“9 Queens” and Argentine national identity

By Shane Cassidy 

By the late 1990’s, Argentina had become a country so straddled with debt due to the mistreatment of the economy by so many that went before it that this irrefutably disrupted and permanently altered Argentina’s national identity. National identity is the result of various different external factors such as the sharing of history and tradition with others to national symbols such as flag or anthem. Those who have now lived through and experienced Argentina’s crises have undoubtedly had their national identity altered. Following the end of the ‘Dirty War’ and the emergence of democratic politics in Argentina in the 1980’s, a new national identity has naturally emerged with the heavy weight of history inevitably ingrained in Argentinean psyche. The sight of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is enough to remind Argentineans of their dark history and the damages an unregulated, un-checked power can do. With that in mind, Argentina has since gone on to experience a different type of abuse at the hands of their leaders and this time through economic methods. Fabián Bielinsky, through his film ‘9 Queens’, attempts to portray this new society and shared national identity while also showing the affects it has had on a larger scale.

9 Queens focuses on two con men, Juan and Marcos who meet when Marcos comes to Juan’s assistance when a scam goes wrong at a petrol station and convinces him to work with him for the day. Marco is the more experienced of the two who will go to whatever lengths for the con, while Juan appears to be the beginner, an innocent with more noble reasons for pulling tricks and scams. In effect, his elderly father is in prison and he needs to earn enough money to bribe the judge. Ultimately they stumble upon a scam to sell counterfeit stamps to a businessman, Esteban Vidal Gandolfo, who is leaving the country the next day. Over the course of the film a web of intrigue and deceit is woven as all the characters appear to have ulterior motives. The film opens with the scene of a simple yet highly evocative and powerful image. Our protagonist Juan, crafty, smooth and clever cons a simple, hard-working and honest cashier out of money in her till. This is a microcosm for Argentinean society in general. A largely corrupt government taking advantage of decent, hardworking citizens for their own benefit. This scene is replicated many times throughout the film, the waiter in the restaurant, the unsuspecting old lady deceived into believing she is helping her nephew to repair his car, the news kiosk where Marcos gets his newspaper for free, the old lady in the lift. The film is an accurate depiction of the extent of present day Argentine society is. Corruption is closely woven into the fabric of society that it is no longer surprising to hear of those who have swindled the books or attempted to steal for their own gain.

A mentality of self-entitlement pervades the film and throughout we encounter many characters adamant in the belief that they are not only entitled but also deserving in whatever they can get. There exists also a delusionary aspect to their attitudes as, although they are all in one way or another caught up in criminal activity, they all state that they are not personally a thief or a crook. This idea that it is every man for himself and ones only concern is profiting by whatever means necessary. When the two protagonists are sitting in a café, Washington, a petty thief and stolen goods salesman attempts to peddle some of his goods. Juan turns to him eventually and enquires about the possibility of acquiring a gun to which Washington recoils in horror and insists that he is not a crook. The irony in the scene is evident in itself but it highlights the extent to which Argentina’s attitude towards crime and theft has been readjusted. What is clear from the film is that corruption has affected every level of society and even policemen are presented as opportunists looking to earn some more money as is seen in the scene where Marcos pays a police colleague to pretend to arrest him to trick Gandolfo into believing his story about the stamps is legitimate.

The brilliant Ricardo Darín plays the character of ‘Marcos’ and his is a portrayal of man caught up in modern day, corrupt, Argentinean society. He represents the mentality of so many of his fellow Argentineans. He has delusions of grandeur and views himself as above the status of a thief when he remarks to Juan, “¿Se cree que soy un ladrón? Yo no matar a personas. No utilizo una pieza. Nadie puede hacer eso.” He is out for himself, even going so far as to tricking his family out of their inheritance and Marcos doesn’t feel remorse for his actions. He believes that he has seen an opportunity and seized it and that he is deserving of it, he unrepentantly says “Vi una oportunidad y me agarró”. Marcos typifies a disillusioned, disconnected, modern-day citizen. When he meets his sister in her workplace he questions her marital and family status. This is a clear indicator that he does not stay in contact and does not display any interest in the lives of his sister or younger brother ‘Federico’. He also shows his lack of respect for elders and Sandro in particular when Sandro is attempting to explain what happened, Marcos interrupts and says disrespectfully “that’s when you blew your fuse”. Marcos is even willing to prostitute his sister to satisfy his insatiable thirst for money and greed. Even after the supposed act o f sleeping with Gandolfo is completed, Marcos rushes to his sister only to grab the suitcase enquiring about the money and showing absolutely no regard for his sisters well-being.

