Knowing the history behind national holidays can help us understand a little bit more about the city or country we are visiting, because they are more than just excuses to go on a short vacation. In the case of Argentina, March 24th has became one of the most important “feriados” of the country, as it is the day Argentinians commemorate the beginning of the last and worst dictatorship they suffered. The military junta commonly known as “La Dictadura” (the dictatorship) was responsible for commanding the so called “Dirty War”, during which 30,000 people “disappeared” (the term refers to a particularly horrible method the army employed to kidnap, torture, and murder perceived members of the opposition and, literally, make the body disappear to never be found again). But these 30,000 people were not simply a number for the statistics, they were also men and women with a history behind them. That is why we want you to know one of those histories, so you can understand why thousands of people march through the streets of the major cities of the country every 24th of March, now known as “Día Nacional de la Memoria por la Verdad y Justicia”, the Day of Remembrance, Truth, and Justice.
Meet Rodolfo Walsh: writer, journalist, translator and member of the so-called “Montoneros” guerrilla group. He was born in January of 1927 in Choele-Choel, a town in the province of Rio Negro. In 1941 he moved to Buenos Aires to finish high school in a school for children of Irish heritage. He later quit studying philosophy in the University of La Plata and started working in a very wide range of jobs: an office job in a refrigerating company, a construction worker, a dishwasher in a restaurant, selling antiques, and cleaning windows. He would later start working as a proofreader in an editorial company and his writing and journalistic career would never stop.
Walsh’s life would make a 180 degree turn on a random day in 1956, when while playing chess with a friend at a restaurant in La Plata, he overheard the words that would change his life forever: “There is an executed man that’s still alive”. The phrase referred to the execution the military officials had ordered against a group of supporters of Peron, the president who was overthrown from power in June 1955 in the second of the 7 coup d’états Argentina would experience in the 20th Century. Walsh would become obsessed with this story and his research would turn into the book “Operation Massacre”, which is now held as the first non-fiction book ever written (published 9 years before “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote), an investigation of the origin and consequences of those assassinations. This book would grant him national and international recognition. Also, it made Walsh choose “the violent trade of writing” over his other occupations, and would launch him into a political commitment he would never abandon.
He moved to Cuba on the rise of the revolution, where he founded “Prensa Latina” (Latin Press), a news agency still thriving today, together with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and under the supervision of Ernesto “Che” Guevara.. Upon his return to Argentina he conducted new research that would result in the acclaimed short story “That Woman”, about the strange and morbid tour the corpse of Eva Perón went through after her death.
Rodolfo Walsh joined the guerrilla “Montoneros” to resist the dictatorship that devastated the country from March 24th of 1976 until December 10th of 1983. In the first anniversary of the military government he published his famous “Open letter from a writer to the Military Junta”, where he reported the crimes against humanity committed by military officials and also what he called the “economic crimes”, that would leave the country with a sevenfold external debt and 12% unemployment rate. The phrase that closed the letter portrays Walsh exquisitely: “These are the thoughts I wanted to pass on to the members of this Junta on the first anniversary of your ill-fated government, with no hope of being heard, with the certainty of being persecuted, but faithful to the commitment I made a long time ago to bear witness during difficult times”.
As of March 25th of 1977, exactly one day after issuing his letter, Rodolfo Walsh is one of the men and women that make up the list of disappeared people.