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September 2, 2014
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’Chicha’ Mariani: ‘I still remember the past’

How it all began. The Herald’s Jayson McNamara visits an exhibit on display at the National Library that retraces María Isabel “Chicha” Mariani’s struggle to find her missing granddaughter, Clara Anahí, snatched by security forces when they attacked the Mariani family home (pictured) on November 24, 1976 in La Plata.
By Jayson McNamara
Herald Staff
The Grandmother’s Search for Clara continues at National Library in Buenos Aires

María Isabel “Chicha” Mariani has been looking for her granddaughter Clara Anahí for 37 years. The then-three-month-old baby girl was snatched during an attack on her parents’ home in the city of La Plata on November 24, 1976, killing her mother Diana and sending her father — Mariani’s son, Daniel — into hiding, before his own murder months later.

Of the small group of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, the organization she founded, “Chicha” was described as “only one who is certain she is a grandmother,” in an article published in this newspaper on May 17, 1978.

The piece — as well as the first ever classified she published — marked not only the beginning of a long relationship with the Herald, but one of the first steps she and other Grandmothers would take down a long path toward getting the message out there about the obscure fate of their missing grandchildren, who, as they would come to find out, numbered around 500.

Through April, Mariani’s search for Clara will continue in a small way in National Library with the exhibit The Search for Clara Anahí, where visitors can ponder a few of the many bumps, battles and crossroads of the 90-year-old’s path of activism, as well as the more sentimental side to her relentless search for Clara.

One of the most symbolic items on display at the exhibit — which has run at a number of venues since 2009 — is the typewriter she first used to demand information about Clara’s whereabouts from the authorities.

“Unlike the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo whose approach was to protest and demand answers, we had to battle our way through the court system, with no training whatsoever,” Mariani told the Herald at her home-come-office in La Plata. “We learnt on our feet.”

It was a busy time for Chicha and her colleagues, who would march every Thursday in front of the Government House in Plaza de Mayo. The former school teacher recalls the hostility of the militarized Argentina of the 1970s.

“Since I’ve slowed down over the past few years, I’ve begun to feel the weight of what it means to not have been turned away so often,” she explains. “Nobody, no government, has helped us find our grandchildren.”

Some of the women would, but through their hard work and commitment, including private-eye investigations and later DNA testing, which in Argentina was pioneered under the leadership of Mariani as the president of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo from 1983 to 1989.

“We were given a helping hand at the Herald. (Former editor) Bob Cox would sit down and he wouldn’t just listen to us, he would try to help us,” she adds. “Bob was a true friend.”

38 years of activism

Like Mariani herself, the exhibit is an insight into the shared experiences of an entire generation of families affected by the military dictatorship that led many into the realm of human rights activism.

It features snapshots of the rich family life the Marianis shared prior to the 1976 attack on Daniel and Diana’s home on Calle 30 in La Plata (which is open to the public on Saturdays), including some priceless photos of family members huddling around the newborn in the days and week prior to her abduction.

Mariani was in her early 50s and about to retire from her job as a teacher when her life was turned upside down by the last military dictatorship. With the murder of her son — her only direct descendant — Clara was nowhere to be found, leading her to seek help from the courts, security forces and the Catholic Church, to little or no avail.

The Search for Clara Anahí documents many of the closed doors Mariani and her colleagues encountered, as well as some of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo’s more successful trips abroad that saw “Chicha” collecting dolls for Clara, some of which are also on display at the library.

“My memory is fading a little. But I have a good recollection of the past, that’s for sure,” says Mariani, who seems as tireless and mobile as ever.

Along with her friend and fellow Grandmother Elsa Pavón and the many staff and friends of Fundación Anahí, Chicha now has a new task ahead of her: recataloguing her extensive archive that was sloshed about during the devastating flooding in La Plata in April last year.

“You wouldn’t imagine how many documents I’ve got stored in my back room,” she tells the Herald, confirming the organization in the process of digitalizing the archive, which has also been included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

“We think we’ve got most of it, but we’ll only know once it’s been sorted again.”

The display was launched Monday evening and will continue through April. “It’s an ambitious display in terms of its objectives of not only finding her granddaughter, but also the construction of collective memory for young people regarding the recent religious-civil-military dictatorship,” the Fundación Anahí explains.

Fragments of Mariani’s archive, and much more, can be found at a prime spot at the entrance of the National Library, a busy and bustling location reflective of one unfortunate truth: that the search for Clara Anahí continues.

When and where

La búsqueda de Clara Anahí (The Search for Clara Anahí), 9am-9pm daily, and 12pm to 7pm on weekends, free admission. National Library, Agüero 2502.

@jaysonmcnamara
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