DNA, ghost stories

Martín Acosta

2001 - 2007


There are just one hundred and nineteen of them. One hundred and nineteen out of four hundred. One hundred and nineteen recovered children, four hundred disappeared children. Just a handful—a handful that demonstrates, that shouts, that denies that the blood can ever be wiped away completely.

These one hundred and nineteen children were recovered despite the sinister plan through which the military dictatorship sought to destroy their identities. They demonstrate that not everything can be hidden, that not everything can be disappeared.

More than four-hundred babies were “disappeared” during the military regime installed on March 24th, 1976. Most of them were kidnapped along with their parents, or were born in one of the clandestine detention centers. To date, it has been possible to locate eighty-seven of them, thanks to the tireless struggle of their families and the support of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Some were given over for adoption to families that were unaware of their real identity, some were simply abandoned. Others were appropriated by the very people that kidnapped their parents. But in all cases there was an attempt to erase their identity, the traces of their blood—so that they could never be like their parents.

I began to photograph these children—today men and women—in august of 2001. I wanted to take portraits of them together with the family members that spent years searching for and recovering them. For me, the union of these two people in one single image represents the failure of the policy of fear that the military dictatorship attempted to impose. These photos attempt to show that the attempts to sever and dissolve family bonds were a failure. The efforts to impose secrecy and fear failed due to the perseverance of their families, as well as the children themselves while they were growing up.

By including a copy of a photograph of the disappeared parents, the two images become a single unit where the past meets the present. This is the essence of photography: the reality of past and present at the same time. The text tells us who they are, what happened to them and how they became who they are today.

The three elements—the text, the photo from the present and the photo from the past—form a triptych that encompasses a part of our history.

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  • “We were in a plaza. My mom walked away towards some guys. They put a bag on her head and put her into a car. She did it so that they wouldn’t kidnap us. Me sister told me this. I was six months old, Tatiana was three but she remembers."
    They were given to different families but destiny brought them together in the same place. Kidnapped together, separated in different orphanages, adopted separately and once again united in the same family.
    “In my family the women were named Laura. My parents christened me Mara. But Tatiana said, ‘My sister is named Laura.’ That’s why I’m Laura Malena. I like it, and I’m going to name my daughter Laura.”
    The grandmothers discovered the case in 1980 and arranged a visiting schedule with the adoptive family. They play a large role in comforting the girls. But for Laura-Mara it was very difficult, and it is evident.
    The day that we took the photos at her aunt's house in Berisso, Mara was not well. She became very distressed and there was a lot of tension in her hands. That period of her life is very difficult for her.
    Laura-Mara is devoted to her father, a physical education teacher and boxer. She is quite taken with a photo of him at school. In the background a painting of Independence Day can be seen, with depictions of some women in white scarves.

  • “Me, I was stolen—I was born again on October 25, 2000,” says Gabriel, who back then was named Ramiro. His mother, María, was disappeared on January 11, 1977.
    To be disappeared in Argentina is to no longer be present, to no longer exist, to no longer be.
    I met Adriana on my first visit to the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, when I went to ask for help with my project. I was just reviewing possible cases to photograph when she came in and said, “What are you doing with my baby!”
    Adriana knows little about what happened. Gabriel knows nothing about what happened. We ourselves know little regarding what happened.
    Maria was a member of the PRT – ERP and a psychologist. She worked in a factory and was kidnapped while she was waiting for the bus after work. Enrique, Gabriel’s father, was the person that let the family know that Maria had been kidnapped. He now lives in Brazil.
    Gabriel ended up in Pergamino with a substitute family, longing to know who he was.
    He became religious and later sought out the Grandmothers. The DNA analysis confirmed who he was and where he came from. Now he is beginning to form the person he will be.

  • “I approached the Grandmothers in 2003. I couldn’t handle my life any more, my uncertainty, my depressions.”
    Juan Cabandié was born in March 1978 at the Clandestine Detention Center at the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA). His parents, Damian Cabandié and Alicia Alfonsín, were members of the Montoneros and were kidnapped from their house in the 600 block of Solis street and were imprisoned at the Banco and Atlético detention centers. Alicia was five and a half months pregnant and was moved to the ESMA in order to give birth. Damián and Alicia remain disappeared to this day.
    “I was born inside here. The fifteen days here during which my mother nursed me and gave me a name, were long enough for me to tell my friends, before knowing who my family was, before knowing my history, that I wanted to call myself Juan.” Those were the words of Juan, at a massive rally in front of ESMA on March 24, 2004, when he already knew that he was Juan. Up until a few months prior he had still called himself Mariano, the name he was given by Luís Falco, the intelligence agent from the Federal Police that had taken Juan as his own.
    “With a false identity you can’t get very far, something is always missing. You are looking for something but you don’t know what it is.”

