BY MORAVIA DE LA O
Margarita1 has spent the last nine years looking for her son, Mauricio. She keeps a manila folder with photos and articles about his case that she brings when I interview her in June 2017. In one of the photos that she shows me, a young man in glasses is dressed in a winter coat and stares at the camera with a big smile. “This one is from when he went to learn English in Canada,” Margarita tells me, clearly proud of her son. She flips through newspaper clippings about Mauricio’s case and the different national and international advocacy efforts in which she has participated. She is meticulous in documenting her nine-year search for her beloved son—the manila folder serving as an archive of the pain of his disappearance.
I interviewed Margarita as part of the fieldwork I conducted for my Latin American studies master’s thesis. In total, I interviewed ten mothers of disappeared people in Mexico between June 2017 and April 2018 about their experiences in the aftermath of their children’s disappearance. All of the women I interviewed had a son or daughter who was disappeared in or after 2004 and they were deeply involved in activism on the issue of disappearance. I had known some of the mothers since 2012 through previous work I had done on human rights issues in Mexico. I also recruited interview participants at events on disappearance held in Mexico City and through my contacts with human rights activists and journalists in Mexico.
Conducting this fieldwork was at times heart-wrenching, yet I was also inspired by the resilience and courage of the mothers with whom I spoke. This article explores some preliminary lessons that I have learned from interviewing these mothers. In particular, I will discuss the impact of uncertainty in their lives, and the ways in which Margarita has come to understand and cope with the daily doubt and ambiguity surrounding her son’s fate and whereabouts.
A Disappeared Son
Mauricio disappeared while driving alone on a highway in the northeastern Mexican state of Coahuila on January 25, 2009. Since Mauricio’s disappearance, Margarita has been determined to find him and to seek justice. As is the case with many other families of disappeared people in the country, Margarita and her husband took on the search efforts themselves—traveling to Saltillo, the state capital, to report their son’s disappearance to state authorities and advocate for a thorough investigation. Nine years later, the authorities have done little to meaningfully investigate Mauricio’s disappearance and have failed to locate him, despite arresting two people suspected of being involved in the case.
For Margarita, this process has been emotionally and physically challenging. She has developed many health problems over the last nine years, including suffering a minor stroke within the first year of Mauricio’s disappearance. She also struggles with the daily pain and sadness of the disappearance. Nevertheless, Margarita works tirelessly to demand action in her son’s case and that those responsible be brought to justice. In the process, she has become a source of support for other families of disappeared people—sharing her lived experience with these families and helping them navigate the complicated and convoluted administrative and legal processes that searching for their loved one entails.
Activist mothers—mothers involved in grassroots organizing to find their disappeared children—struggle daily to find their loved ones and to prevent the state from disappearing them through legal and administrative means. Like Margarita, other activist mothers live with unending uncertainty about the fate of their sons or daughters, which they experience as a form of chronic trauma. Despite the challenges that come from searching for truth and justice, activist mothers find strength in their love for their children and their steadfast commitment to finding them.
Unfortunately, Margarita’s case is not an isolated incident in Mexico. Since 2006, and with the financial support of the United States, Mexico has waged a militarized drug war that now extends to nearly every corner of the country.2 According to government figures, at least 35,000 people have been disappeared and more than 222,000 people have been killed over the last twelve years, a much higher rate than during the previous decade—all while drug trafficking continues unabated.2 Impunity is rampant and, in the vast majority of cases of disappearance, very little has been done to investigate or to find the disappeared.
The Two Stages of Disappearance
Margarita’s son was physically disappeared nine years ago at the age of 32. She continues to work every day to find him, yet most of her days are consumed with stopping another type of disappearance: the state’s legal-administrative disappearance of Mauricio.3 John Gibler, an investigative journalist who covers disappearances in Mexico, describes two interconnected stages of disappearance: the material stage and the legal-administrative stage. The material stage refers to the physical abduction of a person. During the legal-administrative stage of disappearance, the state “attempt[s] to disappear the truth—any and all verifiable knowledge about the events” surrounding the disappearance.4 In this second stage, the entire administrative apparatus of the state is put into the service of maintaining the disappearance of individuals by not investigating their physical whereabouts. Examples of the legal-administrative stage of disappearance range from the mundane, such as filing the wrong paperwork, to the more serious—destroying important evidence in a case. Although she is affected by both stages, it is the second stage that consumes a disproportionate amount of Margarita’s time and energy.
Historically, activist mothers have been at the forefront of movements for justice for the disappeared throughout Latin America. Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina are a famous example; their white headscarves continue to symbolize the struggle to find victims of disappearance by the state. Other activist mothers have also gained visibility for seeking justice for victims of state violence, including COMADRES in El Salvador and Mães de Maio in Brazil. In Mexico, there is also a rich history of mother-led movements for the disappeared. One of the most prominent organizations is the Comité Eureka, which was founded in 1977 by the mothers of activists who were disappeared by the Mexican army during the country’s Dirty War (1964–1982). To this day, the Comité Eureka continues to demand justice for victims of state disappearance from that period.
