The Living Disappeared
During Argentina’s military dictatorship, some 500 babies were born in secret torture centers or kidnapped. A group of grandmothers spent the next four decades searching for them, becoming activists, then icons. But hundreds remained missing. One of them was named Martín.
When Stella Montesano went into labor in December 1976, the other detainees on her cellblock pounded on the walls and doors to alert the guards. About six weeks earlier, a squad of masked men with guns had come to the apartment where Stella lived with her husband, Jorge Ogando, in La Plata, Argentina. The men threw hoods over Stella’s and Jorge’s heads, handcuffed them, and dragged them out the door just after dawn. They left the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Virginia, behind in her bed.
Stella and Jorge were taken to a secret prison about 30 miles away. The detention center, known as the Pozo de Banfield, or the Banfield Pit, was one of a circuit of torture centers operated by the army and police. Jorge and Stella — a bank employee and a lawyer, respectively — were both in their late 20s. The other detainees included a group of teenagers who’d been campaigning for a student discount on bus fare, a journalist, a transgender woman, and a member of an armed leftist group. The prisoners were kept tightly bound, blindfolded, and half-naked on the floor. Many had been badly beaten or had burns in their mouths and on their genitals from being shocked with electricity during interrogations. Rape and mock executions were routine. The prisoners would go days without eating, forced to piss and defecate on the floor.
Those who survived would later recall mostly sounds and sensations — a blasting radio that didn’t quite conceal the screams of people being tortured, a thirst so overwhelming it drove one woman to drink urine, the ominous boot steps of guards on the stairs. Some would recall another sound, too — the cries of newborn babies.
Stella gave birth in the prison’s kitchen, attended by a doctor, Jorge Antonio Bergés. Bergés presided over torture sessions in several secret prisons, survivors would later testify — he’d revive people so they could be tortured again — but he took particular interest in the pregnant detainees. He called them “jewels” and assigned other prisoners to watch over them. He’d tell the guards not to rape them, to rape other women instead.
Stella was handcuffed and blindfolded for much of her labor. But the baby was born healthy; a boy with light hair and blue eyes, who looked just like Virginia had when she was born. When asked what she wanted to call him, Stella said Martín — the name she and Jorge had picked weeks earlier. Several days later, Stella returned to the cellblock, despondent and sick with an infection. The guards had taken the baby, saying they’d bring him to her family. But Stella had managed to keep a piece of Martín’s umbilical cord. The prisoners passed it from hand to hand, cell to cell, until it reached her husband, Jorge. It was all he would ever know of his son.
In the early days of the dictatorship, few understood the scale of what was happening. Even inside the forsaken halls of the Pozo de Banfield, where the desperation was so great that some prisoners begged the guards to kill them, there was a sort of innocence and credulity. Not long before Stella gave birth, another prisoner had a baby. Some of the detainees heard the cries from the floor below and asked the guards what would happen to it. The guards said not to worry. They were bringing the child to live with a family on a farm. “‘You can’t imagine how great the farm is! It’s wonderful,’” one former prisoner recalled the guards saying. “We made toasts to the new baby,” said the prisoner. “We never heard another thing about him.”
In March 1976, almost seven months before Jorge and Stella were detained, Argentina’s armed forces overthrew the president, Isabel Perón, and launched what they called the National Reorganization Process. The previous years had been chaos. Perón was under the thrall of a shadowy police agent and astrologer known as “the warlock.” Government-backed right-wing paramilitaries murdered hundreds of dissidents. Armed leftist groups set off bombs and kidnapped, and in some cases killed, executives and police. Even many moderates thought the military would restore order and stability. The press was strictly censored, so few realized that the country had been seized by a uniquely ruthless regime that saw itself as waging a third world war in Argentina for the future of “Western and Christian civilization.” The dictatorship sought to impose a new social and economic order. To do so, it branded a huge swath of society as “subversive” and targeted it for annihilation. By the time the dictatorship fell in 1983, as many as 30,000 people had disappeared. Some were armed revolutionaries — though historians now believe this group was neutralized within the first year or so of the dictatorship — while others were students, activists, union members, disability rights advocates, and priests and nuns who followed liberation theology. Countless more were people whose names were simply in the wrong address book.
