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The Cries of Silence
By Norma Fernandez
Introduction by Genevieve Vaughan
The following interview gives an example of women who see a problem and solve it for others as well as themselves. This problem solving can be understood as the satisfaction of a social need, addressed with creativity and determination, individually and in community with others. Although the problem arose here in a market-based context, and its solution involves the return of property to its rightful owners, the actual solving of the problem is a unilateral gift given by the women who have dedicated themselves to doing it in spite of great difficulties. It is a gift to society as a whole, not just to the individuals who have had their land restored. I would say that it is even a gift to the powers that be, because it has kept them from perpetrating yet another evil upon the people. Social activism can be thought of in this way, as gift giving to society. That is, the gift of social change is the most necessary gift in our times. It can have huge multiplier effects, by changing the system that is causing the needs, and by spreading the example and the hope that this can happen. The gift of the Movimiento de Mujeres is particularly important because it shows a non violent method of problem solving, satisfying also the need for ways to social change that are not based on killing and counter killing - ie. exchange. The videographer who wrote the story and videoed the protests is also giving a gift by contributing to the multiplier effect of the women's protests. That is she is satisfying the needs of all to know about this gift. The threads of gift giving combine to weave the tapestry of the international women's movement, which contains the picture of a better world.
— Genevieve Vaughan
Auction in Chivilcoy, September 13, 2003
I have been making a documentary on the Movement of Agrarian Women in Struggle for some months now, with the difficulties and discontinuities that go with independent production and difficult also because, as everyone knows, one must continue with work and the usual obligations. This lets me see the women only every once in a while, traveling to their locations. The known fragments of their story, which told about the paradigms of Argentina in the 90's had really captured my attention.
Small agrarian producers throughout the country used to believe in the then President Menem's "productive revolution" and in the eternal equality of the peso with the dollar, but most of all they believed that because of technological changes and international competition, they had to "modernize." They asked for loans of ten, fifteen, or twenty thousand pesos/dollars to buy machinery, improve infrastructure, increase crops. A few years later, between lion sized interest rates and devaluation, those loans had transformed into hundreds of thousands of dollars, of course un-payable. The mortgages and guarantees had used the fields as collateral, as the banks wanted. Then auctions began, that were making hundreds of small agricultural producers disappear at the hands of the usual speculators re introducing an old national tendency from the beginning of the last century: the concentration of the best lands in the country in \ a few national and foreign hands.
The assumption is that everyone knows what land means to a man of the fields, which is why when they knew they were losing it, the men got depressed to the point of isolation or suicide. There was nothing left for the women to do but- as they always say- "take off their aprons" and go out to fight. Directly from the kitchen to the streets. Lucy de Cornelis got started in a small village in La Pampa, but soon there were hundreds all over the country. And, unaccustomed to the traditional militant ways, they began in the way that occurred to them: they got together to stop the auctions -not theirs, but anyone's, anywhere - and to call upon women to join, and men also, if they would leave their negativity behind.
There they would sit in the front row and, as soon as the auctioneer began with the bidding, they would sing the national anthem and begin praying out loud to stop the auction. The curious thing is that the movement, apart from expanding rapidly throughout the different provinces within the country, was joined more and more by women who had no land and no debts, but were there out of pure solidarity.
The establishment was stupefied: what to do with these crazy women (so similar to the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) who confronted economists, auctioneers, auction houses, municipalities, police and other forces of order with only their bodies and their voices? Also, they were women rooted in the home: women who were experts in the kitchen, washing and ironing, raising children and giving their husbands attention when they came back from the fields. The fact is that the state of confusion generated by the using the national anthem as the original instrument of struggle, and more than anything, the tenacity of the solidarity of these women, caused the majority of the auctions to be stopped as the auctioneer would grow tired of listening to them sing for an hour non-stop and the presiding judge would say over the phone that, well, for that day it would be suspended and that they would see about it later. This postponement allowed them to get new deadlines, mortgages, even finally refinancing the debt for twenty years with the Banco Nacion (Nation Bank). The last two years had added greater flexibility because of the national crisis, and the auctions had been practically stopped.
That is, until a peasant from Chivilcoy was not able to pay the bank. His lands (42 hectares, so you can get an idea) were called to be auctioned on September 12 at 11:30 in the Centro Comercial de Chivilcoy, in the province of Buenos Aires, at the auction house of Villarino.
The women called upon themselves, as always, and by 10:00, Lucy and Chiquita from La Pampa, Ana, Ana Maria, Ema and Sara from Santa Fe, and Olga and other partners from Junin were already in the plaza. Remember: 8 women. Then the producer of the land that was being auctioned and his wife joined along with their family, friends, and neighbors. They had called me to see if I wanted to film the auction for my movie, because I had not filmed one yet. I went with my cameraman and the assistant, with the excuse that we were sent by an agricultural program for cable television. Even though the women were in good, almost angelic, spirits, the red flag on the entrance door hit my stomach when I walked in and told me that things were going to end up badly. Particularly because of the vast quantities of men - and one woman - with that bullying look that one can easily detect.
I asked who they were and they spoke of the "leagues" of buyers, representatives of the bigwigs under the protection of auction houses, loaners, and auctioneers, who show up like crows at the auctions to take, for a few pesos, lands that are later re-sold for large amounts. The auctioneer began the function, authoritatively strolling through the aisle, saying that he would not tolerate any disturbance from anyone who was there to upset the order. Then he got up on the stage and proceeded to read the "marvelous characteristics" of the land, whose base price was 42,000 pesos (some $15,000). He then asked for the offers to begin.
