A grandmother’s 36-year hunt for the child stolen by the Argentinian junta
In 1977 Estela Carlotto’s pregnant daughter was arrested. The Argentinian regime let her live long enough to have the baby before killing her. With others, Estela formed the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo to search for the grandson she’d never known. Uki Goñi reports
Sunday 7 June 2015 10.30 BST
Practically all of Argentina has cried on this one,” says Ignacio Montoya Carlotto, patting his right shoulder. We are crisscrossing the old cobblestone streets of San Telmo, the colonial district of the capital, Buenos Aires. The 36-year-old musician, his crinkly curls prematurely greying, his mouth fast to resolve into a smile, is not bragging. It’s impossible to walk even one city block without someone rushing to hug him and then burst into tears, as he predicted, on his rumpled T-shirt.
Maybe it’s because, thanks to his grandmother, the whole of Argentina had been waiting – praying – for more than 30 years for the day when he would be “found”. Most Argentinians can remember exactly what they were doing when that moment finally came in August last year.
“When I turned 80, I begged God not to let me die before I found my grandson,” says Estela Carlotto. Estela has led an extraordinary life, rising from tragedy into one of the most loved and respected public figures in Argentina. It took four more years. “We all cried; everyone has something to say about how they felt to have found this grandson we were all searching for.”
Estela was a 47-year-old schoolteacher, housewife and mother of three in November 1977 when a death squad from Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship picked her daughter Laura off a street in the city of La Plata where she lived, about 32 miles south of Buenos Aires. Laura, a 22-year-old political activist, became one of the thousands of young dissidents who were made to “disappear” by a bloody, fascist regime. Unknown to Estela, her long-haired, strikingly beautiful daughter was three months pregnant at the time of her abduction. She was taken to a secret “detention centre” called La Cacha. There, in her presence, they killed her companion and the father of the child she was carrying, 26-year-old Walmir Montoya.
Ignacio was born in June 1978 while his mother Laura was still in captivity. One report states she gave birth handcuffed and was allowed only five hours with her baby. Two months later, she was dragged out of the camp and a mock armed confrontation was staged by the military. When her body was turned over to Estela, she had been shot through the stomach and her face was smashed, apparently by a rifle butt. Survivors of the camp told Estela about the birth, and that she had named the newborn Guido, after her father.
For 36 years afterwards, Estela devoted herself to finding her grandson. All she had was a name, Guido, and an approximate birth date. An excruciatingly difficult search led her through three decades of legal action against police officers, military officers and doctors involved in the “missing grandchildren” cases. Leads were hard to come by. Her grandson had been swallowed by the complicity and silence that surrounded so many of the regime’s horrendous crimes.
Estela realised there were many others like herself looking for the babies of their “disappeared” daughters. They formed a group called the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, named after the city square facing the presidential palace in downtown Buenos Aires where they marched, drawing attention to their plight. By 1989 Estela had become president of the association.
The group believes there are some 500 cases of grandchildren born in captivity. In most cases, the babies were turned over to military families to raise as their own. In the warped thinking of the profoundly Catholic yet murderous generals who ruled Argentina then, it would have been unchristian to kill an innocent, unborn child by executing the expectant mother. By the same token, in their macabre minds turning the babies over to “good” military families to raise as their own represented the ultimate victory over the “godless” left-wing enemy they wished to crush into nonexistence.
Even now, three decades after the collapse of the dictatorship, some Argentinians defend the military’s campaign against Cuban-inspired guerrillas in the 1970s, but even the most die-hard reactionaries draw the line at the baby-snatching cases. Each DNA confirmation that a missing grandchild had been found and reunited with their biological family, usually accompanied by legal action against the “mother and father” who had appropriated them, has been greeted with joy across the political spectrum.
Over three decades of work, 113 cases had been resolved by the slowly ageing grandmothers, but despite this, Estela Carlotto’s missing grandson remained unaccounted for, which left a deep, unhealed wound in the nation’s psyche. Despite being behind the restitution of the grandchildren of so many of her fellow grandmothers, the white-haired, softly spoken woman who had endeared herself as a perennial hopeful for a Nobel Peace Prize for Argentina, and a worldwide symbol of peaceful women’s activism, had not yet been able to find her own slain daughter’s son. “I am such a well-known public figure,” says Carlotto. “Everybody kept asking me: ‘When is it going to be your turn?’”
At the time Ignacio Montoya Carlotto still believed he was Ignacio Hurban, the only son of Juana and Clemente Hurban, a couple of humble rural workers who lived near the city of Olavarría on a farm belonging to Francisco Aguilar, a well-to-do, conservative landowner who died last year.
“A few years ago I was watching television with my wife and Estela comes on talking about the search for her grandson,” Ignacio tells me. “And I said: ‘Look at this poor woman. It’s heart-breaking – she’s spent her whole life searching, and she may never find him.’”