Marcos appears to care little but for the materialistic and monetary gains. He is clearly void of any admirable traits or scruples and only assists Juan at the beginning of the film as he needs someone to help him perform scams. In one scene he remarks to Juan, “Santos no hay, lo que hay son tarifas diferentes” and then he later remarks to Juan “putos no faltan, lo que faltan son inversores”. These two statements allow an insight into the workings of Marcos’ mind. He is motivated purely by his own profit and interest. It is a combination of his blind greed and inability to care for others which inevitably leads to the downfall of Marcos and this can be equally applied to the Argentine banks and society in general. Bielinsky cleverly juxtaposes Juan against that of Marcos so even though Juan is seen as a trickster, he is one troubled by a conscience and guilt. He is ultimately vindicated in his actions as he is assisting his lover Valeria to regain control of her inheritance. The relationship between the two main characters shows this clash of conscience and values in modern day Argentine society.

“Este país se va al infierno” (Marcos, Nueve Reinas)

By all accounts, the distrust levelled at banks reached a plateau by the turn of the century, most noticeably with the Cacerolazo’s[1], protests which involve the banging of pots and pans and made famous in Argentina. The reference to the banks and financial systems and the impact they have had in Argentina was therefore inevitable especially when Argentina experienced such economic and social turbulence along with massive financial loss at the hands of the banks. Bielinsky references them in several scenes and his reasoning for this is two-fold: firstly he wishes to highlight their recklessness and his second motivation is to present his audience with a deeper understanding of how the situation with the banks could have developed to such a stage. The audience witnesses Gandolfo in his hotel room, engaged in a rigorous debate about the price of shares. It is only with understanding of the impending financial crisis that is clear that he is wishing to quickly offload his shares and save as much money as possible from the inevitable loss and impending run on the banks. In another scene where the stamp expert attempts to extort a percentage of the takings for himself. Juan remarks to Marcos that he is “handing out too much shares”. This latter remark is subtle allusion to the banks and the way in which they banked so senselessly as to leave Argentinean society facing an economic emergency. As of May 2011 approximately two-thirds of Argentinean bank accounts are in short-term deposit accounts with banks also very wary of long term loans[2]. It is a curious that if one of the things that unties national identity is a shared past and similar mentality then a whole psyche of mistrust and suspicion has since developed into national identity in Argentina. Argentinean society is caught in this complex scenario where they are unsure and deeply suspicious of all types of government and understandably so. They have experienced and witnessed at first hand the atrocities performed by the military Junta in the 1970’s and equally they have seen the total financial destruction of their country and the wrecking of their currency by the corrupt elite in a ‘democratic’ government during the 1980’s and 90’s. Naturally and unsurprisingly a deep distrust has developed and it this can be witnessed by the manifestation of the idea of cautiousness towards the banks. The final irony is that Gandolfo pays Marcos and Juan by a cashier’s cheque which is certified by a bank but little do the characters know that this means very little given the country’s economic difficulty.

