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In Argentina, Remembering The Day The Dictatorship Burned 1.5 Million Books


From a mural In Buenos Aires, where books are now celebrated, not burned as they once were...
From a mural In Buenos Aires, where books are now celebrated, not burned as they once were...
Julieta Roffo

More than a million-and-a-half books from the Latin American Publishing Center (Centro Editor de América Latina, CEAL), which had been intended to spread reading and literature to a wider audience in and around the capital, were first censored and then ultimately destroyed by fire here 33 years ago. It was a national abomination, but now a memorial to the event means there is little chance that it will ever be forgotten.

SARANDI — "I need a picture taken to show "la patrona" (chief) since she didn’t believe me when I told her what I was going to do," a police officer told CEAL photographer Ricardo Figueiras on June 26, 1980, in Sarandí, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Under a judge’s orders, the officer set fire to the area, including to the 24 tons of books that had been banned under a military dictatorship and transferred from CEAL’s warehouse just six blocks away.

It's something that Amanda Toubes, an editor who witnessed the burning, will never forget. That's why she repeated the officer's utterance at the recent inauguration of the commemorative plaque to mark the place where the "questionable" books were destroyed.

The event was organized by the cultural collective La Grieta from La Plata. Toubes arrived to the unveiling — at a place that had been a paddock in 1980 — with colleagues from CEAL. The location has since been transformed into a factory producing industrial drums.

“That June day was brutal," Toubes recalls. "I accompanied Ricardo Figueiras because the judge ordered witnesses to be there. I was his assistant while he documented the destruction."

On that day more than three decades ago, she recalls hearing people scream, "The books are burning!" Today, she teaches in the Faculty of Education at the University of Buenos Aires.

The publisher CEAL was the ideological vision of its director Boris Spivaco. "Working at CEAL was full of madness and passion," Toubes recalls. "There were are a lot of laughs and lots of sadness too in Argentina during the days of repression." In those years, she directed the New Encyclopedia Young World that CEAL published. She notes that the organization "was not demagogic" and lived its motto, "Más libros para más" (more books for more people). The new plaque reads the same.

Toubes hasn't forgotten how the staff was affected by the book burning. "Graciela Cabal — who edited an emblematic children's book called Jacinto — cried like I have never seen anyone cry after I told her I had seen a little prince on a book cover that refused to burn," she recalls. "I kept telling her that while they were burning books, they were also burning people, that books can be remade."

Gabriela Pesclevi, coordinator in the literature section of the La Grieta collective, says it's important to put the formerly forbidden books "in the public's hands." As a result, the event showcased several youth and children's books that had been censored during Argentina's National Reorganization Process from 1976-1983. To underline the absurdity of banning books, they were placed on two tables covered in police tape that read "Danger." The titles included An Elephant Takes Up Too Much Space by Elsa Bornemann and The Tower of Cubes by Laura Devetach. These were accompanied by CEAL classics like Nicolodo Viaja al País de la Cocina by Graciela Montes, a beloved title of the popular collection Los Cuentos del Chiribitil.

Montag, the firefighter character in Ray Bradbury's novel Farenheit 451, burned books under the government's orders. As it turns out, sometimes the truth is worse than fiction. But here, and elsewhere, where there was once fire, there are now official reminders of what should never have happened. And where the day was once grey, the sun now shines.

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When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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