Category Archives: Los desaparecidos

Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos “The space for memory and human rights”. Part 1.

Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos

“The space for memory and human rights”

Ex ESMA (Naval School of Mechanics)The space of Memory, Truth and Justice

My visit to the “museum” began as I entered the building. Faces of the victims fill the windows and glass walls that welcome you to the Officials House, a former site of both the Argentine Naval School of Mechanics and, beginning in 1977, one of the more than 600 clandestine detention centers the military dictatorship created as concentration, torture and extermination centers during Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship from 1976-1983.

Fifteen buildings occupy the 42-acre property renamed the Space for Memory and Human Rights, known as ex ESMA. ESMA was the Spanish abbreviation for the former base of operations and living space for the officials who worked in this detention center, one of more than 600 detention centers located throughout Argentina. No wonder our bus driver corrected me when I indicated we wanted to exit the bus at ESMA. “EX ESMA?” he asked. “Si.” The space it formerly occupied no longer exists. It is undoubtedly EX ESMA now. I stand corrected.

So far I have visited four of the fifteen buildings so far: the “Casino de Oficiales”; the Casa por la Identidad; 30,000 Compañeros Presentes, and the Harold Conti Cultural Center. IMG_2882

Throughout the site appear various photographic, story panels that show some of those who were disappeared, telling the story of their short lives. Each records the dates of their entries into and disappearances from the ESMA detention center.


Hand-painted portraits of political activists from those years through today appear on the exterior walls of some buildings, like this one of Milagro Sala, a political organizer in NW Argentina who was imprisoned in January 2016 for her beliefs and work on behalf of the people who live in the Tupac Amaru community.IMG_2922

Other buildings on the 42-acre property are vacant, some are being used for educational, artistic, research, film, music, theatre photography, workshops, guided visits for schools, seminars and debates, programs for young children and many educational and cultural events—a place where the power of art is transformative! In the following posts, I write about visiting three other buildings/exhibits on the property: the Harold Conti Cultural Center; 30,000 Compañeros Presente; and the Casa de la Identidad.

Espacio Memoria

In the actual detention and torture center, the former Casino de Oficiales, I toured the building with a Spanish-speaking guide. I wandered alone throughout the rest of the buildings and around the property itself. Except for 2 or 3 text explanations in English all of the text panels and printed materials are exclusively available in Spanish. And while it is true that a photograph is worth a thousand words, the words of those who survived this horrible place with its horrible activities, it is especially poignant to read from their memories. It is possible to arrange for a tour of this space and the property in general—in English, but I didn’t do so. With English speakers, however, I recommend an English-speaking guide so you don’t miss the moving testimonies of the survivors.

Much of what is known and spoke about in this space is based on survivors’ testimonies and various historical documents. Large video screens display interview excerpts with many survivors. The building, now empty, except for the display panels and multiple video screens it is stark and quiet. But not always. Not then. Then the torturers blared rock music throughout the detention center, though it rarely muffled the sounds emanating from the rooms where the detainees were kept. As if loud hard rock music could block out the screams from the men and women being questioned and tortured, while the capucho or hood blocked their faces from their captors and from each other.


The building tour took us to the military and prisoners’ housing spaces, bathroom, torture centers, and birthing center. Yes, this was where pregnant prisoners “dieron luz”, that is, where the women gave birth to their babies, and then lost their own lives as well as their newborns’. This space and its macabre reality struck me as very very powerful, and left me more than ready for the beautiful testimonies to the families of the disappeared children I saw on display in the Casa de la Identidad.


How was it possible that children were born in this place?


The Capucha

The principal space where the prisoners were kept was known as the “Capucha” (literally, the hood). Each small cubicle had a bed on the floor. Those detained had their hands and feet tied and each wore a hood or silk mask that covered their faces/eyes. Prisoners here weren’t known by their names, but by their numbers.

Some prisoners remained here for hours, days, or months, while others were kept here for years. Every Wednesday the guards would call a group of prisoners by their numbers. They were made to form a line and descend two flights of stairs down to the basement where they would be “transferred.”

