The Argentina Independent – The Past in the Present: Hidden Places of Memory in Buenos Aires

by Anne Dirks and Else Siemerink, 25 March 2013.

Yesterday, on 24th March, the military coup of 1976 was commemorated as part of the ‘Dia de la Memoria’ (Remembrance Day). On this day, 37 years ago, the military took control of the Argentinean state apparatus, and in the seven-year period of violence and oppression that followed, around 30.000 people were tortured, killed and disappeared. The city of Buenos Aires was stage and witness to many violent events during the dictatorship and the public sphere could rapidly turn into a space of fear and terror. In the city today few visible traces of this past remain, but many places retain powerful memories from that period in history.

The streets of Buenos Aires witnessed countless acts of violence during the dictatorship.

The city already has many museums, monuments, statues and other urban interventions like graffiti that serve to commemorate the victims of the junta. But what about those more regular, unmarked places we pass daily? Buildings, cafes, streets, corners and parks; the entire urban landscape was immersed in the dictatorial regime. What multitude of stories and memories can be attached to those spaces? What for one person is just a regular spot to drink a cup of coffee, might carry an intense or traumatic memory for the next. Aware of this fact, wandering through the city of Buenos Aires can be a totally different experience.

Ambiguous Public Buildings

The many public service buildings of the city are seen today as open spaces, accessible for practically every citizen. However, many of these places have an ambiguous history and were bases for military activities during the dictatorship. Though most references to its dubious pasts are erased, for many these buildings are no longer neutral meeting grounds, but unofficial memorials of a dark period.

An example is the Hospital Militar Central on Avenida Luis Maria Campos, which was inaugurated in 1939, and still functions as a hospital. During the dictatorship it was used as a clandestine maternity clinic, where imprisoned mothers were brought and separated from their newborns after giving birth. Most of these babies were fostered out and raised by military families, registered as if they were their own. There are certain hospitals that are known to have been clandestine maternity centres, and to be born in one of those hospitals raises certain questions. Not only does the hospital itself carry a murky history, it is also a place connected to a very tangible phenomenon in today’s society: with many babies still missing – now adults – people are still questioning their own or others identities.

Hospital Militar Central in Buenos Aires (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Another example of an unofficial memorial is the library of the University of Buenos Aires. On 25th March, 1976 a group of armed men entered the Eudeba, the Editorial Universidad de Buenos Aires and confiscated over 80,000 books, photographs, images, and censored other stories. The material was seen as “subversive” and a lot of it was destroyed during organised book burnings. A supposedly neutral and liberal place of knowledge and possibilities became a place of limitations and censorship.

The headquarters of the federal police, located in Montserrat, is another public service building that for many carries a haunting history. For Sergio Gorostiaga, journalist and human rights activist from Buenos Aires, walking past the police department is not an everyday experience: “Right now I am not intimidated by the police, but a few years back, I would have walked around this block, instead of passing it.” During the dictatorship this building was the stage for endless interrogation, torture and imprisonment. Often this was just a stopover on the way to another clandestine centres.

Gorostiaga explains that he cannot detach the building from its history; the two will always be intertwined. His brother, Pablo, disappeared in July 1976, and Sergio has dedicated a great part of his life to investigating what happened to his brother as an active member of the Comision Hermanos de H.I.J.O.S. As Gorostiaga knows the city and its history by heart, he can easily point out numerous places, which, though unremarkable in the current landscape, were witness to events related to the regime. The city’s cafes are just an example.

The Cafes of Barrio Norte

The cafes of Buenos Aires – some of which date back to the 18th century – remain one of the most prominent characteristics of the city, forming a big part of its cultural, artistic and social life. A café is more than just a place for a drink, it is where businessmen close their deals, friends catch up, acquaintances talk of politics, and writers come to work.

Café La Paz, located on the corner of Avenida Corrientes and Montevideo, is one of those emblematic establishments. During the sixties it was a popular and significant place where politicians, writers and musicians gathered to drink, eat and talk – writers like David Viñas and Rodolfo Walsh were no strangers. It’s also the place where Gorostiaga’s parents met each other. But besides these more positive associations, Gorostiaga remembers its turbulent past. As intellectuals were still regulars at La Paz when the military took control of the country in 1976, the cafe was the target of several raids. The characteristic green Ford Falcon, used by the military police to kidnap people in those days, would park in front of the café’s door and the police would pull several ‘suspicious looking’ people from the café, and force them into the car to haul them off for questioning. Gorostiaga remembers La Paz as a place that you had to avoid in this period of time. Though the people frequenting the café today will not see any physical marks of this period, a drink at La Paz would not be a casual affair for many who knew of it back then. Gorostiaga says he tried it once, but a grim feeling came over him.

