“The disappeared from Spain and Argentina: Art, Testimony, and Justice”

Virtual Visit at ESMA Memory Museum in Buenos Aires

July 25, 2020

The Museo Sitio de Memoria ESMA (ESMA Museum Memory Site) currently occupies the former Officer’s Casino inside the Navy School of Mechanics’ premises. This haunted building was the largest of the 340 clandestine detention centres that operated in the country during the dictatorship (1976-1983). More than 5,000 men and women – mostly leftist activists – were held captive and tortured there. Every last Saturday of the month, during the Five O’clock Visit, audiences are invited to tour around the building with guest artists. On 25 July 2020, the visit was organised by ‘Staging Difficult Pasts’ project and, due to the current pandemic situation, which keeps the museum closed, it had to take a virtual turn. The transnational meeting was entitled “Los desaparecidos y las desaparecidas en España y Argentina. Arte, testimonio y justicia” [The disappeared from Spain and Argentina. Art, Testimony, and Justice] and gathered specialists from Argentina, Spain, and the UK. More than 500 spectators attended the visit through social media and ESMA networks, participating through comments, greetings, and questions. The event included a video essay inspired by El pan y la sal (Bread and Salt, 2015), a verbatim play by Raúl Quirós Molina that draws on the trial against Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón in 2012, and archival footage from Argentine human rights trials.

The event was co-hosted by Alejandra Naftal, the director of the Museo Sitio de Memoria ESMA, and Cecilia Sosa, postdoctoral researcher on ‘Staging Difficult Pasts’, and included the following speakers from both the cultural industries, memory politics, and the legal profession: Lola Berthet, Raúl Quirós Molina (Spain), Emilio Silva (Spain), Mariana Tello, Ana Mesutti (residing in Spain), Daniel Rafecas and María Delgado (UK).

“Staging Difficult Pasts seeks to provide a transnational look at the ways in which contemporary theatre and memory sites deal with conflictive pasts,” Sosa observed in the opening panel discussion. She explained that the event is a continuation of the work conducted at ESMA in November last year with the Polish artist, Wojtek Ziemilski. “Maria Delgado saw this piece [El pan y la sal] in Barcelona and noted how much the testimonies of the victims of Francoism resonated with the testimonies of the victims of state terrorism in Argentina.”

Although a planned reading of El pan y la sal with an accompanying discussion was scheduled to take place at ESMA in April 2020, the impact of Covid 19 led to a reformulation of the event. The pandemic also gave us new opportunities, and one of these involved Sosa and Delgado collaborating with filmmaker Alejo Moguillansky on a video essay. The 18-minute film includes both excerpts from El pan y la sal and testimonies of survivors of state terrorism provided in the ESMA trial, in which those responsible for the crimes committed in the building during the dictatorship are being judged. Argentinean actors Eugenia Alonso, Ana María Castel and Mauricio Minetti read testimonies from Quirós’ piece under Rubén Szuchmacher’s direction.

Haroldo Conti Cultural Center’s current director, actor Lola Berthet, highlighted the importance of art in the work of memory construction: “Art and memory work challenges us to build upon justice and testimony. Many times, when justice is not present, the role of culture is essential in demanding memory, truth and justice,” she said.

While commenting on the process of creating El pan y la sal, writer Quirós Molina stated that the piece arises from failure. “I was working in London with a small Argentine theatre that stages `Theatre for Identity´ pieces [which stage human rights themes in response to the dictatorship crimes]. After seeing those productions, which were sponsored by the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo organisation, Quirós wondered why this did not exist in Spain. “Spanish people have never been taught about the Franco era. There is no political awareness that what has happened is a process of genocide,” he argued. Thus, Quirós said he wanted to create a theatre for memory “to understand how memory works today, and show what the stories our grandparents told us meant to us.”

Emilio Silva, founder of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory in Spain, whose grandfather was buried in a mass grave, also referred to the difference between the Argentinian and Spanish processes. “No president in the last forty years, since the dictator's death” has referred to memory issues. “The fight is very difficult. Hopefully we could have a space like this [the museum] to visit and teach what the dictatorship was like here in Spain,” he said.

Mariana Tello, the president of the National Archive of Memory in Argentina, referred to the role of testimony in the process of memory, truth, and justice. “I want to highlight the tenacity of these two countries in insisting on a story that later becomes a testimony. In both cases, testimony has a special power, as resistance, as a political act. In both cases the disappearance has different characteristics. In Spain, it is known where they are, but it is an additional cruelty to know and not be able to bury them properly. The communities are not only deprived of the right to bury them, they are condemned to oblivion, to forced silence.” In a country where the dead do not rest, the living cannot rest either.” Concluding on the impact of Moguillansky’s film, with a specific focus on the juxtaposition of the Argentine and Spanish testimony prepared by Delgado and Sosa, Tello concluded that, “they no longer seem to be something that pertains to the [specific] victim but something that belongs to us all.”