Bielinsky cleverly disguises the real motives of both characters throughout the film and this naturally leads to a development of mistrust and suspicion on both characters sides but also from the audience. The audience gets a disorientating sense of not knowing exactly what is going on while also experiencing the feeling that they are being duped or conned. This was a reality for Argentine society, especially in the 90’s and early 2000’s where Argentina’s economy and government was awash with corruption and manipulation. At every turn in the film, a new deceit appears to be uncovered and the narrative is constructed in such a way as to prevent the audience from ascertaining who exactly is involved with who. The film’s opening scene involves an act of deceit by Juan and is quickly followed by Marcos deceiving the petrol station employees to aid Juan. Marcos’ life has been a life of fraud and crafty dealing. He has tricked his siblings out of their inheritance and throughout the film he is unaware that everyone he encounters is involved in the ultimate act of misrepresentation in order to regain Valeria’s rightful inheritance. Even when Juan goes to visit his father in prison, his father is not only fooled by his son’s faux-innocence but also the card game which Juan’s father plays while Juan visits him is one of sleight of hand and trickery.

It is also through this use of characters that Bielinski also depicts Argentina in its multicultural, diverse way. Argentina, home to so many immigrants from all over the world is a melting pot of different cultural backgrounds and customs. Although largely Catholic, Argentina is home to the largest Jewish population in South America and this Jewish presence in society is also referred to in the film. Bielinsky himself of Jewish descent, depicts a whole area of Buenos Aries as being a Jewish area simply from the implied manner in which Juan states that his mother is from Entre Ríos, a predominantly Jewish area in Buenos Aries[3]. Bielinsky is attempting to show more than just one face of Argentinean society to his audience and wishes to reflect the vibrant, diverse culture which exists within Argentina. It is also pertinent as it displays and acknowledges the existence of a vibrant Jewish population because, despite Jewish people in Argentina representing only 1% of Argentinean population, 10% of all victims were Jewish during the ‘Dirty War’ from 1976-83[4].

Bielinsky makes clever use of his characters in order to represent Argentine national identity in a new light. Although he depicts his characters as deceitful, suspicious and untrustworthy it is never done to portray Argentineans in a harsh light. On the contrary, it is Argentinean society, reflected through Juan and his hopeful ending which encapsulates the goodness of Argentina and it’s society. However, as in every society, an ill prevails in the form of con artists and thieves, be it on a small level or a large financial institutional level. Argentina has experienced great change over the last 30 years and naturally their psyche and perspective will have been altered.

References

[1] http://www.cacerolazo.com

[3] FALICOV, T, The Cinematic Tango: contemporary Argentine film, Wallflower Press, 2007

[4] http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Terrorism/Argentina_STATUS.html

Bibliography

FALICOV, T, The Cinematic Tango: contemporary Argentine film, Wallflower Press, 2007

REIN, R, Argentine Jews or Jewish Argentines?: essays on ethnicity, identity, and diaspora, Brill, 2010

SHAW, D, Contemporary Latin American cinema: breaking into the global market, Rowman and Littlefield, 2007

Nueve Reinas, 2000, Bielinsky, F, Argentina. Buena Vista International (film)

http://www.cacerolazo.com/

http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Terrorism/Argentina_STATUS.html

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/world/2011/0517/1224297118048.html

By Shane Cassidy

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Social Movements vs Impunity in Argentina

By Larisa Sioneriu 

aa madres de plaza

In this essay I will discuss the contributions of the social movements in the fight against impunity in Argentina from an anthropological perspective. Bringing justice and reconciliation to a state that knew terror and violence in its most extreme forms is a hard yet compulsory task. For a country like Argentina , left with a vivid trauma after going through genocides, making peace with the past is indispensable in order to embrace the future. However, Argentina, like many other countries, delayed in succeeding to do so. But by delaying justice, it didn’t mean that people had forgotten what happened. The social movements that emerged from the Dirty War and its aftermath played a key role in standing up against the painful silence and imposed impunity. Therefore, I will focus on two of the organizations that managed to carry out a struggle against impunity in Argentina : Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo and the HIJOS.