Cafe La Paz, Buenos Aires (photo: Else Siemerink)

La Giralda, located on Avenida Corrientes 1453 and famous for its chocolate con churros, is another café with a similar background. Jose Orellana – wearing a dress shirt and a bow tie – has been working as a waiter at La Giralda for 17years, and before that in another nearby café. He can sum up a long list of famous intellectuals, tango dancers, and singers that visited the café and were part of the porteño counterculture. Orellana explains that often the police would raid the café and ask all the customers to identify themselves. If someone’s document was not in order, or simply didn’t satisfy them, the police would take the person to the nearby police station on Tucuman and Montevideo. If you were lucky it would not go further than a brief interrogation there, but some would never return. People who frequented the café rapidly started going to smaller and more hidden places, where the threat of the military was less present. As Gorostiaga points out “you did not even have to be involved with politics, having long hair was enough for the police to take you with them.”

Places of Resistance

For journalist Fernando Jasminoy Comas it’s the places where he heard the sounds of opposition to the military rule that still have a strong impact on him. By this he principally refers to rock music, a very strong and popular music genre that served as a voice against the military regime. Though still young when the dictatorship started, Comas regularly went to concerts and has strong memories of this period. His brother is also a desaparecido, and the dictatorship continues to have a great impact on his life.

Rock was already a strong movement before the military coup in 1976, but held more radical implications after. A new generation started to express itself and along with this many new establishments that hosted bands arose throughout the city. Examples include Zero Bar where bands like Sumo and Soda Stereo performed, Estadio Obras Sanitario where Charly García, Luis A. Spinetta played or La Esquina del Sol where Los Twist and Los Abuelos de la Nada performed. The latter was one of those mythical boliches, where there was a very liberal atmosphere and which contributed to consolidate the city’s rock scene. Bands that played at La Esquina del Sol criticised the military regime in either a hidden or straightforward fashion. Raids did take place at the concert hall, but Comas states that to him there is not a case known of somebody taken by the police from this place not to return. Most of all it was a place that he remembers for its free spirit, its own voice. Today the concert hall no longer exists, though its replacement, Club Moraes, is also a music venue.

For people like Comas passing the corner of Gurruchaga and Guatemala, in the centre of Palermo, today still provides a reminder of the freedom that reigned in the space and the atmosphere of saying and thinking what you want, in a highly censored society (pict.).

Sergio Gorostiaga creates a baldosa to mark the spot where his brother, Pablo, was kidnapped.

Making the Invisible Visible

Buenos Aires’ urban landscape underwent some remarkable changes in the last decade. The political, economical and social changes that have been initiated in Argentine society have made it possible for inhabitants to alter their surroundings and reshape their social environment when it comes to memory and commemoration. Since the election of Nestor Kirchner in 2003, more and more spaces have been turned into memorials, monuments and museums. Besides the state governed projects, and non-governmental organisations like the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and Memoria Abierta, ordinary citizens are marking their own sites of memory into the city’s landscape.

One of the projects initiated by citizens decorate the streets of Buenos Aires. The tiles, or baldosas, that Barrios x Memoria x Justicia is placing throughout the city can be found in nearly every neighborhood (pict. 4). Recently a tile was made to commemorate Gorostiaga’s brother. The making of the baldosa is a ritual in itself. In a small cafe in the neighborhood of Almagro a group of family and friends of the disappeared, and members of Hermanos meet to create the tile together. The tile for Gorostiaga’s brother is now placed on the exact spot where Pablo Gorostiaga lived and was kidnapped, on Cabildo 957.

By mapping these significant and traumatic places in the city, the past becomes present and ordinary spaces that we pass daily carry a different meaning. No longer only for those who were already aware of its history, but also for those who were not. By giving memories a physical place in the city, personal and specific events become part of a bigger story, of the collective memory and of the cityscape of Buenos Aires.