Victoria Lewis

So Far 130

From the bus window, just two blocks from the World Cup Stadium in downtown Buenos Aires I could see the tall, white columns of the former Naval Mechanics School. During my two weeks in the city, I’d probably passed other clandestine torture centers without even knowing it. I rocked forward as the bus slowed and hugged my blue cloth satchel of loose-leaf lined paper covered with sloppy cursive, tight to my chest. 

Twenty-five years after the Dirty War of state terrorism that overthrew Isabel Perón and killed or disappeared 30,000 Argentinians, I went to South America with help from a grant for teachers, to meet a woman who’d dared to question the military dictatorship.

She was the age my mother would’ve been if she hadn’t died of a heart attack. I was the age her sister would’ve been if she hadn’t been disappeared. My daughter was close in age to the nephew she was looking for, the one she’d never seen but may have passed on this street without knowing it.

He’d been kidnapped and his mother murdered in a detention center by right-wing death squads who took newborns from their captive mothers and gave them away because, “subversive parents raise subversive children.” For decades she and Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, the grandmothers of stolen babies, had been searching for the children.

With her short gray hair, round glasses and blue cardigan, she looked like one of the nuns at my daughter’s elementary school and not the cheerful one. Years of struggle to hold the ousted regime accountable hadn’t worn down her sharp edges. My English-first brain lagged two beats behind her words, blood thumped in my ears and I gripped my pen so tight I could feel it in my shoulder.

Causa judicial             Ongoing court cases

¿Cómo pasó esto?      How did this happen?

Conocimientos dan defensa            Knowledge is defense

Genetistasgratuitas            Geneticists developed the Grandparent DNA test for free.

My red scarf, so comforting outdoors in the cool August air, lay thick and hot around my neck. Dust drifted from white curtains hanging on the tall windows of the Abuelas’ office. My forehead tight, my nose full and my mouth so dry I couldn’t swallow, I glanced up, willing her to slow down just a little.

Her idea of cutting me slack was to lean back in her straight wooden chair, shake her head, cross her arms and ask, “¿Entiende algo de lo que estoy diciendo?” Do you understand anything I’m saying? Sweat prickled my scalp. I’ve been through enough job interviews to know when someone is getting ready to send me on my way.

To escape her gaze, I stared at my notes. They looked like a ragged synopsis of the research I’d done at home with no hint of what kept her going, what gave her hope for the future.  She had something to teach me, to teach all of us. What was it? I blinked hard at the last question on my list. What message do you want me to take back to my students? How do I say that?

¿Qué mensaje quiere que llevo a mis alumnos?

Don’t say that. You need to use the subjunctive.

¿Qué mensaje quiere que lleve a mis alumnos?

Oh shit.  That should be les lleve a mis alumnos.

The woman silently watching me had risked her life to stand up to a brutal junta and I was agonizing over indirect object pronouns. Just ask her the damn question.

¿Qué digo a mis alumnos? What do I say to my students?

She put her forearm on the table and leaned forward.

“Lo que pasa a mi amigo pasa a mi también. El trabajo, la educación, la salud son derechos humanos. El pueblo es digno de respeto.”

I took a breath, dropped my shoulders and watched her words flow onto the paper. What happens to my friend happens to me too. Work, education, health are human rights. People are worthy of respect. My ears stopped ringing, air flooded my chest and I flexed my fingers.

Back in Oregon I told my students that to know one’s identity is a human right, we inherit mitochondrial DNA only from our mothers and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo will never stop looking for their stolen grandchildren. But before I could get to all that they wanted to know, “How many kids have they found?” I told them the number, so far.

Victoria Lewis grew up on the Oregon coast, taught school in Portland and worked as a computer programmer.