Some 500 children are thought to have disappeared during the dictatorship. Some were stolen when their parents were abducted, but most were born in Argentina’s torture centers. After women gave birth, they were considered as worthless as any other prisoner. In the Pozo de Banfield, the guards often made new mothers clean the makeshift maternity room right after delivery. Some postpartum women were dropped from planes into the Río de la Plata’s turbid waters; others were executed and dumped into mass graves or burned in the crematoriums that operated day and night. In a final erasure, the dictatorship’s operatives stripped the women’s babies of their identities — many were kept as spoils of war by people close to the regime. Others were abandoned at orphanages or sold on the black market.
Before Jorge and Stella vanished, Jorge’s mother, Delia Giovanola, a well-heeled, fairly apolitical school principal, had started hearing murmurings about young people disappearing — former students, Jorge’s acquaintances. She dismissed these rumblings. There must have been a reason, she thought. She was 50 when the military overthrew the government. It was the fifth coup she’d lived through and she wasn’t particularly concerned. But when Jorge and Stella vanished, she ran first to her friends who were military wives for help. The women were cold. Delia began making desperate peregrinations. She filed writs of habeas corpus, begged for information at police stations and newspaper offices. Wherever she went, she was met with scorn. Relax, bureaucrats told her, the couple had probably run off to vacation in Europe.
Delia brought Virginia to live with her and her husband and quit her job to devote herself to searching full-time. Forty-one years later, she still doesn’t know why Jorge and Stella were rounded up. Though they were sympathetic with the left, and Stella, as a lawyer, had some union clients, they weren’t members of any political or revolutionary groups, as far as the family knows. Instead the circumstances that most likely led to their kidnapping seem mundane: Stella and Jorge had an extra bedroom that they rented to a woman they met through Jorge’s cousin. The woman’s husband was a politically active medical student, who was doing his obligatory military service in another city but visited during his breaks. On one visit, he went out on his bike and never came back. Jorge was unsuspecting enough to report his disappearance to authorities. Within two weeks Jorge, Stella, the housemate, and Jorge’s cousin were gone.
Delia counted the days until Stella’s due date. Then she started looking for Martín, too. A neighbor whose own son was missing told her that searching mothers were meeting in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. The first time Delia went, there were just a handful of mothers, but their numbers multiplied each week. The women made head scarves from cloth diapers they’d saved from their children’s infancy and embroidered them with their missing sons’ and daughters’ names; their white kerchiefs would come to symbolize the search. Public assemblies were forbidden, so the women would make counterclockwise laps around the plaza, sometimes prodded along by soldiers’ gun barrels. (Within a year, three of the mothers would disappear.) In the plaza, Delia met other women who were looking for pregnant daughters or daughters-in-law. Soon they were meeting in parks and coffee shops. They’d bring props like knitting or birthday gifts to pass themselves off as harmless grandmothers on a social call. But really they were plotting investigations. The women made the rounds at candy stores and orphanages and spied on families that might have acquired a child under murky circumstances. They gathered evidence and stuck it in tin cans that they buried in their gardens.
Delia is 91 now and still meets with the group each week, even as their numbers dwindle. “We’re in danger of extinction,” she says. The “crazies” who once skulked around toy stores are now a renowned human rights group, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. They have lawyers and psychologists and work with geneticists and federal investigators. Billboards, radio shows, and TV programs urge people with doubts about their identities to come forward. But while the search has grown much more sophisticated, it’s still not over. If anything, it’s taken on a new urgency as the Grandmothers — and the people who killed their children and snatched their grandkids — are getting old and dying. One hundred and twenty-one children stolen during the dictatorship have been found — 57 of them since the year 2000. But more than 300 are still missing. Now adults in their late 30s and early 40s, they’re considered the living disappeared.
In the earliest days, the Grandmothers started telling themselves something — maybe because it was comforting, maybe because they believed it. They’d say that when the grandchildren grew up, they would wonder about their origins and eventually start their own searches. And in many cases, that is what started to happen. “Now,” Delia said, “they are looking for us.”
