On this Tuesday morning, April 19, 2005, I woke up to the news that Adolfo Scilingo was convicted of crimes against humanity in a Spanish court and sentenced to 640 years in prison. I am pleased that someone who was responsible for so many deaths during Argentina’s Dirty Wars has been given a long sentence. I feel a sense of justice but it cannot erase the hurt deep inside me that he may have thrown my brother José out of an airplane. This news brought more distress to my mamá, raising to the surface once again the horrendous death her son must have endured. We will both grieve his death once more without a grave to visit.
My students in the class, 20th Century Argentine History, spent the entire hour discussing this case and related issues. Although we had already covered Scilingo’s public confession that he was one of many navy personnel who participated in throwing people out of airplanes over the ocean, many students were still in disbelief that people would actually hurl prisoners out of airplanes. They also talked about how inhumane it was to steal children from prisoners and give them to military personnel to raise. Once I saw a student look at a daughter of a military family with a quizzical look. This history is haunting to many of my students, but not all.
During the discussion one student asked me if I had any personal memories from that time I would care to share with the class. I hesitated for a moment and decided to tell them about the disappearance of my brother. I told them that my mamá became hysterical when the Scilingo stories were first revealed. She had nightmares envisioning her José looking quizzically at the sky as he fell to the sea. It has taken some time for her to recover enough to live a pretty normal life, but this morning’s news conjured up more memories and she was nearly hysterical. I almost stayed home to console her but she said it was more important for our future for me to teach class today than comfort her.
Class discussions on these and related issues will be difficult for many of my students who have little or no knowledge of this past. I must work hard to balance objectivity as a teacher with the emotions of expressing my personal memories, but I think it is important to share those memories with the generation of people who have no personal memory of their own from this time. For next class I will lead a discussion about the relationship between personal memory and collective memory. I hope my students will grasp an understanding that knowledge of our country’s history, including its very darkest moments, inform public policy for the future.