Like many first-generation Latinx people living in the United States, I grew up hearing stories of liberation movements, government brutality, extreme political unrest, and the life-or-death decision to leave home. Listening to my father’s stories of the coup d'état and authoritarian civic-military dictatorship in Uruguay that drove him to flee his homeland, I can’t ignore the stark contrasts I experience while protesting for freedom, human rights, and justice.
Uruguay may be seen as the progressive darling of Latin America for the country’s secular legislation, extensive LGBTQ+ rights, dedication to clean energy, legal abortion access, and cannabis legalization, but not long ago the country was known as the torture chamber of Latin America. “State terrorism in Uruguay disrupted the history of the most democratic country in Latin America, leaving a legacy of repression, torture, exile, and the disappearances of 197 people,” Nelson Villarreal Durán, the former Uruguayan Secretary of Human Rights, tells Refinery29 Somos. “Transforming the roles of the state into aggression and violence against citizens legitimized terrorism as a form of public policy.”
From 1973 to 1985, the Uruguayan dictatorship aimed to suppress the left-wing Tupamaros (Tupas) guerrilla group, many of whom were members of the legal Communist Party, which was not affiliated with the Soviet Union. It was commonplace for the military to round up Tupas. Meanwhile, anyone believed to be associated with them were forcefully arrested and saw their human rights violated, including my father. An astounding 2% of the Uruguayan population was imprisoned during the military regime—the highest global incarceration per capita to date.
Diego Garcia, a 65-year-old doctor who asked to use a pseudonym, was a medical student during the state-sanctioned violence. One night, while he was studying in the anatomy lab, military forces broke in and held the students against the wall at gunpoint. “We just had to wait, try not to move, and see what would happen. I was there for a few hours, but it felt like a lifetime,” Garcia recalls.
According to Garcia, the incident wasn’t unique. The military regularly harassed and arrested students. In the prisons, guards raped women in front of their partners and tortured people to death, all because “they thought they were managing money for the communists.”
While Garcia was never arrested or tortured, my father wasn’t so lucky. When he was 24, my father played on a state basketball team in Uruguay. “They wrongfully suspected me of being involved with the Tupamaros because, unbeknownst to me, my roommate was a Tupa,” he tells me. For this, he was kidnapped, imprisoned, interrogated, and tortured.
Military personnel forced him to stand in a patio of water and shocked him with a cattle prod. Today, his legs are still covered in scars. Once he was released, he fled Uruguay on foot without notifying his family. He walked and hitchhiked across 5,000 miles, reaching Mexico six months later. “I left my family, my country, and my friends,” he says.
My father was just one of the 10% of Uruguayans who fled the country during the 12-year dictatorship. He left because he feared the next time the military took him in for questioning, he’d go “missing” like hundreds of others. There are at least 197 Uruguayan detainees whose fates are still unknown. They’re called Desaparecidos—the disappeared.
Graciela Montes de Oca Correa, 57, is a member of the Madres y Familiares de Uruguayos Detenidos Desaparecidos (Madres y Familiares), an association that has been demanding answers about the Desaparecidos since the fall of the military regime. Her father, Otermín Montes de Oca, was a Uruguayan Communist, and has been missing since he was taken into military custody on December 17, 1975.
“One night, a group of soldiers dressed in civilian clothes arrived at my house carrying guns and took my father into custody,” she remembers. “They broke everything in the house. Two of them stayed for three days, watching us. We weren’t allowed to go out or open windows and doors.” As soon as the intruders left with her father, her family began their search. But the military denied he was taken.
Montes de Oca Correa and her family chose to remain in Uruguay during the dictatorship, holding out hope that he’d eventually come home alive. When the dictatorship ended and the last political prisoner was freed, they continued to look for him. “I was hoping to find him alive in a crowd. No one ever gave us his body. When they told us he was dead, I refused to believe it,” she says. “It took years to accept the reality that he’d never return home. They murdered him.”
Otermín’s 24-year-old granddaughter, Laura Boiani Montes de Oca, is outraged that her grandfather’s remains are still being held hostage. “The forced disappearance is a permanent crime that never ends,” she says. “Without the truth, we can’t close this chapter of our history.”
Many other Uruguayan millennials face the pain of not knowing what happened to their missing relatives. Carolina Carretero Silva's aunt María del Rosario Carretero is a Desaparecida. “One lives, loves, longs for a person, in my case my aunt whom I never knew," she says. “I always had the illusion that one day she would turn up alive. That never happened.”
Carretero Silva got involved in Madres y Familiares where members have shared stories with her about her aunt. She’s joined their efforts in demanding justice. “We need to know what happened to every one of the Desaparecidos,” she says. “Our relatives wanted a fairer world.”
While the previous 15-year government led by the left-wing Frente Amplio party focused on reform, recent history still haunts some elder Uruguayans who cannot possibly see protest as a human right without consequence—my father included. Fighting for human rights is my birthright, and I do everything within my power to stand up against injustice. I attended my first protest when I was 17. My father begged me not to go; his trauma makes it impossible for him to feel like I’m safe demanding justice. As I marched down a street in Los Angeles, lending my presence to the anti-war movement, I was terrified when I spotted snipers. My friends reassured me they were there for my safety, but I couldn’t help but feel like I had a target on my back.
More than a decade later, I feel it’s my duty to use my privilege to protest. I’ve joined human rights demonstrations around the world, from an anti-Trump rally in Madrid to a Women’s March protest in Jodhpur, India. I’m always afraid. Watching the police violence in the U.S. during Black Lives Matter demonstrations has made me realize that safety while protesting, even in the U.S., is an illusion. But I won’t be discouraged.
Young Uruguayans are known to stage large demonstrations, shutting down major streets each year for International Women’s Day, PRIDE, and animal rights. In 1996, Madres y Familiares organized the first annual Marcha del Silencio. Ever since, Uruguayans gather on May 20 to peacefully and silently march, carrying photos of the Desaparecidos and advocating for the unaccounted disappeared detainees.
“It’s so silent,” Garcia says. “That silence goes to the bones. We must remember. We can’t forget.”