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Episode 58: Los niños de los desaparecidos (The Children of the Disappeared)

By Duolingo on Thu 21 May 2020

As the child of adoptive parents in 1980s Argentina, Tatiana Sfiligoy knew her family situation was unique. But it would be another decade before she uncovered the truth about what happened to her biological parents — including the role her country played in their disappearance.

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Martina: A quick note to our listeners. This episode deals with content that touches on violence and death.

Martina: Tatiana Sfiligoy has a peculiar job. It involves her getting visits from people who have questions about who they are and where they came from. Like in May 2003, when a man about her age, 25, showed up at her doorstep in Buenos Aires. He introduced himself as Mariano and he was visibly agitated. Tatiana invited him to sit and he started talking.

Tatiana: El hombre me dijo que, unos días antes, su madre le había dicho que él no era su hijo biológico y tampoco de su padre. Él también me dijo que su padre era policía y que era un hombre muy violento.

Martina: Mariano went on, telling Tatiana that his family had no record of his birth. And that he had a recurring dream that woke him up in the middle of the night: someone calling him by a different name, Juan.

Tatiana: No era la primera vez que yo escuchaba una historia como esta. Yo traté de calmarlo y le dije que su viaje para conocer su verdadera identidad estaba empezando en ese preciso momento.

Martina: Tatiana was glad the young man had come to see her. The non-profit she worked for was called Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, and it had been founded to serve children whose parents had disappeared during Argentina's infamous military dictatorship. Children just like him.

Tatiana: Yo le dije que iba a ser un proceso complejo, pero que, al final, iba a traer buenos resultados.

Martina: But the young man was doubtful. He asked Tatiana how she could be so sure about how it would go for him?

Tatiana: Yo le dije que lo entendía muy bien porque yo había pasado por la misma situación. Como él, yo pude reencontrarme con mi familia biológica y reconstruir mi vida.

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast. I'm Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories, to help you improve your Spanish listening and gain new perspectives on the world.

The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish, and I'll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at

A quick note on the Argentinian accent: often the LLs and Ys are pronounced with a "SH" sound, as in "aSHer" or "caSHe" instead of "ayer" or "calle."

Martina: The year was 1977, and Tatiana Sfiligoy Ruarte Britos was four years old. For six months, she had been living in an orphanage, with few memories of her previous life. One afternoon, an orphanage worker came to take her to the courthouse. She was told she was going to meet her new adoptive parents.

Tatiana: Yo hablé con ellos un poco, pero no hubo empatía, así que decidieron no adoptarme. Después de eso, yo estaba en una sala y, a través de la puerta, vi a una señora con un bebé en sus brazos. Inmediatamente, empecé a gritar y me agité muchísimo.

Martina: There was a reason for her screams. Tatiana recognized that one-year-old baby, though she hadn't seen her in six months. It was her little sister, Mara. They had been separated and taken to different orphanages. The woman holding Mara had come to court that day to adopt her.

Tatiana: Esa mujer era Inés y estaba con su marido, Carlos. Ellos no podían tener hijos y, por esta razón, decidieron adoptar a un bebé. Inés me escuchó gritar y preguntó qué me pasaba.

Martina: That day in the courthouse, Inés learned that Tatiana and the baby she was adopting were sisters. Everything was in the court documents.

Tatiana: Cuando se enteraron de esto, Inés y Carlos dijeron que nos querían adoptar a las dos. El destino quiso que ese día, a esa hora, estuviéramos todos en ese lugar. Ese fue el comienzo de todo. Nosotros no sabíamos todos los giros que nuestra historia iba a dar.

Martina: The official court proceeding said that both girls had been abandoned by their mother in a park, and that no family members had claimed them.

Tatiana: Yo estaba muy feliz en mi nueva casa con mis nuevos padres, que eran muy dulces conmigo. Era una casa grande de dos pisos y con una terraza. Cuando entré, yo vi muchísimas frutas sobre la mesa. Corrí a agarrar una manzana y me la comí.

Martina: When Tatiana arrived at her new home, she was in rough shape. During her six months at the orphanage, she'd gotten lice in her hair and was sick to her stomach from malnutrition.

Tatiana: Cada noche, Inés y Carlos me hacían un tratamiento en el cabello y me bañaban. Yo también recuerdo que me daban jugo de naranja todas las mañanas porque así les había dicho una doctora.

