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Knowing the Body
2004 Final Web Report
On Serendip

The Political Performance of Motherhood: Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo

Gilda Rodriguez

During the Argentine dictatorship known as the Dirty War (1976-1983), thousands of people were systematically abducted by the government in order to eliminate all opposition to the regime. These "disappearances," which the dictatorship never admitted to committing, happened across class and age lines, but most of the kidnapped were young students and blue-collar workers. Despite the fact that associations and meetings of any kind were forbidden, a group of housewife mothers decided to protest the disappearance of their children. They began to gather every Thursday afternoon at the same time in the main square in Buenos Aires, Plaza de Mayo, walking alone or in pairs to avoid being arrested for disorderly conduct and wearing white kerchiefs on their heads to be easily identifiable. By showcasing their grief in public, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo turned their motherhood into a performance, and their bodies into political tools, to hold the government accountable. A 1985 Oscar-nominated documentary by Lourdes Portillo and Susana Muñoz, named after the group, not only recorded the Madres' performance of their collective identity, but was also instrumental in providing a broader audience for said performance.

Traditionally, motherhood in Latin America is restricted to the realm of the private. Diana Taylor explains that "'public' women [...] are considered prostitutes or madwomen—that is, nonmothers, even antimothers," while "good mothers are invisible," (1) because they stay home with their children. However, the Madres carved for themselves a third position that broke this dichotomy, going on to become "one of the most visible political discourses of resistance to terror in recent Latin American history" (2; emphasis added), while still remaining within the realm of motherhood. Furthermore, the Madres' struggle only makes sense as it relates to their maternal identity: "[t]he kidnappings were brutal assaults [...] against their role as mothers," according to Marysa Navarro. "Suddenly deprived of their children, their lives had lost their meaning" (3). The Madres uprising was as much about recovering their children as it was about regaining their identities.

The success of their movement was only possible thanks to what Taylor calls its "highly theatrical" (4) nature. Although the Madres were not impersonating something they were not, they exploited the stereotypical characteristics of motherhood, particularly when it came to dress, to obtain their goals. Paradoxically, the highlighting of their status as outsiders in the political system actually allowed them to enter the system.

In Portillo and Muñoz's documentary, the Madres march in the streets in their trademark white kerchiefs. But that is not the only visually homogenizing factor present in the hundreds of women, from all socio-economic backgrounds, that are shown in the movie. Most wear conservative skirts and hold large handbags; many wear eyeglasses. The result is striking: the Madres look old, frail, and powerless. According to Taylor, this "uniform" forms part of the carefully constructed image of the Madres'. These women have "recount[ed] how they dressed down as dowdy old women and became quick-change artist—some of them slipping on less traditionally motherly attire to escape arrest."(5) One of their leaders, Hebé de Bonafini, went as far as wearing her bedroom slippers to the Madres' demonstrations (6), playing with the boundaries between the domestic and the public that they themselves were making flexible.

The "dowdy old woman" costume was so effective because of the patriarchal image of the mother, very much based on the Virgin Mary, as a passive, submissive being who is put on a pedestal because of her inherent goodness. Mothers were "implicitly excluded from the different groups defined as 'subversive'" (7) at the beginning of the Dirty War. Although this changed as the group acquired more and more visibility, the strategy worked because it took advantage of ideas so ingrained in the collective Argentinean psyche. Motherhood, at least for some time, acted like a shield, protecting the women from the military forces, and allowing them to develop the performance of their movement (8).

Aside from their dress, the Madres found ways to use their bodies to make political statements. The documentary chronicles the evolution of these women bodies into "walking billboards" (9) to express their sorrow, and even walking shrines to commemorate their lost children. At first, they only wore small pictures around their necks, but soon they started to cover their tops, coats, and kerchiefs with images of the disappeared. Not long after, big signs with blown-up pictures and demands for the return of the kidnapped started popping up in their demonstrations. The Madres wrote on their clothes, on their kerchiefs, and on signs: the names of their children, the dates of their birthdays and their disappearances, and pleas for justice.

The grieving mother, as symbolized by the Mater Dolorosa, was adopted as a performative identity by the Madres. They walked the Plaza crying and screaming in real expressions of grief for their children. In the documentary, the Madres weep on camera, recounting the horrors of the Dirty War and the "subversive" activity for which their children were persecuted, mostly social justice work in a regime that had suppressed all human rights.

