Vivas y Libres: A Short Story In Honour Of The Victims Of Femicide
Paula was walking briskly that morning. Anyone passing by would have said she was one of them, an ordinary porteña who earned her bread getting up early to go to work. Of course, when she could find a job.
But even if that city was not her birthplace, she felt she belonged to it. After all, blood does not lie.
And every time she listened to the tales of her grandparents, who, like her parents, were born there after her great grandfather had emigrated to Argentina in the 1940’s to work in agriculture, her heart skipped a beat.
She knew there was a missing piece in her life, a part of her that was constantly looking for a sense of belonging, which awakened as soon as her grandfather improvised a tango move, or she bit into the steaming meat empanadas her grandma would bake at the weekends.
Something deep inside her urged her to go and get back that piece at all costs. She would finally travel to the land of her ancestors, the land of Las Pampas, gauchos and Tierra del Fuego, which she associated with the wild passions portrayed in the Latin soap operas she avidly watched.
She would have crossed it from head to toe, as a close friend of hers had done before her, with a backpack on her shoulders and plenty of energy in her legs, ready to clock up miles on foot to realize her greatest dream: getting lost to find herself.
When she laid out her plans to her father, however, he did not seem enthusiastic at all. On the contrary, he stared at her with a stern look, biting his lower lip, and shook his head without saying a word. He knew that whatever he said, she would not listen.
She was too stubborn, just like her mother. A free, indomitable spirit that nothing and no one could have ever stopped, except death. That had come unexpectedly, as if someone were ever ready for the final call, and had taken her away too quickly, stealing that cheeky smile that appeared on Paula’s lips whenever she tried to elicit his approval.
But you know, not all flowers are destined to bloom. Some are torn without mercy or, worse, trampled on by those who were thought to love them.
Paula hoped that at least her grandparents would understand her. But not even they seemed to accept the idea that she had grown up enough to freely choose how to live her life.
“Sweetheart, Latin America is bleeding. Unemployment, violence, social inequalities are growing day by day. The news is not encouraging. Are you sure you feel like going on a trip like that alone, and on foot? ” her grandfather had warned her, inviting her to reconsider her decision.
“Grandpa is right. A lonely girl, wandering around the country…you could surely attract some unwanted attention,” her grandmother had echoed.
“Grandpa, Grandma. I am almost twenty years old. I’m no longer a little girl…” she replied.
“Just be careful, darling,” they said in unison.
The anger arrived even before the pain, with all the strength of a soundless voice that entrusts its request for help to cruel, mocking gods, knowing that it will never be granted.
But the street does not shut up. The street resists. And nothing they will do would ever gag it. The street does not give in.
It starts whispering it from ear to ear, at first with suspicion and distrust, and then, once it feels reassured by the multitude, it screams it louder and louder until the eardrums explode: La calle no calla!
It paints it on the walls, on lowered shutters, it engraves it on a stone, it draws it on a piece of cloth or ceramic, it writes it in blood on improvised billboards, it shouts it in chorus marching through the squares.
Until that cry becomes part of you and your conscience prevents you from ignoring it.
Until that well-kept secret discovered by chance while you were wandering around the city becomes your secret, a secret that is out in the open for everyone to see, just a few meters away from the fancy designer shops of Recoleta and the ubiquitous American fast-food chains, which stand proudly among the old Art Nouveau buildings as a symbol of globalisation.
It was a warm morning in early May, one of those days that smell of orange blossom and fresh grass, the sky painted a baby blue, while the sunshine tickles naked arms and sensitive souls.
Finally, she was there, savouring the exciting pleasure of feeling lost among a multitude of strangers and at the same time, part of a perfectly harmonious and interconnected whole.
Why on earth should I have been afraid of traveling alone? Paula thought as she waited for the traffic light to turn green.
She looked around to orient herself. Libertad was the name of the street.
It sounded auspicious. It was just how she felt in that moment: free. Free, alive, and safe, just like every woman should feel.
She thought about taking out the map she had in her backpack, but she didn’t like the idea of following a plan. Nor did she want to be pointed at by the locals as a gringa. She preferred to blend into the crowd, study their gestures, be lulled by the musicality of their accents, imagine the stories behind an array of facial expressions, try to guess what they did for a living from their appearance.