Lawyer Ana Mesutti, who works on the Argentine lawsuit against the crimes committed during Franco’s regime, argued: “The introduction of international law rattles national rights. It is the world that has to solve the Nuremberg trials. Those crimes against humanity, as Hannah Arendt noted, explode the limits of national criminal law. The Argentine lawsuit will continue. Let us hope that the stumbling blocks that dogmatic law places on us can fall, and so the walls of impunity can fall.”

Federal judge in cases against humanity, Daniel Rafecas, spoke about the evolution of the processes of memory, truth, and justice: “We had 17 years of impunity in Argentina. For two decades the establishment built a formidable dam to contain citizen claims […] The slogans were the same that are surely heard in Spain. 'You have to turn the page', 'you have to look forward', 'why are we going to stir the past?'” Rafecas claimed that similar arguments were heard during the 50s and 60s in postwar Germany. “It was part of a state policy of oblivion and impunity.” He also observed the difficulties “in building a democracy seriously if we do not bring justice, truth, and reparation for the most serious crimes that can be conceived, such as mass executions, the kidnappings of children, rapes, acts of torture.” Considering the current activism in Spain in relation to Franco’s regime, he suggested, “perhaps this story is not yet finished.”  And he posed a concluding question:  “What would happen if another brave judge, based on human rights in Spain, decided to pick up and raise Garzón’s flag?”

In her closing words, Maria Delgado argued that Moguillansky’s film highlighted the importance of the act of listening. “All the persons who appear in the film are either giving or listening to testimony – and in all cases this is an active, creative act: a mode of giving voice, of remembering, of inscribing of engaging. Testimony as something that needs to be uttered, to be witnessed, to passed on. Testimony as recognition…. The Spanish Supreme Court may have sought to close off the dialogue, but the testimony is heard again on the stage of Alejo’s film and demands justice,” she concluded.

Press coverage from the event covered the importance of the 5 o’clock visit as “an ethical chronicle of the need for a space such as this” (Perfil), recognising also the decisive role of art in facilitating a transcultural conversation, “reviewing that which happens in the politics of a neighbouring country to perceive the importance of [ESMA’s] message” (Perfil). Attention was drawn to Argentine advances as “contributing to increasing the visibility of human rights violations under the Franco regime” (in both Página 12 and Telam), and to “the points of connection between human rights, art and justice” (Grupo la Providencia). The role of testimony as “vital to the processes of memory, truth and justice” – a quote from Tello -resonated in a further article in Página 12, where the key difference between the situations in Spain and Argentina were identified.  Subsequently El cohete en la luna published Delgado’s summation of the 5 o’clock visit, arguing for a cultural understanding of the filmed testimony as the site for entering into a conversation with a troubled past, as a way of “reminding us of the debt we have to our dead.”

The event was also supported by: Francisco Pérez Esteban (Spanish Secretary of Internationals of the United Left) and Enrique Santiago (Secretary General of the Spanish Communist Party); ESMA survivors including Ana Testa, Alfredo Ayala, Adriana Suzal, Silvia Labayrú, Lila Pastoriza, Liliana Pellegrino, Graciela Garcia Romero, Liliana Pontoriero, Maria Eva Bernst, and Lidia Vieyra, who also expressed their support for Baltasar Garzón; the members of the Argentine lawsuit against the crimes of Francoism Inés García Holgado and Adriana Fernández; Emiliano Fessia (ex director of the former clandestine center La Perla in Córdoba); Graciela Lois (member of the Relatives of the Disappeared and Detained for Political Reasons organisation); Marianella Galli (member of the Secretary of Human Rights and  daughter of disappeared activists); Pablo Verna, Liliana Furio, and Mariela Milstein (part of the collective Disobedient Stories, sons and daughters of perpetrators); Stella Segado (former Director of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law of the Ministry of Defense), and Taty Almeida (Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, Founding Line), among many others.

5 o’ clock Visit “The Disappeared in Spain and Argentina” documented via Facebook Live. This video includes on-line commentary and discussion in Spanish.


The following film, directed by Alejo Moguillansky, was produced for the 5 o’ clock Visit, 'The Disappeared in Spain and Argentina. Art, Testimony and Justice', and was aired on 25 July 2020.