Each week when Delia would put on her kerchief and go to the Plaza de Mayo, she’d drag Virginia along. Virginia dreaded it. She’d slink off to the plaza’s periphery and chase pigeons, her wild curls flying. Virginia’s classmates and teachers all knew about Jorge and Stella and the lost baby, Martín — Delia, to Virginia’s great annoyance, told everyone she met. But Virginia never felt like the story was hers. She was a sunny, stout kid with lots of friends, and she loved spending summers at the beach in Mar de Plata, where the family had an apartment in a high-rise near the ocean. She quickly learned how to shut down questions about her parents. “I live with my grandparents,” she’d say, her face growing hard. “I don’t have a mother or father.”
In 1983, the year the dictatorship fell, the Grandmothers had one of their first victories. The case involved a woman who was abducted in 1976 and taken to a secret prison. Her toddler daughter, Tamara Arze, was raised by another family. In 1981, the woman was set free but expelled from Argentina. She asked the Grandmothers to help find Tamara, who was a little younger than Virginia. After two years of sleuthing, two of the Grandmothers brought the girl to Switzerland to reunite with her exiled mother. Delia and the other Grandmothers celebrated. Ten-year-old Virginia panicked. One night, she ran into Delia and her husband’s bed and clung to them, wailing that she didn’t want Stella to come back and take her away. Another time, she broke down at school and told her teacher she was afraid her brother, Martín, would appear and Delia would love him more than her.
Soon after, a human rights commission told Delia that a repentant soldier had come forward with information about Jorge and Stella. They’d been shot with a group of others, and their bodies were burned and then buried near a secret prison. At dinner, Delia told Virginia that it was now certain her parents had died. Virginia didn’t react. She didn’t remember Jorge and Stella. Her one recollection was a fragment — she and her father were picking ants off the grass and putting them in a jar. When the two brought the jar inside, Stella yelled: “Get those bugs out of this house!”
It wasn’t until she was in her 20s that Virginia began to take an interest in her parents. She started working for the bank where Jorge had been employed, and hearing the stories his former co-workers told about her parents made her long to meet them and see how they had shaped her. In 1997, at age 24, she went on a TV show and said she was looking for her brother. She started working with the Grandmothers and a more militant organization called Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence, or hijos. (The latter group is known for publicly shaming suspected criminals by throwing balloons full of red paint at their houses and writing words like murderer and torturer on their sidewalks.)
As part of a human rights campaign, the bank where Virginia worked hung posters of Jorge, Stella, and Virginia in its branches. “Thirty years ago a baby was stolen,” they read. “And his family is still searching for him.” One day, a customer asked to speak privately with Virginia. She told her she knew of a couple who’d adopted a child during the dictatorship. They had seemed to hide him from the neighbors. He had curly blond hair, freckles, and blue eyes, just like Virginia. Even the name was right: Martín.
Shortly after, Virginia staked out his house. He didn’t just look like Virginia, but also like her father, Jorge. The next day, Virginia went back and introduced herself. She told him she believed he might be her brother. He seemed to love the idea. He knew he was adopted. He had been told that his mother was a prostitute, but he’d never fully believed it.
Not long after, Virginia called Delia. “Someone here wants to talk to you,” she said. A deep voice came on the line: “Hello, Granny!” Delia was uneasy. Virginia was ecstatic, but the man seemed too eager, too overly familiar. He and Virginia were still waiting for their DNA test results, but they had already started calling each other brother and sister. Martín began frequently staying at Virginia’s house. Then he started asking about money — the government pays indemnities that can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars to the dictatorship’s victims. When the DNA results came back showing, definitively, that there was no chance he was Jorge and Stella’s son, Virginia was crushed. She later described the misadventure with bravado. “It was crappy,” she told the newspaper Página 12. “But the experience also taught me not to spend my life knocking on doors and asking, ‘Are you my brother?’”