The women, then, in an old recovered ritual, stood up together and began to sing the national anthem loudly, accompanied by the peasants. Signs ("the land must not be sold, it must be defended"), prayers, and a national flag waving ceaselessly were added. The auctioneer made a sour face; the people from the "league" made uncomfortable gestures; the police looked at each other disconcerted. And after half an hour of so much singing and flag waving, the commissioner (called in a hurry by the auctioneer) said he was going to consult the judge on what should be done. The "buyers" went down to the street and the women - who did not allow themselves to be taken out of the hall - sat patiently waiting for the decision. After reminding me that the judge usually phoned in to cancel the auction until further notice, the women dedicated themselves to showing pictures of children and grandchildren, conversing about acquaintances and about a future agrarian reunion, and passing around "mate" and cookies, because it was already one o'clock. And from there, no one was going to move from there even if they were hungry.
But the judge - who was assigned to the town of Mercedes, 70 km away from Chivilcoy - did not telephone this time to cancel. He finally arrived at 2:30 in the afternoon and came up surrounded by the auctioneer, the "buyers," and police. He communicated to the peasant and his wife that the auction was legal that they could not keep it from happening, and that he was there to establish law and order. Then he publicly announced that he came to guarantee that the auction would take place just as it had been convoked and that at the first
disturbance he would ask the police in attendance (and there were a lot of them) to "proceed." I had a premonition of what was to come and I asked the cameraman to go outside, behind the gathering, to preserve the camera and the cassette of what had been filmed. But I still could not believe they had the guts to do it.
And they did it. Lucy, sitting, made the sign of the cross. Then she stood up, holding the hands of the partners on each side, the rest followed, and they started singing the anthem again with all their strength. In front of them were lots of policemen, the judge, the supposed buyers, and many more men with a bullying look.
They were only 8 big women singing the national anthem. The judge told the police to "proceed" and the women were taken away with forced kicks and shoves, in a very violent situation. It took a moment for me to regain my reflexes (at the same time as the cameraman) and we were able to film most of what happened and I am telling you about. Outside there were five patrol cars waiting (remember? there were only 8 women) and they put four of the women in one and left the others on the sidewalk.
When we went to see them in the commissioner's office, they told us that the women were incommunicado. The women on the outside began rounds of calls to functionaries, lawyers, the press, deputies, and the women were released on Saturday at midday, after pressures and threats. The peasant had also been arrested in an attack of desperation. And his 22 hectares, the wonders of which the auctioneer had been describing as "being the best land in the country," where the tax rate is $4,500/hectare, were auctioned at 155,000 pesos (some $50,000).
The women did not give up and on September 22 they were able to get a judicial recourse (in the last two hours before the legal deadline) asking for the annulment of the auction because of all the irregularities committed.
What we had captured on video was fundamental as evidence and for the time being,, the operation is suspended. Now we can only hope that for once, justice will be served and that these poor peasants will not lose their land to the hands of the usual speculators.
Interview with Lucy (who began the struggle in the province of La Pampa and
is president of the movement)
Lucy de Cornelis is lean, around 60 years old, with the figure of a traditional and austere woman. She would seem fragile, if one had not seen her transform during the auction into a fighting lioness protecting her pack. There is an air of oppression in her look, the product of an accumulated tiredness in these years of endless battles, and above all of a lot of solitude, when she comes home to the domestic environment, where her family barely understands or supports her. However, she hurries to affirm that before leaving for every auction, picket, or interview with functionaries, she leaves everything done at home: the food cooked, the clothes washed and ironed, some cake if there is time.
All the contradictions and problems of her gender seem to have incarnated in
her - as well as the strength to confront them. We went to interview her in Winifreda,
the small village where it all began that autumn night in 1995.
I am interested in your telling me the story of the movement, for the ones who
come afterwards, for the memory of the struggle: How did
it all begin?
On May 27, 1995 the auctioneer came to my house to see the condition it was in. I have four daughters but none of them were there, so I was alone and I knew that things were going badly even though my husband hid the problem, because he would work, work, and each day he would make more effort, and we did not know anything about it. When the auctioneer left, I began to pack my daughter's paintings, the lamps. I wanted to keep what belonged to the family, its history. When my husband came home I did not tell him about it, and that night I was alone, alone, alone and I asked myself: "What shall I do? I do not have much life left." So I grabbed the bible, and I heard a voice telling me, "You can," and a fire came into me, a strength. We were middle class, in a village where it is difficult to go out and say what you think, because you know that many are glad when you fall. We had an accounting business and a field and, well, the next morning it came to me to go to the radio of my town and talk about what was happening to me. I took the bicycle and I told the boy at the radio that I wanted to make an appeal; and I made the appeal and afterwards women were waiting for me outside of the radio station. I was not alone.
What did the appeal say?
