Hebe de Bonafini was the leader of Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Madres de Plaza de Mayo), the group she co-founded in 1977, one year after the bloody military dictatorship took over in Argentina—with strong support and encouragement from Washington, D.C.
When De Bonafini’s oldest son, Jorge, was arrested and disappeared by the military, she started endless rounds of hospitals, police stations, courthouses and morgues in search of her son. Later, her other son, Raul, also disappeared. The rounds multiplied. She was looking for at least their bodies.
The authorities never produced an explanation about their whereabouts. During those searches, De Bonafini met other mothers also looking for their sons and daughters kidnapped and disappeared.
The de facto government, called “La Junta”—for which its mission was to “eliminate the menace of a leftist revolution” but actually killed thousands of young people, students, union leaders and even religious “dissidents”—banned meetings of more than three people. So the mothers started to walk every Thursday counterclockwise around a clocktower in the center of the Plaza de Mayo, the main square in front of the presidential residence in Buenos Aires.
Their demand was for their children to return home alive.
The Mothers of the Plaza, as they were called by then, began wrapping cloth diapers—symbolizing those once used by their missing children—around their heads. White headscarves became a symbol of the group.
As the Mothers became more active and vocal, the military retaliated. The first president of the group, Azucena Villaflor, was kidnapped and killed, as well as two other Mothers.
De Bonafini became the leader of the Mothers. The group became not just a symbol of resilience, but of bravery. When democracy was restored, in 1982, the Mothers were one of the strongest supporters of taking the military to court.
They later helped to create the Grandmothers of the Plaza (Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo). This organization’s mission is to identify the children born from young mothers kidnapped by the military. Those children were given in adoption and their mothers killed.
The Abuelas help to create a DNA bank to help identify those “lost” children. So far, more than 120 grandchildren were identified and “recuperated.”
De Bonafini was active until her last days. She belonged to the more radical wing of the Mothers. She constantly denounced the role of Washington, D.C., in coups d’état and in the right-wing governments in Latin America.
She was also controversial due to her open sympathy and activism in support of the Néstor Kirchner (2003–2007) and Cristina Kirchner (2007–2015) administrations and faced criticism for apparently mishandling funds of her nonprofit organization.
During De Bonafini’s tenure as president of the Mothers, the organization reached international recognition, which helped to create strong international opposition to the widespread human rights violations by the military, which ultimately was of importance to the fall of the junta in 1982.
Under De Bonafini’s leadership, the Mothers became an active and influential human rights organization in Argentina.
Some societies with repressive governments have reproduced the model of the Mothers to demand justice.
Hebe de Bonafini is survived by her only daughter, Maria Alejandra.
Eduardo Stanley is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact him at editor@fresnoalliance.[insert Hebe.jpg]
A poster dedicated to Hebe de Bonafini, created by Argentine graphic artist Magalí Martinez Barletta[insert Hebe2.jpg]
Hebe walking with other Mothers at Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, 1998. Photo by Eduardo Stanley