It is a mild winter day in Buenos Aires, August of 1990, and my uncle Cacho, dark eyes convivial, is introducing me to an old friend in the Ezeiza Airport. My uncle’s friend is the pilot for our Aerolíneas Argentinas flight home to LAX this early morning. The pilot is silver-haired, upholstered in black or navy, likely with gold chevrons on his sleeves, though he could be wearing epaulettes and a Napoleon hat for all the attention I pay as I shake his hand in my frazzled state.
I am frazzled after an ancient heater in Mendoza, an agricultural province at the foot of the Andes, sucked the oxygen out of my father’s room at my grandparents’ house by the vineyards. This led to an ER, with relatives making pharmacy runs for IV fluid the hospital did not have that day. I stayed an extra week to ensure Papá recovered, leaving him in the care of resourceful relatives, one of whom – heroic aunt Margarita—had raced us in her Peugeot–my poor father unconscious–to Emergencias after the ambulance got lost.
I am traveling alone with my two-year-old, Vincent, brown-eyed future scientist in an umbrella stroller, clutching a picture book on birds my grandmother, Mamaita, gave him in Mendoza. Mendoza is the home my mother, a teacher, and my father, an engineer, left for the US after Juan Domingo Perón—Evita’s husband—sank the economy on his first round as President. We tried many times to return to live in Argentina–and I planned go to college there just as the Universidad de Buenos Aires went on strike–it somehow never worked out.
Our flight back to LA should take sixteen hours if we’re lucky, longer if we double back to pick up a stranded soccer team as we did on our way here a month ago. “The plane’s not supposed to be flying North!,” my husband, Walt, had said, as we left Peru, watching the snowy grooves of the Andes glide by in the wrong direction. That was when the pilot announced that our Lima-Buenos Aires flight would first head back up to Ecuador to help out a soccer team. Welcome to Aerolíneas Argentinas.
My carry-on is an improvised diaper bag for my younger sons, actually a distended blue gym sack packed with Pull-ups, formula, crackers, meds, 3T sweat suits and Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures. The Ninja Turtles I pilfered from my six-year-old, Brian, who already left for California on our flight scheduled last week, along with Walt, and our one-year-old, Lucas.
The plane’s pilot is long gone, as are my uncle Cacho and aunt Popi, who left for work after hugging us again from the other side of a swag chain separating passengers from friends and family.
Vincent and I are now at the head of a line to board the plane. Our gatekeeper is a gray-faced, gray-haired airline official dressed similarly to the pilot, eyeing my overstuffed diaper-gym bag. To use a Spanish expression, the only thing missing from this carry-on is the parrot’s cage.
“I’m sorry, señora,” says the official, perfunctory, “You’ll have to check this bag with the rest of your luggage.”
Does this man know he is inviting sixteen hours of toddler mayhem for every passenger on the plane? What am I supposed to do without Similac, Pull-ups, and Ninja Turtles in a confined space for sixteen hours, give or take?
My bag may be full, but it is much smaller than any suitcase carry-on. Still, I am too addled from my father’s near-death experience to state my case. My brain flashes on uncle Cacho’s pilot friend. “If you need anything at all,” my uncle had said, “Let him know.”
So I attempt to do just that: “My uncle said that if—“
The gray-faced official interrupts me before I can finish my sentence. Gone is his no-nonsense tolerant look. His features have– perplexingly—morphed into what I can only call a manifestation of sheer rage.
“Your uncle?” he says tightly. “Your uncle!” he repeats, this time raising his voice so the entire airport can hear. I sense from the stillness behind us that everyone in line has stopped doing whatever it is passengers about to board a plane do.
The official moves in towards me, growing even louder, as if I were off in baggage claims instead of nearly nose-to-nose with him.
“This is a democracy!” he yells. I can see a blue vein bulging over his starched white collar. “Who do you think you are?”
My blood runs cold and I have a warm soupy feeling in my solar plexus. The silence around us is electric.
This man has posed a trick question.
“My uncle–” I can only repeat in babbling mode. I do not even have the presence of mind to look down at my child in his plaid umbrella stroller to see if this man is terrifying him, too.
The official abruptly shifts to a new line of interrogation.
“Who is your uncle?” he barks. Even in a re-established democracy, who you know apparently counts.
“My uncle told me we could take this on board.” I offer feebly, holding up the diaper bag. My husband, a lawyer, would call such an answer “non-responsive.” If only Walt were here. Do I need a lawyer? The question is not an idle one.