That we needed to do something about what was happening, because everyone knew we were working, that we not delinquents, but that because we had wanted to buy a tractor in 1989, in no time we were in debt for ten tractors. My husband kept on getting into more debt, kept on signing; he would take me to the bank and they would tell me that I was crazy, that I should sign for my husband, and would you just sign the documents. Well, the thing with the radio was all spontaneous, no thinking or anything, and then I went to the radio in Castex to make another appeal. Other women were going to come with me but they got scared so I went alone and made the second appeal 40 km. north of my little town, Winifreda. So I made the appeal and there, also, women were waiting outside for me. I decided to go to a rural program in Santa Rosa, the provincial capital, which was about 80 km more, and make another appeal. When I got home the phone started ringing because there were thousands and thousands like me, women who had never before been so animated. So we women decided to hold an assembly on June 3rd and I said - just spontaneously: "We have to wave the Argentine flag and sing the anthem." Well, that's when Chiquita and a whole bunch of other women joined in: 21 localities and 350 women. At four o'clock in the afternoon there was nobody, but from one moment to the next the hall was filled to overflowing until nine o'clock at night. Everyone was crying, they all broke down. I was at a big empty table, so I invited the women to accompany me. Since I had never organized an assembly or anything, it was all very spontaneous that there it was decided that a petition of eight points would be made to the governor of the province. The first and foremost point was to stop the auctions, the recalculation of the debts (we were asking for ten years at that time) and interests, plus two years of grace. And from that moment on we said we would not permit anything to be taken from anyone; we would stop all the auctions in the country, beginning with the ones in La Pampa. We went to the governor thinking that everything would be solved there because the provincial governor knows about the fields. But he had made a study on what we were asking and he said that what we were saying had been fabricated by a lawyer, by an accountant, and that this could not have come from us women. He kept us there for a few hours and asked us to wait a week for a reply. After the week passed, he did not answer us. Instead, the minister of production told us that our husbands were useless, that they did not know how to plant or how to work and, well, it's over. He had us from three o'clock in the afternoon until seven in the morning. The news began to spread, women from other provinces would call us and meanwhile we were stopping auctions, because they were happening very fast.
How was it that the first auction was stopped?
We all went to it; I do not remember anymore who was there. We all showed up and when the auctioneer began to read the edict we started to sing the national anthem and we stopped the auction, it was saved. But you know they do come back, so we started to go to all of them.
How many women were there?
Lots of women, and men too, because it was the families that accompanied us in La Pampa. Other provinces start hearing about us and when the auction information came they would call my house, so, so I tell the women that we should hold a national assembly, and it was done on September 21, 1995 with one thousand women from all the country. There were women from the south, Rio Negro, Santa Fe, Formosa, Cordoba, Buenos Aires; that's how the movement began to form. There people asked for more time, because ten years was not enough and we began to make petitions for twenty years to pay and recalculate the debt, which were principal points. Everyone was also totally committed to stopping the auctions at a national level.
Who did you give this petition to?
Well, to the President of the nation, ministers of the nation, deputies. We began to have a dialogue with deputies in La Pampa. We would meet and they would help us. Then came the exposition in La Rural and that year we women went to Buenos Aires, to La Rural, where they closed their doors to us. Afterwards, they let us pass in groups and someone had to guard each group. President Menem was there and they left me outside. So I had a chance to have all the press to speak to and that helped us grow. We went knocking on everyone's door in Buenos Aires, functionaries would cry because of what was happening to us, because we were going to lose everything, but they didn't solve anything and neither did the President of the nation. Meanwhile different assemblies were being held in different parts of the Argentine Republic, and the women were always, telling me we should go to Buenos Aires in a big march, but I said no because that would cut off the dialogue. We were still channeling the appeal up the hierarchies to the directors of the National Bank and we were still speaking with all of them. When I saw that this was leading nowhere, we took on the big goal of March 8, International Women's Day in 1996: there were 2,500 of us women who went to Buenos Aires -with some men- on a big march with an old tractor. So when you get started, people who want to buy you and shut you up start coming to your house, isn't that true? We had the march, delivered the petition, but nothing happened. So they asked themselves how could we end this? They saw it growing with so many women, and said: "We have to auction their president." First they came to buy me, and I said no, that I had begun this struggle and that it was for everybody because if God gave me the strength it was for something, not just for myself, so even if I had to lose everything it didn't matter. The governor sent people over and told me to settle my accounts and how much was it that I wanted and that I should not act like the Virgin Mary because I was not going to solve anything fighting for everyone. But they could not silence our wills, which were the screams of silence because in the fields everyone is very alone and the farm worker is ashamed of not being able to pay, of telling his family he failed. I always say we are the screams of silence that come out to defend ourselves.
Why do you think women come out and not men?
Because I think that in our culture, our roots, the man was the one who managed everything, and even more so the man from the fields, so it was very hard on him. In my particular case, it was very hard on my husband to see me in the streets because I had always been by my daughter's and family's side, I had not been to Buenos Aires, and he always had had the final word. There are people who know me and ask: "how were you able to break through that?" And I think when you have worked a lifetime and see all the effort of the family go to nothing, that is what gives you the strength, even to face your own family, because my husband would shut the door and lock me out. People began to call saying we were not in Buenos Aires in this struggle but instead we were sleeping with men, that we had other partners, a big quantity of lies when I was not there. So he would close me up, one day he even broke all the windows of my kitchen. That was very embarrassing because women came from all the provinces and my husband would lock them out. So the people said that they had to shut me up, that they could not buy me but they could auction my land and that there everything would end. When my auction was about to happen, about fifteen days before, my husband suffered a blood pressure attack and was left paraplegic. So on top of everything this was added to my struggle, I used to have a strong husband and now my companero is an incapacitated boy. It's hard but I think it also gives me energy to continue with the fight.
And what happened with the auction?
