Imagine cramped prison cells, torture stories and inhumane conditons. For 12 select students, spring break was spent in Argentina visiting historical detention and torture centers, concentration camps, and even international idol Che Guevara’s childhood home. Professor Roberto Gutierrez Varea, professor of Visual and Performing Arts, guided his 12 students across his hometown of Córdoba, Argentina to explore the history behind the youth-led social movements in relation to the country’s military dictatorship of 1976. The Center for Latin@ Studies in the Americas fully-funded the trip for students enrolled in the Performing Citizenship in Argentina seminar.
“This city was a place that played a very important role in relation to youth activism,” Varea said of his hometown. The student movements modeled a “more equitable world that actually had an impact not only in Argentina but also through Latin America.”
Before heading out to Argentina, the class had been studying youth protests and activisms during a time when the Argentinean military government, El Proceso de Reorganización Nacional, or Spanish for the National Reorganization Process, ruled the country from 1976 to 1983. During these years, the government made arrests based on unsupported allegations, which led to mass disappearances, including students that expressed even the modest leftist opinions. Soldiers also bolted into people’s homes to steal personal belongings, and police intimidated people by removing them from their cars and beating them needlessly.
To focus in on the youth activisim, the seminar class concentrated on activism through visual and performance arts, consisting of anything from graffiti on the wall to display banners in schools.
While in Argentina, the class explored the university reform movement that swept the University of Cordova, or Universidad Nocional de Córdoba, in 1918. “It was an absolutely transformative landmark event that had an influence in youth movements in decades and after that all over the world,” Varea said. Founded in 1613, it is also the third oldest university in all of the Americas, and much older than any university in the U.S. Because the university was also founded by the Jesuit order, it has an important connection with USF, Varea said.
The class venture into the great labor and student uprisings of Córdoba in the 1960s, particularly in 1969 when youth played a very pertinent role that helped bring down the military president from power.The class visited “one of the darkest places in Argentinean history,” Varea said. One of the most difficult trips was the visit to the Detention and Torture centers and concentration camps in Córdoba.
Yuliana Quintero, junior and International Studies major, said that they visited two different concentration camps in Argentina, one of them being C-2.
“It really impacted me because it was right in the middle of downtown, next to the church. They said that people in the church could hear the people screaming that were being tortured and no one did anything about it,” she said.
Varea said being at the detention center,the class was able to step into the cells where people were kept in the most horrible conditions. “Going into the room where actually people have been tortured, entering into those places, I felt provided with very profound moments with everybody.”
For Quintero, one big learning experience was visiting Che Guevara’s childhood home in Alta Gracia. “Although I’ve talked about him in class and such, you usually hear the Cuban story of his life, and obviously there in Argentina they really concentrated on his whole life, and for me that was very educational because I had no idea he had gone to Africa and tried to help the people there. It was really interesting to see what he had done and put together what different cultures mean to him.” In Cuba, because Che Guevara helped put Fidel Castro into power, he is more than less seen as a negative figure. “But then if you talk to people in Argentina they think he’s somewhat of a hero,” Quintero said.
In visiting Che Guevara’s home, Varea said that the class got a very interesting, immersion into the political and social life of Córdoba, the second largest city in Argentina after the capital, Buenos Aires.
Being there for a week, the class was able to also immerse themselves in current life—it’s cafes, it’s scenes, and “a lot of the trivial things of life and getting to see how Cordoveces live today,” Varea said.
Varea said that students also took class in Córdoba and visited Estancias, or large farms that look similar to the missions in California.
The Jesuit Estancias of the 16th Century exploited slave labor or native labor during the earlier European settlements, “to create the kind of income funds to support the university efforts by the Jesuits.” The class also visited missions from the early 17th century, to learn about the earlier history of Córdoba.
Varea said that going to his hometown, it allowed for him to have access to a lot of resources in the city to make the experience very meaningful to the students. This included having Professor Sylvia Plassa, a psychologist in Córdoba that works with the survivors of the regime, to conduct a lecture for the class. One of the messages that Plassa gave is the fact that people focus on the torture and the horror of the 1970s military regime, “but as horrible as it is, we would never understand really why the military was so ferocious in killing people and torturing people if we were not to understand the profound importance of this movement for change that we’re a part of,” Varea said. “There was a very transformative, profound vision that young people had about a better future for Argentina.”
Varea thinks that “the legacy of this is that at the end of the day all these crimes are taken to trial and that there is an important movement along the lines of memory, of recovering the historical memory that is not just an Argentinean phenomenon but is part of El Salvador and many other countries who have suffered violence. And to actually be able to look back that young people have such a profound effect on culture is actually a very empowering to young people today and to everybody when we see there’s so much going on it’s going to be so difficult to get together to make a difference.”
Above all, the trip provided the class with a bonding experience that they would have probably not have experienced otherwise. Quintero notes that before the class, they didn’t really spoken to each other on an intimate level despite that they had gone through almost half a semester together. “Being on this trip, we actually became friends,” she said. “It was just to that limit that we had to interact with each other and it wasn’t like a bad thing or forced thing, it kinda just happened.”
Particularly for Varea, when the class went to Che Guevara’s home, the class had a home made Argentinean meal home cooked for them.
“Going around the table and celebrating life, this provided to me a very beautiful moment,” he said. “Sitting at a table in a foreign country, we realize that we are at a very special place at a very special time. We’re building a memory that’s going to last a lifetime.”
Out of 90 applicants, there were only 12 spots that CELASA could afford in the class, which amounted to about $25,000 in funds for the trip. Applicants had to fill out an application and write an essay in the fall to be considered. “I was very inspired and at the same time troubled by the fact that we had more worthy applicants then we had room for,” Varea said. However, the selected students had “their particular visual element that made them stand out. All had a very respectful openness to learn.”
Going abroad to experience the learning in the classroom provided “a depth of understanding that is quite unique,” he said.
USF received an award for having the best international study abroad program among five different universities. “I feel this is something we should embrace and continue to work on,” said Varea. “It provides our students not only the amazing opportunity to understand the culture, but also to round their education at USF and in the United States in ways that open our understanding and horizons like no other experience could do.”