Book review: Searching for answers about a disappeared Argentinian relative

Looking for Alicia: The Unfinished Life of an Argentinian Rebel, by Marc Raboy, 310 pages, Anansi

Visitors to central Buenos Aires who pass the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday cannot but be struck by the sight of dozens of grandmothers wearing white kerchiefs parading solemnly around the square.

For 45 years the Madres de Plaza de Mayo have been demanding accountability for what Argentinian human rights groups estimate are 30,000 people who were disappeared during the brutal crackdown on dissent by the seven-year military dictatorship that began in 1976. Their slogan: “Memory, truth, justice.”

The Madres persistently ask the same questions and sadly, there have been few answers: Where are our children and grandchildren? What happened to them? Why? And, having talked to some, they ask: Where are their remains?

A few years ago, Montrealer Marc Raboy and his partner Lucie Rodrigue decided to visit Argentina and, on a whim, when he googled Raboy Argentina, discovered that in June 1976, one Alicia Raboy, a journalist, was listed as disappeared.

She had been taken, along with her infant daughter, during a raid by the killers of her companion, Francisco (Paco) Urondo, a celebrated poet who was a prominent activist in the Montoneros urban guerilla group.

This led Raboy, a writer and McGill University emeritus professor of communications studies, to undertake painstaking research into establishing a family tree that eventually connected him to Alicia, a distant relative, and the decision to write the remarkable story of her short and ultimately tragic life.

Believing it was a book that had to be written, Raboy embarked on the voyage to reconstruct her life and the circumstances surrounding her disappearance. It is a fascinating and moving read. Her story became a framework to recount and reflect on this devastating period in Argentinian history. He developed the book by using a broad range of sources, personal interviews, and culling information from an extensive bibliography including some of the most recent revelations about what the Argentine military referred to as the Dirty War. The narrative is enriched with photographs and an eight-page chronology of significant dates in Argentinian history and Alicia’s life.

While the exact number of victims of state repression during the period may never be known, as Raboy writes, “there is nothing as concrete as a single missing person.”

Before setting out on what resembled detective work, Raboy, in the first of several visits to Argentina gained the approval and promise of support from her brother, Gabriel, and other family members. The writer tracked the genealogical history of their linked families, studied Spanish in its Argentinian variant, read widely, and interviewed people who were politically active in the 1970s.

One fascinating angle was that Raboy pointed out similarities between Alicia’s and his own life, growing up in Montreal. Like Alicia, he was the grandson of four Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and was a journalist and social activist before becoming an academic. He was 29, and Alicia was 28 when she disappeared.

“Like Alicia, I came of age in the 1960s, when anything seemed possible and we expected our lives to be more interesting than our parents’,” Raboy writes. Like Alicia, “I was driven by a sense of solidarity with the oppressed and the marginalized who were starting to stand up. The world was changing and I wanted to be on the right side of history.”

As early as her high school years Alicia also wanted to be on the right side of history and appears to have come to the attention of authorities when she chose to write an essay about the Thalidomide controversy. The drug, developed to counteract morning sickness during pregnancies, was soon linked to deformed limbs in newborns. In Argentina, advertising and production stopped but orders continued to be filled. While no traces could be found of the actual essay, it led to her been expelled from Normal School No. 4, although classmates at the time believed that was a pretext, the real reason being her involvement with Argentina’s Communist Youth Federation.

Alicia’s political trajectory developed apace, evolving at university into involvement in left-wing Peronism – which Raboy sees as a mix of internationalist and New Left counterculture – and eventually, once she began working as a journalist and in a serious relationship with Urondo, in 1972 she was recruited into the Montoneros.

Alicia believed that armed struggle was necessary, recalled her Peronist friend Norberto Raffoul: “She was Rosa Luxemburg. La Pasionaria. Very intense. She lived the revolution as an obsession. It was logical that she would decide on the most confrontational path.”

Alicia’s story at this point becomes meshed with that of the Montoneros, with the movement’s leadership “obsessed with the illusion that they could build a regular army and eventually seize power.” For its leaders, armed struggle “had become an end in itself,” which in turn nurtured the escalation of repression. As the Montoneros became more militaristic, their political effectiveness diminished. Many Argentinians just wanted the cycle of violence to end, Raboy writes.

As repression took its mounting toll, Alicia and her partner Urondo were driven underground and the Montoneros leadership dispatched them from bustling Buenos Aires to the remote town of Mendoza, east of the Andes, where they were more exposed and met their fate.

Following massive pressure from families and human-rights groups, and various changers of government, some of the perpetrators were charged in court. On Oct. 6, 2011, four former Mendoza police officers were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the premeditated homicide of Urondo and “illegal deprivation of liberty” of Alicia Raboy.

Exactly what happened to Alicia remains a mystery. She was taken to the most terrible of Mendoza’s seven clandestine detention centres on June 17, 1976. And as Raboy writes, the total mystery of her fate is in itself remarkable. She was “both too important and not important enough to be remembered.” One can only presume the worst. As he observes, “There is a limit to how much one can absorb before the descriptions begin to give way to a pornography of terror.”

What is terribly clear is that the disappearance of Alicia Raboy didn’t just happen: “Hers was one of tens of thousands of lives extinguished purposefully in a deliberate process of state terrorism.”

Her story, Marc Raboy concludes, is “also part of the story of a generation that thought it could change the world and did, but didn’t, not in the way or to the extent it thought it could.”

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