Argentine leftist Alicia Raboy holds her young daughter. (Family archive / Gobierno de Argentina)
Looking for Alicia: The Unfinished Life of an Argentinian Rebel / by Marc Raboy
Oxford University Press, 2022, 328 pgs., 9780190058104
Alicia Raboy was a revolutionary in 1970s Argentina who was disappeared by the state during its anti-leftist crackdown. What would the world have been like if activists like her, in Latin America and around the world, hadn’t been murdered by the state?
Marc Raboy’s new book, Looking for Alicia, chronicles his fascination with the life and death of a woman with whom he shared not just a last name but the beginnings of a life trajectory. Both he and his subject, Alicia Raboy, were young radicals in the urban West in the mid-twentieth century, both came from middle-class families, both were the descendants of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, and both turned to journalism as a means to express and practice their radical politics. Yet where the author’s life led him to a professorship at McGill University in Quebec, the life of the book’s namesake ended in violence and torture, as she was murdered by police and paramilitaries in a sleepy provincial capital of Argentina in the 1970s.
Raboy’s curiosity and affinity for this woman, his impression that she was a kindred spirit and fellow traveler, whether or not they were relatives, runs through the book. His shock and fellow feeling for this person he never knew but shared so much with became a passion for understanding her life and her politics. This is a book for leftists who have read of past revolutionaries and felt that strange combination of solidarity and shame that their lives were so different.
A reader will feel Raboy’s earnest curiosity and care for the subject of his book, though he never knew her and came upon the idea of writing about her by chance. Raboy learned of her only after an incidental internet search for connections between his relatively unusual last name and Argentina in preparation for a postretirement vacation. He found stories of the death of Alicia Raboy, a desaparecida (disappeared person) from the time of the most recent Argentine military dictatorship, killed alongside her romantic partner for their involvement with the Montoneros, the largest and most active of the guerrilla organizations combating the military government that took control of Argentina in 1976.
Alicia and her partner, Francisco Urondo, a more famous leader of the Montoneros and influential literary and journalistic figure in Argentina, were both killed as a result of a police crackdown in the province of Mendoza, where they and their infant daughter had relocated due to internal strategic decisions on the part of their revolutionary organization.
That is the official story, short and bereft of personal details, which is how the final moments and deaths of so many people lost to the Argentine and other South American dictatorships are recorded. In Argentina alone, as many as thirty thousand people were disappeared by the government during the last dictatorship. This method of mass murder meant that the state could avoid all claims of responsibility for its violence — rather than being killed, people simply “disappeared” — and worse, it enlisted passersby and neighbors in the violence by demanding that they be silent about whatever they saw or heard for fear of retribution.
These tactics were widespread in Latin America at the time, but they were used to their greatest extent in Argentina. Unfortunately, this lack of documentation and deliberate destruction of information on the part of the Argentine government means that readers of Looking for Alicia might find themselves frustrated at the deeply incomplete picture we have of the book’s subject, despite the author’s dedicated efforts.
Raboy’s book is an effort to recover something more than the bare-bones official story. Though its subject is a murder, this book is not a whodunit or an exposé. Alicia’s murderers — both those who took her on the day of her disappearance and those who gave the orders — are well known and have faced legal consequences for their actions. Instead, it is an attempt to reconstruct the life of a woman who was killed by the state for her radical politics. Attempting this, difficult or impossible as it is, humanizes the victims of the dictatorship and reminds us that though they may be called desaparecidos, they did not disappear — they were killed by their fellow Argentines for what they believed in.
To tell his story, Raboy leads the reader through Argentine history leading up to the dictatorship. The chapters of historical and thematic background are succinct, informed by secondary sources and conversations with academic specialists. He recounts some of the key developments of twentieth-century Argentine politics, particularly the series of military coups that punctuated the century and both gave birth to and ended the governments of Juan Perón, whose namesake Peronist movement has been at the center of Argentine domestic politics since the 1940s. And he takes readers through a brief family history of the Argentine Raboys, Jewish immigrants from what is now Ukraine but was once variously Austria-Hungary or Poland, who, like so many others, relocated to the Americas to escape political and social violence or to seek better economic opportunities for themselves and their families.
All this background is in the service of introducing readers to the subject of the book, Alicia Raboy, a young secular Jewish woman, daughter of immigrants, middle class, educated, rebellious, tenacious, and smart, dedicated to the political cause of the Argentine people and therefore necessarily (from her perspective) a dedicated Peronist.