Well, the day of the auction came; it was September 24, 1996. The night before, people from all over the country started coming to the village, from the most remote areas. The press helped us and lots of media from Buenos Aires came, the most important ones, because this has begun to be a big thing. So the hour of the auction came and some people had raised money to buy me back the house, at least I would have the house to live in because if not I would be out on the street. A discussion began: some women said we should stop it and others said we should buy the house. Someone came and told me that my husband wanted to come and I said it was too much for him in his state of pain, but he insisted and they brought him in the state he was in. The women formed something like an assembly and asked me what I wanted. I said that I was not going to let them buy the house for me in any way: we were going to save it because that was the way we would all be saved. What is the use of having something if the same thing is going to happen in the rest of the country? I think this was when I fell apart - and the women understood. So the auction came, my husband had been an auctioneer in Banco Nacion but he quit, and when the auctioneer appeared it was a kid that he had trained. The auctioneer began to read the edict and we began to sing the national anthem. Such an outcry was formed inside that we thought it would be suspended. But, in a week they began a second auction, so I say, "With the money that was raised lets make a hearing on the biggest creditors of 1996." So you get the idea, in my case, we had borrowed 15,000 pesos (equivalent then to dollars) from the bank of La Pampa, in 1994, and in 1996 we owed $240,000. The hearing begins and in 2001 the justice says I only owe the bank of La Pampa $47,000.
Because the Justice determines that the rest is usury, and that was when I began to understand, because we used to not know anything about these things. Well, then the waves of auctions began all over the country. We began going out to stop these auctions with our only weapons being the national anthem and prayer, but the police also began to come in and beat and drag us and arrest us. It was a tremendous situation. However, since they saw they could not stop us, for example in little towns, many of the police came over to our side and we began to grow so much and get so strong that they could not stop us. All this helped to get an extension of twenty years to pay the debt in Banco Nacion, because they held the mortgage on the best 14 million hectares of land in the country. So we began to understand that they were not just trying to get our land but the sovereignty of Argentina. In my speeches I began to tell the women about sovereignty, that they were coming for our land and all the land. And we were the ones who kept the land from being taken away from 400,000 small producers. That is, the big landholders wanted to be what they were in the beginning: to go back to the big land holdings and the business of finance. And what the people lived on was going to disappear. We began to understand little by little. We learned from lawyers. We know what is due to us, it is just that expansion that leads you along, but we never hesitate. It is very hard because there have been many things. Once they put drugs in a car I was saved from in Buenos Aires because God told me: "Get out of that taxi because you are being set up." All the federal police that were following us were there; we were investigated by the Army, by five captains, and we asked for an explanation from the Air Force. We had spies within our movement through some of the women who would join. There are many things I think it was our resistance and our great faith that saved us. When we got the twenty-year bonds, I had to set the example and at that time they were taking 400 cows for the bonds, I was the first in La Pampa and in the republic. If I had them today I would have over a million and a half in capital, I would have paid and I would have been saved, but I had to set the example. I was the first and then there were many more. We used to say that the exchange rate is what brought us to this as well as the corrupt financial system. Because our interests were high, what we produced was worth nothing. They took our crops at extremely low prices that were not even enough to pay for our expenses. It was a system that was foreign to us and I believe the people who work in the fields did not even think about it while it was happening. For a while people who did not have debts said we were crazy, but then they would also be taken away, because this is like AIDS, it goes knocking on people's doors and just takes them away. Later we started to get a lot of recognition, even from the traditional agricultural organizations that had not wanted us in the organizational discussions where they plan the projects for the fields, because we are women. We had to struggle a lot with the men in the organizations because they always work things out for their own farms, negotiate and regulate their own things and none of us particularly wanted to regulate anything. Last year because of the devaluation, we got the chance to sell absolutely everything but to save the land. Being president means a lot of pressure, many things happen to you. When we started investigating, the figureheads said they would kill us, that they knew where our children were and, well, I will not shut up and I will continue to fight until the last day of my life. I got the chance to be in Mexico at the International Meeting of Agricultural Debtors; there were a thousand of them. They were men and they could not believe that women were doing this. There I was diagnosed with diabetes that almost killed me - this also takes your health away - but it does not matter and I am probably going to end up saving my land. But until I save every little piece of land of every producer I will not give up this struggle. If it will allow me to be more free, not thinking about the judge maybe calling and saying that they are going to take it away, that is tremendous. It sickens you. But I will not stay in my house and I will go to every producer that calls me. And, well, because of this we gained a great respect from the Banco Nacion, thank God. Yesterday we came from seeing the new president of the bank, who is not only a partner but a sister, because with every woman we are sisters, or more than sisters because sometimes between brothers and sisters things happen to separate them. And we came also because we want to save everyone. I want to fight for every Argentine, because fighting was how we gave lives to our children and we also have to give them a future. That is why when we speak of the land it is individual but also an Argentine patrimony because it belongs to every Argentinian. When the land does well, factories work and everything works. Because the peasant never says he is going to keep it, no, it is for investment, for machinery, for wire, for seeds, he leaves his family without things so he can give to the land. This is what I want understood in every village, in every city, that this is not for us. With my 57 years I say: "All my life I worked to have a united family and make my children good people; if we don't leave them the answer that this struggle is for everyone, and if they do not understand, nothing will make sense." We are back and we care about money, material things, and everyone's well being. It cannot be that in Argentina children are starving when there is so much land, holy land that God gave us and they are dying; we are guilty; we are guilty if we do nothing.
Apart from the landholders there is the ghost of adopting
Imagine how easy it is for foreigners to come and make contracts with the dollar being so cheap. I do not think there is any other country that allows foreigners to come and keep the land more than here. We said this and it happened, and the idea of privatizing the Banco Nacion is to hand over lands. I had information from the exterior that Japan was interested in our lands because they have overpopulation. Every one of us has the commitment to put this is our land and what is left over we will export." We have to industrialize our products; they are taken them away as raw materials. With what is kept back from what is taken away from the producers today, subsidies can be given to head of families who have nothing to eat. But the day that the land is owned by foreigners there will not even be production; they will take it all away. This is very serious, and I say that we are still not conscious about what can happen.
