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Lost and Found

Lost and Found
By Jackie Waters
 
Last spring, Spanish teacher Charlie Sellers posted to a message board in search of someone to speak to his students about los desaparecidos (the disappeared)—those who were kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the Argentine military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. Sellers soon received a response from a U.S. Spanish teacher who put him in touch with a friend in Argentina, Alejandra Dixon.

Dixon’s sister Patricia was among the estimated 30,000 who “disappeared” during Argentina’s Dirty War, the savage, state-sanctioned, seven-year crusade to silence the radical leftist movement fueled by progressive leaders and young activists. As it turned out, Dixon had been part of a documentary film, Nuestros Desaparecidos, focused on five families who lost loved ones during the dictatorship. The filmmaker, Juan Mandelbaum, was her sister Patricia’s college boyfriend.

The story of how Mandelbaum and Dixon met, and how the documentary originated, is filled with tragic coincidences. As a young journalist, photographer, and educator, Mandelbaum chose to flee his native Argentina in August 1977. He moved to the United States only to discover 28 years later, through a “simple Google search for an old girlfriend,” that Patricia went missing a mere month after he left the country. He found her name on a list of the disappeared. This shocking discovery prompted Mandelbaum to reach out to a friend working in human rights in Argentina, which led him to a 1984 testimony of Patricia’s kidnapping from Dixon.

Mandelbaum found Dixon’s number in the phone book and contacted her. Soon, he was on a plane home to Argentina, and the two met in person at a cafe. Their intense conversation in 2005 was the beginning of Nuestros Desaparecidos, which took three years to complete. Fellow Argentinian expat and friend Gustavo Moretto composed original music for the film, and the Sundance Institute provided initial funding. In 2009, it aired on PBS’s “Independent Lens” and has since been shown at festivals worldwide.

Thanks to support from the Gray Colloquium and the post that put Sellers in touch with Dixon, Mandelbaum visited St. Mark’s in April and spoke about los desaparecidos with students in three Spanish IV classes as well as those in the Advanced Literature ISP (independent study project). Having pre-screened the documentary, St. Markers arrived prepared with questions about past political oppression in Argentina as well as the current state of the country. Dixon also joined the discussion, conducted entirely in Spanish, via Zoom from Argentina.

“Stories want to be told,” Dixon said. And the stories told in Nuestros Desaparecidos are equal parts engrossing and devastating. Rare archival footage, interspersed with home videos and interviews of those who knew the victims intimately, depict the horrors of history enacted on idealistic young Argentineans and illustrate how hard closure is to find for families of the disappeared. To quote St. Augustine, as Dixon does in the film, “Los muertos son seres invisibles, no ausentes” (“The dead are invisible but never absent”).

“Patricia’s memory, and the memory of others mentioned in the documentary, lives on because we keep it alive,” echoes Sellers, who appreciates the valuable lessons about democracy, freedom of the press, and habeas corpus that students gained—in addition to their practice with the Spanish language and learning about Argentina—through their discussion with Dixon and Mandelbaum. “What I really hope that students got out of this is an increasing social conscience, understanding, and empathy,” he says. “They were also able to learn, in the documentary and in conversation with Juan, about how history sadly repeats itself.”

For Mandelbaum, this documentary “was like riding the crest of a wave, a hell of a ride.” He admits that the process of making the documentary was also his grieving process for Patricia and the others he knew who disappeared.

For St. Mark’s students, the chance to meet with Mandelbaum and Dixon, to ask about their experiences and los desaparecidos, was an invaluable opportunity to learn about history through the lens of those who lived it.

-Jackie Waters