Two things were always clear to Diego Berestycki growing up in Buenos Aires: He was adored, and he wasn’t the biological son of the couple who raised him. Diego considered himself adopted, but the truth was more complicated. In the 1970s, adopting a child was an arduous process — one easily circumvented with cash. Desperate for a child, Diego’s father, Armando, sold his car and borrowed some money. In December 1976, he went to a clinic and came home with a baby boy who had blue eyes and a forged birth certificate. Armando and his wife separated not long after, and he married a woman, Sofia, who had a daughter of her own who was a little more than a year older than Diego. The two kids were blond and inseparable, and people would often say how much they looked alike. Diego wouldn’t correct them. In fact, he never told anyone he was adopted, except for the woman he’d eventually marry.
Armando loved Diego with the fierceness of a person who’d thought he might never get to be a parent. Diego had swimming and tennis lessons, summers at the beach, his own car once he was old enough. Diego loved his stepmother, Sofia, but she worked long hours and had a prickly personality. Armando, in contrast, was tender and playful. He worked for himself buying and selling products for supermarkets, which let him spend a lot of time with Diego and his sister.
As the years passed, more information came out about the babies that had been stolen during the dictatorship. Armando realized he might have adopted a child who’d been born in a torture center. He didn’t hide the possibility from Diego. When Armando talked about the dictatorship years, he was pretty neutral. He criticized the revolutionaries, but he didn’t defend the regime, either. Armando often told a story about those days — his car, a Citroën, was stolen in the late 1970s. He reported the theft, and a few days later the police called to say the car’s motor had been found. When Armando went to the station, they told him it had been being used to power an air conditioner that kept a truck full of dead bodies cool. Diego liked asking adults about the dictatorship years — they told him scary stories. Being in the street with more than two friends was enough to invite suspicion; you could be rounded up simply for having long hair. Just a generation later, Diego’s life was so different. He loved American heavy metal: Metallica, Skid Row. Diego grew his blond hair out long and parted it in the middle like Axl Rose. He and his sister had packs of friends who would all crash at their beach house during weekends and summers.
Diego knew that Sofia and Armando would support him if he decided he wanted to find his biological family. And there were things he’d like to know: Was his blood family Italian or Spanish? What was their last name? Did he have brothers and sisters? But these were just curiosities — not deep yearnings. Diego was pragmatic; he knew he had it good. But also, he was protecting Armando. “I knew that if I really was [a child of the disappeared], they would put him in prison,” he said.
His worries weren’t unfounded. There were several well-publicized custody disputes between biological families and appropriators that polarized the public. In 1988, for example, a court had, at the urging of the Grandmothers, ordered the arrest of a woman who’d adopted a child of the disappeared left at the hospital where she worked. The child, who had been required by a judge to have blood drawn, said she would kill herself if forced to live with her biological grandmother.
But, more than anything, Diego was a teenager preoccupied with his own life and figuring out his future. In the late 1990s, he was in college studying chemical engineering, but without much enthusiasm. Argentina was in a deep recession — poverty and inflation were rising fast, and so was crime. Diego was parking his girlfriend’s car one day when a man demanded the keys. He pressed a pistol to Diego’s stomach. Diego wasn’t hurt, but he was spooked. A few years earlier, he’d visited Miami and fallen in love with the climate, the beach, the clean and orderly streets. And so, in 2000, he and his girlfriend, Noelia, moved there. It wasn’t glamorous — he worked in a warehouse and they lived closer to the swamps than the ocean. But Diego eventually started a business exporting electronics. He and Noelia got married and had two daughters.
If someone spots a lost child at the beach in Argentina, they put the kid on their shoulders and start to do a slow, rhythmic clap. The people around them join in, and all around the child the clapping gets louder and louder. The frantic parent follows the beat to the kid until they reunite amid whistles and cheers. Virginia had watched this spectacle countless times during her summers at the beach.
In the 2000s, Virginia was even more public with her search for her brother. She started writing open letters to him and posting them on a blog. She told her family’s story in a documentary. People shared Virginia’s letters on Facebook; they invited her to present the film and sent little notes wishing her luck. They were accompanying her in her search and amplifying it. She could almost hear the sound of clapping, she wrote in one of the letters. It seemed to be growing louder.