Are you doing something about this?
Extending Argentinean flags in every field bought by foreigners, denouncing, and making a study. You become cold when you see that Spanish landholders bought 15,000 or 20,000 in this part or that part, the best hunting lands. We are born naked and we leave naked. I do not want to take anything, but I do want to leave a free a sovereign land to my grandchildren so they can live in peace and give food where there is hunger in the world, because we have a lot of land to produce and feed the world. But the culture of work has to be taught because the small and medium-sized producer is the one that is opening the rut every day. Last Saturday, the son of a producer came and said that when his uncle received the notification of the auction from the bank he hung himself. Another one's mother died of a heart attack. When they call you and you know you cannot get there and the producer kills himself, you are left with anguish, you feel like you are useless, that you cannot help people. Then it becomes like a self-help family program, a large family.
That is very particular to women.
Yes, it is very much of women to protect the family, because it is her who they have wanted to destroy. But they will not succeed.
What happened with the men after the first reaction? Did
they understand and join? With the children, what happened?
For the children, in my particular case, this took away their mom, their mom was out. I try to fulfill my obligations - sometimes I have nothing left to give - but I leave everything organized at home: from the food, the clothes, the cleaning, everything. And in the morning I wake up very early, organize the house and at 8:30 I always say that I put on my Argentine shirt and go out to fight. Children do not want you to be out in the street, but I know they are proud anyway. In my case, for example, my husband did not want this and that is why I tell Chiquita [her friend who accompanies her] that what I would have liked the most was for him to come with me. Sometimes I see it with her and her husband and I feel a solitude [she cries].
You think he still does not understand?
I think he understands because he looks at me a certain way when I go to the banks, to see if I saved some fields but sometimes he is afraid.
It is difficult for women to have to be everywhere, to
fill all the roles, to do everything.
Yes, it is very difficult. The sickness of my husband made everything more serious. My girls, especially the oldest, are depressed because they see him like that and all this has led me to be absent in some important moments for the family, like for the birth of my grandchild, because I was out defending the people or I missed a birthday and my grandchildren still do not understand this.
They will understand. And the girls, what do they do?
The youngest graduated and I had to come to live in the city because my husband had an accident out in the fields and was left paraplegic. I wanted to be there because he would choke, and since my daughter was studying agronomy we came until she graduated. I also baked and went out and sold whatever I could. Now she got work and she helps us, until we can recuperate our lands and leave them to her. I have asked that I want my life to end on those fields, on that land.
Which women do you remember who have interesting stories
in different places within the country? You were speaking of one especially.
Yes, Joaquina, but she is in bed unable to move, speak, or write with a very cruel disease: multiple sclerosis. I think from going around everywhere she was worn down She lives in the fields, she is a producer who had no children or debt and she joined our battle with everything. She is also from La Pampa. It kills me because I wanted her to see our battle realized.
With whom does she live? Alone?
She always lived alone, but now she has two women who take care of her. I was in the hospital with her until they gave me her diagnosis: she would look me in the eyes so she could know. We went through many things together. And she was very lucid. At the beginning she would write but not any more. We have women fighters in all the provinces. They have made pickets in the south and we have to go. They communicate and we go. Now it is very difficult to know how to go on because of the telephone bills. There is a bond in circulation to be able to pay for the expenses and the trips because we can no longer handle it. We were taking money away from our families to fight. I think we gave our lives and the few things we had for all the Argentineans. They would call us crazy, those crazy women.
That's curious, no? The mothers of the Plaza de Mayo were
called crazy. It seems that every time women go out to fight they are called
Because they think we are not there for our families but for searching for our freedom. And it is the contrary. I carry within me all of them. The day that my grandson was born, in the moment he was born on October 23rd, I was putting a flag in foreign-owned land.
That is the last grandchild?
The last grandson. I have: a baby of 15 who decided now to live with me, a baby of 14 whose birthday it is tomorrow, a baby of 13 who has a marvelous voice and sings to feed the poor. And that last one, Salvador, who I say came to save us because from that moment on we have been able to pay our debts. Another of my daughters is studying. She should have graduated already, but with all this she got a depression, and being far away, first her father, and her mother. They were studying in San Luis. I have a daughter who went to live in Bariloche and the second one is married to a manager from Banco Nacion who is marvelous and has given me food so that I never lack it. God has never left me. I would have nothing but then someone always would come and give me a little and I think that in a little over a year I will be able to live in the fields.
Go back to the fields?
Go back. I am going to plant aromatics so my grandchildren can love that land. The question they would ask me was this: "and with that fighting you will save the land?" I would say "Yes I will save it," even though I knew that behind it all were the bankruptcy and the auction. And now I say " I will save it," I think it is practically saved. But it is very difficult messing with power; it is very, very hard and harsh.
Is there is always a lot of loneliness?
Yes, there is loneliness, it is tremendous. But now I have to always be doing something for the people because if not I can no longer live.
One comes into this and can no longer go back.
No, you can't. The other day Chiquita was worried because I hardly sleep. I keep on going day and night and do not sleep. I am practically always awake. And she said I had to find someone to help me at home because I cannot handle everything. I try to, for example, to knit for them like I used to. Stay in for the night to tell them: "Look at what I made." I try to make the same foods, cook for them and leave things done so that they feel they will always have their mother. If they all come I try and fix beds for everyone.
