BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – Her white hair always well-styled, Estela de Carlotto is an elegant woman who moves with grace. But the most striking characteristic of this more than 80-year-old grandmother is her level head.
When she walks through the nursery school at Instituto Vocacional de Arte Manuel José de Labardén in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, parents and teachers fall silent, a sign of respect. The school directors receive Carlotto and introduce her to her real hosts: the 4- and 5-year-olds waiting in their classroom to listen to her tell them stories.
But these aren’t just any stories. And Carlotto isn’t just any grandmother.
Carlotto is the president of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, a group of grandmothers who banded together more than 30 years ago to demand the return of the hundreds of grandchildren who were stolen from them during Argentina’s last military dictatorship.
The stolen babies belonged to pregnant women whom members of the military regime kidnapped for ideological reasons. The officers forced the women to give birth in clandestine detention centers erected across the country and later murdered them. The officers then gave the babies to families associated with the regime, who raised them as their own.
The babies' grandmothers, united as the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, have recovered 106 of the stolen babies, now men and women. The association announced the most recent recovery last week – Pablo Javier Gaona, 34. Forces of the military dictatorship kidnapped his parents in 1978 when he was just 1 month old and gave him to a family affiliated with the regime. A genetic exam recently confirmed his true identity.
But 394 people who were stolen as babies are still missing, fueling the efforts of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. Among these efforts is this school story program.
On this cold winter morning, Carlotto is introducing the program to its youngest audience yet – nursery school students. Some 20 kids, ages 4 and 5, form a semicircle before her.
“I am a grandmother of children like you,” Carlotto says to the children. “We all have a grandmother and someone who tells us a story. I come so that, in turn, your grandmothers tell you stories. Do you all like stories?”
The children all answer yes. But they don’t just want to listen. They also want to talk, to tell Carlotto what their names are and to share their secrets with her. One girl tells Carlotto about her wish for the sky to rain candy, while another boy says that he has nightmares when he sleeps.
“The nightmares sometimes run away when we have dreams,” she says. “But you have to have pretty dreams.”
She shows the children a folder with many stories selected for them by the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. She leaves them with the children as a gift.
Carlotto then says goodbye and leaves the classroom, but the children aren’t alone. The stories' protagonists – the little indigenous boy who transforms into a beautiful