"We don't know if they are hungry or if they are cold," cries one mother in the Portillo/Muñoz movie. Even though most of the disappeared that the Madres grieved for were young adults in their twenties and thirties, the Madres exploited the vision of the mother as a protector and provider, without whom her children are defenseless. As I said before, the kidnappings can be considered an attack on the Madres' identity as mothers, but they are also an obstacle to doing their job, to performing what in way was the "profession" of all these women. They are powerless in preventing harm to their children like they are supposed to; the Virgin Mary could not stop the murder of her son, either.

The religious aspect of the Mater Dolorosa was also played up. The most virtuous of all women, the Virgin Mary had gone through the same thing that they had, they claimed, which afforded them legitimacy. "The Virgin Mary had his son in her arms after he died. We don't even have their bones," said one of the mothers to the filmmakers. By comparing the disappearances to the death of Jesus, the Madres are sending a clear message to the dictatorship, which publicly prided itself on promoting Christian and family values: kidnapping and torturing the young people of Argentina was as big an atrocity as killing the son of God.

Yet, since the Virgin Mary is also the passive and submissive mother by excellence, the Madres; movement could not completely shield itself with the figure of the Mater Dolorosa. In fact, "the women's public exposure resulted on their being ostracized from the church" (10). Expressing "pain was permissible, perhaps, but not anger" (11). The Madres sought the help of the Catholic Church, which turned them away, preferring to ignore the blatant human rights violations committed by the government. In response to the Madres' use of the figure of the Mater Dolorosa, one of the Argentinean bishops said: "I can't imagine the Virgin Mary yelling, protesting and planting the seeds of hate when her son, our Lord, was torn from her hands" (12). In the film, one of the Madres, Renée Epelbaum, recounts how their appeals for help to the Jewish community, a sizable portion of the population in Argentina, also went unanswered.

The anger that the Church found unacceptable is a result of the figure of the "mother-lion," (13) where the mother will do anything to protect her child. De Bonafini herself describes it as follows: "If the child (son) is in trouble, it is the mother who comes to his help. If he's taken prisoner, it is she who defends him and visits him in jail" (14). The Madres can be seen in the documentary screaming "Murderers! Traitors!" at the military leaders, their faces red with indignation, their fists clenched. Near the end of the movie, Epelbaum, stuttering in fury, decries the fact that the perpetrators of the violence against her three children, all missing, still run free. "I cannot accept that someone did it because they were taking orders," she says. She and the rest of the Madres believe that everyone involved in the repression and torture of the "subversives" should be judged for their crimes, even though the disappearances were masterminded by the top officials of the armed forces, including Generals Massera, Videla, and Agosti, the chiefs of state.

While the act of redefining motherhood is revolutionary, some of the motivations that the Madres cited as engenderers of their movement were not quite as progressive. The "mother-lion" position is attributed to the "natural," even fixed and immutable (15), condition of woman as mother and her relegation to the domestic sphere. This view perpetuates the idea of women as objects, subject to forces greater than themselves, in this case nature. The Madres go out and protest the disappearances because "nature" or their "instinct" dictates that they must protect their offspring, according to their own rhetoric (16).

The Madres were not just protective of their children, but of one another. Scenes of their demonstrations at Plaza de Mayo in the Portillo/Muñoz film show the Madres comforting and welcoming women to their midst. One mother, whose daughter Liliana, a historian, disappeared because of her work in social inequality, described the uneasiness she felt when she first decided to join the Madres. "I sat on a bench, somewhat far from the others, watching them," she says. When she finally gathered the courage to approach them, the first thing she was asked was: "Who is that was taken from you?" Realizing the power of that common bond, this woman decided to become an activist. Navarro believes that this emotional connection between the Madres is partly responsible for the effectiveness of the movement: "motherhood created the common bond that allowed them to pool the information they obtained and the rumors they gathered and develop a sense of solidarity, from which they drew [their] strength" (17). Thus, the Madres not only performed motherhood for an outside audience, but they also did it amongst themselves, as a resource for group unity.