It worries me that our country, which used to be the grain
capital of the world, is becoming a one-crop culture of genetically engineered
soy. This is a serious problem, fed by the compliance of the agronomy schools
that defend it because they receive funds from transnationals, and by the lack
of information of the peasants who, for example, do not know that Europe does
not want to accept genetically-engineered foods. The recent flooding in Santa
Fe also has something to do with this.
Yes, it is a subject we have discussed a lot with the kids in the university and with my daughter, who is also an agronomist. I think now people are beginning to see that this is organized by the North to destroy us and take our best lands. They want to buy it so that the land is productive for them and not for us.
And what about the Patagonia? What happens with the Mapuche
I was with them, and you know their lands have been mortgaged to the World Bank. The governments have used the lands that were originally theirs, the piece that was given to them, as collateral, for corruption. But, well, I always say that Latin America is bathed in Indian blood because the land was originally theirs. We had a meeting with indigenous women fighters and I go to them when there is a problem. In the south there was a woman in the movement who was working for a transnational and the women rightly sent her away because she was investigating the Mapuche community. We are not sectarian, and we have organized ourselves so that every one of us, when she believes she is defending a just cause, is there.
Is there any important activity, and auction, march, or
land-taking, in the near future?
The auctions now are suspended, and hopefully they will not come again. Marches are economically difficult now, but we went to Buenos Aires the other day with a tractor. In the foreign owned lands we will continue to put flags and now we are determined to negotiate the debt of those who are left. We also have to say that sometimes we are not many, because many of the ones who solved their problems stay home.
That happens in movements. I still think, however, that
your battle is changing the ways of women and society.
Yes, yes. For society we are no longer the crazy ones, we are still the crazies for the functionaries. We ask to be heard. Until now a President has never received us, and we will see what happens with this new government that seems more open to problems. We are also thinking of what can be done with those who have lost their land, and if it is possible to give them some land so they can produce again.
It seems very interesting that within the movement there
seems to be a politically concrete plurality.
Yes, everyone has a political position but the movement belongs to no one, and we are very strict about that because we know we can destroy ourselves from within. And because of this we keep on growing: in Chaco, Formosa, Cordoba, Rio Negro. We want to see how we can again travel throughout the country because there are places were things cannot move and we have to find the resources.
What is the situation now of your lands?
When they took my last cows to the fair it was so sad because they mooed to me in such a way it seemed like crying.
And you will not get more?
I do not know and I am unable to tell you. I still am not able to stop paying because they expect something from the president and if I fail its like giving them a victory. That is why I will pay every last cent and I will be free.
How much is left?
The other women (Fragments of the testimonies registered
for the documentary)
Province of La Pampa
Chiquita: It is very important to highlight the courage that Lucy had in making the first appeal which initiated the movement, because maybe at that time she also felt alone and thought that she was the only one that faced that problem. And it turned out that thousands of Argentines, thousands of homes were facing the same thing. In that moment, the men managed practically everything and women were in the homes. And when Lucy's appeal was made it allowed us to open our minds and say, "No, we are seeing the disintegration of our family and the loss of the lands that belonged to our fathers and grandfathers." Because of this, women came out and defended what is ours. We saw that it could be done.
Province of Santa Fe
Ana (Vice-president of MML): The women of this movement have similar histories. We are the daughters and granddaughters of those immigrants who came to the port of Buenos Aires with their little suitcases, went to some village in the interior of the country, took a piece of the land, and were tenants until, after many years of tremendous sacrifices and struggles, like the Scream of Alcorta in 1912, they were able to become owners of that little piece of land during the Peron epoch (the decades of the 1940's and 1950's). That meant a mortgage of thirty years with the Bank and working very hard to pay it off; but one could live with dignity and my generation was able to have other commodities (like electricity) and could attend the secondary school of the village. All of a sudden in 1989 and 1990, neo-liberal policies were applied to the country. And there was even a minister of agriculture who, in the process of the implementation of the Menem-Cavallo model, said it very clearly: that 200,000 small and medium-sized producers did not fit into the model because of the amount of land they had and that they were condemned to disappear. So we lived really sad situations because the peasant indebted himself to modernize (like the model required) and when he could not pay he became depressed and lowered his head in shame because he could not administer the land that he inherited from his parents and grandparents, who had sacrificed so much. He would not speak about it to his children or his wife; it took many years to convince the peasant that it was not his fault that he was coming apart. Do you know how many suicides there were? How many paraplegics because of the pressure attacks? So the women came out and fought tooth and nail, saying: "No, no we are not guilty. It is an economic model and a government who want to keep our lands." And, as Lucy always says,"Since we have been mothers, we will not allow that our fields be auctioned." And they began to stop the auctions singing the national anthem, praying, seeing functionaries, and fighting in the banks. In every family the submissive wife who would be cooking and waiting on her husband and kids would whip out her apron and say: "I will win this or win this." Because it has to be understood that for the man and woman of the fields land is not just a way to make a living, it is a way of life, the only thing known. It is an identity. If you would have seen my mother, in her 80's, when the justice official came to kidnap her tractor and tools and tell her they were going to auction her land and they delegated it all to me, the only woman, because my brothers were destroyed. Thanks to the struggles of all these years we still have our fields, even though we still have debts. But, well, the struggle has been worth it because we have been able to save many producers and, above all, expose the perversity of that economic model that began with the dictatorship of 1976 and has deepened in Argentina within the last decades, that strives to concentrate the process of the re-installation of vastly owned rural lands. And such was the silence about this, since the peasant would not speak, that no one believed us until the last agricultural census demonstrated that there are 145,000 less small producers than in 1988. And it was not just stopping the auctions, but also demanding the minimum price, the re-financing for 20 or more years, the recalculation of the debts, and in some cases (like in the impoverished northern states) the pardon of debts, because we believe we have already paid them off and then some throughout these years. Also, with the arrival of this new government that is more popular, we have been the first to embrace the Banco Nacion to avoid its privatization and to stop the foreign investors from keeping our mortgages. When I am asked: "Why the women?" I remember that with the kidnappings of the youth during the dictatorship, although these kids had fathers and mothers, it was the women who went out to fight and with this land it is the same; women have a strength that allows us to do this.
