Editor’s Note: The following essay includes a discussion of rape in the context of Carolina De Robertis’ novel, Cantoras.
Growing up, my mother had always seemed otherworldly. She had beautiful black hair down to her waist and huge black eyes. She always told me she was a bruja and I believed her. We lived in a white suburb and she was clearly different than my friends’ mothers. She didn’t believe in seat belts, she spoke in rapid porteña Spanish everywhere we went, and she encouraged me to not give a f*ck what anyone else thought of me, especially when I was breaking the rules by climbing on top of the swing set at the local playground.
But when it came to the questions I asked her about la dictadura, she was tight-lipped. She changed the subject, cited bad memory or bluntly asked, “Why are you bringing this up?”
I used to think I wouldn’t be whole if I didn’t know the whole story. I figured if anything would connect me to this place where I’m from, but in which I’ve never lived, it would be my mother’s stories. So I pried for details, desperately hanging onto the shards of information she gave me over the years: the nuns she knew who were disappeared for helping poor people, the tense atmosphere at the university, the revolutionary pamphlets on the street her mother begged not to pick up, how she had to stop volunteering in poor areas because social work was considered radical. Still, my mother maintained that none of this had anything to do with why she had moved to the U.S. She had moved for professional opportunity. She had finished law school top of her class and couldn’t get a job at a law firm because she was a young woman. They told her she’d likely marry or get pregnant and they couldn’t take the risk. So, she applied to an international exchange to the U.S. where she met my American father and the rest is history.
I didn’t learn about the dictatorship until I was in high school. My brother wrote his college essay about la guerra sucia, the dirty war, in Argentina and I learned that tens of thousands of people had become disappeared — kidnapped, killed, and tortured in anonymity during the 70s and 80s. I did the math: My mother was 20 when the military took over the government with a coup d’état. A few years later, she moved to the U.S. and left everything behind.
I used to think I wouldn’t be whole if my mother didn’t tell me what it was like. What was it like to live in fear that you might be disappeared? What was it like to be young and curious and hungry and restless in a time when everyone told you to stay quiet, stay home, stay still or die? I wanted to feel close to the woman my mother was before she left Argentina — to understand what her life was like and why she made the choices she made. I wanted to know if we would have been friends, had we met back then.
In other words, I used to think I wouldn’t be whole unless I knew my mother’s traumas. I had only shards of stories. I felt it wasn’t enough.
Growing up, I felt I wasn’t enough. Not white enough. Not Latina enough. I doubted whether these were my questions to hold, my aches to bear. I’ve tried to look to my mother’s story as my own missing piece. I’ve made her story into a key that will unlock a feeling of place and belonging. In a way it makes sense. As a writer, I look to stories to guide me. Without a full understanding of the story of who came before me and how they lived, how can I know who I am or where I’m going? I’ve felt frustrated with my mother for not painting a more vivid portrait, but these are stories you don’t talk about in Argentina. Even in diaspora, they’re not talked about much.
When I first hold Cantoras, Carolina De Robertis’ dazzling novel about five lesbian women living under the military dictatorship in Uruguay in the 70s and 80s, I instinctively flip to the acknowledgements page at the back of the book. I often begin reading a new author this way, to see which other writers they know that I like and have read. I’m also nosy and like seeing the map of friends, mentors, and lovers whom they usually thank. There, a few paragraphs down, I find a sentence that thrills me. De Robertis describes herself at the beginning of her project, 18 years ago, as “a young queer woman from the diaspora seeking [her] own connection to Uruguay.” I read it again. A young queer woman from the diaspora seeking her own connection back. That’s me. It seems so obvious, but I have never formulated those words before. I feel an unexpected pull to cry.
Sometimes you don’t realize you’re hurting until someone gently pours salve on the wound.
As I read on in Cantoras, it is like this. Like healing a wound. Like drinking bone broth in winter. Nourishing. Rich. Quiet. Slow. I read Cantoras in bed, on the train, sprawled out on my floor, curled up on the couch. My body loosens. As I read about the intertwined lives and limbs of Flaca, Romina, Anita, Malena and Paz, I revel in the complexity of their relationships, how they blur the boundaries of romantic love, familial love, and friendship to form a secret community where they can be themselves in the midst of a ferociously repressive dictatorship that outlawed homosexuality.
At the beginning of the story, the five women are in their late teens and early twenties, around the same age as my mother then. They must quickly learn to silence themselves and their desires, their curiosity, their hunger for life. They are living in a double oppression: that of patriarchy and that of dictatorship. I feel heartbroken and humbled as I read about Romina, an activist who is imprisoned for attending communist meetings and raped by three soldiers — Only Three, she calls them, because she feels she is lucky to only be raped by three, only on one night, while many other women are raped night after night. Here is a woman who was punished for speaking out and for organizing. These regimes systematically stamped out opposition and free expression by kidnapping, torturing and murdering thousands of young people, liberals, intellectuals, artists and social workers. This created a society that was paralyzed by fear, intent only on daily survival.
Paz, who is only 16 when the story begins, describes it this way: “You shut down and mind your own business and you never make waves, since the slightest ripple could kill you.” Flaca, who works in her father’s butcher shop, describes how people walk differently in the streets during the dictatorship. They’re hunched over and tense; everyone appears to have aged immeasurably in a few months. She describes how the capital city has become a huge open-air cemetery, how everywhere everything feels laced with death.
A chill ran through me as I read this. This is what I’d been missing in my conversations with my mother. How did it feel to live through this? How did the numbing happen? How did you learn to stay silent and self-censor? How did you learn to survive? These are the things my mother can’t tell me.
Cantoras was born from interviews De Robertis conducted over the course of 18 years. She talked with queer women in the generation above her who lived through the dictatorship. In an interview with Lit Hub, De Robertis quotes Toni Morrison in saying that novels are inquiries. The burning questions that animated her book, she says, were “How do we create refuge for ourselves and each other? And how do we live radiantly when the world around us seems bent on our erasure?”
As I read, I realize that these are my questions, too, as a fellow young queer woman from the diaspora seeking her own connection back. My frustration at my mother’s silences changes to something more like empathy when I consider the culture of hiding that people had to internalize to survive back then. One of the women in Cantoras describes family as those “whom you protected by hiding yourself.” I had not before considered the protective value of hiding things. That it might be a kind of love. The kind of love born out of a system of real violence, of consequences that are unimaginable to me today, one generation later. It applies equally to queerness as to dictatorship and diaspora.
I used to think I wouldn’t be whole if I didn’t know the whole story. I recognized, in reading Cantoras, that my inheritance is not just the stories I’m told but also what I’m not told, what is unsayable or unknowable, the suppression of stories at a massive scale. This silence is what propels me to write.
I’ll never know what it was like for my mother during the dictatorship. To live inside those memories. But I’ll never stop trying to imagine. To create worlds out of words where I can feel closer to my mother and to my lineage.
As Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldúa writes, “Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining.”