  • “Man, I never threw so many rocks in my life.”
    Marcos was with a group of bikers that fought police with their bikes and with rocks, in the December 2001 demonstrations against the government of Fernando de la Rua.
    “There’s blood on me, blood running down my body. If I see something I don't like, I let fly. If I see a fallen biker I help him, wherever he is.” I imagine that this is what links him with his past.
    Marcos Suárez was kidnapped on December 10, 1976, along with his Father, Hugo, who was carrying him in his arms. His mother María Rosa Vedoya had been kidnapped two months earlier. Nothing is known about the location of his parents.
    Marcos showed up one day on a stretcher at Cuna House. He stared at the nurse that was caring for him and then he smiled. From that moment on she was his mother. That is what they told him. Also that he was named Gustavo and that his parents had abandoned him.
    Marcos went to the Grandmothers to search for his father. There he found another story.
    That his real parents were Hugo and María Rosa and that he had been kidnapped before he was one year old.
    He has to figure out everything that happened in between.
    His grandmother Modesta Vedoya, who had looked for him for thirty years, had concluded that she would never see him again.
    Estela de Carlotto called her to tell her that Marcos had been found. Moreca thought that the call was a joke.
    When she had him in front of her, all she could think about was the moment that he had looked at her and smiled 30 years earlier. He was only 11 months old and he left in his father’s arms.

  • Damián is tough, but you can tell he loves his sister. Jorgelina-Carolina is tender and affectionate, she loves him.
    When Jorgelina-Carolina was 15 years old, Damián traveled to Buenos Aires to look for his sister.
    Cristina was the mother of both of them. When she was kidnapped in May 1977, she lived in the Lomas de Zamora neighborhood with her daughter and a woman that took care of her. But one day Cristina left and Jorgelina-Carolina never heard from her again.
    Jorgelina-Carolina was taken to an orphanage where a family adopted her. She was living with them when Damián came to look for her to tell her he was her brother. She slammed the door in his face.
    It took many years and many difficult moments for their relationship to get to the point that can been seen in the photos.
    After several years, when she had already entered the convent, Jorgelina-Angelina sent a letter to Damián in order to slowly reencounter her past. That is how she learned that their mother was from Paraná, that they have different fathers, and that her father was an ERP guerilla that had been killed in Catamarca in 1974.
    Jorgelina-Carolina wants to know more about her past. She has already visited the orphanage where she was left and is searching for the woman that took care of her. She is brave and is trying to define who she is now, and how she was before. She left the convent and now has a husband and two children.

  • From: eugeniabarragan@hotmail.com
    Sent: Wednesday June 11 2003, 2:35:50 AM
    To: Martín Acosta (a_martin1642@hotmail.com)
    Subject: It’s finally here!!!!!!

    Finally the moment I've been waiting for:

    On June 4, 2003 they declared null and void my civil registration as MARIA EUGENIA VIOLETA RIVAS (funny, no?) and ordered “immediate registration with her TRUE (because previously it was not) personal information”: she should be listed as MARIA EUGENIA SAMPALLO BARRAGAN, daughter of Mirta Mabel Barragán and Leonardo Rubén Sampallo. Unfortunately my date of birth is a little bit arbitrary, although it is consistent with the information that we have.
    To me this is a great achievement, because in a way my search — which started with the help of my friends, with their concern and patience — is finished, at least in the legal sense. I can say that I managed to put an end to the lie that I was told so many times; to make clear what it meant to me: each day being newly deceived.
    This is another part of the history, which more than a search, was an encounter.

    I wanted to share this with you.
    For those that raise their glasses, Salud!
    María Eugenia Sampallo Barragán

    María Eugenia’s parents, and the three year old son of Mirta, Gustavo Rojas, were kidnapped on December 6, 1977. Mirta was six months pregnant and gave birth to her daughter while she was captured. Gustavo was given to his grandfather 25 days after the kidnapping.
    Mirta and Leonardo were seen for the last time while at the Club Atlético Clandestine Center.

  • Manuel was the only survivor of the San Nicolas house. His mother had taken refuge there after Manuel's father had been kidnapped. But they all died in the raid. His mother, a couple who were her friends and two other children.
    Manuel was inside a cupboard and that is why he was saved, although he was in very bad shape due to the gas fired into the house. Some police took him to the hospital and he was checked in as NO NAME, remaining under police custody for five months. His only visitors were the family of a police officer that had taken him out of the house. They wanted to adopt him but the judge would not allow it and his guardianship was given to the Novoa family.
    Manuel returned to that house when he went to take flowers to his mother at the San Nicolas ossuary. That is where Ana is buried, after her remains were transferred from an anonymous grave. At the ossuary, there is a commemorative plaque that was put up by the family of the officer that participated in the raid in which his mother was murdered.
    Today Manuel has a wonderful relationship with Matilde and with Gaston, his brother. Although it makes him sad when his grandmother tells him that sometimes it is painful for her to look at him, because it reminds her of her son, he understands.

