Argentina’s unequivocal approach to confronting its recent dark history sets an example for countries more reluctant to discuss their shameful past. By Andy Hazel.

Memory, Mafalda and the ESMA Museum in Argentina

Two men beside a pink wall with graffiti.
A mural of Argentinian cartoon character Mafalda in La Boca, Buenos Aires.
Credit: David Silverman / Getty Images

In early 2020, when Covid-19 was still lingering several scrolls down the home page of Australian news sites and weeks away from ending the world as we knew it, I encountered a guide to handling collective trauma. I did not go looking for it, but a combination of cheap flights, the urge to avoid another merciless summer and to find an economy that was kind to the Australian dollar led me to Argentina.

For any tourist who looks beyond the tango, soccer and steak, questions begin to arise as to why such a grand nation – once one of the world’s richest – is so beleaguered by debt and tragedy. Few countries have dealt with the scale of brutality and anguish that has marked the past century of Argentina’s existence. Following the recommendations of locals and guide books, I visited ground zero, the ESMA Museum in Buenos Aires. Its mission is laid out in its full title, ESMA Museum and Site of Memory – Former Clandestine Center of Detention, Torture and Extermination. Once a naval school, then a prison, now a memorial.

In the wan sunlight I made my way through the city’s colonial district, surrounded by the opulence of the neoclassic buildings – looming curlicued structures that could have been designed by Ludwig Bemelmans for his Madeline series. It’s as if the city rejected any inspiration from the continent on which it grew, preferring, like Australia, to preserve whatever European notions it could.

To the traveller, Buenos Aires holds the inescapable sense of a city built for a time long ago. Once the wealthiest city on Earth, the past 100 years have seen the battle to control that wealth result in six military juntas and the exodus of many of the country’s most progressive thinkers. San Telmo is the city’s oldest barrio, or neighbourhood, and “the kiln” of Argentina is still home to tango parlours, slaughterhouses and bank vaults. Lowering my gaze to the clean, pretty and crowded streets, I noticed a recurring image of a cartoon girl painted on the sandstone walls, on T-shirts in markets and in the windows of bookshops.

This is Mafalda, the creation of cartoonist Joaquín Salvador Lavado Tejón, better known by his pen name, Quino. Mafalda, a bold and blunt six-year-old, was born at the height of the counterculture in Argentina. Between 1964 and 1973, she became the voice through which Argentines could hear themselves. As Quino’s English translator Andrew Graham-Yooll wrote, “Mafalda’s life was a running commentary on the world around us … She had an extraordinary ability to see things as they really were. Everybody read her.”

In one memorable strip, Mafalda opens a dictionary to read: “DEMOCRACY (from the Greek, demos, people, and kratos, authority): government in which the people exercise sovereignty.” She is then unable to stop laughing for the rest of the day, unable to eat dinner or fall asleep. In another, her friend Miguelito asks a policeman to exclude his family home when patrolling the neighbourhood. “Life has its twists and turns,” Miguelito explains. “Suppose one day I go to university, suppose there is a street clash and we meet up? How could I throw rocks at someone who looked after my home?”

Standing in the white colonnaded lobby of the ESMA Museum, I greeted my tour guide, Eva, a serious-looking woman in her early 20s, and took a deep breath. I had some idea of Jorge Rafael Videla’s military junta, which ran from 1976 to 1983 and resulted in thousands of “disappeared”. I knew mothers still searched for their stolen children. But now I was at the site of countless atrocities. This is how Argentina faces one of the darkest parts of its history head on, actively encouraging conversations about what was once called the “National Reorganization Process” and inviting tourists to immerse themselves in its greatest shame.

Throughout the course of the military regime, and with the full support of neighbouring countries and the United States, about 30,000 people were tortured, kidnapped or simply disappeared. The ESMA Navy Mechanics School was one of a network of hundreds of concentration camps. And, as was the case with the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the glare of the world’s media was insufficient to bring the full horrors of the regime to light.

“The 1978 football World Cup was played less than a mile from here,” Eva said, pointing towards a window through which lies River Plate Stadium. “The prisoners could hear the sound of the crowds from their cells.”

Unlike South Africa’s Robben Island prison or the Jewish Museum Berlin, the ESMA Museum is sparse. There are no re-creations or dramatisations. Scratches, scribbled words and phone numbers mark the plaster of the walls. These are notes of defiance, reminders of existence and messages for others to share. The museum is an exhibit of ongoing trials, turning visitors into participants in the long legal process. Grainy photographs of the faces of some of the 5000 people who entered here line the stairs up to a long, low-ceilinged attic. “The building continued to be used by the Argentine navy as a place for officers to socialise and relax,” Eva continued. “Even as it became dual purpose.”

In crisp English, she explained how Videla’s regime began punishing “subversives’’ as soon as it came to power in 1976. She pointed out exactly where it was supporters of the previous governments of Juan and then Isabel Perón were killed. Where people were taken to airplanes to be blindfolded, stripped naked and pushed out into the sea. The “nursery” in which women gave birth and the room in which their babies were taken and given to government officials and their supporters. The dictatorship ended in 1983 with the return of a democratic government that immediately began televised trials of those responsible. Forty years on, there is no outrage or hatred in the museum. Just an appeal to look, understand and remember the truth.

Against the cracked plaster walls of cells, videos play the court testimonies of its operators, explaining what they did, how and why. Accompanying these are other, more recent, accounts of former detainees.

“Every time they sent you a green slip to come down, you didn’t know what it was for,” says María Eva Bernst, one of the few who survived detention here. Bernst speaks in a tone that sounds conversational and unrehearsed. “They tortured me twice with an electric prod. Other times they took me down and beat me to a pulp. My legs were covered in bruises. One day, I was taken down to the basement. All the soldiers were there. They made me completely undress. Then this fat man called Juan Carlos pointed at me and shouted, ‘She was a liar.’ And yes, she was a liar. They beat me and kicked me, but they couldn’t force me to say something, and they weren’t able to.”

One aim of playing these recorded testimonies is to build on the government’s report into the regime’s human rights violations, entitled “Nunca Más (“Never Again”), released in 1984. Since then, there has been a continual outpouring of accounts from detainees and efforts to find justice. Last month, the ESMA Museum was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. “Memory must be kept alive,” said President Alberto Fernández, with an eye on the upcoming election. “So that no one in Argentina forgets or denies the horrors that were experienced there.”

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With the arrival of Videla’s regime, the idea that someone you had known all your life could do much worse than throw rocks at you became a horrifying reality. The cartoonist Quino fled to Italy and Mafalda’s commentary fell silent. Fifty years on, as I sit on a park bench next to a life-size statue of the comic strip character, her legacy remains an accompaniment to Argentina’s healing process. It’s hard to find anyone of Argentine extraction who hasn’t given or been given Mafalda books or dolls. It is harder still to comprehend the weight of what is passed with those gifts. As Gabriel García Márquez wrote in his introduction to the collection Todo Mafalda, “Quino, with each of his books, has been showing us for many years that children are the repositories of wisdom. The bad thing for the world is that as they grow up, they lose the use of reason.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "Truth to light".

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