In August 2014, Argentina came to a standstill as a dignified, white-haired woman in her 80s gave a press conference announcing that a DNA test had identified her grandson. Social media exploded; the president herself sent her congratulations. But to understand why the reunion between a grandmother and grandchild had such significance for the country, we need to go further back.
Estela Barnes de Carlotto was born in Buenos Aires in 1930. She became a primary school teacher, got married and had four children, but she wasn’t politically active. Then, in March 1976, the Argentine military staged a coup, and the military junta set about persecuting its opponents with an efficient brutality. Activists, intellectuals, students, journalists, or simply those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time were abducted and, in most cases, never heard from again – they became, as was the known term, the “disappeared”.
Carlotto’s daughter Laura was one of the disappeared. She was in the early stages of pregnancy at the time. Pregnant disappeared women were typically kept alive until they gave birth, but after this, many of them were murdered and their children given to military families or others connected to the regime.
In August 1978, Carlotto joined other women in similar situations in the fledgling Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo group (Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo). In the same month, the police informed her that her daughter was dead, but said nothing about the child. Carlotto and the other Grandmothers began doggedly, slowly, and in fear of losing their lives, to piece together scraps of news from released prisoners and other sources in their search for their grandchildren.
After I buried my daughter, a new level of struggle started. People sometimes think that because one recovers the body one will say, “All right, enough, this is the end of the story.” Quite the contrary. My work was just beginning. I started to search for the murderers of my daughter and to search for my grandson. I found out that my daughter in the camp said to her friends, “As long as my mother lives she is never going to forgive the military.” And she was right. She knew me better than I did. If somebody had told me then that I would dedicate my life to searching for the truth and struggling against historical amnesia, I would not have believed it.
Over a decade, the Grandmothers became one of the leading human rights groups of Argentina and were involved in the development of a national blood bank to identify the children born in captivity. Carlotto, who became president of the group in 1989, was a well-known figure and travelled the world, publicising their cause. And during this time, there were considerable successes; a first group of children were identified. But as the years passed, there remained no sign of the boy that survivors reported Laura Carlotto had given birth to in the detention centre and named Guido.
When I turned 80, I begged God not to let me die before I found my grandson.
Then, in 2014, a 36-year-old musician called Ignacio Hurban volunteered himself for DNA testing. The results confirmed he was the son of Laura and her partner Walmir Montoya, and the grandson of the president of the Grandmothers. Although the Grandmothers initially tried to retain details of his identity, he was quickly at the centre of a media storm.
He has since been able to meet both his grandmothers as well as many more members of his extended family. He’s also taken the name of his parents and is now Ignacio Montoya Carlotto.
The only thought I had was: Laura can rest in peace now. I felt Laura said to me: “Mother, mission accomplished.” But there’s so much still to do. I’m going to keep looking for the other missing ones.
At the time of writing, the Grandmothers have just announced the identification of the 121st grandchild. These women never wanted to be famous; they came to activism out of great personal loss. But their contribution is such an important one, and as such Estela Carlotto is instantly recognisable from numerous press conferences and public events. For 40 years, she has been one of the leaders of the struggle for justice in Argentina, and there’s no sign of her stopping just yet.