Russia has the Red Square; China, Tainanmen Square; Germany, the Berlin Wall. All are centers of public outcry and political drama. Buenos Aires has its Plaza de Mayo, which ranks among these sites for its long history as a site of public political demonstration and popular upheaval.
Bordering the Plaza are some of BA’s most notable buildings: the Casa Rosada, the official seat of the executive branch of the Argentine government; the Metropolitan Cathedral, the center of the Catholic church in Buenos Aires; the Cabildo, which served as town hall during Spain’s colonial occupation; and a financial icon, the old Bank of Boston Building. But the magic of the Plaza lies within. At its heart, the Plaza de Mayo has seen uprisings, celebrations and even bombings.
This place is even better known, however, as the meeting place of Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo. Although not initially clad in their now iconic white head scarves, which refer to the swaddling blankets of their disappeared children of the Dirty War, the Madres first appeared in the Plaza de Mayo in 1977. Since then, their quiet footsteps have brought the tragedies of an entire generation of Argentines torn apart by a cruel and repressive government to the attention of the world’s ears.
Las Madres weren’t the first group to use the Plaza as a place of protest. In 1945, the Plaza de Mayo was the site of a massive demonstration in protest of the recent arrest of then vice president and secretary of war, Juan D. Perón. Serving under a military government, Perón was incarcerated because of his move toward developing a democratic constituency of workers and trade unions. Although such organizations are today a cultural flagship of Argentine political culture, until this point in Argentine history such groups remained an untapped source of political strength. Perón’s involvement with these groups resulted in his popularity among the masses, and news of his arrest led to outrage over the scandal. Perón’s followers, including the CGT (General Confederation of Labor, a large and powerful labor union), stormed the Plaza and demanded his release from prison. The crowd’s demands were fulfilled and Perón was released, after which he was elected President of Argentina (1946) and commenced the form of governance that now is iconic of Argentine politics, Peronism.
Perón’s famous wife, Eva Duarte (or Evita), also left her mark on the Plaza. Her popularity and charisma led to a demonstration in favor of her candidacy for political leadership in 1951. Although she would stand her ground as a non-political humanitarian, the cries of the 2 million people in favor of a female political leader rang loud and clear through the Plaza. Later that year, Evita’s dying words were broadcast to supporters and admirers from the famous balcony overlooking the Plaza.
The Plaza has not always been so peaceful. Perón took the stage again on June 15, 1955 in order to address his recent excommunication from the Catholic Church. It was then that the Plaza turned violent, as the military power structure attempting to stage a coup against the president. Sending Navy fighter jets to drop bombs on the Plaza, this failed coup resulted in the deaths of 364 innocent civilians in the space below. The Massacre of the Plaza de Mayo marked the beginning of the end of Perón’s first presidency and that of his political exile. After this event, the Peronist party was also prohibited from appearing on Argentine electoral ballots.
The next chapter in the Plaza’s history is one of sadness and bravery. During the last military junta, the word deseparacido took on a whole new meaning. People were being erased, or disappeared. The unjust kidnapping, torture and murder associated with the military leadership caused many to flee, hide, take up arms, and filled others with such desperation to find their loved ones that they risked their lives to walk the Plaza, as symbols of peace and justice.