Cesar Chelala
A physician and writer

A musty old apartment in Argentina

Politics can affect a country in different ways. It can strengthen its democracy or, as I witnessed during a recent trip to Argentina, it can have a devastating effect on a country and its people.

I stayed at the Buenos Aires apartment of a relative by marriage, Professor Felix Eduardo Herrera, who had died there in 2007. The apartment had been empty since then.

He was a noted mathematician and university professor in Tucumán, a city in northwest Argentina. He and his wife Leonor raised three children: two boys, Abel and Claudio, and a girl, Leonor Inés. I first met the Herreras in Tucumán in the 1960s when my wife, their niece, studied at the university where Professor Herrera taught.

At the time I met them, their house was a place of lively intellectual gatherings, frequently visited by out-of-town scientists and researchers. The Herrera children inherited their father’s intellectual drive and their mother’s concern for the poor and dispossessed. Those characteristics would prove to be their downfall.

Watching the tremendous damage the military was doing to democracy and to the rule of law in the country, the children became part of the violent opposition to the military’s rule.

The brutal dictatorship of Argentina’s military during the 1970s left a country in disarray – and Herrera’s family decimated. In the end, their two sons died under torture in 1975. One of their wives, Georgina, and the Herrera daughter, Leonor Inés, and her husband, Juan Mangini, a guerrilla leader opposing military rule, were among the more than 30,000 estimated “disappeared.”

The survivors were two sons of Abel, Esteban and Raúl Oscar, and the daughter of Leonor Inés, Florencia.

Herrera and his wife Leonor became devoted to their grandchildren, particularly to Florencia, who eventually came to live with them while the boys went to live with their maternal grandparents.

After their children’s abduction and assassination between 1975 and 1976, the Herrera’s lives turned into a nightmare. Afraid of reprisals from the military, they went to live in this Buenos Aires apartment, quite unlike their beautiful house in Tucumán.

In the anonymity of the big capital, they had very few friends. Leonor’s health rapidly deteriorated; she became withdrawn. I believe that she preferred to close herself to the world, her pain too much to be endured.

In their now empty apartment, I look to the old books that line the apartment, broken pieces of furniture, dust-covered paintings, old newspapers scattered around, and a feeling of nostalgia and sadness invades me.

I think about how this family’s vibrant lives were profoundly changed by the children’s politics. I think of the elegant house and the intellectually challenging lives the Herreras had led.

Little Florencia, then 4 years old, initially disappeared with her parents. She had been hiding with her mother, Leonor Inés, in a rural area in Buenos Aires province when their house was surrounded by the military. They managed to escape but were later found by the military. The soldiers kept Leonor Inés but sent Florencia to an orphanage run by nuns.

A few weeks later, the Herreras received the news that the little girl was alive somewhere in Buenos Aires province. An extensive and painful search brought the Herreras to the orphanage in La Plata, capital of Buenos Aires province, over 1,200 miles away from Tucumán.

When the Herreras arrived at the orphanage, Florencia ran to them and embraced them, crying Grandma! Grandpa!

Florencia was beloved by the nuns, who told her grandparents that the little girl spent her days taking care of the smaller children. Although a judge’s approval was legally needed to release Florencia from the nun’s custody, the sisters decided right then to give the child to her grandparents. Florencia remained with the Herraras until their death.

Leonor Herrera died in 1999. Her husband became a shadow of himself: His only pleasure, aside from occasionally seeing his grandsons, was to help Florencia become the vibrant, eager-for-life young woman she is now as a fashion designer and teacher.

The two boys, now young men, are accomplished professionals. They and Florencia have overcome their bitterness.

Their blossomed lives are like a revenge for their parents’ violent and untimely deaths. But in me, a feeling of sad emptiness persists, that only time may erase.

Dr. César Chelala, a native of Argentina who now lives in New York, is an international public health consultant and writer.

About the Author
César Chelala is a physician and writer born in Argentina and living in the U.S. He wrote for leading newspapers all over the world and for the main medical journals, among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Japan Times, The China Daily, The Moscow Times, The International Herald Tribune, Le Monde Diplomatique, Harvard International Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, and The British Medical Journal. He is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.
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