As second-year law student Grace Zipperer walked through the largest former detention center in Argentina, she was overwhelmed by the weight of its history. The walls may have once echoed with the cries of innocent civilians murdered by their own government, but the space was now filled by the chatter of tour guides answering sobering questions.
“It’s hard to even put it into words,” Zipperer said about feelings generated by the detention center at the former Naval School of Mechanics, or ESMA. What was originally Argentina’s educational facility for the Navy turned into an illegal detention center in 1976.
ESMA was just one of many memorial sites Zipperer and seven other University of Virginia School of Law students visited during their seven-day trip to Argentina in January as part of the school’s Human Rights Study Project. Accompanied by UVA Law professor Camilo Sánchez the students conducted field research on human rights initiatives after Argentina’s Dirty War, which have included attempts to reunite families, truth commissions and groundbreaking civil rights laws and trials.
After a fascist group of military leaders overthrew the Argentinian government in 1976, they ran a military dictatorship, known as a junta, for eight years. An estimated 30,000 people were kidnapped by the new government and taken to detention centers across the country. ESMA is one of the most notorious locations.
Only two blocks from the World Cup Stadium, thousands of Argentinians were tortured, killed or “disappeared” there. In 1978, when Argentina hosted the FIFA World Cup, ESMA detainees could hear the crowds cheering in the stadium.
Since the end of the war in 1983, Argentina has designated many of the former detention centers as sites of memory as a solemn reminder not to let history repeat itself.
While touring each site, Zipperer noticed the use of “sites of healing” that allow visitors to gather and express themselves.
“They balanced the need to preserve what it was like under state-run terror with the need to create a healing community space,” Zipperer said. "They did so with such care and attention to feeling. Every detail, every decision, felt purposeful and raw.”
In one of the former detention centers, several of the front rooms had been repurposed into these community spaces. As Zipperer walked through, she said, she was in awe of the artwork adorning the walls.
Green and white handkerchiefs were a reoccurring symbol there and across the country. The handkerchief represents a movement called Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. Many pregnant women vanished during the war, and their mothers banded together in a movement to find their missing grandchildren.
Students quickly learned that green represents the women’s rights movement, which was inspired from the abuela’s use of the white handkerchiefs. Students even saw them while walking down the streets of Buenos Aires, some bearing phrases like “nunca mas,” meaning “never again.”
Founded in 1977, the Abuelas human rights group has spent the past 45 years searching for children stolen during the Argentine dictatorship. After detained Argentinian women gave birth in the gruesome detention centers, the babies often were taken to families that supported the military government. The birth certificates were altered to erase the illegal adoption.
The Abuelas group set up an office in ESMA one of the detentions centers the students visited. They saw people working and volunteering for the group at the memorial site. Second-year student Peyton Beatrice, who spoke with a man who was a “disappeared child,” said the group faces particular difficulties.
“Sometimes people don’t want to upset the parents who raised them, so they’ll wait until they pass,” before seeking out their biological families, she explained. However, that often means the grandparent who once searched for them has also died.
Disappeared children have been found in Europe, South America and even the United States, Beatrice learned. Argentineans working on the issue asked the students to spread word of the disappeared children once they got back to Charlottesville, hoping the power of extending social media circles could unite more families.
Learning After Hours
Not everyone on the trip was fluent in Spanish, Argentina’s primary language, so dinner was the time to discuss and translate everything they saw that day.
Second-year student Zach Griffith said some of his favorite memories from the trip are from those dinner table conversations.
One dinner guest, UVA Law graduate Cecilia Dieuzeide LL.M. ’18, who participated in the Human Rights Study Project as a student, works for Marcela Millan, the country’s first female General Defender of the Buenos Aires Public Ministry of Defense. Over bife de chorizo — a prime local cut of beef — the students learned about her work at the office, and she answered their questions.
“You just dig deeper into those conversations,” said Griffith. “Cecilia was able to provide that context that I was missing [from statements made earlier that day].”
After being submersed in Argentinian culture for a week, the students have selected a topic and are writing a paper using what they learned on the trip. They will eventually present their reflections at the Law School.
The steps Argentineans took to hold the junta accountable for atrocities during the Dirty War led to a history-making trial of the former military leaders in civilian courts. A film about the moment —“Argentina, 1985” — was recently nominated for an Oscar, and also won a Golden Globe.
Sánchez said those citizens’ efforts had a worldwide impact on the global human rights movement and have spurred new initiatives at equality locally — a fact that hit home for both students and teacher during the trip.
“Their pioneering efforts for memory and justice have led the fight against oblivion and impunity for gross human rights violations around the world,” he said. “We were excited about how the lessons learned by pioneering generations of activists are being inherited by new movements that are channeling their activism into new rights-based agendas for social change.”
Griffith was likewise impressed, noting that the movements encourage Argentinean lawmakers to be on the forefront of change. He pointed to laws that had been passed with little to no pushback, such as a statute reserving 1% of public sector jobs for transgender people.
“Argentina is at the forefront of human rights,” Griffith said. “They’re able to turn grassroots movements into tangible results, passing laws that protect the rights for some of the most vulnerable communities.”
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