  • Humberto doesn’t remember anything. Everything he knows he was told by his grandmother or his father. He doesn’t remember the kidnapping, or what happened before. His memory only registers images of being in a pickup truck with his mom sitting next to him. He was surrounded by police. But Humberto does not know if it is true or a dream.
    On May 23, 1977 in Morón, two year old Humberto, his eight month old sister Noemí, his mother Elda and her partner, the father of the girl, were kidnapped. The children were given to a military tailor, a relative of Noemí.
    Humberto gets confused; he has trouble remembering exact dates. From that day forth, for him and his sister this was their new family. He stopped being named Humberto and became Alejandro Ferri.
    Humberto’s father, Renato, found out that he had a son while he was a political prisoner.
    It was only when he was freed in 1983 that he could begin to look for him.
    As in nearly all the cases, Humberto suddenly realized that the guy standing in front of him was his father. Noemí also regained her identity and lives with her father’s brother.

  • “When she saw me for the first time she yelled ’Paula!’ Grandma Delfina is the only person that calls me Paula.
    “When I was three I learned I had been adopted. When I was about twelve I had nightmares with acts of violence. I began to match the dates and I asked my mom if I was the daughter of disappeared people. I cried like a condemned woman, but it was a great relief.
    “In 1995, I began to search. A woman saw me on Channel 3 in Rosario. Right away she thought I was the granddaughter of Agustin, my grandfather, the father of Enrique. She found my number in the phonebook. She spoke with mom and they met. They went to see Delfina, and she showed her a picture of Blanca. That’s when my mom thought it could be possible."
    Paula-Carolina is working to learn about her parents and to find her brother, or sister. Blanca, her mother, was about to give birth when she was kidnapped.
    Two years after regaining her identity, Paula-Carolina found the remains of Blanca and she buried them at the Venado Tuerto cemetery.
    “We were together until the end. Blanca was a devoted mother. I love knowing that they had an idea and they believed in it. I love knowing that they worked in small villages. I am proud of what my parents did.”

  • “It had to be me that this happens to.” That is what Elena thought at 12 years old when the judge explained to her that she was the daughter of people who had been disappeared. Her parents were not her parents, but rather they had stolen her and kept her as their own. They had taken her home from a Clandestine Detention Center where she had been born.
    That day in April 1987 had forever ended the normal life of neighborhood school in City Bell and weekends at the policemen’s club that had been laid out for her by Buenos Aires Deputy Police Commissioner Domingo Luis Madrid.
    Elena took things with surprising ease and immediately accepted her new family. She wanted to stay with her grandmother Leonor but the family decided that she would live in Bella Vista with her uncle Guillermo and her cousins.
    Her grandmother was living alone in La Rioja. She had lived there since her release after spending three days kidnapped along with her daughter María.
    Elena adjusted quickly to life in the town of Bella Vista, where she finished her studies.
    She learned little about her father. That he was kidnapped, released, kidnapped again and later executed. His remains were found at the Moreno cemetery. Regarding her mother, nothing. She remains disappeared, and has been since September 16, 1976. She gave birth to a daughter at an unknown location in Buenos Aires two months after being detained.

  • Cocó was born September 2, 1977 at the Pozo de Bánfield detention center. A month and a half earlier she was kidnapped in José C. Paz by a police/military task force, along with her mother, her father and her one-and-half year old sister María. Cocó had not yet been born and had only been in her mother’s womb for eight months.
    When the Grandmothers began to track down Cocó, the couple that had taken her as their own—assistant intelligence officer with the Buenos Aires police Teresa González and Nelson Rubén—began to evade the pressure by constantly moving. They told her that the constant moving was due to the danger involved in Teresa’s work.
    It was 1987 and Cocó found herself on her way to court, on a plane from Mar del Plata, where she had been located. She daydreamed about the clouds. Are they made of cotton or smoke? she wondered.
    She didn’t understand anything about what was going on. Why were these people taking her away from her family and bringing her meet another family? Her family. She began to think about her new parents.
    When she got to court she was introduced to her real family members. Haydee kissed her and told her how much they had looked for her. “I didn’t understand even the half of it, I didn’t want to hear it, and on top of that, they showed me all of the old folks and they didn’t show me my parents.”
    María was returned to her family ten years after the kidnapping in José C. Paz on that 20th of July of 1977. But Cocó’s parents, the parents she has been asking for since she was told the truth, remain disappeared.

  • “I was in a plaza in Villa Ballester with my mother and my sister, who was only a few months old. Some uniformed men showed up, they got off a bus. My mother kissed us on the cheek and walked away. Right away they put a bag on her head.
    “We stayed in the plaza until it started to get dark. Later they took us to the police station and scared us with dogs. I knew that I was named Tatiana. And so I told them at the police station ’Tatiana Ruarte,’ but they heard Duarte. Anyway they wrote me down as NO NAME. They sent me to an orphanage in Villa Elisa and my sister to Cuna house .
    “One day they took me to the court in San Martín to give me up for adoption. The couple that had taken my sister was there. They wanted to adopt me as well, but they were told that I was already taken.
    “The couple that adopted me later brought me back because I was ‘dark-skinned.’ In court they called back the couple that had taken my sister, and they adopted me as well.”
    And that is how Tatiana Ruarte / Tatiana Sfiligoy and Laura Jotar / Mara Sfiligoy lived together under the same adoptive roof until March 19, 1980 when they were located by Grandmothers.
    “I don’t remember anything about my mother. About my father I remember that we were at a house and that we moved a lot.”