“Looking for Alicia: The Unfinished Life of an Argentinian Rebel”
By Marc Raboy*
June 17, 1976, was a brisk winter’s day in Mendoza, the capital of Argentina’s wine country. A weather-beaten Renault carrying an ordinary-looking couple and their infant daughter meandered through the city streets as though on its way to a mundane errand, which it may have been. But what was about to happen was anything but mundane. Three months earlier the country’s armed forces had overthrown the government of Isabel Perón, establishing a military dictatorship, and the couple were members of the Montoneros, a revolutionary organization. He was a well-known writer and poet, a charismatic figure in the movement; she had been a journalist for the group’s newspaper (a few months earlier, she had reported from Cuba). Their daughter, asleep in the back seat, was eleven months old.
The couple had no doubt that the junta had them in its crosshairs. Armed ambushes were becoming more and more frequent, especially in the cities. People were dying, and those who survived the ambushes generally disappeared. Children were going missing. The authorities attributed this to clever propaganda: their opponents were simply going underground, they said, saving their necks while creating fear in the general population. And the general population was indeed afraid.
Suddenly the car was stopped by an unmarked vehicle. Gunshots broke out. The driver, the poet, was killed on the spot. The next day an article in one of the national newspapers reported that security forces in Mendoza had brought down an unnamed “subversive delinquent”. A woman with him had fled, the article reported, and the child they had been using as a shield had been abandoned. But the journalist had not fled. She was whisked away by her husband’s killers, along with their daughter, and was never seen nor heard from again. What happened to her remains unknown.
The woman in question was my distant cousin, Alicia Raboy. Alicia and I were born a month apart, in 1948. We both came of age in the 1960s, when the world was changing and anything seemed possible. We were both student activists, then journalists, involved in oppositional politics in our respective countries. We were both children of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, who had themselves emigrated to the New World as children, fleeing the murderous pogroms in the wake of the collapse of the Russian Empire. But Alicia was in Argentina, while I was in Canada, and that made all the difference.
I discovered Alicia’s story by accident, while preparing a trip that was supposed to be a holiday in Argentina. My grandfather had spent a year or so in Argentina at the beginning of the 20th century, before emigrating to Canada, and I wondered if I had any relatives there. I googled “Raboy Argentina” on a whim, and one of the first things that came up was a biography of the celebrated Argentinian poet Francisco “Paco” Urondo – Alicia’s partner, the “subversive delinquent” brought down by a death squad in that Mendoza street, in the event that also disappeared Alicia and their 11-month-old daughter, Ángela.
I was immediately captivated and compelled to learn more about Alicia – not only because of the similarities between us, but also because she clearly deserved to be more than a footnote in the terrible story of the Argentine dictatorship. Who was she? What drove her? What was her view of the world, and her aspirations? There are 30,000 stories like Alicia’s in the existential archives of Argentina’s historical memory of the 1970s. The meta-narrative is well-known but every one of these individual stories is a saga of its own. Not only because every life deserves to be celebrated but also because of what these stories tell us about the politics of resistance that continue to mark the world we live in today.
Alicia Cora Raboy was born into a modest middle class family in Buenos Aires in January 1948. She was the middle of three children: her brother Gabriel was born two years before Alicia, and another brother, José Luis, would follow four years later. Alicia’s father, Noé Raboy, whom everyone called “Ñuque”, had arrived in Argentina as a child orphan in 1925 (his parents were murdered, before his eyes, in a pogrom in Kamenka, a tiny village in the former Russian Empire, in 1919 or 1920); her mother, Teresa, was the eighth of nine children in a family descended from an earlier wave of Jewish immigration to Argentina.
Buenos Aires, probably more than any other major South American city, is a city of immigrants and the Raboys were a typical second-generation family in just about every regard. They were by no means wealthy, but prosperous enough. Ñuque was a middleman in import and export of dried fruit and other comestibles; Teresa looked after the family and was, by all accounts, its moral and ethical centre. Ñuque, more conservative, could be anxious and quick-tempered; Teresa read widely, had liberal views and projected a strong sense of security.
By the time the children entered school in the 1950s, the family was living in a large apartment in Caballito, a storied neighbourhood in the geographic centre of Buenos Aires, somewhat equivalent to Brooklyn or Queens. According to friends and neighbours who remember them, Alicia was a bright and curious, rather cerebral girl, maybe a little earnest but that was no cause for concern. She played volleyball in the Argentine Hebraic Society. She liked to sing. She was a typical teen-ager, wore short skirts and high-heeled boots or platforms. But she was clearly more serious than most of her contemporaries.
In 1962, in Alicia’s second year of middle school, she wrote an essay on Thalidomide, the supposed “wonder drug” that had been marketed to pregnant women all over the world before being revealed to be producing babies with birth defects. The school authorities were troubled by Alicia’s choice of topic. Teresa was summoned to the school and told that her daughter had inappropriate interests and should preferably be transferred elsewhere. Teresa replied firmly that at home this and many other controversial subjects were regular topics of conversation. She stared down the schoolmaster, who happened to be the wife of a military officer, but it was a stand-off. Alicia had to withdraw and switch to a less prestigious high school for girls. Around the same time, Alicia joined the Fede (Federación Juvenil Comunista), the youth wing of the Communist Party of Argentina. She would be a political activist for the rest of her life.
Alicia finished secondary school and enrolled in physical sciences at the University of Buenos Aires in March 1966. Three months later, Argentina suffered a military coup, the fifth since 1930. On July 29, 1966, one month after the coup, the University of Buenos Aires was the scene of a violent police assault that came to be known as La Noche de los Bastones Largos (The Night of the Long Nightsticks). The assault followed the occupation of five faculties by students and professors protesting the regime’s rollback of basic academic freedoms and the autonomy of the university which was, until the coup, governed by a tripartite directorate of students, professors, and graduates. Alicia was among thousands of students in the street that night.