Entering ESMA’s Collection: New Forums for Justice

The 18-minute video essay directed by Alejo Moguillansky that opened the 5 o’clock visit on July 25th entered the Museum’s collection on 17 October 2020. The film’s presence in ESMA’s collection offered the opportunity for a number of the participants who engaged in the 5 o’clock visit to comment on what the engagement with Quirós Molina’s text alongside the testimony from ESMA’s archive had facilitated.  Argentine actor-director Rubén Szuchmacher who had taken responsibility for directing the actors via Zoom for the reading wrote of how “weaving together different realities which are united by a common condition is always intense. It helps us to move forward. The testimonies can be considered when they leave the realm of the real in order to enter another level: the realm of art”.

Now on display with an additional English-subtitled edition on ESMA Memory Museum’s network channel (, the Moguillansky’s film signposts a first-time collaboration between ESMA and El Pampero Cine, arguably the most important independent film company in Argentina, whose work has been screened at leading film festivals including Cannes, Locarno, Venice and Berlin.

Quirós commented that it was the first time that his verbatim play was performed outside Spain. “It was a great honour, certainly, that interest in a play about those who have disappeared and about historical memory, so forgotten in Spain, came about from ESMA, itself a benchmark in the fight for human rights. This has been the first time that I have spoken about this play in a public forum, a forum about art and human rights. This situation is strange and it saddens me, because it [the play] has generated more academic and artistic attention outside of Spain (The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, The University of Lille, ESMA), than inside the country”.

Watching actresses and actors from Argentina play the characters of Raúl Quirós Molina’s magnificent play, Bread and Salt gave the piece a different meaning. The casting demonstrated once again the shared struggle of these two nations”, observed Lola Berthet, Director of the Cultural Centre Haroldo Conti.  Reflecting on Moguillansky’s film, the Argentine lawyer Ana Messutti who works on the Argentine trial against the crimes of the Franco’s regime, the only judicial proceedings against the Spanish dictator, which have, since 2020, been running for a decade, said: “I was able to see images of the victims of the two tragedies superimposed, those of Argentina and those of Spain. I could also listen to the chorus of their voices united as a single choir, in a single tragedy, universalizing the pain, but also the justice. [The event] allowed me to stop experiencing the two tragedies as distinct; I could unite them and feel that what we do for some victims we are also doing for the others. For everyone”.

Indeed, this was the first time the Museum’s 5 o’clock’s virtual visit had followed the voices of the victims of both Spain’s (1939-75) and Argentina’s (1976-83) military dictatorships. Reflecting on this encounter, which exhibited testimony from both Baltasar Garzón’s 2012 trial and the 2013 ESMA trials, Alejandra Naftal, Director of the Museum, argued that the transnational meeting “allowed for the exploration of new channels of interpellation and transmission for new audiences. From different perspectives, the place of the victims' testimony was approached as judicial evidence, symbolic reparation and material of artistic inspiration”. For the anthropologist Mariana Tello, current director of the National Memory Archive, the event "transformed the testimonies, from so many documents into performances embodied by actors different to the witnesses, unleashing a new potentiality." It was also “very transformative; it brought together worlds that appear to be separated by spatial and temporal distances”.

Argentine Judge Daniel Rafecas, who specializes in crimes against humanity, and who Emilio Silva acknowledged as a key figure in the discourse on transnational justice, argued that the film is also vital from the point of view of Justice since it highlights the difference between both countries. “It allows one to notice the importance of the judicial processes surrounding these events and their production of a “truth” (…). In the Spanish case, the ‘truth’ continues to be imposed by the victors, the tyrants, the perpetrators”, he said. “It becomes difficult to establish a dialogue, draw up comparisons, share proposals… in the face of a supposedly democratic State which, in over forty years since the end of the dictatorship, has not provided Justice, Truth, Reparations, nor Memory”, he added, deploying a precise use of capitals in emphasizing his argument. While exposing the case of stolen babies in Spain, the film also reveals connections that have rarely been drawn out between the work of the Argentinean Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and the Spanish Association for Historical Memory. Both Spain and Argentina have ‘stolen babies’ illegitimately taken from their mothers – while there are 500 babies estimated to be stolen in Argentina, the numbers in Spain are thought to exceed 30,000 and spilled over into the democratic era.

For Maria Delgado, who had been responsible for the dramaturgy of the film alongside Cecilia Sosa, working with Sosa and Naftal on the shape of the visit, “The event at ESMA and the film allowed us to provide another forum for justice that prolongs the circulation of these crimes in the public arena. The performative field provides a further stage for justice that has not been delivered in the Spanish courts.”

On 18 October 2020, Página 12 published a series of reflections on Moguillansky’s film and the wider discussions and impacts generated by the 5 o’clock visit on 25 July, collected by Sosa.

Press coverage:

Pagina 12


 Grupo la Provincia


Cohete a la luna



STAGING DIFFICULT PASTS is an AHRC funded project: Grant reference: AH/R006849/1