She stopped in front of a shop window neatly displaying dozens of boxes of alfajores. Some were covered in chocolate, others in sugar. Without thinking twice, she entered the shop and bought a large mixed box. Then she carried on walking until her next, unknown stop, as happy as a little child.
She followed her gut, rather than a particular direction and suddenly, without knowing exactly how, she found herself in front of an arcade. Art is resistance, read a sign at the top of the entrance written in beautiful, colourful handwriting.
Intrigued, she decided to take a peek.
A dozen tables were lined along each side of the passage, whose white walls were covered with posters and pieces of art. Behind them, skilled artisans worked briskly, their concentration occasionally interrupted by outbursts of contagious laughter. Someone was humming an old tune. Others exchanged furtive words in such a faint tone that were incomprehensible to Paula’s ear, as if they were afraid that someone was spying on them.
They decorated T-shirts and plaques, modelled rings and bracelets, inlaid pieces of iron, and painted stones. The fruit of that meticulous work was laid in plain sight on the tables, ready to be sold to an eager passer-by.
She wondered why such a beautiful, creative place was keeping such a low profile. Why there was no mention of it on her tourist guide, and even on Google, it was simply dismissed as a clothing store, when to her, it seemed much more than that.
But more than anything, she wondered why the faces of the people working there were all veiled with sadness. Their young frowns seemed to suggest that their features had been hardened by anger, more than by the passing of time.
Rather than an art passage, it looks like a passage of souls towards purgatory, Paula thought.
She stopped in front of one of the tables, on which handcrafted leather belts and bags were displayed, attracted by the shiny ebony hair of the lady painting behind it.
Paula leaned over to get a better look at her creative piece.
VIVAS y LIBRES nos Queremos, the metal plate read.
She smiled at the lady, who was keeping her eyes fixed on her artwork.
“Do you like it?” she asked, without lifting her gaze.
“I love it!” she replied excited.
“How long has this place existed?” Paula asked, reassured by the fact that the woman had addressed her first, although she had not yet deigned to look at her.
“The passage is a centre of struggle and resistance which has been located in the same spot for 18 years. Your age, I guess,” the woman answered, as she continued her work.
Then she added: “… and that of my daughter.”
Paula noted that her voice contained an unspoken emotion, but she preferred not to ascertain which one that was. She did not want to disturb the woman any further, since she already seemed annoyed by her presence, but to her surprise, she continued her explanation without her urging her to do so.
“We have always operated independently,” the woman pointed out.
“The gallery is managed by a group of artists who were expelled from Calle Florida and transferred to an old mansion by the city council. We all protest against some form of injustice through our works, from crimes committed by the military during the last dictatorship, to the workers’ struggle and women’s rights,” she explained.
“I see. That’s really inspiring,” Paula replied. “You know, I am an artist myself,” she told the woman. “But right now, I am just a free-spirited young lady looking for herself in a remote land,” she joked.
As she spoke, she threw a glance at the posters on the wall behind the woman.
Her attention was caught by one in particular.
It featured photos of dozens of women. Some wore a dazzling smile whose intensity blinded her soul. Others had a glum, hopeless look, as if they were foreshadowing the cruel mockery of their fate. Each photo was accompanied by a name, a date, and their age on the day of their disappearance or murder.
On impulse, Paula put a hand to her mouth.
Johana, Gloria, Mónica, Mariana, Maria, Marisol, Miriam, Lucia, Jésica, Susana, Tania, Viviana, Maria Soledad … those names danced in her head like agile dragonflies whose wings had been crushed by the barbarity of the world.
She stopped. The thought that, among those faces, there were also little girls made her discovery even more chilling.
“That’s my daughter,” the woman told Paula, pointing at the picture of a girl who tenderly smiled at the camera.
There was a special glow in her eyes, accentuated by a lock of dark brown hair that descended diagonally across her forehead.
Her facial features conveyed harmony and kindness. It was inconceivable to think that something bad could have happened to such an angelic and pure creature.
“To date, I still don’t know what happened to her,” the lady continued, choking with emotion.