Ignacio had, he says, a golden childhood. “I had a great life, but there was always this background noise. I didn’t look like my parents.” Growing up on the farm, surrounded by animals and cared for by those he still refers to lovingly as “Mother and Father”, he became a voracious reader, excelled in school, travelled to Buenos Aires to study music and finally returned to Olavarría to become a successful music teacher and professional musician with his own band, the Ignacio Hurban Grupo.
“When this all started,” he says. “I was scared of it devouring my whole life. Things were really great for me, damn it. I was recording records with musicians I respected, I was able to buy myself a brand-new car working as a musician, teaching and playing the piano. I had my wife and we were thinking of starting a family. And before that I had a healthy childhood on the farm, with lots of love.”
It was precisely that bucolic, protective environment in the deep countryside that made it almost impossible for his despairing grandmother to find him. “Where he was, 200 miles away in the middle of farm country,” says Estela, “I was never going to find him.”
A year ago, on 2 June 2014, fate intervened. It’s the date the then Ignacio Hurban has always celebrated his birthday. Olavarría is a small city of only 111,000. Among them was Celia Lizaso, a woman who knew the true story of his birth. “Celia Lizaso was the daughter of a farmer who was very good friends with Aguilar,” says Ignacio today. “She told my wife that I was adopted.” After a tearful birthday dinner during which his wife revealed to him the secret of his “adoption”, Ignacio went to see Lizaso, who had only told his wife half the story. “She left out the part that I was the child of a couple killed by the dictatorship.”
Both Ignacio’s adoptive parents are still alive and are certain to face a judicial inquiry due to the fact that he was falsely registered as their biological son. “When I went to them about it,” he says, “they explained their reasons for not telling me. They are humble farm people. They barely finished primary school.”
The circumstances of their employment with Aguilar weighed heavily in the equation, believes Ignacio. “They couldn’t have children, and Aguilar gave them the opportunity of bringing them a child born from a woman who didn’t want to have it, which was common in those days. They never suspected anything. They believed their boss – he was like God to them: they lived on his land and he was their only source of income.”
Ignacio is convinced of their innocence and good intentions. “I realise the sacrifices they made to raise me – I have nothing but gratitude for that. I also understand that they were tricked, they were made to sign things. They were made to believe things that weren’t true.”
Although the details remain unclear, and there is a court investigation pending, Ignacio has been able to piece together the essentials. Aguilar received him from the military when he was probably only a few days old and handed him over to the Hurbans, to raise as their own, with a solemn warning never to tell anyone the truth. “Aguilar probably did it to collaborate with the military,” he says. “Guys from his social background, sucking up to power – he’d do anything to ingratiate himself with some military officer. It’s kind of sad, actually.”
Ignacio grew up knowing Aguilar and his children well. “The kids used to come visit the farm. They live across from the music school where I teach.” But he has never thought of crossing the street to pound their door in anger. “Aguilar is dead and I’m told his widow has Alzheimer’s. That’s for the courts to deal with, I trust justice. There’s only two things that can affect families like that. Economic consequences, which is losing what they have, because those families often are what they own, or losing their prestige, and that they have definitely lost: their last name is now associated with the worst crime in our history.”
He is nonetheless adamant that Aguilar’s sons are innocent in the case. “I’ve met them and talked with them about it. The father was responsible, but the sons weren’t. They are victims of the shit their father did.”
Over the decades of their search, it was inevitable that some of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo died. The years are ticking by ever faster for those still in the fight – Estela is 84. With hundreds of grandchildren still unfound, they have set up a DNA bank with samples from their own DNA to ensure that anyone who suspects they are a “missing grandchild” can step forward after they are gone. In what was probably one of the last acts of his life as Ignacio Hurban, Estela’s missing grandson went to the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, took a DNA test and then went back to his daily life.
Estela says: “Somebody told me – and he hasn’t denied it – that he said: ‘Well, if I turn out to be the son of a “disappeared” couple, I want to be the grandson of the top grandmother, Estela.’” But when the phone call came, it not only showed that he was Estela’s grandson, it also revealed he was the son of Walmir Montoya, Laura Carlotto’s slain secret boyfriend. Suddenly the pieces fell into place. Montoya had been a drummer in a rock band. Nicknamed Puño (Fist) as a baby by his mother, Montoya, as a young man in the 1970s, soon gravitated to the Montoneros guerrilla organisation. He moved to La Plata, where he met Laura. They fell in love and lived in hiding, in an unsuccessful bid to outrun the secret police.
In 2006 forensic anthropologists unearthed his bones in a common grave. They found 16 bullet wounds, showing he was probably executed by machine gun fire. In Caleta Olivia, the coastal town in Patagonia where he grew up, a statue of Puño Montoya had been erected in his memory. Although there’d been rumours, no one knew for certain that he had a child, least of all his surviving 91-year-old mother, Hortensia Montoya, who also received a phone call with the surprise DNA results.
“God has given me a long life so that I could live to meet my grandson,” Hortensia said to the press. Like Estela, Hortensia is an exceptional woman, considered a pioneering teacher in Caleta Olivia. The two grandmothers talked to each other in a joint radio interview after the DNA results were announced, as a wave of joy swept across the nation. “We still haven’t met, but I love you so much for sharing this wonderful grandson with me,” Estela told Hortensia. Referring to the photos in the press of her son Puño, Estela added: “Now I understand why my daughter fell in love with your son.”