Martina: But every night before bed, Tatiana would sing songs that awakened Inés's suspicion. She felt the girls must have had a family that sang to them.

Tatiana: Inés no entendía por qué nos habían abandonado en una plaza y por qué nadie había preguntado por nosotras. Ella estaba segura de que había algo extraño en nuestra historia y quería saber la verdad. Su ética era admirable.

Martina: Inés's suspicions were linked to a period of great turmoil in her country. One year before the girls were adopted, Argentina's military had installed a brutal dictatorship.

Tatiana: La dictadura argentina, que empezó en 1976, fue la más brutal en toda Latinoamérica. Muchas personas civiles y medios de comunicación fueron cómplices de esto.

Martina: In the months and years that followed, an estimated 30,000 people were kidnapped, or secuestrados, then tortured and killed. Many of the bodies were never found, so they became known as desaparecidos, the disappeared ones.

Tatiana: Muchas de las mujeres secuestradas por los militares estaban embarazadas o tenían hijos pequeños. Esos bebés fueron robados y entregados ilegalmente a las familias relacionadas con los militares.

Martina: One year after the dictatorship began, a group of women began to protest in front of the government palace. They were the mothers of los desaparecidos, and they were determined to find out what had happened to their loved ones. Tatiana's new parents were aware of their activism.

Tatiana: El grupo recibió el nombre de "Madres de Plaza de Mayo". Este es el nombre de la plaza que está frente a la Casa de Gobierno, donde esas mujeres protestaban.

Martina: Another group soon arose: the Abuelas, or grandmothers, of Plaza de Mayo. These women had a somewhat different mission: they were determined to find their disappeared grandchildren, who were supposedly alive, but had been taken by the military when their parents were kidnapped.

Tatiana: Inés no era parte de ninguna organización política, pero sabía lo que estaba pasando en el país. De hecho, ella tenía un compañero de trabajo que había desaparecido. Nadie sabía adónde los llevaban ni qué les pasaba, pero la gente sabía que algo estaba sucediendo. Por esta razón, Inés y Carlos tenían dudas sobre nuestro origen.

Martina: Inés went back to the courthouse where she had adopted the girls three times and she asked to speak with the judge, el juez. She told him that she suspected her daughters could have something to do with the desaparecidos and their missing children.

Tatiana: Las tres veces el juez le dijo que no. Incluso le dijo que si seguía insistiendo, le iba a quitar nuestra custodia.

Martina: Inés was a French teacher and one of her students was a priest. Several times, he went to her house and met Tatiana and Mara.

Tatiana: Inés le comentaba sobre sus sospechas y sobre las veces que habló con el juez.

Martina: The priest, or sacerdote, worked with young activists and he knew very well that the children of desaparecidos were being illegally turned over to military families. While Tatiana and Mara's adoptions were technically legal because they went through the courts, their story still didn't add up.

Tatiana: Dos años después de que fuimos adoptadas por Inés y Carlos, el sacerdote le envió una carta anónima a las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. Él no le dijo nada a nadie, pero Inés no se molestó. Estábamos cerca de tener una explicación sobre nuestra situación.

Martina: The priest sent the letter because he assumed there was probably a family out there looking for the girls. He was sure to be very precise providing all the details of the case.

Tatiana: Inmediatamente después de recibir la carta, tres mujeres de las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo pensaron que mi hermana y yo podíamos ser sus nietas.

Martina: It turns out that Tatiana and her sister, Mara, have the same mother but a different father. That's why three grandmothers claimed them, not just two. The grandmothers went to court with photos of the girls and said they knew they had been adopted.

Tatiana: Una tarde de 1980, Inés y Carlos recibieron una carta del juzgado. No explicaba nada, solo decía que teníamos que presentarnos personalmente.

Martina: As soon as they arrived at the courthouse, or el juzgado, Inés, Carlos, Tatiana, and Mara sat down in a small room. A few minutes later, the three grandmothers came in. Tatiana got nervous, even though she had no idea what was happening.

Tatiana: El juez me preguntó si yo reconocía a las abuelas. Yo estaba muy nerviosa y dije que no.

Martina: As soon as they saw the girls, one of the three women fainted. There was no doubt they were her granddaughters. She recognized them right away.

Tatiana: Como yo no las reconocí, el juez dijo que nos podíamos ir a casa, pero las abuelas siguieron insistiendo… Quince días más tarde, mi familia y yo tuvimos que ir al juzgado una vez más.