“She disappeared while visiting some relatives near Córdoba…she was supposed to arrive in the evening, but she never got there. They killed her!” The woman cried. “They killed my sweet Maria. The bastards killed her and got away with it!”
By then, the woman had given in to her desperation. And Paula too.
She shivered. She had planned to hitchhike to Córdoba as soon as she completed her tour of the capital.
That sad story had made her feel powerless and frustrated, but also ashamed of her own feelings. How could the anger that was exploding inside her gut that very moment exceed the pain she felt over the girl’s death?
How many Marias had those mothers lost in such mysterious circumstances? How many dead bodies had they mourned?
There were too many questions she wanted to ask, even though she knew that they would probably remain forever unanswered.
How could have all those women disappeared without leaving a trace that could lead the authorities to identify the culprit? was another one.
Surprisingly, the woman shushed her with her finger, pointing at a bearded man that was standing next to a glossy black metal column with crossed arms and a look which did not sound reassuring.
“The government does not like us to talk about this with foreigners,” the woman whispered into Paula’s ear.
“Meet me in front of the National Congress at 3pm today. I will introduce you to all the other compañeros, and you will be able to ask all the questions you want,” the woman said, as she swiftly resumed her work.
Art permeates Buenos Aires like air, to the extent that the difference between art and life is so subtle that one wonders which one is most real. But after all, as Oscar Wilde put it, Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.
As she walked down the elegant, leafy avenues and admired the brightly coloured graffiti decorating entire buildings – the only voice of the outcasts who populated the city’s streets – she could not help but think how there, more than anywhere else in the world, that truth could have never been truer.
In fact, in Buenos Aires, art was the greatest form of protest and resistance. It was a voice of dissent and discontent that united thousands of people towards a common goal. It was a powerful cry for help, but also a hopeful message of change.
And that sense of fraternity, cohesion, and community that the local artists shared, was their greatest strength.
The Paseo, which overlooked Avenida de Mayo, was connected to the National Congress, a monumental palace in Neoclassical style from the early 20th century, through a straight line.
Paula found it pretty ironic that, despite being so geographically close to the government, those voices had struggled to be heard by it.
She pondered whether to accept the woman’s invitation until the very last minute.
It was only her second day as a tourist in Buenos Aires and wondered whether it was sensible to get involved in something bigger than her, that did not seem to relate to her daily life in any meaningful way.
She did not know whether she should have trusted a stranger either. What if the meeting was just a pretext to lure her to an unfamiliar area in order to rob her?
And even if she just genuinely wanted to introduce her to her friends, was she ready to socialise with other perfect strangers whose lives were probably very different from hers? And even more, to hear their tragic stories?
She was not too sure. But her curious and inquisitive nature prevailed.
Plus, it was a perfect opportunity to mingle with the locals and find out more about their culture.
But the truth is that, even if she did not want to admit it to herself, those images had shocked her to the core, to the point that, for the last few hours, she had revisited them over and over again in her head.
She arrived early, her eyes darting around nervously as she looked for the woman, but there was no sight of her.
She was about to turn back and leave, when she heard a female voice calling her name in a local accent.
Paula heaved a sigh of relief when she recognised the woman from the Paseo among a small group of people, predominantly women.
They were all carrying some kind of banner in their hands.
“I thought you would not come,” Paula said as she walked towards her.
“We got late preparing the banners,” the woman explained.
“Guys, this is Paula. I met her at the Paseo this morning and she seemed keen to learn more about our fight.”
“Hola Paula. I am Rodrigo,” a well-built man in his fifties approached her. “What struggle are you most interested in? You see, we are always fighting in this life and for all sorts of reasons. We fight to push the government to give us back our daughters, we beg them to give us a piece of land, a job, ultimately, a decent life…we are always fighting for our rights, but they don’t listen.”
Paula felt like hugging the man. His words sounded painfully familiar to her, whose ancestors had chosen to emigrate to give her the decent life he also aspired to.
She wanted to tell him that but as she tried to formulate the right words, the man continued: “All of our families have been hit by tragedy one way or another.”
The man paused, misinterpreting Paula’s perplexed face.
“We are all relatives of victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation,” he explained, assuming that Paula did not know what he was talking about.
