Before she ever discovered her true identity, Victoria Donda was a human rights activist. The 33-year-old lawmaker – the youngest female legislator to be elected in Argentine history – was born to two political prisoners at the Navy Mechanics School, known as ESMA, the notorious torture and clandestine detention center of the 1976-83 military dictatorship, where hundreds of dissidents were detained, tortured or killed. Shortly after she was born, she was kidnapped from her parents, who are presumed to have been killed, and handed over to a military family, who renamed her Analía.
In 2003, two human rights organizations, Children for Identity and Justice and Against Forgetting and Silence, known by the Spanish acronym HIJOS, and the Grandmother of the Plaza de Mayo, contacted “Analía” and told her that she was likely the child of two disappeared citizens. On Oct. 8, 2004, a DNA analysis showed that “Analía” was really the daughter of María Hilda Pérez and José María Donda. She was the 78th of 101 grandchildren who have recovered their identities by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
Following this discovery, she changed her name to Victoria, what her mother named her. Her autobiography: My Name Is Victoria, has sold widely. On Dec. 19, 2007, she took her seat in the Argentine Parliament.
Latinamerica Press collaborator Paolo Moiola spoke with Donda about her experience as a legislator.
You are a young woman and a lawmaker. How do you feel about those roles?
It´s a bit difficult even though I´m prepared, coming from a long history of grassroots participation: youth, neighborhood and university groups. After that, my political experience in Avellaneda, in Buenos Aires province, which is a very machista and traditional place. Since 2007, I´ve been a deputy in the Argentine Parliament, where I´ve found many of society´s prejudices are observed. Even today, in an official setting, a lawyer addressed me as “sweetheart.” I had to remind him that I am a national legislator.
Is it difficult to be a woman in this country?
I´d say it is in the whole world, just as it is difficult to be poor. In the world of poverty, women are doubly discriminated against: for being women and for being poor.
In the Western World, the situation is diverse. But even in Europe, I´ve seen television commercials that if they want to sell digestives, they use a man and if they want to sell detergent, it´s always a woman. This shows that female stereotypes are hard to break the whole world over.
You became famous as “Saved Grandchild Nº 78” but your political career predates the discovery of your identity.
It´s true. As I explained before, I have been and still am a social and political activist. At the moment, I´m trying to represent, through the Argentine Parliament, the poorest people. I became what I am before I discovered that I am the daughter of disappeared people.
On the other hand, you are known, above all, for the latter. Does that bother you?
No, it doesn´t bother me. What´s more is that what happened [to me] was not an isolated incident. It happened in other countries in Latin America, but also in Africa and Asia. As a whole, I´m happy that this story has been made known, that finally there is one story out of so many. There are many children who have not the so-called fortune that I´ve had.
What does the term human rights mean to you?
When I was 16, I started to visit an orphanage and I realized that there were children there who did not have the same fortune I did. Children, 10, 12, 13, years old who had nothing, who didn´t know how to read, who had to steal to survive. On top of that, they had to take care of their younger siblings. Well, I realized then what human rights should mean: that children should have something to eat, be able to go to school, have a house. One cannot be happy if those essential needs are not satisfied.
So human rights are tangible?
Of course! My father and my mother — like the other 30,000 people — were not disappeared for nothing. They perished because they fought for one thing: for those who didn´t have homes, an education.
Human rights are social, cultural and political, without forgetting those of future generations, so they have a healthy environment to inherit. We have to remember that individuals commit crimes, but it is the state that violates human rights.
Argentina is a machista country, but at the same time, is one where women are rising. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo rights group, and even President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, come to mind. It seems like a contradiction.
Machismo or feminism are nothing more than the crystallization of power relations within society. But when we enter a period of crisis, it is the more subjugated sectors that resist, women much more than men.
During the military dictatorship, why [dissident] mothers went out in the open? Because fathers didn´t understand the situation or entered into crisis without knowing how to behave. If a male has to defend the family and doesn´t achieve that, what happens? In general, he gets depressed, he doesn´t even know how to move, he doesn´t know what to do. It´s the woman who faces the situation. In Argentina, this happened during the dictatorship and it happened during the economic crisis. When the man is unable to put food on the table for the family, it is always the woman who goes out to find a solution, perhaps along with other women. It is historically shown that in situations of crisis, the women are always stronger than the men. I don´t think that it is an intrinsic question, but a cultural one.
The traumatic 2001 economic crisis is behind us, but Argentina — like the rest of Latin America — still has so many poor people and so much injustice.
Argentina, and Latin America in general, is not the poorest region of the world, but it is certainly the most unequal. We have very rich people and on the other side we have many people in poverty. In Argentina, the wealth is in the hands of very few, the rest goes abroad and the majority of people end up empty-handed.
We´re in the middle of a profound economic and social crisis. Does the bankruptcy of the neoliberal system passed on throughout the world through globalization?
The system has shown its own incapacity to ensure the well-being of everyone. It´s an inefficient system because it has continued to accumulate wealth that is in very few hands. Whether this means the end of capitalism does not depend on capitalism but on us.