In 1976, shortly after a coup that saw the President of Argentina, Isabel Martínez de Perón, replaced by a military dictatorship, the life of celebrated Argentine poet Juan Gelman darkened immeasurably when his son and daughter-in-law—Marcelo, 20, and Maria Claudia, an 18-year-old expectant mother—were kidnapped, just two of approximately 30,000 people to go missing in similar circumstances under the new regime. Gelman’s subsequent investigations confirmed the worst, that both had been killed, but also that their baby had survived and had been taken in by foster parents. Gelman was desperate to meet his grandchild: this letter, written in 1995 and published in a national newspaper, was the height of his search.
Remarkably, Juan Gelman’s granddaughter, Macarena, was found in 1999. They met for the first time the next year. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights later forced Uruguay to admit publicly the crimes against Maria, Marcelo and Macarena Gelman. The above photo shows Macarena and Juan Gelman in 2012 after Uruguayan Prime Minister Jose Mujica read a statement to this effect.
Letter taken from the More Letters of Note book which can now be found on the shelves of all respectable, well-stocked bookshops. More info and reviews can be found here.
An Open Letter to My Grandson or Granddaughter
Within the next six months you will turn nineteen. You would have been born one day in October 1976 in an army concentration camp, El Pozo de Quilmes, almost certainly. A little before or a little after they assassinated your father with a shot in the head from less than a half meter’s distance. He was helpless and a military detail assassinated him, perhaps the same one that kidnapped him along with your mother in Buenos Aires that 24th of August, removing them to the concentration camp known as Automotores Orletti. It functioned right there in the neighborhood of Floresta, and the military christened it “The Garden.”
Your father’s name was Marcelo; your mother’s, Claudia. Each was twenty years old at the time, and you were six months in your mother’s womb when this happened. They moved her–and you within her–to Quilmes when she was about to give birth. She must have given birth there under the eyes of some doctor/accomplice of the military dictatorship. They took you from her then, and you were placed–it usually happened like this–in the hands of some sterile couple, military or police force, or some judge or journalist friendly to police or military. There was a sinister waiting list in those days for each concentration camp; those entered on it would wait to be paired with a child born of those prisoners who gave birth and who, with few exceptions, were assassinated immediately afterward.
Thirteen years have passed since the military left the government, and nothing is known of your mother. On the other hand, in a sixty-gallon oil drum which the military filled with sand and concrete and threw into the San Fernando River your father’s remains were found thirteen years after the fact. He is buried now in La Tablada. At least in his case there is that much certainty.
It is very strange for me to be speaking of my children as your parents-who-never-were. I do not know if you are a boy or a girl. I know you were born. Father Fiorello Cavalli of the Secretariat of the Vatican State assured me of that fact in February 1978. What has been your destiny since, I ask myself. Conflicting ideas keep coming to me. On the one hand I have always found repugnant the idea of your calling “Daddy” some military or police gangster who stole you, or some friend of those who assassinated your father. On the other hand I have always wished that in whatever home you may have grown up you were well brought up and educated and loved a lot. Still, I have always thought there must be some hole, or failure in the love shown you, not so much because these parents are not your biological parents–as they say–but because they would have to have some awareness of your story and how they were involved in falsifying it. I suppose that you have been lied to a lot.
Then, too, I have wondered all these years what I would do if you were found–whether to drag you out of the home you knew; whether to speak with your adoptive parents and establish visiting rights, always on the basis of your knowing who you were and where you came from. The dilemma came up and circled around time and time again, whenever the possibility arose that the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo had found you. I would work it out differently each time, according to your age at the moment. It would worry me that you’d be too small or not small enough to understand what had happened, to understand why your parents, whom you believed to be your parents, were not, even though you might want them to be. I was worried you would suffer a double wound that way, one that would cause structural damage to your identity as it was forming.
But now you are big. You will be capable of understanding who you are and of deciding what do to with who you are. The Grandmothers are there with their flesh-and-blood data banks that enable them to determine with scientific precision the origins of the children of the Disappeared. Your origins.
You are almost as old now as your parents were when they killed them, and soon you will be older than they got to be, they who have stayed twenty forever. They had dreams for you and for a world more suitable and habitable. I would like to talk to you about them and to have you tell me about yourself; to be able to recognize in you my own son and to let you find in me what I have of your father–both of us are his orphans. I would like to repair somehow this brutal severance or silence that has perpetrated the military dictatorship within the very flesh of my family. I would like to give you your own history, but not separate you from what you don’t want to separate from. You are big now, as I said.
Marcelo and Claudia’s dreams have not yet come true. Least of all for you, who were born, and who knows where and with whom you are? Perhaps you have the gray-green eyes of my son, or the chestnut-colored eyes of his wife that had a particular shine, tender and lively both. Who knows what you are like if you are a boy? Who knows what you are like if you are a girl? Maybe you’ll be able to get yourself out of this mystery and into another one: a meeting with a grandfather who is waiting for you.