Entryway to ESMA memorial site

Looking out from the former detention center

The basement

The basement was used for torturing and eliminating victims It was the first place where those abducted were taken to and gathered to be killed. Torture was the main activity of the center. Prisoners were taken their after arriveal, where they were interrogated. Officers wanted information from them aboth other political activisits. Also located here was the Infirmary where prisoners were kept alive after their torture and where the military gave prisoners sedatives for their “traslado” once it was determined that they would die. Here, wrote Alberto Girondo, “Torture happened practically every day and when I was in the infirmary I could hear perfectly well the screams of those being tortured, in spite of the music played to ‘cover up’ their screams and the voices of the torturers who also screamed very loudly to demand information from the prisoners.

IMG_2774  Los Traslados

The euphemism for death. “Traslado” (transfers) was what the military called the disappearance of those imprisoned here. Their prinicipal method of exterminating prisoners here consisted in rounding them up alive, drugging, stripping and dropping them from airplanes into the sea or the Rio de la Plata. This method was later known as the “death squad.”

Pieza de las Embarazadas

The registries show that more than 30 pregnant women were sent to ESMA, even though it is believed that the number is actually larger. A number of the children born here would be returned to their families (after 1983) thanks to the work of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. These women did and continue to work tirelessly on behalf of the children of those disappeared.

After the mothers were separated from their newborn children, their jailers would make them write a letter with the child’s details. They assured the mothers that they would get these letters to the families where their children would be sent. But it wasn’t so. A few days after giving birth most of the women were assassinated and their babies given away. There is only one exception to this. The son of Elizabeth Patricia Marcuzzo, who she named Sebastian, born on APRIL 15, 1978, is the ONLY child who was ever reunited with his biological family, in part because his mother Elizabeth’s letter actually did reach Sebastian’s new family.

A small photo appears in an exhibit focusing on the perpetrators of the crimes against the people. It shows the official Héctor Febrés, in charge of the clandestine efforts that took place here, where more than 30 children were given away. Febrés, the only one implicated during the first trial of those responsible died in his cell after taking cyanide pills only a few hours after being sentenced, in December of 2007.IMG_2915

Los Baños

It was in the bathrooms that those abducted by the Navy Intelligence Service were able to communicate with one another. If not actually speak, at least they could look at one another in the mirrors of those bathrooms. IMG_2767As a result, survivors identified many of the disappeared and their testimonies were part of the main evidence provided in the court trials afterwards.


The last stop on our tour was a long, rectangular room with floor to ceiling windows separated by cement columns. It was completely empty, except for the 16 slide projectors overhead that projected onto all the walls photographs and histories of the military officials responsible for the disappeared at ESMA during these painful years. How moved I was to reach the end of this horrific slide show, to read the word Condenados and see the sentences meted out by Argentine courts to the torturers. Then. And now.

 Continue on to read Part Two: Espacio de Memoria y Derechos Humanos, Casa de la Identidad.












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Filed under bilingual American guide, Buenos Aires, Dirty War, Golpe Militar, Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Los desaparecidos, Parque de la Memoria, Plaza de Mayo, The disappeared, Visiting Mendoza

Parque de la Memoria

When I read about a new photography exhibition at the Parque de la Memoria I decided it was the right time for me to return to this moving place I discovered accidentally when I took the wrong bus in 2014. My second visit there the other day confirmed this important place for locals and tourists alike to visit.  It is far from the city center, but close to the heart. I hope you will experience some of its power through the art highlighted in this post.

The Parque de la Memoria  (, in Spanish “El Monumento a las Víctimas del Terrorismo de Estado”  a Monument to the Victims of State Terrorism) is a 14-acre sculpture park in Buenos Aires located near Costanera Norte, close to the City University, and adjacent to the Río de La Plata River. The park was completed in the early 1990’s as a reminder of the brutality of the dictatorships that were in power in Argentina and throughout Latin America during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

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A three-sectioned monument records the names and ages of everyone who disappeared during the period 1969 -1983. It is a site with sinister associations. Its proximity to the University of Buenos Aires is pertinent because many of the victims were of student age, and it is next to the Rio de la Plata, where many bodies ended up. The junta’s notorious “death flights” (vuelos de los muertos) would take off from a military airport right next to the park, and the prisoners would be thrown into the muddy waters below. From heights that killed them on impact (to learn more read The Story of the Night by Colm Toíbin).

