Today’s guest blogger is Nancy J. Gates-Madsen, author of the book Trauma, Taboo, and Truth-Telling. The book is part of the Critical Human Rights series and will be released in paperback this week.
“Los argentinos somos derechos y humanos” (We Argentines are humans and righteous). A play on the words “derechos humanos” (human rights), this 1979 bumper sticker slogan served as part of the military government’s public response to accusations of human rights violations and was one way in which the junta attempted to shape the story that was told about their regime. Determined to deflect attention from mothers who were marching around the Plaza de Mayo, demanding information about their missing loved ones (los desaparecidos), rumors of clandestine detention centers, and stories of torture and disappearance, the military crafted an alternative tale in which Argentines were paragons of human rights, having recently hosted the 1978 World Cup, which Argentina won in a thrilling (if controversial) victory over the Netherlands.
The use of a “cover story” to conceal an uncomfortable truth is a tactic one might expect from a military government eager to suppress inconvenient reports of clandestine actions. However, my research shows that even stories that attempt to call attention to the violence of the military regime may conceal as much as they reveal. Taboos do not pertain solely to the realm of the military and its apologists; the rhetoric of human rights organizations also perpetuates certain taboos regarding the portrayal of victims and perpetrators. By analyzing cultural responses to dictatorship, including novels, plays, documentary film and telenovela—in particular, by paying attention to which stories are not being told—my book provides a framework for understanding the complex postdictatorship period itself. Overt silences—a literal lack of speech—are complemented by more covert silences or “cover stories” found in tales of victims of human rights violations. For example, fictional tales of torture most often emphasize the stubborn silence of the victim yet ignore difficult questions of complicity or betrayal in the torture chamber. Similarly, stories of babies born in captivity and appropriated by families sympathetic to the military regime highlight the importance of identity restitution—the discovery of the appropriated individual’s biological identity and happy reunification with family members who have spent years searching for them—but elide uncomfortable issues regarding love and appropriation.
The cultural landscape of postdictatorship Argentina is marked by silences: by unasked, unanswered, or unanswerable questions, by censorship, disappearance, and taboo topics. In many representations of the trauma of torture or disappearance, unpalatable truths regarding victims and perpetrators remain consigned to the shadows. However, a more complete understanding of the complicated postdictatorship terrain in Argentina only emerges when one attends not only to the stories that are being told, but also to those that remain taboo.
is an associate professor of Spanish at Luther College. She is the cotranslator of Violet Island and Other Poems by Reina María Rodríguez.