“Practically all of Argentina has cried on this one,” said 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 graying, his mouth fast to resolve into a smile, is not bragging. It is 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 is 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 Argentines can remember exactly what they were doing when that moment finally came in August last year.
Illustration: Mountain People
“When I turned 80, I begged God not to let me die before I found my grandson,” Estela Carlotto said.
She 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,” she said.
Estela was a 47-year-old schoolteacher, housewife and mother of three in November 1977 when a death squad from Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship picked her daughter Laura off a street in the city of La Plata where she lived, about 51.5km 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 center” 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 said she gave birth handcuffed and was allowed just 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 afterward, 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 physicians 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 realized that 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 about 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 wicked 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 Argentines 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 aging 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,” Carlotto said. “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 Olavarria 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 said. “And I said: ‘Look at this poor woman. It is heart-breaking. She has spent her whole life searching and she may never find him.’”
Ignacio had a golden childhood, he said.
“I had a great life, but there was always this background noise. I did not look like my parents,” he said.
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, traveled to Buenos Aires to study music and finally returned to Olavarria to become a successful music teacher and professional musician with his own band, the Ignacio Hurban Grupo.
“When this all started, 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,” he said.
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 [322km] away in the middle of farm country, I was never going to find him,” Estela said.
On June 2 last year, fate intervened. It is the date the then-Ignacio Hurban has always celebrated his birthday. Olavarria is a small city of just 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,” Ignacio said. “She told my wife that I was adopted.”
DARK TRUTH REVEALED
After a tearful birthday dinner during which his wife revealed to him the secret of his “adoption,” Ignacio went to see Lizaso, who had told his wife only half of the story.
“She left out the part that I was the child of a couple killed by the dictatorship,” he said.
Both Ignacio’s adoptive parents are still alive and are certain to face a judicial inquiry because that he was falsely registered as their biological son.
“When I went to them about it, they explained their reasons for not telling me. They are humble farm people. They barely finished primary school,” he said.
The circumstances of their employment with Aguilar weighed heavily in the equation, Ignacio said.
“They could not have children and Aguilar gave them the opportunity of bringing them a child born from a woman who did not 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,” he said.
Ignacio is convinced of their innocence and good intentions.
“I realize 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 were not true,” he said.
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 said. “Guys from his social background, sucking up to power... He would do anything to ingratiate himself with some military officer. It is 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,” he said.
However, he has never thought of crossing the street to pound on their door in anger.
“Aguilar is dead and I am told his widow has Alzheimer’s. That is for the courts to deal with; I trust justice. There is 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 said.
He is nonetheless adamant that Aguilar’s sons are innocent in the case.
“I have met them and talked with them about it. The father was responsible, but the sons were not. They are victims of the shit their father did,” he said.
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 that 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.
“Somebody told me — and he has not 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,’” Estela said.
However, when the telephone call came, it not only showed that he was Estela’s grandson, it also revealed that 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 Puno (“Fist”) as a baby by his mother, Montoya, as a young man in the 1970s, soon gravitated to the Montoneros guerrilla organization.
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 Puno Montoya had been erected in his memory.
WAVE OF JOY
Although there had been rumors, 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 telephone call with the surprise DNA results.
“God has given me a long life so that I could live to meet my grandson,” Hortensia told reporters.
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 have not met, but I love you so much for sharing this wonderful grandson with me,” Estela told Hortensia.
Referring to the photographs in the press of her son, Puno, Estela added: “Now I understand why my daughter fell in love with your son.”
The telephone 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 said recently. “[However,] then I thought: ‘They have been waiting for this for more than 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,” he said.
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 cannot believe it: ‘It is impossible — he’s there.’ Seeing the joy in their eyes simply because I was there — everybody crying, the hugs, the emotion,” he said.
His grandmother Estela understood.
“We are a noisy bunch. He is very quiet — I think he had more contact with animals than with children of his own age growing up,” she said.
“I was a mess when I arrived after this long trip,” Ignacio said.
As he got out of the car, he was told his grandmother was inside.
“’That is my grandson,’ I thought. All the love I had kept for him came over me, to tell him how much I loved him, how much I had looked for him. He stood his ground, holding back. I, of course, had been traveling around the world looking for a baby, looking for a child, looking for a young man, and I had always thought: ‘When I find him, you can all meet him because you have all helped me look for him,’” Estela said.
She soon saw she had to be more careful.
“A grandmother’s anxiety wants everything to be fast, but there have been cases where it has taken years for a grandchild to accept their grandmother. So my advice to the grandmothers always is: Give them time; that is how you show your love. You must not get angry, you must not hurry them, you must demand nothing,” she said.
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, because it was like: ‘Bam, there it is, this is it — we won, we did it, we are here, seeing each other, talking,’” he said, speaking with passionate anger against the military who murdered his parents. “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.”
BY ANY OTHER NAME?
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 did not want to change his name,” Estela said, sadness clouding her voice. “’If it is 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. [However,] he told me he is Ignacio. It is to reaffirm himself after that explosion. I understood completely. So I told him: ‘Look, I am going to call you Guido. I have been looking for you for 36 years as Guido.’ And he accepted that. Now, I do not know — sometimes I avoid calling him Guido if he does not want it.”
As the night descended over Buenos Aires recently, Ignacio Hurban was fully transformed into Ignacio Montoya Carlotto the rising musician, talking about his new project, the Ignacio Montoya Carlotto Septeto.
“They are songs with folkloric roots, closer to folk music than to tango,” he said.
Driving his car through the busy streets of Argentina’s capital, he seemed 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 performance.
He insisted that he would not give in to resentment nor 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 is so sad, and that willingness to give up their lives for their beliefs, such a strong will to go through with the pregnancy. It is incredible, but I did not 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,” he said.
It is difficult to say whether denial is at play in Ignacio’s reasoning, although he himself admitted 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.
Estela continues her work. She still travels to the offices of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires every day. That is 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.’ [However,] there is so much still to do. I am going to keep looking for the other missing ones,” she said.
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