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Do you know who you are? This question, the old standby of the group HIJOS, which aims to restore the identity of siblings and family members, reminds me of two of my son’s favorite books, ¿Cómo es tu mamá? (What’s Your Mom Like?) and ¿Cómo es tu papá? (What’s Your Dad Like?).

When I went back to read Caridad’s blog post from Christmas, I kept thinking about births, but not just the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and the births of the children of my friends, colleagues, and neighbors. Instead, I turned my thoughts  to an old topic, one almost as old as I am—the birth of the children of the “disappeared” in Argentina.

Hundreds of babies were stolen (an awful word but  the more accurate) immediately after birth during the Videla dictatorship between 1976 and 1981. Afterwards, they would  go to families that wanted to adopt them.

It was only  last year, on July 5, 2012, that Videla was sentenced to 50 years in prison after being found criminally responsible for the systematic kidnapping of infants and children during Argentina’s last military regime.

The issue of crimes against humanity isn’t the focus of a blog about early childhood, but the right to a dignified birth and an identity for all the world’s children regardless of their parents’ ideology, occupation, political party, religion or skin color certainly is. If the mere possession of a birth certificate has positive long-term effects on schooling and immunization outcomes (see the post by Ana Corbacho and co-authors on this blog), then surely having knowledge of one’s identity must as well.

As far as a dignified birth, I wondered about the terrible conditions these babies must have been born into, at secret detention centers, whose description reminds us of Nazi concentration camps. How would they have been transferred to the clandestine maternity wards that operated at the detention and extermination centers at the Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA), Campo de Mayo, Pozo de Banfield, La Cacha and Comisaría 5ta. de La Plata, among many others?

Birth itself is traumatic: passing from a warm, moist environment to a dry one; from a place where the only sound that’s heard is the mother’s heartbeat to one full of strange noises; experiencing labor; passing through the narrow cervix… In 1900, Freud defined birth as “the first experience of anxiety and thus the source of anxiety for the rest of the individual’s life.” A recent article mentions influential British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, who goes a step beyond Freud, saying “the more the parent satisfies the panic of sensations that hit the newborn child, the less the ‘birth trauma’ will haunt the infant in later life.”

Juan is one of those children, separated from his mother at 15 days old. He was raised by the family of a member of the Policía Federal Argentina(Argentine Federal Police), who along with his wife led the child to believe he was the biological son of the couple, giving him a false name and date of birth. At 25, Juan began to seriously doubt his roots. He recalls that at the time and in those circumstances, “being adopted didn’t equate to being an adopted child; it meant being a child of the disappeared.” He tells how during his childhood and adolescence, he had chosen the name of Juan for himself, since he had dreams in which his mother appeared among shadows, cradling and nursing him while calling him by that name. It’s impossible to imagine all of the effects and the anguish that this experience of uncertainty must have generated over the span of 25 years in the life of so many people like Juan.

As we see with these Argentine newborns, besides the precarious conditions they probably experienced during their birth and first days of life, they also lacked their mother’s milk, hugs, warmth, and above all, a mom and dad…or even worse, the chance to know what mom and dad were like.

One hundred and six of those babies (now adults in their thirties) regained their identity, but there are about 500 who still don’t know about it. My wish for 2013 is that they can answer “yes” to the question that opened this post.

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