Nora Cortiñas, champion of the ‘Disappeared’ during Argentina’s Dirty War – obituary

Nora Cortiñas stands with a poster depicting her son Gustavo, alongside other Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires in 1982
Nora Cortiñas stands with a poster depicting her son Gustavo, alongside other Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires in 1982

Nora Cortiñas, who has died aged 94, was an Argentine social psychologist who joined the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo activist group in 1977 after her student son Gustavo became one of the “Disappeared”, abducted and presumably murdered by the military junta.

It is estimated that as many as 30,000 Leftists were killed between 1976 and 1983 during what became known as the Dirty War – many, notoriously, dropped from aeroplanes into the sea – and as a member of the Peronist Justicialist Party and of the Montoneros revolutionary guerrilla group, Nora Cortiñas’s student son Gustavo, who was married with a two-year-old son, was a prime target, especially given his support for the Rev Carlos Mugica, an activist priest who had been assassinated by a Right-wing death-squad operative in 1974.

In April 1977, 24-year-old Gustavo was arrested by members of the armed forces in Castelar, a town in Buenos Aires province, while carrying out work for the Ministry of Economy. When his mother asked the police what had happened to him, she was told to stop poking around or risk being arrested herself. “I entered into a spiral of madness,” she recalled.

Nora Cortiñas in 2017 speaking against a court ruling that benefited a man serving time for crimes against humanity
Nora Cortiñas in 2017 speaking against a court ruling that benefited a man serving time for crimes against humanity - Gabriel Sotelo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

By then, a group of mothers and grandmothers of the Disappeared had begun gathering in the Plaza de Mayo opposite the presidential palace, and a fortnight after her son’s disappearance Nora Cortiñas made her first appearance, joining a crowd of what was then only about 20 strong. “We were very few and trembling with fear and anguish,” she said.

Assembling every Thursday, many of them wore white nappies to evoke the childhood of their offspring, later switching to white headscarves, which became a potent symbol of resistance to the junta. “There must be justice,” Nora Cortiñas told American reporters.

Three of their leaders were hauled away and never seen again, but the women were uncowed, and their numbers swelled to hundreds – though they were largely ignored by fearful passers-by: “It was like we were invisible,” said Nora Cortiñas.

She began wearing a laminated photograph of Gustavo round her neck, and there were soon regular marches through the streets of Buenos Aires, protesters chanting: “The Disappeared – tell us where they are.”

Nora Cortiñas, with a laminated photograph of her son Gustavo, outside court in Buenos Aires in 2018 during he trial of two former Ford executives in Argentina accused of participating in the Dirty War
Nora Cortiñas, with a laminated photograph of her son Gustavo, outside court in Buenos Aires in 2018 during he trial of two former Ford executives in Argentina accused of participating in the Dirty War - Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty

Defeat in the Falklands War meant that the country’s economic woes could not be masked, and the military regime fell in 1983, but the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo continued their work, still demanding answers, still wanting accountability. “We are not the mothers of just one child,” Nora Cortiñas later said, “we are the mothers of all the Disappeared.”

Nora Irma Morales was born on March 22 1930 in Buenos Aires to Spanish immigrants who had met in Argentina. Her father ran a printing business while her mother was a seamstress.

Nora adopted her mother’s trade, and in 1949 married Carlos Cortiñas, who worked in the Ministry of Economy, and set up an atelier at their home to teach sewing skills to other young women.

In 1986 the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo movement became divided over tactics, and when Hebe de Bonafini and her followers wanted to move in a more radical direction, Nora Cortiñas founded Madres de Plaza de Mayo Línea Fundadora (Mothers of Plaza de Mayo – Founding Line).

Nora Cortiñas in January 2024 in front of a mural of herself
Nora Cortiñas in January 2024 in front of a mural of herself - Natacha Pisarenko/AP

She went on to study social psychology, graduating in 1993 from the University of Buenos Aires and embarking on a successful academic career, researching the relationship between the junta, foreign debt and Argentina’s ever-beleaguered economy. She continued to fight for social justice and was a vocal supporter of legalising abortion (which happened in 2020) and better care for victims of HIV/Aids.

For decades, every Thursday she would meet other women at the Plaza de Mayo, still wearing her white headscarf. In 2019 she published a memoir, Norita, the Mother of all Battles.

Nora Cortiñas’s husband Carlos died in 1994, and she is survived by their younger son.

Nora Cortiñas, born March 22 1930, died May 30 2024

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