The park project was a collaboration among human rights organizations, the University of Buenos Aires and the Executive and Legislative Powers of the city. Since my initial visit, the park now also houses  the Monumento a las Víctimas del Terrorismo de Estado, a public art program and the PAyS Room.


The PAyS  Room – acronym for the slogan in Spanish: “Presentes, Ahora y Siempre” (“Present, Now and Forever”) –“ is a space for debate and reflection about State terrorism, human rights and the construction of a collective memory through art, investigation and educational activities.” It is also a venue for visual arts exhibitions, seminars, conferences, workshops, and other activities of general interest that aim for a critical thinking about State terrorism and the persistent scars it has inflicted on Argentine society.

“This place of memory does not pretend to close wounds or replace truth and justice, but rather to become a place of remembrance, homage, testimony and reflection. Its objective is for current and future generations who visit the site to become aware of the horror perpetrated by the State and the need to ensure that similar acts will NEVER AGAIN occur.” (park brochure)

Scattered throughout the park a number of sculptures add powerful witness to the fate of more than 30,000 people during the 1976-83 military dictatorship in Argentina.

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One art piece I found to be amazingly powerful and educational was the installation Carteles de la memoria” (Memory Signs by Grupo de arte callejero), a series of 53 life-size traffic signs camouflaged to suggest a route through Argentina’s recent history.  Each sign has text accompanying it that explains in brief yet meaningful critical commentary, how state terrorism developed in Argentina. Though only a few are reproduced here, the full 53-sign series is an enormous history lesson to absorb.


Some of the texts illuminate the role of the US in Argentina and Latin America’s dark dictatorial past. The text below this sign reads:  “CIA Plan Condor was the repressive cooperation that existed between the US CIA and the dictators of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brasil and Bolivia during this period.” Between 1950-1975 the Latin American military were trained in North American military facilities like the School of the Americas in the Panama Canal.  There they were taught courses about torture, interrogations, intelligence and military behavior against insurgents.  The objective was to protect North American interests and intervene in whatever countries whose political movements or situations of insurgency constituted an obstacle for advancing North American purposes.”

Or this text

360 detention centers found country-wide

360 detention centers found country-wide

showing the map of Argentina’s provinces where clandestine detention centers stood. More than 360 clandestine detention centers existed although official authorities denied their existence and  the destinies of those detained and tortured there.

IMG_0900On display in the PAYs Room was an equally powerful and moving contemporary photography exhibition, “Huellas de lo Real” (“Footprints of reality”), featuring the work of Juan Travnik, an Argentine who captures urban experience postdictatorshipIMG_0902 and Jonathan Moller, an American documentalist and human rights activist, whose work gives voice to the struggles of peasant populations during conflicts in Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. The temporary exhibit brought the peasants’ faces and lives into the very center of this memorial space.IMG_0899

Another outdoor sculpture of a text cut into steel forms Maria Orensanz’s sculpture “Pensar es un hecho revolutionario.” (To think is a revolutionary act). The text has been installed in such a way that the viewer composes the text in his or her mind.  The piece alludes to the power of reflection and refers indirectly to the censorship of books and free thought.

Whether you are inside the PAYS room with its exhibits, walking the outdoor open space of the park along the Rio de la Plata, searching through the names honored in the monument, or viewing the sculptures and thinking and learning about the disappeared, a visit to the Parque de la Memoria in Buenos Aires is a special place–a space for reflection and remembrance. Worth the trip!

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Filed under Dirty War, Golpe Militar, Los desaparecidos, Parque de la Memoria, The disappeared