Nora Cortiñas, 94, a Founder of Argentina’s Mothers of the ‘Disappeared,’ Dies - The World News

Nora Cortiñas, 94, a Founder of Argentina’s Mothers of the ‘Disappeared,’ Dies

Nora Morales de Cortiñas, a founding member of a group of mothers who searched for their children who were disappeared by Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s and who went on to become a leading global voice for human rights, died Thursday in Morón, Argentina. She was 94.

Ms. Cortiñas, commonly known as Norita, underwent surgery for a hernia on May 17 at Morón Hospital, west of Buenos Aires, and later suffered complications as a result of pre-existing conditions, said Dr. Jacobo Netel, the hospital’s director.

The group the mothers started helped focus international attention on the abuses committed by the military dictatorship and continued pressuring the Argentine government for answers after democracy was restored.

Ms. Cortiñas led a quiet life until her son Carlos Gustavo suddenly disappeared on April 15, 1977. He studied economics at the University of Buenos Aires and was an activist in a left-leaning political group, which made him a target of the right-wing dictatorship that seized control of Argentina in 1976 in a coup.

“He was 24 years old, had a wife and a very small child,” Ms. Cortiñas later recalled in an interview that was published as part of a book in 2000. “He left one cold morning and never came back. He was kidnapped at the train station while on his way to work.”

The dictatorship that led Argentina until 1983 is widely considered among the bloodiest of the U.S.-backed military governments that took over several countries in Latin America in the 1970s and ’80s.

Human rights groups say roughly 30,000 people in Argentina were illegally detained and disappeared without a trace as the government rounded up those it deemed subversive, sent them to torture camps and often killed them.

Ms. Cortiñas went on a desperate search for her missing son, seeking information in public offices where she was met with evasive answers and military officials and government workers who pushed her to stop looking. Her son’s fate is still not known.

“The priority was to go out to look for my son, and I entered into a spiral of madness,” she said in an interview with a researcher at San Martín National University outside Buenos Aires. “I was called, threatened, told I would be put in prison.”

The month after her son vanished, Ms. Cortiñas joined a small group of mothers who had started meeting to demand information about their missing children.

She went on to participate in what became weekly vigils in Plaza de Mayo, a square in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, the capital. The women, desperate for answers and not knowing where to turn, started walking around in circles while carrying photos of the missing.

The dictatorship later disappeared three founding members of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, but that did not deter Ms. Cortiñas and others from gathering in growing numbers as they tried to seize the attention of a society that often seemed indifferent.

“The people passing through Plaza de Mayo didn’t see us for many years,” Ms. Cortiñas said in an interview with Argentina’s National Library. “Like we were invisible. No one approached us to ask what we were doing, because I believe that is what state terrorism produces, that fear of knowing what we were doing there.”

Even after the military dictatorship ended in 1983, Ms. Cortiñas made clear that their fight was not over as she continued to demand action from democratically elected governments and later expressed disappointment in Raúl Alfonsín, the first elected president after democracy was restored.

“During the campaign, Alfonsín always promised that the archives would be opened, that we would get some news, that something would be clarified,” Ms. Cortiñas said in an interview with an alternative news outlet. “The truth is that it hasn’t happened yet; the archives have not been opened.”

In 1986, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo broke up amid internal divisions, with one camp pushing for a more combative agenda. That led to clashes with other members, including Ms. Cortiñas, over what demands they should make under a democratic government.

Ms. Cortiñas became a leader of an offshoot known as the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo-Founding Line.

In later years, she continued attending the gatherings at the Plaza de Mayo and also became a steady presence in other street demonstrations as she emerged as an activist for numerous issues, including the legalization of abortion.

She was seldom seen without a white kerchief on her head, which was meant to symbolize the diapers their children had worn as babies and made the group recognized around the world.

“We stood up to a dictatorship and are still fighting — why would we stop now?” Ms. Cortiñas told The New York Times in 2017 during a demonstration opposing leniency for those found guilty of dictatorship-era crimes.

Nora Irma Morales was born March 22, 1930, in Buenos Aires — the third of five daughters — to Mercedes Vincent and Manuel Morales, Catalonian immigrants who met in Argentina. Mr. Morales ran a print shop from their home, while Ms. Vincent was a homemaker who also worked as a seamstress.

Nora attended school until the sixth grade, which at the time was when girls often stopped their formal educations. At 19, she married Carlos Cortiñas and went on to teach sewing and take on odd jobs as a seamstress. Mr. Cortiñas worked for the country’s Economy Ministry and died of cancer in June 1994 at 71.

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

Ms. Cortiñas went back to school later in life and studied social psychology, graduating in 1993, when she was 63. She went on to teach courses at the University of Buenos Aires, one of several universities to grant her honorary degrees.

After Ms. Cortiñas’s death was confirmed Thursday evening, dozens gathered in Plaza de Mayo in her honor.

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

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