The phone call to Ignacio Hurban had been made by Estela’s younger daughter, who heads the DNA bank which holds the samples. “I asked for time,” Ignacio says now. “But then I thought: ‘They’ve been waiting for this for over 30 years. One more day for them must feel fatal.’” What followed was a hurried 400km journey with his wife and a group of their friends to meet the Carlottos in La Plata. “We left early, avoiding the press. We got lost, we went round in circles, it was a total scream.” By then Argentina’s media were staked out en masse in front of Carlotto’s La Plata home, so they had to rendezvous at the home of one of her daughters.
What the then Ignacio Hurban encountered at the Carlotto home provoked something akin to culture shock. An only son, raised among animals in a faraway farm, walked into a home where Estela’s 13 other grandchildren, his cousins, aunts and uncles were eagerly awaiting him. “It was meeting a whole family who are looking at you and can’t believe it: ‘It’s impossible – he’s there!’ Seeing the joy in their eyes simply because I was there – everybody crying, the hugs, the emotion.”
His grandmother Estela understands: “We’re a noisy bunch. He’s very quiet – I think he had more contact with animals than with children of his own age growing up.”
“I was a mess when I arrived after this long trip,” says Ignacio. As he got out of the car, he was told his grandmother was inside.
Estela recalls: “‘That’s my grandson,’ I thought. All the love I’d kept for him came over me, to tell him how much I loved him, how much I’d looked for him. He stood his ground, holding back. I, of course, had been travelling around the world looking for a baby, looking for a child, looking for a young man, and I’d always thought: ‘When I find him, you can all meet him because you’ve all helped me look for him.’” She soon saw she had to be more careful. “A grandmother’s anxiety wants everything to be fast, but there’s been cases where it’s taken years for a grandchild to accept their grandmother. So my advice to the grandmothers always is: give them time – that’s how you show your love. You must not get angry, you must not hurry them, you must demand nothing.”
For Ignacio, the sweetest moment came a few days later, when Hortensia Montoya arrived and the two grandmothers embraced.
“Meeting my two grandmothers was the most moving thing,” he says, speaking with passionate anger against the military who murdered his parents, “because it was like: ‘Bam, there it is, this is it – we won, we did it, we’re here, seeing each other, talking.’ Do you know what it was like hearing those two women talking to each other? The ground shakes when they meet. Two such powerful persons talking about their children, getting to know each other through the love their children had, crying for joy in the midst of this terrible tragedy.”
Ignacio has stood his ground by refusing to give in to one of his grandmother’s most cherished wishes: to rename himself Guido. “It hurt me when he said he didn’t want to change his name,” says Estela, sadness clouding her voice. “‘If it’s a boy, I want him to be called Guido,’ my daughter told one of her fellow prisoners who survived. She must have called him Guido when he was in her tummy; that has to resonate. But he told me he is Ignacio. It’s to reaffirm himself after that explosion. I understood completely. So I told him: ‘Look, I am going to call you Guido. I’ve been looking for you for 36 years as Guido.’ And he accepted that. But now, I don’t know – sometimes I avoid calling him Guido if he doesn’t want it.”
As the night descends over Buenos Aires at the end of my time with him, Ignacio Hurban is now fully transformed into Ignacio Montoya Carlotto the rising musician, talking about his new project, the Ignacio Montoya Carlotto Septeto. “They’re songs with folkloric roots, closer to folk music than to tango.”
Driving his car through the busy streets of Argentina’s capital, he seems slightly lost, far away from the quiet night skies and open horizons of his home, asking for directions, on his way to a rehearsal for a television show he will be performing on. He insists that he will not give in to resentment nor will he feign a suffering for what happened to his biological parents that he has not felt himself.
“It was horrible, to be ripped from your mother, but I have no recollection of that. Plus, what good would it do me to cry for what could have been? Or to start living a life of suffering that I have not lived? My parents suffered. When I think about what they went through, it’s so sad, and that willingness to give up their lives for their beliefs, such a strong will to go through with the pregnancy. It’s incredible. But I didn’t live through any of that. My memories are of growing up on the farm with a mother and a father. And they did everything any other parents would have done.”
It is difficult to say whether denial is at play in Ignacio’s reasoning, although he himself admits to none. Perhaps he is that rare thing, a person determined to make the best of the world he has been born into, even if he discovers at the age of 36 that he had been “born” into a false world, the victim of a heinous crime.
Meanwhile Estela continues her work. She still travels to the offices of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires every day. That’s about a three-hour round trip. She travels continuously, carrying her message around the world. Her grandson was the 114th missing grandchild to be identified. Two more have been identified since then. Hundreds of others remain unfound. She has no intention of stopping: “The only thought I had was: Laura can rest in peace now. I felt Laura said to me: ‘Mother, mission accomplished.’ But there’s so much still to do. I’m going to keep looking for the other missing ones.”