Martina: Tatiana saw the three grandmothers enter the room again. And again, they asked her, “Do you recognize them?”

Tatiana: Ya estaba mucho más tranquila. Volví a verlas y reconocí a mis dos abuelas y a la abuela de Mara. No entendía bien qué estaba pasando, pero sabía que tenía otra familia. Las abuelas lloraban y nos abrazaban. Yo estaba confundida, pero contenta.

Martina: Tatiana and Mara became the first disappeared grandchildren to be recovered by the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. Their new family learned that Tatiana's biological parents were named Mirta Graciela Britos and Oscar Ruarte Pérez. Oscar had been kidnapped in 1976, followed by Graciela, a year later.

Tatiana: Nuestras abuelas no tenían ninguna información sobre ellos. Estaban desaparecidos. Los buscaban desesperadamente, igual que a nosotras. Ellas pensaban que Mara y yo habíamos desaparecido con nuestra madre.

Martina: As they learned more about the girls' story, Inés and Carlos had mixed feelings. On the one hand, they were happy for them to be reunited with their family, but at the same time, they were scared of losing them. The girls had been with them for two years already.

Tatiana: Pero nuestras abuelas vivían en distintos lugares del país, así que seguimos viviendo con Inés y Carlos.

Martina: Once the grandmothers showed the original birth certificates to prove that the girls really were their granddaughters, the judge decided to put the girls on a visiting schedule so they could see their grandmothers every other week.

Tatiana: Me gustaba verlas. Yo compartía más tiempo con mi abuela paterna porque ella venía a mi casa y se quedaba dos o tres meses. Nosotras a veces salíamos juntas, pero, casi siempre, nos quedábamos en casa hablando y compartiendo.

Martina: Tatiana and Mara's situation was special. In the majority of cases, children were stolen by military families, so they had no knowledge of their biological families. But since Carlos and Inés were civilians who adopted the girls legally, Tatiana and Mara's story was documented. This meant the girls could have a relationship with their grandmothers, even if it wasn't easy at first.

Tatiana: Cuando Mara y yo nos reencontramos con mis abuelas yo tenía seis años. Yo no les dije nada de esto a mis amigos de la escuela. Era mi secreto.

Martina: For many years, Tatiana didn't have the courage to tell her friends the truth about her story. So on her 10th birthday, her grandmothers, together with Inés and Carlos, arranged for the president of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo to go to Tatiana's school and tell her story.

Tatiana: Fue algo que agradecí mucho. Fue un momento muy importante para mí y me puse a llorar frente a todos. Pero yo todavía no entendía bien qué significaba ser hija de desaparecidos.

Martina: In 1983, Argentina began to transition back to democracy. People started to talk more openly and passionately about los desaparecidos, the stolen babies, and the Madres and Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo.

Tatiana: Pero yo crecí como cualquier otra adolescente. Visitaba a mis abuelas biológicas a menudo. Nosotras desarrollamos una relación muy linda. Ellas me hablaban de cuando mis padres eran pequeños. Sin embargo, nunca hablábamos de cómo habían desaparecido. Yo no estaba lista para saberlo.

Martina: When she finished high school, Tatiana enrolled in college to study biology. She also started a course in theater. As a young girl, Inés and Carlos had taken her to the theater a lot, and as a teenager she often went with her girlfriends.

Tatiana: Además, el regreso de la democracia trajo una nueva avalancha de artistas y de diferentes expresiones culturales. Yo amaba el teatro y disfrutaba mucho las clases.

Martina: One day, before going to theater class, Tatiana opened a newspaper and saw a list commemorating actors who had disappeared during the dictatorship.

Tatiana: Yo quería saber quiénes eran esos actores y, cuando leí los nombres, ¡no podía creerlo!

Martina: Tatiana stopped cold. She recognized two of the names.

Tatiana: Mirta Graciela Britos y Oscar Ruarte Pérez estaban allí.

Martina: Seeing her parents' names in that newspaper changed something for Tatiana. For the first time, she wanted to know who her parents had been. Tatiana had recently started therapy, and in one session, like a flash, a memory came to her.

Tatiana: Yo recordé el momento en el que me separaron de mi madre. Nosotras estábamos en una plaza y, de repente, un camión militar estacionó frente a nosotras. Diez militares se bajaron del camión. Todo pasó rápidamente. En un segundo, los militares le cubrieron la cabeza y se la llevaron.