In 1983, seven years ago, Argentina’s government ended a clandestine war on its own people. This war began on March 24 1976, when the military junta of Gen. Jorge Videla toppled Perón’s widow, second wife Isabelita, named President when her husband died, her leadership plagued by guerrilla violence and political kidnappings. So in 1976, Videla’s junta launched El Proceso de Reorganización Nacional, its architect, an admiral, Emilio Massera, schooled in Nazi tactics. El Proceso purported to make Argentina safe again. To this end, it eliminated legal due process: anyone named as “dissident” could be detained, any time, anywhere, no charges read, no official record. The media was censored. Alleged “subversives”–men, women (pregnant women, grandmothers), college and high school kids, were taken to hidden “detention centers” in military buildings, shuttered schools, under shopping malls. 30,000 detained souls were never seen again: they were “disappeared,” pulled from beds, cars, cafés, offices—no trace— horrifically tortured for names of more victims to “process” or disappear.
In the late 1980’s, a childhood friend of my mother’s brought a civil suit in California against one of the junta generals who ordered his torture. Both our friend, Horacio, and the general were, coincidentally, in exile in San Francisco. A California court ordered the general to pay millions in restitution. The general was penniless—but even if he had had such a sum, who or what can ever put to rest such a past? The past is never dead. It isn’t even past, as Faulkner said. (Horacio never spoke of this past to us.)
A current of fear runs through me. I think of the disappeared pregnant women, their infants adopted by junta-approved couples, children innocent of their dead parents’ names, not knowing that their grandmothers, the Madres y Abuelas de Mayo, circling the Plaza de Mayo under the President’s windows, petition heaven and earth and DNA banks to find them. I had seen the Madres on this visit, heads covered in their signature white scarves.
Beyond the Madres de Mayo’s presence, in 1990 life seems “normal”, just as it seemed normal on my last visit–in 1978: relatives sent no ominous news or warnings; and US media roundly ignored South America. (García Márquez spoke of the “Solitude of Latin America” in his ’82 Nobel speech). When I visited in 1978, Mendoza’s provincial grace seemed undisturbed. Buenos Aires’s sidewalk cafés crowded, vibrant, into the night. The Bee Gees and Eric Clapton sang from Calle Florida’s record stores, where teens bobbed their heads in booths sampling LP’s. John Travolta danced in his white suit from Fiebre de Sábado por la Noche on the windows of packed theaters. All was “well.”
“Who is your uncle!?” the official is repeating in my face.
I am the same generation as the disappeared students. Again, I flash back to 1978, July in Buenos Aires, staying with my aunt Popi’s family, walking arm in arm with Popi on a winter afternoon errand, threading through girls with ironed curtains of hair, pants still flared, platform shoes; school kids in white guardapolvo smocks, men in sideburns and wide-lapel suits; me, exhilarated to be back in the Paris of South America.
Popi and I just missed one of the curlicued buses exhaling diesel, charging off into herds of European cars ignoring lanes. We would have paid no attention to the passing Ford Falcons painted gray-green; people only gradually understood these were military vehicles manned by “death squads” rounding up detainees.
Waiting for the next bus with my aunt, I glanced up at a sash on the soaring Obelisco, monument to the Republic, rising over 9 de Julio, the world’s widest avenue, named for Argentina’s Independence Day. “Somos derechos y humanos,” read the sash, its sky-blue and white bands, the colors of Argentina’s flag.
“What does that mean?” I asked my aunt, pointing at the Obelisco. “We’re upstanding and human,” was the wording, I knew. But I did not understand its significance on a sash across a civic monument.
Popi brushed back her black-gray hair and tented a hand over her dark yes, squinting at the Obelisco. “Bah, that Jimmy Carter,” she finally said. “He thinks Argentina is violating human rights.” My aunt gave a dismissive wave. “And what kind of a name is ‘Jimmy‘ for a president, anyway?” (“Cheemee” was how people said it.)
Popi—a deeply good soul— could not know that day; neither could I, that the Obelisco sash was a Madison Avenue ad, a cog in the dictatorship’s disinformation machine churning out official stories to convince Argentines—and the world at large—that “rumors” of torture and disappearance were “fake news.” [An image of the Obelisco wearing the sash I saw in 1978 is not Googleable—its NY ad company likely had it legally expunged from history.]
But did Argentines not named on blacklists end up believing the junta’s propaganda for seven years, ignoring proof? Or did state terror induce a paralysis of complicity made up of denial and fear? Anyone who challenged official stories risked death—and worse. Even the Madres de Mayo, who counted on the sanctity of motherhood for immunity were unspared. I’d like to think I would have had what it took to push back and outwit the dictatorship had I lived in Argentina throughout El Proceso. But how can I know?