As Virginia dug deeper into her past, Argentine society was starting a new phase of reckoning with the crimes of the dictatorship. The country returned to democracy in 1983, electing Raúl Alfonsín, a lawyer who promised to investigate the regime’s crimes and punish the guilty. In a landmark trial, two of the regime’s top military officials were sentenced to life in prison on charges including treasonous homicide, torture, and kidnapping. Three others got shorter sentences. But as cases against lower-ranking soldiers gained traction in the late 1980s, the military threatened rebellion, which raised fears of another coup. In a decision that is still debated today, the Alfonsín administration passed laws strictly curtailing new trials. Then, in 1990, Alfonsín’s successor pardoned the five generals and admirals who had been convicted, and they were set free. But in the 2000s, those pressing for justice finally won a series of victories: Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled that the dictatorship’s campaign of kidnapping, torture, and murder constituted crimes against humanity that had no statute of limitations, clearing the way for sweeping new trials. Two consecutive leftist presidents made “memory, truth, and justice” a matter of state policy and aligned themselves closely with the Grandmothers.
In 2011, almost 15 years after the first charges were filed, oral arguments for the theft of 34 babies, including Virginia’s brother, began. It was one of dozens of human rights trials covered closely by the press. Thanks to the publicity, more young people with doubts about their identities came forward and people passed anonymous tips to the Grandmothers. Witnesses who had been too traumatized to testify helped piece together what had happened inside the torture centers. One woman stated for the first time that another detainee had been pregnant, unbeknownst to her family. Her son had been raised by an alcoholic and abusive intelligence officer. In 2009, he finally met the three brothers who had never known that he existed.
But not all reunions have been happy. A woman about Virginia’s age searched for her brother for years and, one day in 2000, followed an anonymous tip to his workplace. Their relationship was rocky, especially once the man and woman who raised him were charged with crimes. He sued his sister, arguing that she owed him more than $150,000 — his half of the sum she got from the state before he was found, as a reparation for the disappearance of their parents.
But Virginia was full of hope. When a new lost grandchild was identified, she and the other grandkids and searching siblings would welcome them with a barbecue. She felt her own brother’s homecoming was imminent. In a letter to him she wrote: “Dear Brother, I have been thinking about that phrase of [Eduardo] Galeano’s that says, ‘There is a place where yesterday and today meet, recognize each other, and embrace. That place is tomorrow.’ You know what? I feel that our tomorrow is coming closer.”
Virginia published eight of these letters in 2010. She was 37, ten years older than her mother, Stella, had been when she disappeared. The brother she was looking for was now 34. In another letter, she wrote: “I’d feel just as happy if another of the grandchildren we are looking for appears before you do. What’s more, once you and I find each other, I won’t stop working for this cause. And I know we’d do it with double the strength if we can share this work. Sooner or later, we’ll find everyone! Sending you a big kiss. Your sister, Virginia.”
Virginia’s search had never overwhelmed her — if anything, it seemed to make her brighter, more ferociously vital. She loved motorcycle trips and zip-lining, and even took Delia rappelling when she was 82 years old. Over the years, Virginia had been squirreling away information about her parents, things to tell Martín when he finally appeared. But at a certain point, she started to get frantic. She’d hear about long-lost friends of her father’s and drive hours to ask them simple questions: What did her parents like to eat? Where would they go together? What did they talk about?
In 2011, the woman who’d shared Stella’s cell in the Pozo de Banfield came to Argentina from her home in Australia to testify at the baby-theft trial. The woman had been a family friend since the 1980s, when she contacted Delia to tell her about Jorge and Stella’s fate. Over the years, she and Virginia developed a sort of mother-daughter bond. The woman had stayed at Virginia’s house during many visits, but this time Virginia was preparing for her arrival with a strange intensity — she was scrubbing her floors with a fingernail brush. She’d made a long list of questions about what had happened to her parents in the Banfield Pit. In the past, the woman had seemed to withhold some parts of the story. Now Virginia was determined to get even the painful, atrocious details.