Since they lacked children of their own for whom to perform the role of mothers, the Madres took on community service projects, mainly focused on helping the most disadvantaged families of the disappeared, by establishing a charitable foundation. By helping the needy in Argentina, the Madres are fulfilling two tasks. On the one hand, they are replacing their own children with the poor in order to have some to care for. The documentary presents footage of Argentinean slums, where families thank the Madres' foundation for its support, which was not only financial: they established a "network of communication and support" (18) and provided whatever information they could find about the disappearances. Also, the Madres' community outreach is a way of showing the government that their children were not actually criminals, but just people who wanted to eliminate social injustice in Argentina. Most of the mothers that speak in the film had children who were somehow involved with improving the living conditions of the poor, by building daycare centers and participating in political action groups. Daring to do the same thing that got their children kidnapped shows that the Madres not only condoned, but actually supported and saw nothing wrong (or "subversive," to use the government's language) with what their children did.

At the beginning of the Portillo/Muñoz film, a mother pleads to an invisible interviewer for "their" help. "They" are the people outside of Argentina: the foreign press, the diplomats, etc. In the beginning, they mobilized to attract the attention of their own government: the Madres were there and they were not going away. However, when the outside world started paying attention to the human right abuses in Argentina, despite the dictatorship's denial of any wrong-doing, the Madres saw the marketing of their performance to the international community as helpful to their cause. Thus, they sought and received the support of women in the Netherlands, France, Canada, and other countries. These "Western" women allied themselves with the Madres by replicating their performance, marching in places like Amsterdam and wearing the same white kerchiefs. This phenomenon further emphasizes the character of the movement as a theatrical, scripted performance, because it can be reproduced, with different "actors," outside the political context for which it was first created.

Some of the Madres were invited to meet world leaders, including the Pope, for interviews and photo ops, where they always wore their kerchiefs. If their political nature was ever put to question, it is at this point in the movement, when they are clearly being recognized as political entity, where the Madres affirm the legitimacy of their cause. In addition to that, the fact that these women were willing to perform their constructed identity, down to the white kerchiefs, for the leaders of the outside world, shows the degree of the Madres' awareness of the power of the symbolism they use.

When two Latina filmmakers, Lourdes Portillo and Susana Muñoz decided to make a movie about the Madres, the performative intention became double: the film is at the same time a means for the Madres' performance to reach more people, and a performance in itself. The movie is not just about the Madres and their struggles; it is a condemnation of the Dirty War regime. Muñoz, an Argentinean, left her country because of the oppressive atmosphere, so her deciding to make this movie about a protest movement is in and of itself a protest. Portillo, who was born in Mexico and identifies as Chicana, is highly critical of systems of power in Latin America, the consequences of which are often the subjects of her films. Their intended public is not the people in Argentina, who already know about the Madres, but rather those who are outside. The viewer's perspective of the Madres' performance of motherhood is thus affected by the sympathy the filmmakers feel toward them and their own interpretation of that performance.

In her analysis of the documentary Paris Is Burning, writer bell hooks decries the lack of "appropriation," on the part of the movie's white lesbian director, of the black gay subculture she depicts. Even though the Madres' film is and has to be influenced by its directors' experience and viewpoints, there is not such a radical gap between the filmmakers and their subjects: they are all Latin American women trying to hold an oppressive government accountable for its actions. In spite of that, there are two fundamental divides between the Madres, and Portillo and Muñoz. First off, both the filmmakers are lesbians (although not nonmothers: Portillo was married to a man and had children with him) (19); this fact positions them far from the Madres, who adhere to a certain extent to traditional roles, and are not willing to transgress the patriarchal system in such a major way. Also, both Portillo and Muñoz immigrated to the United States from their respective native countries, placing them outside of the context in which the Madres live. Portillo and Muñoz view the Madres' movement through a lens affected by their progressive ideas, which, while different from the Madres' ideology, actually help the latter's cause. The filmmakers' rejection of not only the military regime, but of all oppressive conservative values, provides the film with a heightened sense of the drama in the situation and provokes pity in the viewer.

