Argentina's Bicentennial: A Complicated Celebration

Argentina celebrated its bicentennial this week. Although the May Revolution of 1810 led to independence, the nation has endured a great deal through the years — including periods of dictatorship. So, while throngs spilled into the streets of Buenos Aires for parades, concerts and epic reveling, there was also a more somber side. The government, in fact, sponsored a retrospective look at a period of national horror — with banner-size photos dating from the dictatorship. Photographer Carlos Schroder sent this essay from Buenos Aires.

People hold a huge Argentine flag along

People hold an enormous Argentine flag in the streets of Buenos Aires in celebration of the bicentennial of the May Revolution, which led to Argentina's independence. Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images/AFP hide caption

itoggle caption Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images/AFP

By Carlos Schroder:

View of Buenos Aires

The view from Schroder's balcony Carlos Schroder hide caption

itoggle caption Carlos Schroder

With my balcony overlooking the plaza in front of the Argentine Congress, it would have been hard to ignore the country's bicentennial, even if I'd never left my apartment. But of course I did leave it, joining the hundreds of thousands who flocked to a week's worth of parades, concerts, speeches and ecumenical religious ceremonies.

The week's events went well beyond pageantry and patriotism to embrace a wide range of views. The overall effect was optimistic and tolerant, marked by a strong emphasis on Latin American unity, and also on producing a narrative (as you will see in the pictures) that is remarkably different from what had been typical of Argentina until the 1990s.

  • A photo mural shows the Abuelas (grandmothers) of the Plaza de Mayo, who walked daily in protest over desaparecidos (disappeareds), loved ones abducted by the country's military dictatorship in the 1970s and '80s.
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    A photo mural shows the Abuelas (grandmothers) of the Plaza de Mayo, who walked daily in protest over desaparecidos (disappeareds), loved ones abducted by the country's military dictatorship in the 1970s and '80s.
    Carlos Schroder
  • On the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo's pavilion, the side walls were decorated with pictures of some of the thousands of the disappeared, abducted during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.
    Hide caption
    On the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo's pavilion, the side walls were decorated with pictures of some of the thousands of the disappeared, abducted during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.
    Carlos Schroder
  • During the celebrations, there were several thematic pavilions, three of which were dedicated to human rights. The Abuelas formed as a nongovernmental organization in 1977 and, since the end of the dictatorship in 1983, they have found 101 of their grandchildren.
    Hide caption
    During the celebrations, there were several thematic pavilions, three of which were dedicated to human rights. The Abuelas formed as a nongovernmental organization in 1977 and, since the end of the dictatorship in 1983, they have found 101 of their grandchildren.
    Carlos Schroder
  • The sign these women are holding asks, "Where are the babies born in captivity?" These murals around Buenos Aires today are a reminder of a darker past.
    Hide caption
    The sign these women are holding asks, "Where are the babies born in captivity?" These murals around Buenos Aires today are a reminder of a darker past.
    Carlos Schroder
  • "Citizen living memory," reads the inscription on this memorial
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    "Citizen living memory," reads the inscription on this memorial
    Carlos Schroder
  • In the midst of parades and celebrations were also performances re-enacting various stages of Argentine history. Here, the Abuelas of Plaza de Mayo march endlessly, rain or shine, for their disappeared sons and daughters.
    Hide caption
    In the midst of parades and celebrations were also performances re-enacting various stages of Argentine history. Here, the Abuelas of Plaza de Mayo march endlessly, rain or shine, for their disappeared sons and daughters.
    Carlos Schroder
  • "Never again," is a phrase that appears frequently at Argentine memorial rallies, referring to what happened during the dictatorship.
    Hide caption
    "Never again," is a phrase that appears frequently at Argentine memorial rallies, referring to what happened during the dictatorship.
    Carlos Schroder

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The week's climax was a gala dinner and opening of a Gallery of Patriots. The gallery included portraits of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Farabundo Marti, Emiliano Zapata and Salvador Allende — artwork donated by some of the national leaders in attendance: Jose Mujica (Uruguay), Fernando Lugo (Paraguay), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Sebastian Pinera (Chile), Lula da Silva (Brazil), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela) and Rafael Correa (Ecuador) — and would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Not being invited to the dinner, I prowled the streets. Here's what I found.

Carlos Schroder teaches literature and writing at Northern Virginia Community College. He spends several months each year in Buenos Aires.

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