I remember my freshman year of college when I did not know that there had been military dictatorships in Latin America. And was still too innocent to comprehend the idea of what desaparecidos were (for those who don’t know, this means the disappeared, something that has happened to hundreds of thousands of Latin American people who have resisted rightist leaders and structures, but is hard to prove because the person literally disappears forever; also, I suggest reading up on Latin American history). But then my sister Alyssa told me about the dirty war in Argentina (and I later read myself about the dirty wars in many other countries) and how they estimate that 15,000 to 30.000 people were disappeared, though again, they can never know for sure.
It is simply horrifying the idea that someone from the military or someone working for the military, could enter a person’s home at night, take the man or woman he sought, and then leave without a trace. The family must struggle with the loss of that loved one (as they had to assume they would never see them again) but also with the reality that they did not know who did it or helped with it. Was it the police chief? Their boss? Their next door neighbor? They couldn’t openly investigate anything in the fear that they too would become desaparecidos.
In order to impress this reality into me more, when I took Dr. Bost’s Spanish class (the one that Alyssa first learned about it in) we watched the movie La Historia Oficial. I still remember a scene in which two teenagers are talking in the high school bathroom and one girl who has never heard about all this violence says she can’t believe it happened in her country and she never knew, as obviously the press was not covering the military’s actions. The other girl explains that it happened to her family and was in fact very real.
At the time of watching this movie, I was simply a neutral observer. I had obviously not taken a side if I didn’t know anything about it. While I was clearly upset that this was a sad history of Argentina (and Latin America as a whole) I was very glad that the military dictatorships had fallen and people didn’t have to worry about it any more (although people are still searching for their loved ones in Argentina). I didn’t know how wrong I was.
As history has a tendency of doing, it is currently repeating itself. Many Latin American countries are currently (right now!) disappearing many people with the aid of the local, state, and federal government, while the government claims it is simply using the military to fight the war on the drug cartels. I was struck by this reality particularly this week, when I witnessed a talk much like the fictitious one I had seen 3 1/2 years ago in the movie. A woman in the house described to another woman, in response to the TV news saying that the deaths in Mexico have been greatly reducing the past few years, that this was untrue. The killings and disappearances are continuing, as she personally had multiple family members killed and is now here trying to fight for asylum. The other woman who was from a safe part of Mexico sat there stunned to hear about this reality from a real person sitting in her sala, talking about things she had only known to be rumors or far away stories. I again just watched and listened to this interaction, feeling a wide range of emotions wipe over me. I was upset, frustrated, sympathetic, outraged, and proud that the woman was brave enough to speak about the truth in Mexico. But again, I was just watching.
It was only later that night, as I was locking all of the doors to secure the house for the night as a I finished up my shift, that I realized something about my position: 4 years ago I was the neutral observer, naive and blind to the suffering in Latin America. However, knowledge changes that. You can no longer be neutral when you know the truth. By avoiding doing anything about the oppression you learn about, you are taking the side of the aggressor. Yet I realized that in the face of knowledge I had a different reaction. I became an actor, someone to try to help stand up to the system of injustice in the only way I knew how to do: help provide hospitality to those escaping and fleeing from oppression in the hopes that I can be a small part of what helps them build a new life and brings attention to their suffering so that one day things might be different. Because I refuse to sit back while people are disappeared by a government supposedly fighting to help its people.
What will you do?