Isabel Allende woke up the world to human rights violations by South American dictatorships in concert against “dissidence” via “Project Condor,” with her 1982 novelized family saga, The House of the Spirits. Allende chronicled personal, historical events, but she did not detail acts of torture because, as she said, “I don’t want to give anyone ideas.” Allende does talk about an “apparent reality” of daily life that allowed people to carry on as if everything were “normal.” Under it were the ongoing horrors of state terror, visible or not.
What horrors has this official interrogating me today experienced as a victim; or as a villain; or as a witness–under apparent reality?
My own question jolts my brain into a decision. I suddenly have what I hope is a good response for this official who could, at the very least, lose packed essentials for my child—and at most— re-enact God knows what.
I realize all I have to do is switch names–and uncles. My uncle Cacho is no longer here. His pilot friend is surely strapped into the cockpit by now. Moreover, I have no idea which political side, right or left, this pilot was on during the dictatorship–and which side the man in front of me took. So a different uncle has come to mind, the one who booked this flight for us during my father’s hospital stay—my father’s younger brother Juan Antonio–full head of burgeoning black hair to my dad’s endearing bald pate. If Juan Antonio can’t help us at this moment, no one can.
I clear my throat.
“My uncle the ambassador,” I hear myself say with conviction. The new democracy has named Juan Antonio an embajador plenipotenciario extraordinario, which translates to “ambassador without portfolio.” I have no idea what this title endows. All I know is the word “ambassador” sounds neutral, maybe even unassailable.
The official absorbs my answer, expressionless. Our audience of passengers remains silent, maybe because they are waiting to see what happens next—or maybe because they are fed up with waiting and quietly fuming at our delay.
I look down at my little son’s feathery brown crown. He is mercifully, studiously, turning pages in the shiny Southern Cone bird book.
The official seems to be making calculations in his head. “Is your passport Argentine or is it from the United States?” he asks evenly.
“The United States.” I don’t dare move a hair, not even to show him my photo before the red-white-and-blue flag, between navy covers. I brace for another question.
But whatever it was I was seeing before seems to drain from the man’s face. At this moment the man looks hesitant, unsure as what to ask next. I imagine his next set of calculations: A US Citizen mother + a US Citizen child + a US Ambassador uncle + a line of US-bound witnesses = International incident.
“My uncle the ambassador wants me to take this on the plane,” I state, holding up the diaper bag again, this time with some authority. Technically, I’m telling the truth. Juan Antonio, father of five, a new grandfather, my aunt Maria Marta actually expecting their sixth child– would definitely want me to take along the diaper bag. “It holds important papers,” I explain. Pull-ups are just that.
The man glances at the diaper bag.
What if I said too much? What if he asks to see the important papers?
Yet again, the man’s affect turns on a dime He is suddenly, visibly, officious,
“Yes, yes,” he says, surprisingly conciliatory. “Of course!”
He does not ask to see the important papers.
I say a mental prayer of gratitude.
I thank this official with a gravitas befitting a US ambassador’s niece (though my uncle is technically an Argentine functionary), not wanting to invite a single extra question or push my luck.
Life unclenches; the air normalizes. I do not dare look back at our line as I adjust the diaper bag strap on one shoulder and use a foot to unlock stroller brakes. I’d like to think our fellow passengers in line behind us are mentally cheering—but more likely they are tired and not really paying attention anymore, just relieved to begin boarding.
“We’ll send you a complimentary drink when the flight is underway, señora,” says the gray-faced official, gracious as I hand over boarding passes.
“Thank you, señor,” I respond, as if this will happen, knowing it won’t. But that doesn’t matter, because this man has just given me a glimpse under an “apparent reality” into a past not even past, with its give or take choices I was, most mercifully, spared by life.
Once Vincent and I are in our row of seats on the plane, I smile into my child’s peaceful brown eyes. He smiles back, an inimitable grin, one my mother calls his “accomplice smile.”
I pull my little son onto my lap and hug him until it is time to put on our safety belts.
BIO: Carol Zapata-Whelan’s work has been published in Newsweek, Hispanic Link News Service and other periodicals. Her fiction has appeared in anthologies Under the Fifth Sun: Latino Literature from California (Santa Clara U Press/Heyday) and Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs (Beacon). Her book-length memoir, Finding Magic Mountain: Life with Five Glorious Kids and a Rogue Gene Called FOP (Marlowe & Co.) was also published in Mandarin and Korean and inspired a movie in Asia. Her first children’s book is The Wish Sisters (Lighthouse) and her forthcoming historical novel is Sol & Serafina & the A.I.R. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCLA and teaches Spanish/Latin American literature at California State University, Fresno.