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Art and survival in Argentina’s Memory Museum

As Argentina marks 40 years of democracy, Cecilia Sosa introduces the reflections of Alejandra Naftal, former director of ESMA, dictatorship survivor and lifetime witness

7 to 9 minute read

A large group of people stand outside a glass fronted bulilding, the ESMA Memory Museum in Buenos Aires, Argentina

In Britain, the end of Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship is largely remembered through the prism of the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. Back home, the transition to democracy continued apace. One protagonist in this process was Alejandra Naftal, former curator and director of the ESMA Memory Museum

Its site is the former Navy School of Mechanics, which operated as a clandestine centre of detention, torture and extermination during the dictatorship, imprisoning over 5,500 people. In September 2023, it was declared a Unesco world heritage site

The museum is unique. It does not contain objects. Its collection comprises the voices of victims and survivors and the building itself, both providing evidence in the ongoing trials of military personnel.

Naftal was illegally detained and ‘disappeared’ in 1978. She was released in 1979 and went into exile until 1983. She has testified in numerous trials and contributed to research, documentaries and films. Her professional and personal life has gone far beyond the role of witness, however. 

At ESMA, she revealed how new audiences and generations can relate to, with and in a space of trauma to create new meanings, politics and power. Under her direction, ESMA became a stage for new exchanges and encounters of art, memory and survival – reflecting Argentina’s dynamic culture of memory, truth and justice.

Below is an excerpt from her speech at the July 2023 Memory Studies Association annual conference in Newcastle.

I want to share a brief journey, in the form of a political biography and subjective reflection on the politics of human rights. This journey has been marked by certain inflection points: my militancy of the 1970s; my kidnapping and release; my testimony as a witness; my human rights activism; my exile and return. A focal point is my participation in the creation of ESMA: the debates, ethical and aesthetic decisions, and my experience of directing the institution.

I was born in 1960 into a typical middle-class Jewish communist family in Paternal, Buenos Aires. Politics, culture and art were ever-present topics of conversation at mealtimes and during family meetings. The political context in Argentina had for years moved between dictatorships and restricted democracies in which Peronism was prohibited. 

As a teenager, I began my political militancy in a Peronist group that engaged in guerrilla actions against the backdrop of a chaotic political and economic context that drifted into the coup d’état of 24 March 1976. In its wake lay death, torture, disappearance, concentration camps and fear within a silenced society, devastated national industry and decimated economy.

In 1977, I stopped my militant activity because I was scared. I came to think I was safe – that nothing bad could happen to me. I went to school, had a boyfriend, went out with friends. A ‘normal life’, even while I would learn every day that someone had died or been detained. Over 40 years later, it is incredible to realise how terror becomes normalised. 

On 9 May 1978, a group of men, dressed as civilians but carrying weapons, broke into my family home and threw me into a green Ford Falcon car. I was 17 years old. They carried on with a series of kidnappings in numerous homes, until finally they took us to a concentration camp called Vesubio.

Over 40 years later, it is incredible to realise how terror becomes normalised

We now know that there were about 500 concentration camps in which a systematic plan of kidnappings, tortures, rapes and forced disappearances was carried out. I was there for about three months. I saw pregnant women, devastated men and detained youths. I also saw the perpetrators, and I came to understand the repressive cycle of dictatorship.

Later, I was transferred to a military base, which was a pantomime of liberation, the passage from illegally detained to legally imprisoned. In Villa Devoto prison I was held alongside thousands of women political prisoners. 

When I arrived at the jail, with my school uniform and braids in my hair, 40 or so women welcomed me into the cell. I felt that ‘they’ couldn’t kill me anymore. From then on, I knew the love of these women, who taught me how not to give up, and of the value of companionship and solidarity. 

Finally, after a military hearing, a court martial that was declared incompetent, and a federal criminal prosecution on charges of ‘illicit association’ and attacking public transportation, they released me on probation – citing a lack of proof. There was no evidence, of course, but investigations continued. I returned home to Paternal. 

A picture of a moment

To this day, I carry a picture of that moment in late November 1978. I’m embracing my father, looking at the camera. I previously wrote down my memory of that day:

Nowadays, when someone wants to know about you, they just find out. If not, they’re an idiot. If you google my name, everything is there. Back then, my mum told everyone nothing had happened – that I had gone to Miami. When I got home, at 18 years old, accompanied by a neighbour, Beltrán, the street had a party. 