Ana Maria (lawyer of the Movement):
I am from the 1970s, of the ones who wanted to change the world, when the fall of everything that was collective came during the dictatorship.
At the height of the neo-liberal epoch, the movement made its public debut on March 8th with a 2,000 women march in Buenos Aires that confronted the "end of ideologies" with a solitary net to avoid the auctioning of the land of the people we did not know. And each auction caused a town of people to come together, joining the grandmothers (who prayed so that it would not happen), the classmates and teachers of the kids of the indebted peasants, the businessmen who knew the peasant and knew that he always paid his debts, the priest who would ring his bells, the firemen who would add their sirens, all confronting a wicked economic model. My grandfather, just arriving from Italy, defended the Indians whom the landowners were massacring, so I feel that the movement is the historical continuation of the struggles of the Indians, Creoles, and immigrants who fought for the land they worked and that is why it is my place on this Earth. And we are establishing the agrarian model we want for the country: thousands and thousands of farms, no vast ownership of lands. The feminine movement is a whirlwind that has incorporated itself massively to the struggle in the past years, starting off small, gathering force to never be stopped.
Maria Luisa (80 years old, one of the first colonizers):
My parents were immigrants from Galicia and my mother came to Argentina to work in "family homes" as a domestic maid, as was the custom of the time, when in Europe it was believed that easy money could be made here and that one progressed quickly. When I was a girl, the fields were a marvel, full of peasants, work, and parties. Then it was depopulated because of the debts and the introduction of soy that that threw people into the cities, but what would happen if we went back to the old time agriculture and cattle-raising? If I have to buy the milk and vegetables in town, I become ill. I joined the Movement when I was invited to the first meeting in Rosario, and I have accompanied them when I have been able to, even though my husband held me back because he was afraid. I do not have the courage to confront the military like they do, but I contribute with my grain of sand and I hope I do not die without seeing our dreams accomplished.
Maria (peasant): At the time I was invited to join the movement my husband had died and my daughter was due to be married in five months time, so I was very depressed and without desire to live. But in that first meeting I was hooked and I did not let go. I had no debts; I went to help the others. Sometimes things got messy, like when we all ended up in the commissioner's office in Canada Honda. I continue working my fields like before, but I started to live again with this struggle. We have been everywhere, I have learned a lot, and I feel rejuvenated since I began to fight. Sometimes it is not easy, but we forge ahead.
Norma (cattle-raiser): I was born and raised in the fields. When I got married I came to this house with my husband, who already had a small cattle-ranch, and I worked with in addition to raising the four kids, who are already big and are studying. When the economic crisis began, neighbors who could not longer buy bottled milk asked us to deliver milk to them and we became old-fashioned milkmen: my husband and I would set out at dawn towards different directions to deliver milk. When the first meeting was held in Rosario for women of the field, we were few. After a year and a half it was decided that we would go to Buenos Aires on a large march. But we knew that to call attention there we needed to be thousands, and since we were not so many, the idea of going with a tractor emerged. They asked me if I would drive it and, since I will do anything to help out, that day I became the tractor-driver of the movement. Women have been the historical progressives, because in times of big decisions men are depressed by impotency, and women rebel. That is why, today, we are the protagonists of the large battles of these epochs, even though sometimes our families hold us back. Men negotiate in a more individual way while women, since she always had to defend herself in conjunction with others, has more solidarity. She cannot ask for food for her children and pass by a starving boy without giving.
Provinces of Rio Negro and Neuquen
Andrea (agronomist, initiator in the south): The situation in the Valley of Rio Negro and Neuquen is one of small fruit producers facing high costs and not enough protective State policies, who must compete in the international markets with subsidized products of other countries. In the 1990s they had to get credits, which is why now 3,000 producers and 800 farms are in the hands of the Banco Nacion. Later, they turned to private banks and loaners, who are much worse. There was an economic, political, and social crisis that extended beyond our country, and, along with the debt of the small producers, there was a concentration of riches within monopolistic exporters who, with foreign capital, are keeping the farms. They gave long-term bonds to the producer to lift their debts, and they held captive for many years the production of the farmer without even giving them a chance to ask how much they would get paid. They are also held captive by the big laboratories that give them agro-chemicals and the pesticides that provoke resistant plagues and bring about a negative environmental impact. When I wanted to begin the movement in my area in 1998, my grandmother, a producer, 87 years old, helped me to find women peasants and it became explosive; we put out a call over the radio and the first 60 women came and later 40 from all over the valley, which extends for 400 km. Then we tried to join with other sectors, above all agricultural producers, and we participated in tractor rallies and pickets. By ourselves we had stopped 50 auctions, and with each one we would get as excited as with the first. We are women with differences of age, customs, and political ideas, but we are united by the fight to help every producer in need. Men would isolate themselves, because the producer is already individualistic due to his work and social environment; so the debt would not be spoken about. Women are different, you touch their nest and they jump, and the nest is the farm that belonged to her parents and grandparents and that is intended for her children. She is shameless, she jumps, she pushes through, to go out and search for equals: it was through the radio that women called out to other women. And the ones with and without debt came; many are not even producers. We have teachers, social assistants, a hairdresser. Most of the time we do not even know the person whose farm we are going to save. We are growing in size because we have united with other sectors and because of bigger problems, like the introduction of foreigners in the Patagonia. Indigenous communities are being moved from their land, and the landowners expel the Creoles and Mapuches to city slums. There is clear spoiling of the land and also a strong environmental impact because of gold mine and petroleum exploitation.
