Notes from Buenos Aires
The University of Buenos Aires Law School is an imposing white-marble structure fronted by a broad colonnade and perched above the city’s busiest traffic artery, the Avenida del Libertador. Each day 25,000 students arrive for classes there, deposited by buses on the opposite side of the avenue. A few students, perhaps late to an exam, dash across five lanes of honking, shouting, middle-finger-extending porteño drivers lurching forward in the morning rush hour. But the vast majority chooses instead to shuffle 100 meters down the Avenida, where they funnel across a colorful bridge to the law school.
In doing so, they create Buenos Aires’ most congested venue for political artwork. The bridge—an ever-changing canvas, painted and re-painted on an almost nightly basis with partisan insignia and slogans—has become the front line in a constant battle among the law school’s dozens of tireless political groups. A week ago, an anarchist fist, defiant against a blood-red sky, covered the bridge. Two days later, a communist group had whitewashed the surface, stenciling an outline of the Falkland Islands—over which Argentina has unsuccessfully claimed sovereignty for decades—where the first work had been. With each new incarnation of the bridge, one senses the parties’ hope that if they just use the right image, the right color scheme, the right slogan, their art will mobilize the legions of followers they have long sought.
Between 1976 and 1980, the Navy Mechanics School of Buenos Aires—better known as ESMA, its Spanish acronym—was a site of unspeakable terror. Its red-tile roof and unassuming stucco walls concealed a sprawling prison and elaborate torture facilities, all maintained with chilling precision by the military dictatorship of that era. Of the nearly 5,000 Argentines detained at ESMA, a mere 150 survived. The rest were “desaparecido”—a form of the Spanish verb “to disappear” that continues to conjure nightmarish images here—by government operatives who murdered their victims by drugging them, flying them over the Atlantic, and dropping their bodies under the cover of night. Meanwhile, in speech after speech and interview after interview, the regime denied the existence of anything but classrooms and dorms at ESMA.
Today, visitors who pass through ESMA’s doors are greeted by a set of glass doors that muffle the thumping rhythm of a subwoofer. Inside, a cavernous white chamber houses a makeshift jail cell dotted with steel-barred windows. Feel-good music from the 1970s blares from a speaker system overhead, and pulsing neon lights shoot from corner to corner. Overhead, a projector beams out a single word in bolded, multi-colored script: “Indifference.”
In his short story “Funes, His Memory,” Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges describes a man called Funes blessed with perfect memory. The reader, at least, is inclined to think him blessed, at least until Borges shows the darker consequences of a brain filled “like a garbage heap.” Incapable of forgetting the smallest sensation, image, or thought, Funes is crippled by the buzzing confusion of his own mind. The cursed protagonist never stirs from his own bed, unwilling to risk adding new memories to those that he already cannot erase. Borges understood that the ability to forget is at least as important as the ability to remember.
Such is the case, too, with nations, and there is much that Argentina would rather forget. Not even four decades stand between Argentina’s current democracy and a brutal dictatorship that tortured and killed 30,000 of its own citizens. Many of those responsible continue to walk the streets, occasionally appearing for television interviews and protected by blanket pardons offered in the 1990s. “Nobody even expects justice here anymore,” the Argentine novelist Marcos Aguinis wrote, “and it is easier just to forget.”