Everyone was there: Doña Jesusa, the storekeeper who sold to us on credit, with her daughter and her daughter’s husband, Gino. Mrs Cayum, who didn’t know why those young people called her a gorilla. Did she have hair on her arms? ‘No, Mrs. Cayum, it’s because when you cross yourself, you look like an anti-Peronist nun,’ my older sister explained to her, while the kids danced on the sidewalk to the marching music.

The Broslaskys, Saúl, Dora, Marcela and Eduardito – the little monster of my craziest childhood antics – were also there. Pirucha, Beltrán’s wife, who couldn’t have children after she had given birth to a premature baby, and her saintly mother – the godmother of the neighbourhood and proud owner of five slobbering boxers that always disgusted me. So many people. 

They all hugged me and shouted, ‘Alex is back! Alex is back!’ My old man was waiting for me at the door, crying, the poor thing. Inside my old lady was making the milanesas that I had asked for in my letters home. 

My older sister with her husband and her children, Laura and Pablo. As for my sister Diana? I don’t remember. I never remember what she did, or where was she when such a thing happened… No, I never remember.

We go inside the house. We get to the patio. The azaleas and jasmins were bursting in the flowerbeds. It was warm but I didn’t take off the wool sweater that the Villa Devoto girls had knitted for me, after taking apart an old quilt. I missed them. I thought about them. They loved me, yes, they did. 

Before serving the food, my mom took my bag of clothes to put it in the laundry. Angry and surprised, she asked what had happened to everything she had sent me. Where was the white bamboo t-shirt? The new pair of Lee jeans? The leather Adidas trainers? I could hardly hear her. I could hardly look at her. I could hardly believe it.

We ate. Everyone spoke at the same time, about anything at all, to hide my silence, to not ask, to appease their fear and imagination. Luckily there were kids running, jumping, playing. Luckily Laurita was there. As I held her, she asked: ‘Auntie, where have you been?’

Where had I been? For many years I could not answer that question. Many camp survivors agree that, after ‘liberation’, another hell began. The hell of silence, guilt, suspicion – ‘why are you alive?’ – of not being able to speak, because nobody wants to listen; because the military is still out there; because hundreds of parents come to see you with photos of their missing children, to ask if you saw them; because you have to tell them that you saw them and that they are dead.

A challenge and a gift

I had to leave Argentina and forget about everything – everything except the names of those who did not make it back. From the day I was released, I knew I would forever be a witness. 

I returned with the return of democracy in 1983. I testified in the 1985 trial of the military junta. I studied museology. My daughter was born. I worked in museums, in cinema, in communications, in advertising. In the 1990s, I created the oral archive of testimonies on state terrorism, Memoria Abierta. 

I conducted more than 400 interviews with survivors, relatives and ex-prisoners. Then, there were no official human rights policies. In the 2000s, the trials for crimes against humanity were reopened. I testified in cases involving Vesubio.

In 2012, I was asked to lead the ESMA museum project. At this particular clandestine site there was a secret maternity unit. It was also the departure point of ‘death flights’, used to push people who were still alive into the River Plate. 

From the day I was released, I knew I would forever be a witness

The project was a huge challenge and also a gift. I had prepared myself, consciously and unconsciously, for this moment: everything that I had lived through and done became fundamental tools for developing the project. 

The museum had to be created by consensus between all parties involved. It had to be an expression of what a society understands of its past, projected into the future. Given the experiences endured at the site, I knew it had to be a place that would ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’.

After years of intense work with a dedicated team, the museum opened in May 2015. I was its executive director until I retired in 2022. It was a wonderful decade, full of certainties and challenges that resonate still: What does it mean to ‘transmit memory’? What do we expect of memory sites? How can we situate ourselves in relation to the generations who didn’t live through these events, but live in a present without futures?

In September 2022, I discovered that my testimony appeared in Argentina, 1985. Seeing myself on screen, 40 years later, I wondered: am I the same person? Am I the girl in the photo with her father? Yes, I do recognise myself. And I recognise that I will always be a witness, willing to testify. 

This article first appeared in Issue #242 Fighting Fascism. Subscribe today to support independent socialist media and get your copy hot off the press!

Alejandra Naftal is the former director of ESMA Memory Museum and survivor of the Argentine dictatorship of 1977-1983

Cecilia Sosa is an Argentinean sociologist and cultural journalist

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