When you enter Parque de La Memoria, you’re confronted with four concrete walls made from Patagonian material. On them are the names of 9,000 of the estimated 30,000 desaparecidos, or disappeared, f r o m t h e l a s t m i l i t a r y dictatorship’s spree of state terrorism. What Argentines call a genocide.
The first date on the wall is 1969. There are eight names listed there. As you walk past the monuments, the names increase exponentially. There are empty spaces in between the already engraved names, for the others who were disappeared or maybe for those who could also have been disappeared. Many of the names are fading. You see repeated names – Díaz, Fernández, Torres — who all have similar stories.
When president Mauricio Macri sometimes toured the park with international heads of state. The Parque de La Memoria opened in 2011 and in 2014, when Macri was re-elected mayor of Buenos Aires City, there were budgetary cuts at the park. There isn’t much sign of Macri these days at the park, in front of the River Plate. But many of the families of the disappeared and the park’s creators are OK with that fact.
I sit down on a bench next to one of the concrete walls as a group of kids on a field trip Reflections from Parque de la Memoria The names are fading but the memories re- main and the impresion is as strong as ever entered the park. They run around and smile. One of the teachers calls them into a circle and they fall quiet. Why should they cry, I thought to myself. And why is it always the young who fall in these conflicts? On the walls, the ages of the disappeared are often: 16 años, 18 años, 21 años. It seems unthinkable. They were the enemies of the state?
The park, more than 34 acres, is situated away from the hustle and bustle of the City. It’s away from where most porteños work and interact on a daily basis, but in the construction of a memory of this period, this is where an exhibit like this needs to be. The park is minutes away from the Jorge Newbery airport, where the infamous “death flights” originated. Planes still loudly fly left and right here, but it’s probably hard for some visitors to know this history, unless they know the stories of those times.
The engraved walls face the River Plate, unlike the city of Buenos Aires — a city constructed to turn its back to the river. The early Argentine architects did this for a reason. The river was associated with “dirtiness.” When boats arrived into the port, they would see Africans doing work in the brown river. They wanted to turn their backs on these traditions and associations. The park, however, doesn’t turn its back on the river the prisoners were thrown into.
“The military first threw our children into the river alive, their feet trapped inside a bucket of cement,” Hebe de Bonafini, the director of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, once warned. “But the corpses began to wash ashore, so they decided to start dumping them in the open ocean.” You can see from any of the viewingpoints along the river both poles of the city. These stories don’t seem fathomable.
The park grounds itself in the realities of the past, but it looks closely at how we crystallise and construct memory — the water, a site of meditation and reflection, becomes a backdrop for this process. The City of Buenos Aires, the University of Buenos Aires, families of the victims, artists etc were conscious of this construction — and this is especially clear when you visit Sala PAyS (Presentes, Ahora y Siempre), a museum and research centre at the park. At the front entrance, part of its introductory writing reads: “No historical event is stuck to its origins, every time it is recalled, it is also updated, reengraved into a new context.”
There’s a database there, where you can look up the stories of those who disappeared. So it’s not just a closed past with the names serving as a nice reminder. It’s similar to how on the edge of the park, there’s an installation you can follow called ‘the Memory Signs.’ It tells a history of Argentina from the dictatorship until now. It reminds you, particularly at the end, that this period isn’t over, just as the first disappearances actually occurred before the dictatorships. Inequality and death continue in different ways now — one memory sign has a map of where some of the killings took place and another has a graph showing growing poverty rates in the country. As William Faulkner would say, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
I see a photoshoot, some University of Buenos Aires (a twominute walk from the park) students hanging out, and a few tourists like myself, some of whom ask if I could take a picture of them. It is a hot and windy day, making the feelings of remembrance and terror more physical. A guy on a bike, who was probably alive in those times, quietly announces: ‘Helado, Helado.’
A memory site needs to move a visitor who doesn’t have a connection to the events and stories it is concerning. If we are to “never forget” and collectively never do things like this again, we cannot only speak to a group familiar with these events. I’ve seen the failings of this at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City, where there are selfie sticks everywhere. The memorial is just a stop-off for tourists, between heading to the fancy Ground Zero subway station. I think Parque de La Memoria — both in the context it gives and in its eerie location — succeeds in doing this, even if you don’t know the history of Argentina.
I’m an outsider in this city and it’s hard to know the Argentine consensus on the park. But if I’ve learned anything during my time here, it’s that there usually isn’t a consensus. The park was made by them, it’s run by them, and it’s visited by them. But what does that mean? Brigitte Sion, a postdoctoral researcher with Columbia University, wrote in her book Memorials in Berlin and Buenos Aires: “In Argentina, the Parque de la Memoria is intended as a place for families and survivors to gather, collect their thoughts, and remember the desaparecidos.” The Association of Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo thinks differently: “We reject plaques and monuments because they signify the burial of the dead. Posthumous tributes only succeed in allowing those who guaranteed impunity to wash away their sins.”
To me, this feels like a radical site — can you imagine, in
the United States, a memorial
for the genocide of Native
Americans or a museum dedicated to those targeted by police violence?