The bloody price of youth

MAY Age of Youth in Argentina A3The Age of Youth in Argentina: Culture, Politics, & Sexuality from Perón to Videla
Valeria Manzano
2014, University of North Carolina Press
338 pages, paperback


THE classic Argentine movie La noche de los lápices (The Night of the Pencils), directed by Héctor Olivera, tells the harrowing tale of an infamous series of kidnappings and disappearances of students from their homes in September 1976 by the last Argentine military junta followed by their torture, rape and murder.

The film about the young victims of a Peronist youth movement had a dramatic impact in Argentina and beyond, generating public indignation about the excesses of the last of the country’s military regimes, and helping to consolidate the “young victim” of this period as a trope in politics.

But as Valeria Manzano points out, La noche de los lápices was made in 1985 when “viewers could feel horror but rest in peace: they had not had ‘anything to do’ with what they saw.” The narrative it fuelled was an after-the-event form of memorial discourse in which a military regime came from nowhere to swoop upon idealistic adolescents during a later climate of growing human rights activism.

As Manzano says, it may have sensitised the population to the crimes of the dictatorship, but did little to capture the historical dimensions of state terrorism.

The reality, argues the author, is that many of those in the audience suffering indignation about the events depcited in La noche de los lápices had, in 1976, probably shared the heightened demand for “order” upon which the military regime fed in such a bloodthirsty manner.

Nonetheless, says Manzano in this excellent study of the role of youth in the counter-cultural pursuit of political and social modernisation in the Argentina of the 1960s and 70s, there is no doubt that many of the victims of the military – and in particular the brutal Videla regime – were young people: those aged 16 to 30 accounted for 70 per cent of the estimated 20,000 Argentines who were “disappeared” during the regime.

Young people were at the epicentre of demands for change – and challenges to power in all its forms – in this era, and ultimately at the centre of the tortuous struggle in Argentina over democracy, authoritarianism and revolution.

Manzano demonstrates in this detailed history how youths in this period built on past activism and pushed forward agendas that questioned relations of authority at the familial, cultural and political levels. She writes: “Over these two decades, youth stood for change, and the cohorts of young women and men that occupied that category experimented and crafted cultural, political, and sexual change.”

It was that profile that they had gained that put them in the firing line after 1974 during the “authority-reconstitution” project of the junta, when the military responded to the perception that over the prior decades youth had brought destabilising effects down upon Argentina’s politics, culture and society – a belief also shared by millions of anonymous citizens who thence turned a blind eye to the terror that would ensue in an effort to reconstruct what Manzano calls their “vanishing authority” at the most intimate levels of the family and school.