The dramatic increase in disappearances in Mexico since 2006 has also been met by extraordinary political organizing led by activist mothers. As was the case during Mexico’s Dirty War, collectives of relatives of disappeared people—mostly made up of and led by mothers—have demanded state action to find the disappeared through public protests, marches, hunger strikes in front of government buildings, and legislative advocacy efforts. Although there are many parallels between the previous mother-led groups and those that have emerged more recently, there are also important differences in the strategies they use to search for their disappeared children. Among the major differences has been the organization of search brigades by these collectives to physically look for the bodies of the disappeared. Unlike previous movements for the disappeared in Mexico, collectives formed since 2006 regularly organize searches in several states throughout the country—often in remote parts of the desert or the mountainside. These efforts have led to the discovery of hundreds of clandestine graves, including one of the largest clandestine grave sites in the country at Colinas de Santa Fe in the capital city of Veracruz, found in 2016. Actively searching for clandestine graves entails engagement with the material stage of disappearance, even while the state seeks to keep activist mothers preoccupied with the legal-administrative stage.
Ambiguous loss, a term coined by Pauline Boss, describes the psychosocial experience of families of disappeared or missing people. Boss defines ambiguous loss as a “loss that remains unclear” because the whereabouts and fate of the disappeared person are unknown.5 The ambiguity itself is a traumatizing event—a chronic trauma, especially as the disappearance continues unresolved. Margarita’s experience—and that of countless other activist mothers—illustrates the ways in which ambiguity or uncertainty can often be one of the hardest parts of the disappearance.
Margarita described this clearly when talking about the everyday experience of having a disappeared son. “Unfortunately my son has not been found, just as no one else has been found because the state does not want to find them. It doesn’t want all the disappeared people to come to light because they have imposed a state of terror on us,” Margarita said in an interview in Mexico City. “Because to live in uncertainty is to die little by little. It is to die little by little.”
Margarita spoke of the daily anguish she experiences when thinking about where her son might be. “I can tell you that I suffered a lot by tormenting myself, [wondering] whether they were mutilating him, whether he was suffering, whether they had hit his head and he was in a psychiatric hospital,” she said.
In the absence of knowing the fate and whereabouts of her son, Margarita tried to make sense of Mauricio’s disappearance by imagining the terrible things that could be happening to him—an experience she describes as a torment. Yet the lack of clear answers has also motivated her to find Mauricio and to demand that his case be investigated. Margarita clearly articulates the connection between the uncertainty she experiences and the state’s strategy of terror. She asserts that the state’s legal-administrative disappearance of her son is an intentional effort to impose terror, and uncertainty is an important mechanism of this strategy. Thus, the ambiguity that characterizes disappearance is not simply an individually traumatizing event, but rather a form of state violence. “We face a system of terror from a state without rule of law, and the uncertainty of living this way [with the disappearance], well, it is forever,” she said.
Despite living with this uncertainty and facing this system of terror for over nine years, Margarita persists in her search for Mauricio. One strategy she has employed to manage the ambiguity of her son’s disappearance is “to think that he is dead, but that I must find him.” However, she also continues to have hope that she may find him alive—a hope that is symbolized by maintaining his bedroom in the same state as he left it before his disappearance. This approach, described by Boss as “sociological ambivalence, caused by an external social situation,” is a characteristic of ambiguous loss as people attempt to make sense of an uncertain situation in ways that vacillate from pragmatic to hopeful.6 Other mothers I interviewed also insisted that their children are alive and continue to demand that they be returned home. Nevertheless, this insistence does not preclude activist mothers from looking for the disappeared in clandestine graves or in the country’s morgues.
Although the fate and whereabouts of their children may be uncertain, Mexico’s activist mothers are clear about the main motivation for continuing their search. Asked about where she finds the strength to continue, Margarita responds, “I think it is our love for my son that moves my husband and me.” For Margarita, as for countless other activist mothers, the search is a “commitment of love,” one that will only end when she finds Mauricio.
Moravia de la O is pursuing a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies and a Master of Science in Social Work from The University of Texas at Austin. She has worked on issues related to human rights in Mexico since 2010. This article is based on original research she conducted for her master’s thesis.
1. Names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed.
2. For more in-depth analysis of Mexico’s drug war, see D. Paley, Drug War Capitalism (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2014).
3. J. Gibler, I Couldn’t Even Imagine That They Would Kill Us: An Oral History of the Attacks against the Students of Ayotzinapa (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2017).
4. Ibid., p. 258.
5. P. Boss, “Ambiguous Loss Theory: Challenges for Scholars and Practitioners,” Family Relations 56(2), p. 105.
6. P. Boss, “Resilience as Tolerance for Ambiguity,” in Handbook of Family Resilience, ed. D.S. Becvar, pp. 285–297 (New York: Springer, 2013).