Home News Nora Cortinhas, co-founder of Argentina’s Mothers of the Disappeared, dies at 94

Nora Cortinhas, co-founder of Argentina’s Mothers of the Disappeared, dies at 94


Nora Morales de Cortiñas, a founding member of a group of mothers who searched for children disappeared by Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s and later became a global human rights advocate, died Thursday in Morón, Argentina. She was 94.

Ms. Cortinhas, known as Nolita, underwent hernia surgery on May 17 at the Moron Hospital west of Buenos Aires, and Dr. Jacob Nettel, the hospital’s director, said she suffered complications after the operation due to a pre-existing condition.

The organization founded by these mothers helped to draw international attention to the atrocities of the military dictatorship and continued to pressure the Argentine government for explanations after democracy was restored.

Ms. Cortinhas lived a quiet life until her son, Carlos Gustavo, disappeared on April 15, 1977. Carlos Gustavo had studied economics at the University of Buenos Aires and was active in left-wing political groups, which made him a target of the right-wing dictatorship that seized control of Argentina in a coup in 1976.

“He was 24, had a wife and a very young child,” Ms. Cortinas later recalled in an interview that was included in a book published in 2000. “He left on a cold morning and never came back. He was kidnapped at the train station on his way to work.”

The dictatorship that led Argentina until 1983 is widely regarded as one of the bloodiest of the U.S.-backed military juntas that occupied several Latin American countries in the 1970s and 1980s.

Human rights groups say about 30,000 people have been illegally detained and disappeared without a trace in Argentina, as the government rounds up those it deems subversive, sends them to torture camps and often kills them.

Ms. Cortinhas desperately searched for her missing son, seeking information from public offices but received vague responses and urgings from military officials and government workers to stop the search. Her son’s fate remains unknown.

“The priority was to find my son, and I was in a vortex of madness,” she said in an interview with a researcher at the National University of San Martín outside Buenos Aires. “I had people calling me, threatening me, saying I would be put in jail.”

A month after her son disappeared, Ms. Cortinhas joined a small group of mothers who began meeting to ask for information about their missing children.

She continued to attend weekly vigils in the Plaza de Mayo, the square in front of the presidential palace in the capital, Buenos Aires. Desperate for answers but unsure of who to turn to, the women began walking in circles around the square, holding photos of the missing.

Dictatorship Later the three founding members disappeared But that hasn’t stopped Ms Cortinhas and others from coming together to try to get the attention of a society that often appears indifferent.

“People passing by the Plaza de Mayo didn’t see us for years,” Ms. Cortinhas said in an interview with Argentina’s National Library. “It was like we were invisible. No one approached us to ask what we were doing, because I believe this is state terrorism, people were afraid to know what we were doing there.”

Even after the end of the military dictatorship in 1983, Ms. Cortinhas made it clear that their struggle was not over, as she continued to demand action from the democratically elected government and later expressed her disappointment with Raúl Alfonsín, the first democratically elected president after the restoration of democracy.

“During the campaign, Alfonsín kept promising that the archives would be opened, that we would get some news, that some things would be clarified,” Ms. Cortinas said in an interview with the alternative news outlet. “The fact is that this has not happened; the archives have not been opened.”

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo disbanded in 1986 amid internal disagreements, with one faction advocating a more militant agenda. This led to clashes with other members, including Ms Cortinhas, over what they should demand under a democratic government.

Ms. Cortinhas became the leader of a branch of the Founding Line of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

In later years, she continued to participate in the Plaza de Mayo rallies and became an active participant in other street demonstrations, and became an activist for numerous issues, including the legalization of abortion.

She is rarely seen without a white headscarf, meant to symbolize the diapers their children wore as infants and to bring the group worldwide recognition.

“We stood up against the dictatorship and we are still fighting — why stop now?” Cortinas told The New York Times during a 2017 demonstration against lenient sentences for crimes committed during the dictatorship.

Nora Irma Morales was born in Buenos Aires on March 22, 1930, the third of five daughters. Her parents were Catalan immigrants, Mercedes Vincent and Manuel Morales, who met in Argentina. Mr. Morales ran a print shop at home, and Ms. Vincent was a homemaker and seamstress.

Nora attended school until sixth grade, when girls usually stopped formal education there. At 19, she married Carlos Cortinhas, and later taught sewing and worked as a tailor. Mr. Cortinhas worked for the country’s economy ministry and died of cancer in June 1994 at the age of 71.

Ms. Cortiñas is survived by a sister, her youngest son, Damián Cortiñas, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Ms. Cortinas later returned to school to study social psychology, graduating in 1993 at age 63. She continues to lecture at the University of Buenos Aires, one of several universities to award her honorary degrees.

After Ms Cortinhas’ death was confirmed on Thursday evening, dozens of people gathered in Plaza de Mayo to mourn her.

“I want to change this unfair world,” Ms. Cortinhas wrote in the afterword of her 2019 biography. “Every day when I wake up, I feel the urge to fight. I don’t see it as an obligation, but a commitment.”

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