Afterward, Virginia didn’t give specifics about what she learned from her mother’s cellmate, except to say that all of her questions had been answered, and without anesthesia. Virginia took a leave of absence from the bank. She told friends she needed the time to look for her brother, but for long stretches she couldn’t even get out of bed. In the late summer she finally agreed to try therapy and medication and started talking about returning to work.
Then, on a Sunday in mid-August, she drove her truck to Mar de Plata, the beach city where she’d spent her summers. Virginia went to the family’s apartment on the 20th floor. The next morning, she opened the window and jumped. She left a note saying she had gone to join her mother and father. Upon hearing the news, Delia banged her head on the table and the wall, howling, “No, no, no.” When the dictatorship’s death squad had come to Jorge and Stella’s door 35 years earlier, it had spared Virginia. Now Delia felt as if it had come back to claim her.
In March 2015, Diego boarded a flight to Buenos Aires. Armando had lung cancer, and it was time for Diego to say goodbye. As he sat in his seat waiting for take-off, he got a call that he was too late — Armando had died. Upon arrival, Diego took Sofia to the crematorium so she could see Armando’s body one last time. Diego hung back while she said goodbye — he didn’t want his last memory of his father to be of his corpse. Sofia was the kind of person who would blurt out odd things at emotional moments. When she came back to join Diego, she said, “Now that Armando is gone, don’t you want to find out about your roots?” Diego frowned at the idea. It was too soon. But she insisted it was what his father wanted. A couple of days later, the family and a few friends went to the beach to scatter Armando’s remains. It was a cold autumn day — but Diego waded waist-deep into the ocean and let the wind take his father’s ashes.
In her late 80s, Delia traveled across Argentina and Europe, telling the story of her lost grandson and granddaughter. She felt she owed it to Virginia. Around Easter of 2015, Delia gave a talk in a small town in the south of the country. As a present for the local priest, she brought a white kerchief, like the one she’d first put on 39 years before. The priest laid the cloth on the altar when he celebrated Mass. The next day he came to see Delia — he’d had a vision during the benediction, he said. Virginia was dancing with the angels. “You’re going to find your grandson soon,” he said. Delia is not a fervent Catholic, but she’s not immune to signs. She felt a rush of closeness to Virginia. She had the sense that she was pulling strings.
It was right around that time that Diego went to the Grandmothers’ office in Buenos Aires — an elegant old house with high ceilings and ornate tiled floors. Off the foyer is a large room where the Grandmothers hold press conferences whenever a new grandchild is found. “Hello,” Diego said. “I think I’m a child of the disappeared.” Diego was heading home soon, so they agreed that he’d have blood drawn at the Argentine consulate in Miami. From there, it would be sent back to Argentina’s national genetic data bank, which holds samples from hundreds of families searching for children stolen during the dictatorship.
Diego had been told that if his DNA sample matched another in the gene bank, he’d hear back within two months, three at the most. If it took longer, it probably meant there was no match. It had taken Diego years to get the test, but now he was anxiously awaiting the results. Sofia, too. She’d also been diagnosed with cancer, and every time they talked she’d ask: Any news? She died before Diego got his answer.
After seven months, Diego finally got a call. His DNA sample had matched another — the one his sister Virginia had given before she died. Diego sat in his office and listened as the woman told him about his parents, his mother’s twin sister, his cousins, Virginia. He was overwhelmed with facts, with feelings. “I felt like she was throwing all of this information at me. In the gentlest possible way, of course, but still, throwing.” Diego was dying to call his wife, but he had to ask — was his grandmother there? Actually, yes, they told him, but he’d have to hold the line, it could take a while to find her in the Grandmothers’ rambling headquarters.
A few hours earlier, Delia had arrived at the Grandmothers’ office, annoyed. All morning she’d been getting calls telling her to hurry up. When she finally got there and heard the news, she collapsed into a chair, laughing, yelling, crying at the same time. The house was filling up with other grandchildren, Delia’s relatives, reporters. Someone came and found her — her grandson was on the phone. “I ran and ran as fast as I could — I ran like an 89-year-old dragonfly.” Delia grabbed the phone, out of breath. “Martín, Martín, is it really you?” Diego was quiet at first, thrown by the name. Then he started laughing. “I wasn’t used to it. My name was Diego, but she’d looked for me all these years as Martín.”
