Legacy of a ‘disappeared’ family in Argentina

by Cesar Chelala

Politics can have a devastating effect on a country and its people, as I discovered during a recent trip to Argentina.

I stayed at the Buenos Aires apartment of a relative by marriage, university professor Felix Eduardo Herrera, who died there in 2007; the apartment had been empty since then. He had been a noted mathematician in Tucuman, a city in northern Argentina. Much respected by his students, to whom he dedicated his life and work, he was married to Leonor Herrera and raised two boys, Abel and Claudio, and a girl, Leonor Ines.

I met the Herreras in Tucuman in the 1960s when my wife, their niece, studied at the university where professor Herrera taught. When I met them, they had an active social life managed by Leonor. Their house was a place of lively intellectual gatherings, frequently visited by out-of-town scientists and researchers.

The Herrera children inherited their father’s intellectual drive and their mother’s concern for the poor and dispossessed. Those characteristics led to their downfall. Realizing the tremendous damage the military was doing to democracy and to the rule of law in the country, the children joined the violent opposition to the military’s rule.

During the 1970s the brutal dictatorship of Argentina’s military left the country in disarray, and the Herrera family decimated. In the end, the couple’s two sons and the wife of one of them, Georgina, as well as the couple’s daughter and her husband, Juan Mangini, a guerrilla leader opposing the military rule, were among the more than 30,000 estimated “disappeared.” Both Abel and his younger brother, Claudio, died under torture in 1975.

The only survivors were the couple’s grandchildren: two sons of Abel, named Esteban and Raul Oscar, and a daughter of Leonor Ines, Florencia. Professor Herrera and his wife became devoted to all of them, particularly Florencia, who went to live with them while the boys went to live with their maternal grandparents.

Shortly after their children’s abduction and murder between 1975 and 1976, the Herreras’ lives became a nightmare. Afraid of reprisals from the military, they went to live in the Buenos Aires apartment, which was quite unlike the beautiful house they had had in Tucuman. Preferring the anonymity of the capital, they had almost no friends or even acquaintances. Leonor’s health rapidly deteriorated and she became increasingly withdrawn. She was suspected of having developed Alzheimer’s disease, but I personally believe she preferred to close herself off to the world, her pain too much to endure.

In their now empty apartment I look at the shelves still full of books, dusty old books, and a feeling of nostalgia and sadness invades me.

I think of how this family’s vibrant lives were profoundly changed by their children’s political involvement and opposition to the military. I think of the elegant house and the intellectually challenging lives they had led in Tucuman, and how their lives were transformed by the exodus from their true home, their family and friends.

When her parents were abducted, little Florencia, then 4, disappeared with them. The three were hiding in a rural area in Buenos Aires Province when the house they were staying in was surrounded by the military. Leonor Ines managed to escape with Florencia into the countryside but was found by the military. The military kept the mother and sent Florencia to live in an orphanage run by nuns.

A few weeks after their daughter’s capture, Florencia’s grandparents received news that the little girl was alive somewhere in Buenos Aires Province. An extensive and painful search, which made use of even the smallest piece of information coming from different sources, brought them to an orphanage in the provincial capital La Plata, more than 1,900 km from their hometown of Tucuman. When her grandparents entered the orphanage, Florencia ran to them crying “Grandma! Grandpa!” and tried to get her small arms around both of them.

Florencia was loved by the nuns, who told her grandparents that little though she was, she had spent her days taking care of the smaller children. Although a judge’s approval was legally needed to release Florencia from the orphanage, the nuns decided right then and there to give the child to her grandparents until the legalities were resolved. Florencia lived with her grandparents until their death.

After Leonor Herrera died in 1999, her husband became a shadow of his old self. His only pleasure, aside from occasionally seeing his grandsons, was to help Florencia become the vibrant, eager-for-life young woman she is now. He gradually lost the vision essential for his intellectual interests and only occasionally, and with great effort, wrote articles for his hometown newspaper.

Staying now at their empty apartment in Buenos Aires, I reflect on the turnaround of this family’s fate. I look at the old books that line the apartment, broken pieces of furniture, dust-covered paintings and old newspapers scattered around. I try opening a drawer and am left with the handle in my hand.

The two boys, now young men, are accomplished professionals in their field. Florencia, now a young woman, is an innovative fashion designer and teacher. They appear to have overcome the feelings of bitterness following the loss of their parents. These young people’s blossoming lives are the payback for their parents’ violent and untimely deaths. But my feeling of sad emptiness persists, and only time can erase it.

Cesar Chelala is a cowinner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”