Grassroots organizations help families make “memory tiles,” recollections of the thousands who vanished under the last Argentinian dictatorship.
Liliana Giovannelli, 61, rarely visits the commemorative stone in Buenos Aires that carries her husband’s name. Set into the sidewalk in the north of the Argentine capital, it does not mark his grave, but the spot where he disappeared from work at a ceramic factory in 1977, at the age of 27. His body was never found. Some 40 years later, Giovannelli is still looking.
The handmade plaque, carefully inlaid with broken crockery and colored glass, is dedicated to Giovannelli’s husband, Juan Carlos Panizza, and three other missing potters kidnapped by the military from a factory in Villa Adelina on the morning of October 27, in the midst of the Argentine spring. It is a “memory tile” installed in 2010 as part of a grassroots initiative to record the tens of thousands of desaparecidos, people forcibly disappeared during Argentina’s last dictatorship.
Giovannelli was 20 when Juan Carlos was taken away; they had been married for eight months. Black-and-white photographs of their wedding day show the young, dark-haired couple dressed in wide flared trousers and smiling shyly. When Juan Carlos disappeared, “I had no understanding of what was happening,” Giovannelli says. “I was sure he would just come back.”
Human rights groups estimate as many as 30,000 people were killed or disappeared during the military dictatorship’s brutal crackdown against suspected left-wing political dissidents. Many were tortured at clandestine detention centers before being incinerated or disposed of in unmarked graves. Hundreds of children were stolen from their imprisoned parents. The military government called it the “Dirty War,” a term that today angers survivors as it implies there was no genocide, only an internal civil war between the dictatorship and terrorists.
Information declassified by the U.S. in 2002 revealed that 19 ceramicists were executed in the Campo de Mayo center in November 1977. Piecing together the available information, Giovannelli is fairly sure Juan Carlos was one of them. She hopes to find his remains, though that might be impossible: many of those detained at the Campo de Mayo facility were thrown from planes into the sea.
In the early 2000s, after a decade-long search for answers, Giovannelli got involved with other activists and families of the disappeared to find a way of remembering the victims in public spaces. Gradually, a collective formed of neighborhood groups from around 20 different areas in Buenos Aires, united under the umbrella of Barrios x La Memoria y Justicia (Neighborhoods for Memory and Justice). The group began putting stickers and photos on streets to mark places where the disappeared had lived—but when these were rubbed away or damaged in storms, they sought more permanent tributes.
The collective began making and laying memory tiles in 2006, the year then-President Néstor Kirchner reopened trials into dictatorship-era crimes after decades of impunity and silence. Today, over 500 have been set into the capital’s streets.
To request a memory tile, families of missing people approach their local group, which then verifies the name and date against any records held by human rights organizations. The family takes part in the ritual of making the rectangular slabs, which all carry similar text: “Here the peoples’ activist,” followed by the detained, disappeared, or murdered person’s name, where they lived, went missing, or were killed, and a reference to the “state terrorism” responsible. (Families and community members contribute towards the cost of materials.)
The tile-laying events are similar to memorial services. Members of the community, friends, and family attend and make speeches and share stories and photographs. Héctor Rodríguez, a member of the Zona Norte branch of Neighborhoods for Memory and Justice, says that mixing the cement and sand and then laying the tile is “an emotional, collective act everyone takes part in.” It can be uplifting for many families, he adds, “because for the first time in 40 years, they are talking about their experiences.”
Pedestrians encounter the modest slabs on street corners, outside apartment blocks and offices, and even in front of colleges and schools, alluding to harrowing stories and memories behind the urban landscape. By mapping out the sites of trauma across the city, the project aims to build collective memory and encourage dialogue in communities torn apart by grief and suspicion.
Outside a small, reddish house on a residential street in Villa Adelina lies a memory tile dedicated to Aldo Ramírez, a ship-worker and member of the left-wing guerrilla group the Montoneros. His tile includes a hand-drawn outline of the Falklands/Malvinas Islands, a nod to his role in the infamous Operativo Condor, a 1966 hijacking and re-direction of a passenger plane to land on the disputed South Atlantic islands. Ramírez disappeared on September 1, 1977. He was taken to Campo de Mayo and his body was never found.
Rufiela 'Rufi' Gastón, 67, another activist and Ramírez’s then-wife, was forced into hiding with their five-year-old daughter, Paula. Before the memory tile was laid outside the house where Aldo grew up, Gastón could not bear to visit the site. “Now, after 30 years, I can go back. It's like bringing someone back to their community,” says Gastón. “The disappeared person now has a symbolic presence.”
For Giovannelli, the tiles are sites of both happiness and pain, giving loved ones a place to congregate. “I'm not going to say it replaces something, because it can't,” she says. “But it’s a way of getting together and remembering someone who is not there. You can't mourn the disappeared.” Perhaps more importantly, for Giovannelli, the tiles are also a tool for achieving justice. Relatives of the disappeared potters think factory bosses handed over lists of union members, activists, or “perceived agitators” to the military junta. The tile’s installation ceremony advertised the search for witnesses who might have information about the kidnapping, or be able to testify against the factory bosses. "We didn't know how else to find witnesses. We're talking about 30 years after these events happened,” says Giovannelli.
Recording the disappeared with concrete tiles has never been so important, say the members of Neighborhoods for Memory and Justice. The election of Mauricio Macri in 2015 signaled a political shift to the right and reignited a highly politicized debate over the numbers of people who went missing. Macri’s refusal to acknowledge the widely accepted figure of 30,000, his attempts to change a public holiday that commemorates victims, and his proposed alterations to memory sites have led left-wing groups, human rights activists, and families of the disappeared to accuse him of denying a genocide. Héctor Rodríguez says that through such actions, the government is trying to undermine a consensus built during successive Kirchner governments over what happened during the 1970s and ‘80s. “It’s not about whether it’s 30,000 or 29,500 [people disappeared],” he says. Instead, the debate about numbers, he says, “is happening because this government is trying to insult the fight and claim there wasn’t a genocide.”
In the midst of political change and a fluctuating urban landscape, the memory tile collective says families find comfort in the idea of longevity and returning the disappeared to the streets they once walked. “The tiles bring the past into the present in a permanent way,” adds Rodríguez. “It's a fixed urban mark and no one can deny what it is saying.”