The film, released by Portillo and Muñoz just two years after the end of the dictatorship, made the Madres gain international recognition for their efforts. In making the movie, the filmmakers replicated, in their representation of the movement, many of the strategies the Madres had used (and still use to this day) to present themselves, like the aforementioned creation of a pitiful image of the Madres. The women that Portillo and Muñoz interviewed, among them Epelbaum, one of their most prominent leaders, were shown in their homes, drinking tea and surrounded by pictures of their children. By alternating between footage of the Madres protesting as group and scenes where one mother speaks from her home, Portillo and Muñoz recognize and honor the Madres' distinction between individual and collective identity. Taylor says that "[The Madres] perceived and literally acted out the difference between motherhood as an individual identity (which for many of them it was) and motherhood as a collective, political performance."

Judith Butler considers this separation of the private and public identities (the "person I've always been" vs. the "I" that performs motherhood) (20) problematic, because it highlights the oppressive system in which the two are necessarily apart (21). While this is true, because the traditional role of motherhood results from the patriarchy and is necessarily relegated to the home, Taylor considers the redefinition of it as a "viable and practical" solution to the Madres' problem (22). Butler would find the very use of motherhood as a political tool flawed, since the role of mother can only be stretched so far because the inherently limited by the patriarchal system. Taylor, on the other hand, recognizes the virtual impossibility to completely overturn the system at the historical moment in which these women lived, and instead lauds the Madres' efforts from within the system, even if the results they did and could obtain are limited by it.

The Madres' movement was effective in that it brought international attention to the human right abuse problem in the Argentina of the Dirty War. Still, many consider that these women failed to truly change the situation, since their pleas did not stop international aid or the recognition of the legitimacy of the military regime around the world (23). What eventually caused the ousting of the dictators was the so-called Falkland Disaster: in an effort to bolster nationalism, the government tried to take the Falkland Islands back from the British, with disastrous results. This, coupled with one of the worst economic crises in Argentinean history, led to the instauration of a democratic government in 1983.

Despite their inability to topple the dictatorship, the Madres indirectly provoked many positive changes in Argentinean society, especially in regard to women. By speaking out about human rights violations, they increased the awareness of the need for laws to protect people from violence. Groups that came after them borrowed these ideas and were able to amend domestic violence, sexual harassment, and divorce laws, as well as push for decrees that insured the greater participation of women in the political process by, among other things, guaranteeing them a fair chance to be elected for office. Above all, the Madres showed the Argentinean people that women, in spite of their traditional confinement to the domestic sphere, could have powerful political agency.

The performance of the Madres' motherhood was effective in that it achieved the visibility of their cause. Their own visibility, in an apparent contradiction between the public/private dichotomy, was both a resource for and a side effect of their political mobilization. Nevertheless, because their performance took place within the boundaries of the patriarchy, due to the Madres' utilization of characteristics ascribed to women (and, more specifically, to mothers) by the patriarchal system, it could only go so far. Although their performance provided the Madres was (and still is) a way to create and exert their own political agency, this agency is limited, because the role of mother that they chose to use as a tool is inherently limited in its scope.

1. Taylor 195
2. Taylor 191
3. Navarro 256
4. Taylor 184
5. Taylor 195
6. Taylor 196
7. Navarro 257
8. Navarro 258
9. Taylor 183
10. Taylor 196
11. Taylor 196
12. Taylor 196
13. Taylor 199
14. Taylor 199
15. Taylor 203
16. Taylor 198
17. Navarro 257
18. Taylor 201-202
19. Fregoso
20. Taylor 206
21. Butler 123
22. Taylor 194-195
23. Taylor 201


Butler, Judith. "Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion." Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 1993. 121-140.

Fregoso, Rosa Linda. "Lourdes Portillo: The Devil Never Sleeps and Other Films." University of Texas. 2001.

hooks, bell. "Is Paris Burning?" Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End, 1992. 145-156.

Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo. Dir. Lourdes Portillo and Susana Muñoz. Videocassette. Xóchitl Films. 63 min.

Navarro, Marysa. "The Personal is Political: Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo." Power and Popular Protest. Latin American Social Movements. Ed. Susan Eckstein. 1989.

Taylor, Diana. "Trapped in Bad Scripts: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo". Disappearing Acts. Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina's "Dirty War." Duke Univ. Press: 1997. 183-222.

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