Argentina’s Dirty War

The last military dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983) was the most painful period of Argentina, as its politics of terror and fear had repercussions that became endemic in the lives of the Argentinians. Following the coup d’état from 1976, Argentina become target of an oppressive and violent government whose aim was to eliminate all the dissidents and the opposition. However, along with the ones who were politically targeted, many innocent people became victims as well. The military regime, also referred to as ‘The Dirty War’, is famous for its crimes against the citizens : kidnapping, tortures and mass-murders. The officially accepted number of the victims of the regimes is 30.000. The 30.000 desaparecidos left a stain on the country’s memory. The regime met its end after being defeated in the war for the Malvinas Islands. Thus, in 1983 , the regime was replaced by a democratic one led by President Raul Alfonsin.

The country was profoundly affected by the former regime and people asked for justice. Alfonsin created CONADEP, a organization whose goal was to investigate what happened to the desaparecidos during 1976-1983. (Soledad Catoggio 2010:9) The findings of CONADEP were included in the Nunca Mas report which generated the trials of a few of the victimizers of the military dictatorship. The developing of the process in bringing justice seemed promising as some of the leaders of the former regime were imprisoned. However, the President shortly passed to laws that brought impunity to the perpetrators : The Full Stop Law and the Law of Due Obedience. The passing of these two laws left the victims and their families restless. The two laws were voided only years later, in 2001, when a judge sentenced two policemen for the disappearance of a Chilean-Argentinean couple. Following Kirchner’s presidency, Argentina re-opened itself to the search of truth and the quest for justice.

If Argentina’s government failed in many ways and very often to fight against the impunity and to manage to bring justice and reconcile its citizens with the atrocities of the past, the social movements created especially by the families of the desaparecidos prevailed. To mention a few of the organizations who fought against impunity through social movements : Familiares, Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, Los Hermanos, Las Abuelas, Los E-x-Desaparecidos and the HIJOS.

Nuestros hijos nos parieron’

Hebe de Bonafini’s words, ‘Nuestros hijos nos parieron’ (Kaplan 2004:114), are at the heart of one of the most powerful and meaningful social movement in Argentina and not only : Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo. This non-governmental organization consists of mothers whose children were taken away during the bloody military dictatorship in Argentina. These mothers, whose hearts were ripped off by loss, pain and suffering, marched into a fight against impunity, loading their weapons with inexhaustible and unchallenged resistance. From their desperate wish for finding out what happened to their disappeared children, they gave birth to an organization that became one of the most known symbols of the fight against the genocides of the military dictatorship.

Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo are particular for many reasons. To begin with, they started their peaceful, yet powerful fight against the oppressive regime only a year after its installation. In other words, they fearlessly gave voice to their suffering , unanswered questions and resentments against a regime in power.

The madres met by coincidence in the Ministry of Interior , while they were looking for questions regarding their disappeared children. When they realized that they share the same pain and the same purpose, they decided to meet again. It was on the 30th of April 1977 when the madres had their first march in Plaza de Mayo. On that day, there were 14 mothers attending the march. Since they weren’t allowed to make a public protest, they walked counterclockwise in the Plaza and captured the attention of the few people who were present there. Ever since, the madres have been marching every Thursday at 3:30, managing to ‘transform private and personal grief into collective political action and heroically challenge(d) a military dictatorship.( Gandsman 2012:195).

These marches became more and more numerous and more and more impacting. From only 14 women the number increased to hundreds and inspired other social movements as well. Their most striking symbol was the white scarf they used to hear on their heads during the manifestations. The scarves had written on them the names of their disappeared children. Although not all of them were religious or they came from different religious backgrounds, they used to simulate Christian processions and recall the image of Virgin Mary by covering their heads. As Diane Tylor (1998:102) affirms, ‘The virginal role allowed the women to perform traditionally acceptable “feminine” qualities of self-sacrifice, suffering, irrationality, even as they took one of the most daring steps imaginable in their particular political arena: they affirmed their passivity and powerlessness.’  For there weekly march and their way of expressing themselves through such symbols , they were often referred to as ‘Las Locas’.

