The human rights group Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo was thrilled to reveal the recovery of the 121st “nieto” earlier this week in its decades-long search for the children of victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship. But where the Grandmothers and the Argentine public initially treat each new identification as a celebration, absorbing their new reality is no simple task for the nietos. For now, the man at the center of the recent celebrations has chosen to remain anonymous, even as his long-lost family is eager to welcome him home.
“I want to tell you that you have a family here with 40 years worth of accumulated love to give you,” the 121st nieto’s brother, Ramiro Menna, said at a press conference held by the Grandmothers on Wednesday. “We want to hug you and we are waiting for you for whenever you are ready because we know that what you are going through is not easy.”
The systematic disappearance of leftist activists and guerrillas was an ugly feature of military regimes across Latin America in the 1970s and ‘80s. But the junta that reigned over Argentina from 1976 to 1983 stands out for its treatment of the pregnant women it imprisoned and disappeared. Army officers waited for these women to give birth before disappearing them, often for good, and handed their children over for adoption by regime-friendly families.
In the years that have followed the junta’s reign, the search for as many as 500 such babies, most of whom are now in middle age, has captivated the country’s attention and transformed the Grandmothers into a beloved global symbol of dogged human-rights activism and the nietos into national celebrities.
Ignacio Guido Montoya Carlotto, a.k.a Nieto 114, knows this well. He seemed to embrace the media frenzy that followed his identification as the grandson of the Grandmothers’ leader Estela de Carlotto in August 2014. “Everything that is happening is wonderful and magical,” Montoya told reporters at the time.
Two years later, Montoya, a popular musician, says it was harder than he initially let on.
“The person who is found does not necessarily share the enormous happiness of the family that has been looking for you all your life,” he told VICE News in a phone interview conducted in Spanish and translated into English, as were all other quotes in this article. “Meeting the family exposes something that was missing, something that was lost for the nieto’s entire life and they never knew about it, and that generates incredible pain.”
Montoya’s mother, Laura de Carlotto, was two months pregnant when she was abducted by the military in 1977. A witness said she was handcuffed and hooded when she gave birth and allowed just five hours with her newborn boy before he was taken away. Her body was later returned to her family, her face destroyed. Montoya’s father was also killed. Both parents had belonged to a left-wing guerrilla group known as the Montoneros.
Montoya believes his adoptive parents had no hint of his dark origins, and he said he only found out he was not their biological child after their employer, who had military contacts, died in March 2014. A few months later, he visited one of the offices the Grandmothers have set up throughout the country. There he left a blood sample that would change his life.
“Meeting the family exposes something that was missing, something that was lost for the nieto’s entire life and they never knew about it, and that generates incredible pain.”
Montoya maintains his support for the Grandmothers’ work and says he is happy each time a new nieto is revealed, but he admits the discovery takes its toll. “I also feel that sometimes the historical restitution of the country runs over our lives, just like our lives were run over before.”
Most nietos are identified because, like Montoya, they had nagging doubts about their identities and sought out the Grandmothers for help. But some are required to provide DNA samples, thanks to a law that has been instrumental in solving open investigations in disappearance cases.
Whether voluntary or compulsory, the identification of a nieto can lead to the prosecution of the adoptive family for “appropriation” when there is evidence they were aware of the child’s origins.
Hilario Bacca, aka Nieto 95, has said the forced discovery of his original identity and the subsequent prosecution of his adoptive family nearly ruined his life.
“I was not curious about my identity, I was not searching for it,” he told the TV station Mar Chiquita in late 2015. “The state is responsible for my birth in captivity and for the 30,000 disappeared. Now the state wants to steal my identity again, and this time in democratic times.”
Even though he kept out of the spotlight, Bacca was initially drawn to meeting his biological family. That connection quickly soured when his adoptive parents were put on trial for “appropriation” and sentenced to six years in prison in 2013. Bacca then waged a battle of his own to keep the only name he knew, after a court overseeing his case ordered he change it to his birth name, Pereyra Congola.
“I was not curious about my identity, I was not searching for it.”
In the same 2015 interview with Mar Chiquita TV, Bacca said that his case offered a clue to why the majority of the nietos have yet to be identified more than three decades after the dictatorship’s end.
“All of a sudden you find out your story and it’s a terrible story because it’s all about death, and then the people you love are taken prisoner, and then on top of that they want to change your name,” he said. “How is that going to motivate somebody who has doubts about their identity to come forward?”
Horacio Pietragalla, aka Nieto 75, takes a different view. He told VICE News that he was suspicious about his origins from an early age because he didn’t look like anybody in his mother’s family. He also never quite understood why he had a lieutenant colonel for a godfather. It wasn’t until the period of national soul-searching triggered by Argentina’s 2002 political and economic crisis that he was finally inspired to seek out the Grandmothers.
The truth, he says, changed almost every aspect of his life. He embraced his new identity and went on to become a congressional deputy elected with the support of the Grandmothers. Today, he works as a regional human rights official.
“You feel guilty because of what happens to your ‘appropriators’ if they are detained,” he said. “But they have to face justice because the adoptions were illegal, because they took a child as their own who was not their own.”
Ramiro Menna, who was a toddler himself when his pregnant mother disappeared, had been searching for his brother since the early 1990s. Many false starts and dead-ends later, he now revels in the discovery that he and his brother, Nieto 121, look alike: Both men have bald heads and beards. But Menna also knows that as long as he has waited, he must continue to wait before finding out whether he and his brother will ever share the fraternal bond that was severed by the dictatorship more than three decades ago.
“There are no conditions to our love. We’re not demanding he has a membership card for anything,” he told the newspaper La Nación. “But I hope that one day my brother can have the same pride in his parents that I have. I dream that he will fall in love with them and their story.”