FERNANDO IN LA BOCA
My mother began and ended her career as a photographer with this picture of my brother. Sara, a painter and sculptress, decided to study photography and signed up for the classes given by the Buenos Aires Photo Club. She won the fist prize in a contest called LA BOCA (one of Buenos Aires most picturesque neighborhoods) with this picture. Nando is sitting in an empty open-air theater. He looks at mom in his habitually serious and concentrated way. He appears to be both sure of himself and defenceless.
When my mother framed the picture, she added a medal. It is not the one she won as a prize form the Photo Club, but one Nando won in a swimming race. It is a doubly- prized image, and deserves to head this chapter, dedicated to my brother, who could have won many more prizes.
This is the little altar my mother built in her dining room around the bust of Fernando she sculpted with her own hands. The Menorah and the little dolls of immigrants with the Torah under their arms tell how, in the worst years of fear, my parents found refuge in community traditions and in a certain seclusion in the Jewish community. Familiar with other tragedies that we Jews suffered, they sought the key to continue living in the reaffirmation of their identity.
THE THREE OF US IN A BOAT
Fernando is in the foreground, my sister Andrea balances in the background. My parents steer, take pictures, and enjoy the ride while we row. We are on the Gambado River, during a weekend in Tigre. Going for boat rides together was our favorite family pastime. Though this outings were infrequent, we carry the river inside us. We became accustomed to its dark waters and to not diving in head first because there might be a tree trunk floating beneath the surface.
FERNANDO AT THE PARTY
Fernando is near our family’s dining room table in our house in Caballito, with his eyes closed. The family party floats around him. He looks elegant, with his tie and his Prince of Wales type jacket. There are flowers and half-drunk glasses of wine on the table. The backs of the guests remind me a little of the way people turned their backs on what was happening around them during the worst years of the military dictatorship. There also seems to be a generation gap: the grown-ups ignore the children, represented by Fernando, and look the other way.
FERNANDO IN OUR ROOM
This picture of Fernando is one of the first I took in my life, with an antique camera my dad gave me. We are in the room we shared. His face is blurry. His movements, today nonexisten, diffuses him before the lense. The photographs on the wall, however, bear the lengthy exposure better. It is the best picture I have left of him, of when we lived together.
“Family” is a picture I took in a New England cemetery in 1986. It could be any family’s grave. I took “Heroes” in New York, on the same trip. I am particularly interested in the little flying men in the lower part of the image. I relate the way they are reflected in the window to the way heroes live on in the collective memory of a people. The pedestrians, mingled with the heroes, stroll along the streets of the archetypical city, ignoring one another. In a sense, they all lie under the same autumnal sepulchre.
PLAYING AT DYING
We are at Yeiporá, at Billy’s weekend house. My brother is on the left and I am on the right. We pretend to kill each other with bows and arrows. The arrows hit their marks precisely. We fall clumsily to the ground, and die almost at the same time, though I die first. We could not guess that in just ten years one of us would really die.
Cuando a los doce, jugábamos a hacerlo, creíamos que éramos inmortales.
The photograph is endless. The image that it had succeeded in reconstructing , the portrait of my brother from the shoulders up during his detention at the ESMA ended up being incomplete. During the visit I had with Víctor Basterra at Superior Court No. 12, where the case of the ESMA is being handled, Víctor asserted his right to go through the file to see the proofs that he himself had provided. The first file that we saw contained only photocopies. We requested the originals. They appeared.
And the photograph was there, but complete. From the shoulders it continued on down toward the waist. And you could see the undershirt. It was an worn, sloppy, basic item of clothing. A minimal undershirt, wrinkled, clothing an adolescent body after a torture session.
The shoulders look young, crisscrossed by the shreds of the shirt (the tenses of the photograph overlap, continue). The defenselessness and at the same time the attractiveness of youth show through the bits of cloth following the beating. The face is a twisted a bit, but it is still complete. The photograph expands on and adds information. It has small details that are as irrelevant as they are real. You can make out the dark railing that leads to the wall against which it was taken, the sounds of chains being dragged as you walk, the handcuffs. . . . (another photograph shows the marks on the wrists of a young woman, someone else’s sister, from having been bound).
The light protection provided by the undershirt dresses the body in its suffering, marking it. It is not a naked body. It recalls the loincloth of someone else who had been tortured, on the cross. And the scarves. Pieces of white cloth, scraps, worn on different places on the body.
They tell me that he worked out in his cell, in a space similar to a sty for raising pigs—which is how we described it in the conversation with Víctor Basterra—with walls barely a meter high. A rectangular place, small, about the size of a mat that barely allowed any head room. They did everything possible to talk there. A sponge-rubber mat and some blankets, without either a covering or sheets. A bare minimum, what you provide a slave with, just the basics for survival so he won’t freeze to death, because the sessions must go on.
I always liked undershirts. I sleep in one, which is more of a T-shirt. This one is different, a classic style, the one from the neighborhood, which shows the butcher drinking matte. One assumes the upper half to be quite dirty, with a clinging odor, and its folds, its shadows and highlights in the photograph to be still clinging to the body my living brother.
And one of the things the nine prisoners told Basterra the day they were able to meet with him, thanks to the complicity of a “good” guard, sticking their heads out of the opening in their hovels. They asked him “What will happen to us?” Silence. Víctor had no idea, and he couldn’t even imagine what it might be. He had managed to change his rank: now he was a photographer. They needed him for something else than jus to torture him. “Just don’t let them get away with it, Víctor.” That’s what the nine told him in the dark. Don’t let them get away with it.