The mothers soon started to look for ways to make themselves heard around the country and realized how useful could media be. On the 5th of October , 1977, they took advantage of the Mother’s Day and managed to publish an ad in the popular newspaper ‘La Prensa’. It is believed that they succeeded to get the ad published because one of the mothers was close to some people running the newspaper. (Kaplan 2004:118) The ad consisted of a list of names and identification numbers of 237 mothers of those who had disappeared. They sought more help from the media afterwards and succeeded to make themselves heard internationally in 1978, during the World Cup that took place in Buenos Aires. They continued their weekly march during the World Cup and this brought the attention to international media who interviewed them and published their story internationally. Another way of creating awareness during that period was by writing their stories and the name of their desaparecidos on paper currency.(Kaplan 2004:121)

However, the authorities of that regime didn’t close their eyes in front of their street demonstrations and the activities of ‘Las Locas’. In December 1977, ten people involved in Las madres de Plaza de Mayo were kidnapped. Among them were two of the madres, Esther Ballestrino de Careaga and Maria Eugenia Ponce de Bianco. The women had never returned. Moreover, at the end of 1978, the Plaza de Mayo had been sealed and hence, the mothers had lost their ‘square of fight’. In spite of all these events, the madres were not stopped and they went on with their struggle. Moreover, they continued their street demonstrations even after 1983, when a the military dictatorship was defeated by the democratic elected president, Raul Alfonsin.

In 1986, Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo divided into two groups: La Linea Fundadora and La Asociacion Madres de Plaza de Mayo. The main reasons that led to their separation were the contradictory opinions on attending the hearings of CONADEP and the supporting of the exhumation of the bodies. (Kaplan 2004:145). Some of the mothers didn’t want to ‘identify’ bodies, but to ‘identify the assassins’. (Kaplan 2004:142) In spite of these contradictions between them and the division into two, the madres kept being active in their search of truth and justice. It was only during the Kirchner’s presidency (2003-2007) that the madres stopped their annual march (but not their weekly one). Under Kirchner’s presidency, las madres felt heard and understood for the first time. The culmination of their struggle and national recognition was when President Kirchner claimed: ‘We are the children of the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and for that reason, we insist on strengthening the system of protection of human rights and the judgment and condemnation of those who violate them’. (Gandsman, 2012:201)

For more than 30 years, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, stood up and fought against the most fearful regime in Argentina and continued to fight against immunity until nowadays. ‘These ordinary housewives turned themselves into the crack troops of a movement that couches justice in terms of ethics and historical memory.’ (Kaplan 2004:104)

 

La lucha que nos pario’

‘La lucha que nos pario’ is a very common expression used among the HIJOS (Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio). The HIJOS are yet another distinctive non governmental organization that brought the fight against impunity on the streets of Buenos Aires. This organization is made of the sons and daughters of the desaparecidos in the military dictatorship.

The HIJOS was created after children of the victims of the former regime attending the commemorative meeting ‘Memory, Remembering and Compromise’ at the University of La Plata, in 1994. The commemorative meeting was organized by the friends of the abducted Carlos de la Riva and managed to gather many children of those who had disappeared during the period of 1976-1983. The gathering brought the children of the victim together and they experienced a sentiment of revelation and comfort since ‘they could share their experiences with others who understood the loss and determination they felt. They could express a variety of emotions and concerns without having to defend their feelings or explain that they wanted justice, not vengeance.’ (Kaplan 2004:155) As a result of this reunion, the ones who attended it decided to meet again the following year. This reunion led to the formation of HIJOS.

During the period in which the HIJOS emerged, Argentina was dealing with unhealed wounds. In spite of now being in an era of transition to democracy and having passed 10 years from the ending of the most painful military dictatorship, the country still didn’t overcome the terror of the former regime. Since justice had not been made, peace was ,for many, a utopia-like desire. The ‘Full stop’ law and the law of ‘Due Obedience’ issued by the President Raul Alfonsin, enabled the victimizers of the military regime to get away unpunished. Even though this law aimed to silence the victims and reconcile the past through forgetfulness, it most certainly didn’t bring peace and justice. Among the ones who wanted justice, HIJOS were one of the first in claiming it and the first to make it.

