As a sophomore at Princeton, I read a short story by the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez that left me spellbound. In the story, a storm sweeps an old man with enormous wings into the seaside home of two poor villagers. Some of the villagers consider him to be an angel, but his wings are “dirty and half-plucked,” covered in mud and infested with parasites. The miracles he performs fall short of the mark: “the blind man who didn’t recover his sight but grew three new teeth, or the paralytic who didn’t get to walk but almost won the lottery, and the leper whose wounds sprouted sunflowers.” Suspicions that he is a freak are confirmed when the couple put him in a chicken coop and charge admission to see him. The two villagers grow rich, but they consider the old man to be a nuisance and they chase him from room to room with a broom. In the end, the man turns out to be an angel after all. He grows new wings and flies away. The poor couple never connect the angel’s visit to their newfound good fortune.
This story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” stoked my interest in Latin America. What kind of place could inspire such imagination? I majored in politics and Latin American studies and wrote my senior thesis on the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human-rights group in Argentina that demanded the return of their children, who were “disappeared” by the military government in the late 1970s. Thousands of “disappeared” people were detained illegally by the government, tortured, and presumed dead. The thesis experience confronted me with questions that proved so emotionally difficult and intellectually challenging that I ended up becoming a professor and pursuing them to this day. My thesis has turned out to be like the old man with the wings, the decrepit angel that changed my life in ways I did not appreciate at the time.
Writing it was a miserable experience from the very beginning. I missed both the REM and Chaka Khan concerts at Jadwin Gym as I tried to meet deadlines for grants to fund a research trip to Argentina. But that’s nothing compared to what happened once I got there. I spent the summer after my junior year doing research on the Mothers group and living with a host family in Buenos Aires. I felt at ease with my host family from the moment we met, outside customs at Ezeiza Airport. Family members greeted me warmly, they spoke perfect English, and the two daughters and I looked like sisters. As we drove along the freeway to their home in the suburbs, they asked me about my plans for the summer. When I told them that I planned to do research on the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, my host mother slammed on the brakes and almost crashed into the median strip of the four-lane freeway. “What! You want to study those women?!” she screamed in astonishment. “Why do you want to study those crazy women?”
What had I said to upset her? Although Argentina had endured a brutal military regime, the “dirty war,” from 1976 to 1982, this was 1985, and Argentina was a democracy. Human-rights lawyer Raúl Alfonsín was president. Time magazine heralded the Mothers as heroines of democracy. The leaders of the military junta were on trial for human-rights abuses. I realized that my Argentine family supported the right, but it took me some time to understand how different that was from voting for the GOP back home. I found it hard to accept that a family so apparently similar to my own could have supported the dictatorship.
My host family treated me very well but desperately tried to convince me to change my thesis topic: oil exports, trade policy, anything but those crazy women! Being stubborn, naïve, and very young, I forged ahead with my research. I attended the Mothers’ demonstrations, hung out in their office, and talked to them in their homes. My host family told me that the Mothers were the mothers of terrorists. They warned that I was being followed and that “they” were keeping tabs on me. I dismissed as ridiculous the idea that anyone would pay attention to me, a 20-year-old college student writing a senior thesis. But I paid a price for my refusal to take their concerns seriously. One night I mentioned my research to friends of my host family. In so doing, I crossed a line that I didn’t know enough to avoid. My indiscretion proved so threatening to my host family that they asked me to leave their house — immediately. I found myself with my suitcases on the streets of Buenos Aires the next morning with no place to go. Friends came to my rescue, but I was scared and left the country.
I started to wonder whether my host family was right. I realized that the military government had cared a great deal about young people like me. I exactly fit the profile of those whom the military identified as subversive, as terrorists, as threats to national security. Many of those who were disappeared by the military were idealistic 20-year-olds asking questions about injustice — the very people whom the Mothers had lost.
I returned home and wrote the thesis. When I handed it in, I had no intention of writing another research paper ever again. But after being in the working world for a couple of years, I found myself applying for Ph.D. programs; then I wrote a dissertation on a topic that grew directly out of my senior thesis.The comparison between the decrepit angel and my senior thesis is more apt than I’d like to admit. I wish I could say that writing the thesis gave me a much better understanding of politics in Argentina, but it’s pretty clear from my story that I misunderstood more than I understood at the time. Doing the research taught me, in a visceral way, the value of being able to ask virtually any question and to pursue the answers without fear of persecution. The work I did on my senior thesis at Princeton set me on the path I’m on today: writing, teaching, advising students on their own research, and trying to recognize those angels when they blow into my living room.