“They kill us, they punish us every day with their silence, with the impunity of the perpetrators, with their complicity with them.”
“That’s true,” one of the women interrupted him. “But we are not going to surrender. We are going to demonstrate here every single day until they are sick of hearing our voices!” she said, her eyes filled with anger.
Another woman, who was holding a “NOT ONE WOMAN LESS” banner jumped in: “My daughter was twenty when her naked body was thrown off a cliff fifteen years go. They arrested a poor day labourer for her murder, but we know that he was just used as a scapegoat to close the case.”
She inhaled deeply as if she struggled to breathe, then continued: “There was a witness accusing the host she was staying with of beating her, tying her up, and taking her to the country in a pick-up. But those claims were never investigated because her murderer was protected by the police. This corrupt state is complicit in those crimes, Paula. They have a lot of blood on their hands, and they know that.”
As she spoke, Paula noticed her sunken eyes and hollow, wrinkled cheeks. She was only forty-three, but it was like the burden of her sorrow had sucked the life out of her.
Paula was struck by her courage and relentless determination. She was not sure she would have had the strength to bear such an inhumane tragedy.
She had crossed two continents to find her own identity and purpose, but she did not expect that those strangers she had randomly met on the street could give her a life lesson she would never forget.
“Give me the banner,” she said without thinking twice.
A few minutes later, she was marching side-by-side with them, chanting anti-government slogans and demanding answers to those uncomfortable questions that were hanging in the sky above them like dangling daggers ready to stab them whenever they lifted their heads.
They shouted and let out their frustration for nearly three hours, to no avail.
Once their exasperation and the exhaustion from the long workday had drained all their energies, they decided to take their banners and go home, with the promise to meet again there at the same time the following day.
“Shall we go for a drink?” Rodrigo suggested. He was a leader.
But most of his companions declined the invite.
“I can’t Rodri,” Susana, whose daughter had been brutally killed by her ex-partner, a local policeman, told him. “I need to pick up the kids from my mother,” she said.
“Go then. Otherwise, the old woman will tell you off,” he teased her.
He reminded Paula of her grandpa. He was always ready for a joke. He did not like to take himself too seriously. On the contrary, he took life easily, although not superficially.
Perhaps it was his ironic way of facing adversity and forgetting about his troubles.
But the pain of losing a child, that can never be forgotten. Over time, it gradually fades, for some numbed by alcohol or drugs, for others alleviated by resigned acceptance. Of this, despite her young age, she was sure.
She had seen it in the eyes of her grandparents when her mother had died. And even though she was only five years old when it happened, she still remembered that look of despair in their eyes, the unbridgeable abyss into which they seemed to have sunk since that day.
An abyss that was reflected in the creases of their faces, which had aged all of a sudden.
Even today, Paula wondered why they did not talk about her, about their pain. She would have liked them to do that, to even tell her how and why she had died, rather than referring to what happened as caused by a mysterious “illness”.
But she understood them. Talking about that day would have been like living it twice, too great an agony that perhaps they would not have survived.
But for her, who had few, faded memories of that sad event, it would have helped to make it more real, to make sense of her senseless end and the ineffable and lacerating feeling of having been wrenched from the caring arms of maternal love, when she was not yet able to understand the immensity of the blessing she had been initially granted.
She had spent the following years in the perpetual search for a sense of closure, with the constant feeling that something was still pending, as if her mother’s soul were trapped between earth and sky, in an unlikely limbo that prevented her to abandon herself to the eternal rest, and her loved ones to find peace in their mundane lives.
Dad was a separate chapter. Ever since she had begun to develop memory, she remembered him as a man of few words.
But after the death of his wife, he had shut himself in absolute silence, slowly detaching from the world, and from her before anyone else. Until her father figure had completely vanished on the horizon, replaced in all respects by that of her grandparents who had lovingly taken care of her and had become her entire universe.
She returned to the hostel around 9 pm, midnight in Madrid. But she felt the urge to speak to him and maybe, if she were lucky, she would still find him awake, watching the shopping channels until late as he often used to do.
She dialled the number with trembling hands.
She felt restless and was afraid that, as it often happened, he would not understand her when she told him how she had spent the day.
She was an adult now, Paula told herself. So why did she keep craving his approval?
