resentment, or a desire for revenge."
Being a public figure isn't always easy, Carlotto says, but the warmth that people show her in the street helps her keep going. Sometimes people want to have their photo taken with her, she adds, as if she were a film star (in fact, her life was made into a movie last year, "Verdades verdaderas," or "Real Truths," directed by Nicolás Gil Lavedra).
Despite the affection that a large part of Argentine society feels toward her and the Abuelas, there are still people who want to silence her bold voice, especially those with links to the dictatorship. On Sept. 20, 2002, in the early hours of the morning, Carlotto was home alone in her house in La Plata when it was peppered with gunshots fired from a speeding car. She was unharmed, but the attempted murder now means she has a policeman at her door 24 hours a day, and she travels with bodyguards.
"Look, I'm not afraid," Carlotto says defiantly, "firstly because the worst has already happened to me: My daughter was killed. And secondly because the bullets they tried to fire at me are the same that killed my daughter. The same people didn't fire them but they showed the same murderous mind-set."
Times are changing, however. The nature of the Abuelas organization is different now, she says. A father and a grandchild are now involved in the day-to-day running of it. It's the latter and his fellow "brothers and sisters," as she refers to them, who will continue the search until all 500 are found, she says.
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In October, Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo celebrated its 35th anniversary with speeches, laughter, and music at a Buenos Aires theater. The group has come a long way since those perilous first few years when its members were unsure of what they were doing and where it would lead – and when showing any sort of defiance of military rule was a highly dangerous activity.
"Sadness is something we'll have buried deep within us forever," Carlotto says, "but we're able to appreciate our achievements. Every grandchild that we find is giving freedom to someone who was living as a slave, so that they can recover their rights, their identity, their history, and their family.
"Above all it's the triumph of truth over lies. And the triumph of life over death."