And then, hello! I grew up in a dictatorship. And that, for sure, was a tactical system of not only dealing with political dissidence but, as we later realized, a systematic method of imposing neoliberal policies, which were decisively resisted by union leaders, organizers, social justice activists, workers, scientists, intellectuals, teachers. The disappearance of bodies is a tactic of embodiment, a way of installing terror beyond discipline, as Foucault tells us. Punishment was first staged for all to see, as a form of exemplarity. Because public punishment scenes became grounds for cultivating social revolt, spectators became uneasy and rebelled, punishment methodologies migrated to enclosed spaces of which the paradigm is the prison. Prisoners disappear in the enclosed space of the prison of which we know very little. In the case of the Argentine military, both spaces of detention (Clandestine Detention Centers) and people signaled a way of waging the war on dissidents through denying their existence. General Videla responded to questions about the disappeared by saying “They don’t exist. They are disappeared.”
Against this, human rights organizations such as The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo through their rounds in Plaza de Mayo gave visibility to the fact that their children were being kidnapped and disappeared by military forces. The rounds, the presence of the Mothers as a constituted group with their own symbols such as the white headscarves and the photo IDs of their loved ones, turned what was initially perceived as isolated events of abductions of political rebels into a practice of truth claims, a demand for justice and a rejection of state-mandated forgetting. The siluetazo, an artist-led campaign that provided the iconography to represent absent bodies powerfully contributed to make disappearance count as an established practice of State terror. These practices of visualizing what was going on, and of demanding the re-appearance of dissidents’ bodies, alive, countered what Diana Taylor calls “percepticide” or the practice of “killing through the senses.” Percepticide characterizes how the military were blatantly open about their “dirty war” tactics of kidnapping and disappearing militants and activists and of discouraging people’s awareness and discussion of what was taking place. The Mothers carried IDs for people to see the faces of those they were searching for, to put a face on the disappeared. The silhouettes provided an icon, a way of depicting the “vanished” through an image of missing bodies.
And while all these was happening, I was a girl in school whose family believed, like many Argentine families did, that those disappearances had a reason to be, that the military were hard at work saving us from the threat of communism and subversive violence. Accounts of found bodies on the shores of Uruguay were broadcast from Radio Colonia, a station my dad had on when he came to pick me up to the teens’ parties I went to.. Dictatorship as embodiment is also present in my memory very vividly through my recollection of the school protocols around hygiene: no hair was allowed to cover girls’ or boys’ faces, white pristine overalls were mandatory, its length, rigorously policed; dark blue (the color used by the police) for socks, sweaters, jackets, headbands, or whatever accessory was needed; socks were supposed to be always at knee length; shoes brown or black, had to be shinny. On gym days we were asked to bring sweatpants and sneakers and change in the classroom before going to the patio or gymnasium. The premise was that if we wore comfortable shoes and clothes all day, we would be more inclined to be undisciplined. The disposition of bodies in space was the classical school one, Pink Floyd’s The Wall style: benches looking to the front, never movable, the teacher as authority and the front as the charged space in which knowledge would be evaluated. Oral lessons were feared. Oratory and exposition, let alone critical thinking, never encouraged. This was the pedagogical embodiment of the military agenda; and bodily comportment played a huge part in it. I went to an all-girl school and I would not attribute gender policing to the military days only, but a study of how gender was supposed to be performed in school (starting from male and female white overall design) can also be traced. Despite this, I used a male nickname and left love notes to the unknown girl in the afternoon school schedule. My name was “Alex”.
Bodies collectively organized in public space for me meant military parades, which were associated in my school mindset to paying tribute to the forefathers, those other military men who could not be judged for their excesses, whose enemy (the Spaniards and other foreign invaders) was clear. The other massive gathering of bodies I witnessed was the soccer matches, in which Argentines united after a ball and felt national pride even at the height of the dictatorship. Here, even the military allowed themselves to lose composure and celebrate a goal at the top of their lungs.
And there is always the Catholic church and its scripted, synchronized ritual of faith. The military were not afraid of these bodies, devotee bodies, carefully watched from the pulpit, from a doctrine that does not encourage rebellion to authority, as I perceived in my parents’ every move and thought.
The factories, the universities, the art schools were other collective spaces under surveillance. Control and submission had uneven levels of success and rested mainly on designating military personnel as deans of schools, for example. The repressive agenda aimed to reach all levels of society to crash resistance to the new regime that was being engineered and that would make the need for military force irrelevant at later stages. While people thought that the military were fighting the evils of communism and the violent guerrillas who wanted to take over the country, as many scholars have shown the repressive government was actually installing what was later known as neoliberalism, state deregulation, free market economics, etc etc. The repression of collective association later became everyday practice in the individualist logic of market-regulated social survival. Fear and terror created the structure for people’s non-committal relationship to what surrounded them (the “no te metás”- “do not get involved” predicament). Bodies were forcibly disassociated and later became happily so, with the exception of the 1980s in which we (mostly the middle-class) celebrated the return of democracy, and artists took over alternative spaces and created artistic, interdisciplinary experimentations that elaborated on the violence of the previous years.
The body of the 1980s is a body like mine, happy to be in her first rally, happy to be with others in the plaza, not to witness a military parade but to celebrate freedom, the end of fear. As a young adult, I enjoyed my first performances, environmental theater with La Organización Negra, artists who used warehouse-like spaces and presented images of violence, mediated by aesthetics, in worlds difficult to locate. There, performances were spectacular. Perhaps the value of these performances was that we were finally able to see, to feel as spectators, engaged and at the same time distanced from the performance event. The fiction made us safe, despite their resonances with our recent past, which made them so compelling. We were again in rock concerts, our bodies in no particular mandated position (not in a theater auditorium); we were jumping, sweating, together. Nightclubs like Morocco invited sexual dissidents and heteros to dance together. This was a place in which we were able to be free, where gender normativity and gender protocols in relation to who asks who for a dance, were not mandatory. (These were things that made me anxious; the eternal minutes when you are dying to dance a song and no male volunteers showed up to grant you access to the dancing floor). At Morocco I had the right to my own dance, to dance with others, just for the pure enjoyment of that space, that shared time, of loose bodies.
*Lado B is a series of writings I created while I was working on my book Performance Constellations: Networks of Protest and Activism in Latin America (U. Michigan Press, 2019). These “writing musings” were based on readings, memories and thoughts about embodiment, tactics, technology, state violence, capitalism and authoritarianism, and queerness. To cite: Fuentes, Marcela A. “Lado B.” Variopintos (blog). WordPress. 03/D24/2021. https://wordpress.com/post/variopintos.net/316.