Until her death a few days ago, Hebe de Bonafini had spent every Thursday since April 1977 standing outside the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, demanding news of her loved ones. This week, in a rare moment, a group paraded around the pyramid at the centre of the Plaza de Mayo without her.
Bonafini, who defied Argentina’s dictators, has died aged 93 in the town of La Plata, a short distance from where her children were abducted during the country’s military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983.
As a bereaved mother in search of answers, she helped organise the first of what would become weekly vigils in the square outside La Casa Rosada (the Pink House of Evita fame). It was a courageous act at a time when gatherings of more than three were forbidden. The protests have continued ever since.
“Hebe”, as she is universally known in Argentina, was never reunited with her two sons who were students and communist activists when they were taken by authorities in 1977. Her daughter-in law is also unaccounted for. All three are presumed dead.
Bonafini was born in 1928 and grew up in the port city of Ensenada near the Argentine capital. The daughter of a Spanish hat presser and an Argentine housewife, she said she left school because her parents could no longer afford the bus fare, and went to work as a seamstress. She married her husband aged 21.
It was only years later as a 49-year-old housewife and mother of three that Bonafini turned to activism. At the time, soldiers were rounding up thousands of real, and presumed, leftwing sympathisers in what came to be called Argentina’s “dirty war”. When two of her three children disappeared, Bonafini became a “mother-lion”, as she later described herself, forever on the hunt for justice.
But it was football that first brought international attention to the “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo” movement co-founded by Bonafini. In June 1978, foreign journalists descended on Buenos Aires for the World Cup and stumbled upon the mothers defying the junta by demonstrating in the square.
They wore simple white headscarves to identify one another, a hallmark that Bonafini was rarely seen without. News spread and thousands began joining the protests.
The organisation went on to be nominated multiple times for the Nobel Peace Prize, most recently in 2018, and paved the way for one of the first “truth commissions” in Argentina to address human rights abuses. Several former army officers were tried and jailed. Upon the news of Bonafini’s death, president Alberto Fernández decreed three days of national mourning.
Carlos Pisoni, 45, who leads the HIJOS lobby group representing the children of the estimated 30,000 people who died or disappeared during the military regime, said he belongs to a generation of activists who have directly benefited from Bonafini’s work. “Her passing is a huge knock, we’d like her to be immortal . . . we’ve lost our lighthouse in a shared struggle for justice,” Pisoni said.
Bonafini’s reputation for being outspoken, with uncompromising and extreme leftist views, earned her great affection as well as enemies. The official Argentine church was “oppressive”, parliament a “nest of rats”, Supreme Court justices “scumbags” and Pope John Paul II had “committed many sins”, she claimed over the years. She fiercely opposed successive US governments, which she blamed for backing rightwing dictatorships in Latin America. After the 9/11 attacks she said she felt “great joy” and had “toasted” the terrorists for their bravery.
But her close alliance with the leftist administrations of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who now serves as vice-president, tarnished her moral authority. In 2011, a corruption scandal over affordable housing erupted. Bonafini was later charged with embezzling some of the hundreds of millions of Argentine pesos donated by the Kirchners. The case was never settled.
Taty Almeida, 92, is one of the last living original Mothers. Bonafini, she said, divided popular opinion and became isolated. “We broke away from Hebe,” Almeida said. In the end, “she was alone”.
In 1986, with democracy restored and differing political ideologies, the group split into two factions. Almeida was part of the more moderate Madres de Plaza de Mayo, Línea Fundadora or “founding line”, while Bonafini headed the original and more radical Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo.
“No Mother is better than another,” said Almeida, who is still searching for her son. “There are so few of us left, but we feel calm because we’re passing the post to the next line of militants.”