The following year, 1967, Alicia transferred into engineering, becoming one of only three women studying at the school. The regime’s repression of academic life in the universities invigorated the campus student organizations, which flourished even though they had to function semi-clandestinely. The most dynamic of these was the FEN (Frente Estudiantil Nacional), the most radical of the student groups which defined itself as revolutionary and was seeking to build a student-worker alliance that would achieve a particularly Argentinian form of socialism. Alicia and a handful of fellow students formed a FEN chapter in the largely conservative engineering faculty. She was the only woman in the group.
Most of the student groups, including the FEN, were related in one way or another to the outlawed parties associated with the exiled former president Juan Domingo Perón, who had been overthrown in 1955. Alicia and her brothers, also students and also in the FEN, identified as Peronists – something that created tension at home, especially for Alicia; their father, Ñuque, abhorred Perón.
Alicia’s political evolution proceeded apace with the worldwide radicalization of 1968. A colleague recalled Alicia’s attitude towards the French students of May ’68, whom many Argentine student radicals looked at with disdain. She thought they were soft and navel-gazing, and not connected to the workers.
Early in 1970, Alicia began a relationship with another FEN activist, Jorge Rachid. He was a medical student, driving a taxi to support his studies. She had dropped out of school at this point and was working in the office of the Círculo de Ingenieros, the Argentine Engineers Circle. Alicia and Jorge married in December 1971.
Meanwhile, the FEN was in crisis. In the context of an increasingly repressive military regime and influenced by the experience of the Cuban revolution, many of the association’s members began to take a radical turn towards the idea of armed struggle. Following a split within the student federation, in 1972, Alicia and Jorge were recruited into a new group which was soon one of the most important guerrilla organizations in Latin America, the Montoneros. Jorge was dispatched to do trade union activity while Alicia was assigned to work in intelligence and communications.
The Montoneros were a “Left Peronist” organization that aimed to establish a socialist state in Argentina through armed action. After the Peronist parties were legalized and Perón himself returned from exile in 1973, the Montoneros decided to focus on public information and propaganda, and created a daily newspaper, Noticias. Alicia joined the paper, where she was put in charge of the labour section. The editorial director of the paper was Francisco “Paco” Urondo, a charismatic writer, poet, and academic, and one of the Montoneros’ highest profile intellectuals.
“He was a walking legend and she was a girl who took one’s breath away when she climbed the stairs of [the newspaper office] in her miniskirt,” wrote the author of a book on Noticias. “Raboy was young and beautiful, with intelligence and political commitment; he was a famous writer, a proven combatant.” These were “the ingredients of attraction at that time” and within weeks, Alicia and Paco had begun an affair – secret at first, not only because they were both with other partners, but because the Montoneros frowned upon adulterous relationships, which were explicitly prohibited by the organization’s rules of conduct for members.
But the affair surfaced soon enough. Horacio Verbitsky, who also worked at the paper (and still today one of Argentina’s most important independent journalists), told it this way: “One day I walked past the door of a ‘by the hour’ hotel in Charcas and Anchorena Street and I saw Alicia and Paco coming out. When we saw one another we were rather shocked because Paco was still living with Lili Mazzaferro. Paco reacted immediately: ‘This is good man. Bye-bye hotel – from now on we’ll go to your house.’ He looked at it from the practical side. I gave him a set of my house keys and from that moment on they met at my house.”
Everyone who knew them recognized that Paco and Alicia were intensely in love. They both left their partners and moved in together. Although Paco was quite a bit older (he was born in 1930) and already had two grown children, they decided to form a new family, and their daughter Ángela was born in June 1975.
The political situation had hardened by then. Perón had distanced himself from his Left flank, particularly the Montoneros, and meanwhile, “Right” Peronist paramilitary groups had begun to emerge. Extra-judicial kidnappings and assassinations were more and more frequent. After Perón died on July 1, 1974, his vice-president (also incidentally, his spouse) María Estela Martínez de Perón, known as Isabel, succeeded him as President. But she was unable to govern to anyone’s satisfaction. After months of political turmoil, a right-wing Catholic nationalist faction within the military, headed by Commander Jorge Rafaél Videla, overthrew Isabel Perón and suspended the constitution, on March 24, 1976.
By now the Montoneros were in full flight, decimated by defections and targeted assassinations. Noticias had long since been shut down. In May 1976, the Montonero high command instructed Paco Urondo to go to Mendoza and rebuild the local organization, which had been particularly hard hit in the region. Friends warned that the assignment was a death trap but Paco and Alicia agreed to go.
“Dear mama and brothers”, Alicia wrote in a letter home dated June 9, 1976. It was chatty, breezy and full of everyday family details. “I have nothing to do for the moment but organize the house…” Alicia said she would phone home the following week. “Mamá, if you wish to write to me (for now) send a parcel with cookies to [the following address] with a letter inside, and my name, I will receive it here.” A separate note from Paco was attached, offering “a big hug and regards to the boys”, and signed “your son-in-law”. The letter arrived at the Raboy home in Buenos Aires a few days after the operation in which Paco was killed and Alicia disappeared.
*Marc Raboy (http://www.marcraboy.org/) is a writer, journalist, and emeritus professor at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. This article is based on his latest book, “Looking for Alicia: The Unfinished Life of an Argentinian Rebel”, published in April 2022 by Oxford University Press.