A ring. Two rings. Three rings. On the fourth, she was about to hang up, but heard the clatter of a handset being lifted. That was followed by the raspy sound of a hoarse, low-pitched voice.
He must have been smoking, Paula thought to herself as she shook her head.
“Dad, it’s me,” Paula exclaimed, before he could say anything. “I am sorry I woke you up, but I missed you and …”
“Paula!” her dad replied. “My goodness! Are you OK?? Is everything okay? I tried to call you in the afternoon, but your phone was off…I was one step away from getting onto a plane and reaching you tomorrow,” he said in one breath, so fast that Paula could barely understand him.
“I’m so sorry dad. I was attending an event and I turned it off because I wouldn’t have heard it anyway,” Paula apologised, then went on telling him how she had found herself taking part in an anti-government demonstration against femicides and gender-based violence.
“That girl, dad. I can’t get her picture out of my head. How can these things happen? It’s terrible. How can one die like this? ” Paula pressed him, hoping that at least he could give her the answers that no one had been able to give her so far.
But her father was a block of ice: not a sigh, not a word, not even a breath a little deeper than usual. For a moment, Paula thought the line had cut off.
She threw a quick glance at the screen. It was still counting the minutes.
How could he remain so indifferent to such brutality?
“Paula,” he said in a faint voice. “There is one thing I have wanted to tell you for some time, although I never found the right words. But you are old enough to hear what I have to say. And even more so now that you have seen with your own eyes what it means to lose a loved one without even being able to go and visit their grave and bring them a flower. What it means to seek answers that will never come through from a corrupt government that protects the murderers, rather than the victims.”
He paused for a moment, then slowly let out a sigh.
Paula, on the other hand, continued to hold her breath. She did not want even a flap of a butterfly’s wing to interrupt what her father was about to tell her.
She didn’t know what that was, but something was telling her that it was the answer, that missing piece of a puzzle she had been unsuccessfully trying to piece together throughout her young life.
“Mum did not die of an illness, darling.”
“She disappeared while investigating a femicide case in Mar del Plata for the newspaper she used to freelance for. The woman in question had been drugged, repeatedly raped, and brutally killed and your mum was trying to find out whether local police had tampered with evidence. She suspected that they were either directly involved in the case, or they were trying to protect a local drug lord, or both,” her dad confessed.
“She was brave, your mum, you know. I told her to be careful but…nothing ever scared her. I am sorry, Paula. I failed to protect her,” he wailed, as he let go of the grief he had been guarding in his heart for so long.
“Don’t say that dad, please,” Paula replied. She was still trying to fully comprehend his words that reached her ears as confused images of an underworld which had always appeared too remote and surreal to one day become part of her life.
She remembered the case the woman at the rally was telling her about. Her stomach churned. She felt as if she were going to throw up the empanada she had shared with Rodrigo half an hour earlier.
“We fought hard to demand answers both directly and through our lawyers, bouncing from one office to another, but we never got justice. We never had closure. We never knew what they did to her. Until the anger and pain had become so unbearable that we decided to resign ourselves to them. I locked my feelings away in some drawer of my heart and pretended that it had never happened…until now,” he explained.
Paula thought of her father’s lifeless eyes and felt immense pain for that man.
She had just heard the news, and she already was no longer the same as before. She was no longer a whole body and soul but torn to shreds. The mere thought of what her mother must have suffered had shattered her to the core.
Who knows what it must have meant to keep such a heavy burden bottled up for fifteen years…?
“Is that why you have never gone back? To try and forget what happened?”
Her father mumbled an affirmative sound. He was ashamed to admit that he had chosen to flee like a coward because he did not have enough strength to face the excruciating emptiness of that loss.
“I know I let you down, but I am not like your mother. She was much stronger than me,” he said apologetically.
Paula could not reply. Her pain though, was deep enough to fill the distance that separated them that very moment and the disagreements that had driven them apart up to then.
“I love you,” she whispered, before hanging up.
She traced the letters on the metal plate that the woman from the Paseo had given her, spelling out each syllable. She had finally found her purpose: alive and free, that was everything she wanted to be.
In Loving Memory of All the Victims of Femicide in Argentina and Across the World