Freedom Does Not Ring Everywhere

In America, our freedoms are often taken for granted. We can go wherever we want, whenever we want, by ourselves, without a chaperone. We can speak our mind about the government without fear of persecution. We can participate in any religion of our choosing, go to college, vote, and drive. We live in a democracy that allows us to be free. 

But even in today’s modern age, that is not the case for people in many other countries. Consider, for example, Afghanistan, where girls fight for the right to go to school; Cuba, where people can’t leave voluntarily; Iran, where women can’t get divorced unless they have special circumstances; China, where speech is censored; and North Korea, where you can get arrested for taking a photograph of a government official or property, among others. 

Argentina is one country that well knows the heartache associated with the loss of freedom and what it’s like to live under a dictatorship, having once been under a dictator’s rule. And, thankfully, its people also know the appreciation that comes from gaining their freedom back.

After President Juan Perón—who was popular among the working class—died in 1976, his second wife, Isabel Perón took over as president. (Eva, of Evita fame, was Perón’s first wife. She died  in 1952.) Isabel was overthrown a year later by a contingency of forces backing Army commander Jorge Rafael Videla.

Videla ruled as dictator of Argentina from 1976 to 1981. Meanwhile, Perón’s followers spawned small factions of leftist guerilla groups (called Perónists) who fought for freedom and attempted to overthrow the existing government. But Videla ordered the “policía” to eliminate anyone and everyone who might be even remotely against him and loyal to the opposition. As a result, teachers, students, artists, singers, songwriters, priests, and parents, sons and daughters were stopped, frisked, beaten, kidnapped, tortured, incarcerated and killed without provocation, proof or a trial. Some were left for dead right on the sidewalks. Others just disappeared, never to return again. During Videla’s rein, as many as 30,000 innocent people disappeared or were killed. 

You can get a real sense of what went on during that dark period in the fiction novel 77. Based on true events, 77 allows the reader to look at life in Buenos Aires through the lens of a single year, 1977, when it was utter chaos, and the very air people breathed reeked of fear and terror. 77 is written by acclaimed Argentine author Guillermo Saccomanno and translated into English by Andrea G. Labinger, who has a Ph.D. in Latin American Literature from Harvard University. 

In 77, you will follow along as Professor Gómez, a high school literature teacher, lives each day looking over his shoulder, wondering if, or when, he’s going to be next. A closet gay at a time when it was illegal to be a homosexual, Gómez walks the streets of Buenos Aires looking for a quick sexual fix, and even hooks up with a homophobic policeman whom he fears will turn on him at any moment. Gómez tells his story primarily as a flashback 30 years later.

Each character, in his or her own way, is searching for answers to problems in their troubled lives. Gómez, in addition to hiding his fears and concerns behind short-lived sexual satisfaction, seeks answers to questions such as whether his favorite student Esteban, who is taken from the classroom by the police, is still alive, and whether Diana, a young resistance fighter he hid in his apartment and was responsible for keeping safe, will ever come back. De Franco, who has reconnected with his former lover Arucena, is trying to find the passion he once felt for her. Martin is trying to find Mara, a fellow resistance fighter he has feelings for, while Diana, despite being pregnant with Martin’s child, has actually united with Mara, and unbeknownst to Martin, has turned to her for love and comfort. 

For those of us who are fortunate to live behind the safety shield that democracy affords, 77 provides a window into the fear and oppression that a dictatorship creates.  

About the Book

Buenos Aires, 1977. In the darkest days of the Videla dictatorship, Gómez, a gay high-school literature teacher, tries to keep a low profile as, one-by-one, his friends and students begin to disappear. When Esteban, one of Gómez’s favorite students, is taken away in a classroom raid, Gómez realizes that no one is safe anymore, and that asking too many questions can have lethal consequences. His life gradually becomes a paranoid, insomniac nightmare that not even his nightly forays into bars and bathhouses in search of anonymous sex can relieve. Things get even more complicated when he takes in two dissidents, putting his life at risk—especially since he’s been having an affair with a homophobic, sadistic cop with ties to the military government. Told mostly in flashbacks thirty years later, 77 is rich in descriptive detail, dream sequences, and even elements of the occult, which build into a haunting novel about absence and the clash between morality and survival when living under a dictatorship.

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Article originally Published in the October/November 2019 Issue “Read Global”

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