I left my native country, Argentina, in 1971. I came to New York with my wife and daughter to continue my career as a research scientist in molecular biology. I thought that I would spend two or three years in the United States, and then I would return to my country. Fate would determine otherwise.
Soon after I left, the military overthrew the constitutional government and started a reign of terror that would last several years. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people were made ‘to disappear,’ an unfortunate euphemism for their assassination. All our friends in Argentina advised us not to return, given the difficult political landscape in my country. That is why we made the decision to stay in the United States.
Because of problems with my visa — I was able to go out but not to return to the U.S. — and also because I wrote an indicting article against the military regime, I was unable to return to my country for 12 years, despite our enormous desire to do so.
When I returned for the first time, I found a country now under a democracy but suffering the post-traumatic stress disorder of the military dictatorship. I still remember the first day I returned to Argentina telling my relatives, almost in desperation, “But this not my country!” They looked puzzled and didn’t know what to tell me…
I stayed at the Buenos Aires apartment of a relative by marriage, Professor Felix Eduardo Herrera, who had died in 2007. Since that time, the apartment had been empty. He was a noted mathematician and university professor in Tucumán, a city in the north. He and his wife Leonor raised three children: two boys, Abel and Claudio, and a girl, Leonor Inés. I first met the Herreras in Tucumán in the 1960s when my wife, their niece, studied at the university where Professor Herrera taught.
At the time I met them, their house was a place of lively intellectual gatherings, frequently visited by out-of-town scientists and researchers. Their house, designed by a well-known Italian architect, was a beautiful setting for those gatherings. The Herrera children inherited their father's intellectual drive and their mother's concern for the poor and dispossessed. Those characteristics would prove to be their downfall.
Watching the tremendous damage the military was doing to democracy and to the rule of law in the country, the children became part of the armed opposition to the military rule. The brutal dictatorship of Argentina's military during the 1970s left a country in disarray — and Herrera's family decimated. In the end, their two sons died under torture in 1975. One of their wives, Georgina, and the Herrera daughter, Leonor Inés, and her husband, Juan Mangini, a guerrilla leader opposing military rule, were among the ‘disappeared’.
Two sons of Abel, Esteban and Raúl Oscar, and the daughter of Leonor Inés, Florencia, were the only survivors. Professor Herrera and his wife Leonor became devoted to their grandchildren, particularly to Florencia, who eventually came to live with them while the boys went to live with their maternal grandparents.
After their children's abduction and assassination between 1975 and 1976, the Herreras lives turned into a nightmare. Afraid of reprisals from the military, they went to live in a Buenos Aires apartment, quite unlike their beautiful house in Tucumán. They felt that the anonymity of the big city would protect them better. In the big capital city, they had very few friends. Leonor's health rapidly deteriorated; she became withdrawn and had frequent memory lapses. I believe that she preferred to close herself to the world, her pain too much to be endured.
In their now empty apartment, I look at the old books that line the apartment, broken pieces of furniture, dust-covered paintings, old newspapers scattered around, and a feeling of nostalgia and sadness invades me.
Little Florencia, then 4 years old, initially disappeared with her parents. She had been hiding with her mother, Leonor Inés, in a rural area in Buenos Aires province when their house was surrounded by the military. They managed to escape but were later found by the military. The soldiers kept Leonor Inés but sent Florencia to an orphanage run by nuns. A few weeks after her parent’s abduction, Florencia’s grandparents received the news that their granddaughter was alive somewhere in Buenos Aires province. An extensive and painful search brought the Herreras to an orphanage in La Plata, capital of Buenos Aires province, over 1,200 miles away from Tucumán. When the Herreras arrived at the orphanage, Florencia ran to them and embraced them, crying Grandma! Grandpa!
Florencia was beloved by the nuns, who told her grandparents that the little girl spent her days taking care of the smaller children. Although a judge's approval was legally needed to release Florencia from their custody, the nuns decided right then to give the child to her grandparents. Florencia remained with them, and took care of her grandparents until their death.
I think about how this family's vibrant lives were profoundly changed by the children's politics. I think of the elegant house and the intellectually challenging lives the Herreras led.
Leonor Herrera died in 1999. After her death, her husband became a shadow of himself. Although still intellectually active, his only pleasure — aside from the occasional visit of his grandsons — was to help Florencia become the vibrant, eager-for-life young woman she is now.
The two boys, now young men, are accomplished professionals. Florencia is a fashion designer and plastic artist and lectures nationally and internationally on trends in fashion. Esteban is a film director and is dedicated to creative development in software for national and international companies. Raul Oscar is an electronic engineer for an oil multinational company.
The three cousins have overcome their bitterness and are devoted to their families. Their blossomed lives are like a revenge for their parents' violent and untimely deaths. But in me, surrounded by memories of happier times, a feeling of sad emptiness persists, that only time may erase.