Readers follow her as she chafes against her stodgy private schooling, moves from partner to partner, job to job, and ultimately joins the Montoneros. Raboy’s primary sources for these personal sections on Alicia’s life are interviews with those who knew or might have known her, and include her immediate family, former employers and friends, and her comrades from her days as a revolutionary.
Yet as detailed and meticulous as Marc Raboy’s reconstruction on Alicia’s life is, it is impossible to fully tell her life story — even beyond the fact that Alicia was disappeared rather than murdered or killed in a shootout, meaning that there is no official record of her being captured, her being taken to the detention and torture center (which was most likely her fate), or of her death or what was done with her body afterward. Readers, like Alicia’s family and the families of so many like her, must settle for probabilities and guesses based on the fates of other Argentine victims of state and paramilitary violence.
The book concludes with testimonies from those who were detained in the same torture center which was likely Alicia’s final destination, the closest the author can come to relating what might have happened to Alicia in her final moments. This is the problem with retelling the life of anyone who was disappeared by the Argentine state or any of the other South American dictatorships that employed the same methods and hid their violence and torture in plain sight, refusing to acknowledge the death or even absence of their victims, and threatening those who sought the truth with the same terrible fate. One must rely on hearsay, on the memories of those who survived their own capture and torture, or on the reluctant testimony of the few perpetrators who have spoken openly about their involvement. The fact that the state and its allies hid their atrocities means that, despite the passage of decades, for many of the victims’ families, these atrocities are ever present, lacking even the closure of an official acknowledgement of their loved one’s death.
A Life That Cannot Be Recovered
Yet the issues the author faces in trying to “find” Alicia are greater than these problems common to anyone who is hoping to recover someone lost to forced disappearance. Raboy’s book is an effort to tell the story of a woman whose life was put in the shadow of a collection of Argentine men whose lives and stories are more famous than her own. These men Raboy interviews about Alicia, who are now middle-aged or older, reflect on their time with this “vibrant,” “rebellious” woman they knew from their past. Her time as an engineering student — an overwhelmingly male and conservative field in Argentina at the time — is little, contrasted with her time in the Montoneros or as the subject of this book. Details about her politics, her taste in literature, and her ambitions share the page with former boyfriends’ reflections on her vivacity or her body.
Alicia’s narrative position in the shadow of more famous men persists as her political and journalistic career reaches its zenith, with her working at one of the most famous newspapers in Argentina during the years leading up to the dictatorship, Noticias, which straddled the worlds of journalism and subversive politics. The chapters on this time in her life focus largely on the role of this paper in Argentine society and on the work of famous figures like Rodolfo Walsh, Jacobo Timerman, or Alicia’s final partner, Francisco Urondo, as writers and directors of the paper and related publications. It is impossible to tease out Alicia’s work on the paper from that of others, due to the fact that the paper’s articles went unsigned in order to protect their authors, which means that, unfortunately, Alicia’s particular contributions to the paper are unknown.
The secretive nature of the clandestine political activity Alicia Raboy dedicated her life to also means that much of what was most important to her — her movement work and her activism — remains hidden from both the author and the reader. Being a member of a prominent underground militant organization means that there are months of Alicia’s life, such as trips throughout Argentina or to Cuba, where her exact whereabouts or activities are unknown not just to the author but to all but the most connected of her contemporaries.
To his credit, Raboy doesn’t claim otherwise. The book is titled Looking for Alicia, after all, and the author does not purport to have produced the definitive story of her life. Indeed, he notes that Alicia’s daughter, the survivor of the police kidnapping and killing which ended Alicia and Francisco Urondo’s lives, has herself done similar work in reconstructing the life and voice of her mother. Raboy even acknowledges that Alicia’s daughter, now an adult and parent herself, apparently had several serious critiques of the text when he sent it to her for review. This humility, alongside the earnest curiosity which permeates the book, makes these shortcomings palatable without papering over them.
Like the author, and like Alicia’s family, the reader is left with an incomplete picture of this young revolutionary who was not allowed to grow old. There is something profound in Looking for Alicia’s reproduction of that sense of lacking, of searching for someone who cannot be recovered. Shining a light on the pain and loss, so deep and permanent, suffered by Alicia, her family, and her comrades on the part of the Argentine government reframes the tragedy of the state’s mass murder of tens of thousands. Imagine what the world would be like with more people like Alicia in it, if the dreams and love of those comrades had not been stolen from us all.
Craig Johnson has a PhD in history from the University of California Berkeley, where his work focused on the right wing and the Catholic Church in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Spain. He hosts a podcast called Fifteen Minutes of Fascism, a weekly news and analysis show covering the global rise of the radical right.
Jacobin, July 15, 2022, https://jacobin.com/