Since that day in November 2015, Delia and Diego have talked almost every day — Diego has made several trips to Argentina, and Delia visited him in Miami last March. And though she couldn’t stand Miami’s air-conditioning or the Caribbean food (“Bananas in everything!” she lamented), she’s besotted with the family — her great-granddaughters are princesses; Diego is divine. Diego, who chopped off his metal-head hair years ago, reminds Delia so much of Jorge — even the way he lifts his feet to walk is the same. After 39 years of searching, she still has to remind herself that she finally found her grandson. And upon remembering, she can’t help but mourn all the moments with him that she lost.
Delia has no plans to stop looking for the other missing grandchildren. The search has always been collective, and so are the encounters. But also, Delia feels like much of what she spent the past four decades fighting for is in jeopardy. In 2015, a center-right president, Mauricio Macri, took office. During his campaign, Macri vowed to end “human rights scams.” Though he hasn’t stopped the trials as president, the new political climate has emboldened those who seek to minimize the severity of the dictatorship’s crimes. More recently, he demurred when a BuzzFeed reporter asked him how many people were killed during the dictatorship, saying he didn’t know whether it was 9,000 or 30,000. It was another affront to human rights groups, which use the latter figure, an estimate based on extrapolations from the military’s own statements and investigations. “It has been one provocation after another,” Delia says. In February, Macri’s administration announced its nominee for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the body that monitors and makes recommendations on human rights issues in the entire hemisphere: Carlos Horacio de Casas, the defense lawyer for an army intelligence official accused of kidnapping and torturing three people during the dictatorship. In January, the Grandmothers suffered another blow when a court ruled that one son of disappeared parents could continue using the last name of the couple who raised him.
Diego, meanwhile, is trying to integrate his two selves: Diego and Martín. He changed his Argentine documents to his new name, Diego Martín Ogando. Here in the U.S., though, he’s still Diego Berestycki. He struggles to put into words what it has meant to encounter his true origins. It’s certainly brought joy, especially after losing his father and stepmother. But also upheaval: In the beginning, Diego felt an uncomfortable asymmetry when he’d meet biological family members, or friends of Virginia, Stella, and Jorge. They’d cry and hold him close, study him. He didn’t feel anything; they were strangers. But as time passed, he started to have the unnerving sensation of missing people he’d never met, of loving them, even. He sees in his aunt, Stella’s twin, the sweetness people say his mother had. Virginia’s friends tell him how much they miss her, how hard she tried to find him. The men pull him aside and confess to crushes.
For Diego, the most wrenching part is knowing he missed Virginia by four years. It could easily have been different. At least two people called the Grandmothers between 2006 and 2008 to say that they thought Diego might be a child of disappeared people. But the organization gets thousands of tips a year, and these clues went unfollowed. Nevertheless, Diego feels that to protect the man he considers his father, he couldn’t have come forward any sooner.
One day, Diego Googled Virginia and found a TV interview Delia gave after her death. A caption appears on the screen: “My granddaughter killed herself because she couldn’t bear not finding her brother.” Delia never said those words in the interview, but Diego can’t shake them. He carries a screenshot on his phone, along with dozens of photos of Virginia. Each day his longing to know her sharpens. “In this whole story,” he said, “it’s my sister who is missing.”
The Pozo de Banfield, Diego’s birthplace, is still standing, and Diego went to see it on his first trip home to visit Delia. The building, a hulking concrete structure in a run-down neighborhood, functioned as a police station until 2006 but is now closed; the government plans to turn it into a public memorial. Diego stood on the sidewalk outside the building with his wife and two friends. He doesn’t know that he’ll ever go inside. Seeing the innards of the place where his parents suffered could only do him harm, he says.
On one of Pozo de Banfield’s outer walls, someone has painted a mural of Delia. She’s wearing her kerchief and surrounded by flying doves. In another spot, painted in big purple letters, are the words “Welcome, 118” — that’s Diego, the 118th grandchild to be identified. Standing before it, Diego took out a red marker and wrote, “Thank you for looking for me.”