Susana (producer): Since my grandparents, we have been a family of fruit producers, and I joined the movement because of the calling of two of my cattle-raising girlfriends who did not have debts. Later, a hailstorm ruined our pear crop and we had to get credit, but we were able to pay it off with a lot of sacrifice. I will continue as long as the auctions continue. Our news runs through word of mouth. An auction that is heard about is an auction we go out to stop. The anguish each time is greater, as if it were our own. Afterwards we are exhausted and we hug each other and it is a very nice feeling. And sometimes it is very sad: on two occasions we could not stop it. Coming into this was unconscious. We were housewives and most of us had no debts. It was a question of solidarity. Afterwards, the peasants asked for help; before, he had shame, and some have died of sadness. Now only 30% of the lands in the Valley are in the hands of the producers, 70% already belongs to the big businesses. But we will fight so that none of that 30% is touched. Like our motto says: "From our grandparents to our children." We do not want to lose anything else. We do not want anyone to lose anything.
Olga (producer): I am in charge of the farm while my husband delivers fruit in the south. I take care of the animals and of everything until harvest time, which is when I classify and pack the fruit so he can commercialize it. My daughter spoke about the Movement, because it seems she had learned about it from a teacher, and got me into joining. I did not have debts, but I received a lot of love from the girls and I began to help - with a lot of nervousness in the first auctions. We do not know where we get our strength, but on those occasions we are transformed, we think of the person whose farm will be taken away, which is like cutting off their arms, and then we can. We also have other activities with different sectors of the areas, like the Central de Trabajadores Argentinos (CTA) [a worker's union] and other organizations with which we participate in rounds against the ALCA [free-trade agreement with USA]. For example, we were collaborating with the Mapuche community in Corcovado (100 km from Esquel) against gold mine exploitation in the area, and now we have been invited to participate in one of their religious rituals.
Abuela Molinaro (producer): I came from Italy when I was five with my parents, who already had five Italian children and would have five in Argentina. I am now 87 and I came here in 1939, when I got married. I later had three sons. In those times, the comforts of today were not available in the fields and we had to do everything with hard work: building a brick oven, planting fruit trees, taking care of the animals. At the beginning it was hard. Then the boys worked and we could do better. Today it is an immense pear and apple plantation. We had many auctions but we could stop them. The whole family participated in tractor rallies and pickets. I do not even remember anymore how many auctions I went to with the women. Now they don't let me go because I am sick, but I am always close to them. Of course I never had as much courage as Lita, who would pinch the military men with needles, or like Andrea, who was arrested. But she had to be released.
Marta (producer): My grandparents arrived in Villa Regina in 1924 and I was born in 1948 on a farm, when times were best. Now we have returned to the old times, very difficult, when what is tilled one day is erased by the wind the next. Valle de Rio Negro became a paradise with the work that followed, a kind of big cooperation between farmers, like a happy family. Later, everything changed and we began opposing the first auctions, because you tend to have solidarity with people in need. Now there is a farmer with six hectares who they want to remove, and we are going to stay there with him so they cannot do it, because it is not fair that they make us pay for what they have given away to the large corporations. We have been asking for a provincial or national horticultural fruit law to protect the small producers for a long time, but we still have not succeeded.
Liliana (hairdresser): I do not own land, a farm or anything; I am a hairdresser. My work is solidarity, and when I have to stop an auction I charge my batteries as if I owned 20 farms. And the girls love me a lot. They always call me. I did not know what a bank debt nor an auction was, but as we started acting I started learning and I feel like I am a part of this. Today they called me because of the auction in the morning. I was cutting hair 20 km from here. I took two buses, a taxi, and I got here when it was ending, but I got here.
Lita (retired social worker): I come from an agricultural family; however, I have no land or debt. I am a social worker and I got into this because I am against a perverse system, seeing how my friends in the area were sinking. I am a militant for human rights; I have a brother-in-law that is missing because of the dictatorship, my sister died from it, and I belong to a group against unpunished crimes. When I met Andrea in a women's meeting, she convinced me that we could fight not only for the dead but also for the living, and I helped her start the movement here. The calling had great effect, we began to fight together and now I take it personally. I have eight cases pending. We defend ourselves; we sing the anthem and pray. But if they push us, we carry sewing needles and we pinch the military men and they run back. And in other moments, we have looked for as many possible weapons. Once, in an auction, I could not impede the only person bidding, a Gypsy, to lower his hand. So, the only thing I could think of in the desperation was to slap him and when the press and the rest of the people came to see what had happened, I said he had touched my ass. I am a big woman so this caused a big scandal. He got mad saying I was crazy, but he left and since he was the only bidder the auction was stopped. There is a story for each one. I know I will not stop, because this is my fight.