Making justice in their own way was the most prominent peculiarity of the HIJOS – the justice was made through the escraches. The verb escrachar comes from Lunfardo, an Argentinan dialect that emerged in the late 19th century among the criminals imprisoned in Buenos Aires. However, Lunfardo is now used in the day to day vocabulary in Argentina. Meaning ‘to reveal’ or ‘to unmask’, escrachar is a method of making public the identity of the perpetrators of the 30.000 desaparecidos. ‘Escraches were a communication strategy based on public exposure and humiliation, whose goal was to eliminate or limit the social spaces that repressors have gained.’ (Kaiser 2002:504) .

The escraches are not simply street demonstrations. They are a serious procedure that involves hard work and commitment. The HIJOS act as both detectives and judges. They spend a long time before the day of escrache by doing all the research on the crimes of the ones to be escrachados. Once they tracked down the repressors and gathered all the information about their involvement in terrorizing the country during the military regime, the HIJOS start organizing the day of the escrache. They go to the neighborhood of the genocida and invite the neighbors to the escrache. They talk to them and hand leaflets on which they wrote all the crimes committed by the genocida. They also put on signs with the address of the genocide and paint the walls of the neighborhood with different messages such as : ‘Si no hay justicia, hay escrache’. The day of the escrache is a celebration. They march around the neighbourhood with drums and posters, singing and announcing the neighbours: ‘Alerta, alerta, alerta a los vecinos /Al lado de su casa esta viviendo un asesino’. The neighbours and join them and they march together to the house of the one to be escrachado. Here, the HIJOS give a speech and mark the area with paintings, making sure that his identity is now revealed to the rest of the world. As a consequence, the genocida becomes a prisoner of his own house. Many of them moved away after being escrachados, because they were not able to live in that area the way they used to before. Others are even excluded from other social groups or even work – the case of the gynecologist Jose Luis Magnacco, who was dismissed from the clinic he worked in as a result of being escrachado. (Kaplan 2004:162).

(…) escraches are more than traditional challenge to impunity and political amnesia. Their way of bringing back the past into the public sphere compels society to face specific effects of the failure to administer justice and to define its policy toward the original human rights violations as well as within ongoing struggles for accountability.’ (Kaiser 2002:500)

 

Conclusion

 

To sum up, the local social movements in Argentina were at the core of challenging immunity. The aftermaths of such a bloody military dictatorship couldn’t have been other than a painful transition to democracy, in which the memories still tortured the victims and their families. The search for truth was fundamental for the reconciliation with the past , and the social movements played a great role on the stage of justice. We have seen how Las Madres and Los HIJOS succeeded in creating awareness about the past, giving voice to the victims, making justice on their own and  defeat impunity.

 

 Bibliography :

 

  • Kaiser, S. 2002: Escraches: demonstrations, communication and political memory in post-dictatorial Argentina. Media, Culture & Society, 24, 499-516.
  • Kaplan, T. 2004: Taking back the streets: women, youth, and direct democracy. Berkeley: University of California Press
  • Robben, A.C.G.M. 2010: Testimonies, Truths, and Transitions of Justice in Argentina and Chile. In: Hinton, A.L. (ed.): Transitional Justice: Global Mechanisms and Local Realities in the Aftermath of Genocide and Mass Violence. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press (p. 179-205).
  • Robben, A.C.G.M. 2005: Political Violence and Trauma in Argentina. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Soledad Catoggio, Maria 2010: La ultima dictadura militar argentina (1976-1983): la ingeneria del terrorismo de Estado. Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence , pg 1-20
  • Taylor, Diana , Making a Spectacle : The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Journal of the association for Research on Mothering, 3:2 , 97-109

By Larisa Sioneriu