Martina: Tatiana also remembered that she and Mara had remained alone in the park for hours… Until a police officer saw them and took them to a station.

Tatiana: El teatro y la terapia fueron mi motivación para empezar a investigar quiénes eran mis padres y cómo habían desaparecido. Todo pasó cuando yo era muy pequeña y antes no estaba lista para aceptar mi historia. Pero a los dieciocho años, sentía que mi camino estaba empezando.

Martina: While Mara was content to study and focus on her future, Tatiana felt the need to dive into the past. So she decided to start at the beginning, in Cordoba, a city almost 500 miles from Buenos Aires, where her mother and father were from.

Tatiana: Yo empecé a viajar mucho, a conocer a los amigos de mis padres, a saber la verdad acerca de sus vidas, a saber por qué luchaban.

Martina: Luchaban, they fought. In this case, for their ideals. Tatiana discovered that her parents had served in a leftist political organization called the People's Revolutionary Army. This was one of many groups formed in the mid-1960s, which Argentina's military dictatorship wanted to eliminate.

Tatiana: En esos tiempos, los jóvenes luchaban por una sociedad más justa e igualitaria. Mis padres trabajaban en una zona muy pobre donde enseñaban teatro. Ellos creían en la cultura como instrumento para la transformación social. Esa conexión con ellos fue muy importante para mí.

Martina: Tatiana learned that her father was kidnapped in 1976. He was taken to a clandestine camp where he was tortured and then disappeared.

Tatiana: Un año después, le ocurrió lo mismo a mi madre.

Martina: Once she started digging into her past, Tatiana started going frequently to the main office for the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. She liked being there, and she helped out with whatever she could. It was the late 90s, and Argentina was suffering a severe economic, political, and social crisis.

Tatiana: Yo había estudiado psicología, pero trabajaba como secretaria y, como muchas otras personas, me quedé sin trabajo.

Martina: At that point, Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, which had become an NGO, had recovered 71 grandsons and granddaughters. But they kept looking for another 400 that were still missing.

Tatiana: Cuando ellas se enteraron de mi situación, me ofrecieron trabajar con ellas. Yo las iba a ayudar con el proceso de identificación de los nietos desaparecidos. Estaba muy contenta y agradecida con las Abuelas. Me estaban salvando… otra vez.

Martina: The process of identifying a missing grandchild can come from a third-party complaint, like in Tatiana's case.

Tatiana: O también puede ser cuando una persona tiene dudas sobre su identidad y busca la ayuda de las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo.

Martina: The job they gave Tatiana was to receive young people who had doubts about their identity. It was a good fit for her, given her personal experience.

Tatiana: En general, sus padres adoptivos eran militares o había algún militar en la familia. Eran historias como la de Mariano.

Martina: Mariano is the young man we met at the beginning of this story, who came to Tatiana for help.

Tatiana: Él terminó siendo Juan, el nieto número setenta y siete.

Martina: Stealing children under these circumstances is a crime against humanity. So if a person is identified as the biological child of a desaparecido, it's likely the people who illegally adopted that child would go to prison. This makes the process very emotionally taxing.

Tatiana: Por eso, yo muchas veces les cuento mi historia y eso les ayuda porque no se sienten solos.

Martina: Young people who have doubts about their identity take a blood test at the National Bank of Genetic Data.

Tatiana: Ahí los familiares de los desaparecidos dejan sus muestras de sangre y luego son comparadas con las muestras de los jóvenes que tienen dudas.

Martina: If it’s effectively proven that the DNA of a young person matches that of the relatives of a desaparecido, then it is said that a grandchild "has appeared."

Tatiana: Cada aparición es celebrada por la sociedad argentina como una victoria de la verdad sobre la mentira, de la vida sobre la muerte.

Martina: Today, many of the grandchildren recovered by the Abuelas are well known across the country — symbols of hope for many people in Argentina. Some, like Mara, have chosen to live more quiet, anonymous lives. But others, like Tatiana, have found comfort in dedicating their lives to the Abuelas' cause.

Tatiana: Yo tuve suerte porque fui adoptada por Inés y Carlos, una pareja que me dio mucho amor. Desafortunadamente, no todos los nietos robados tuvieron esa oportunidad. Yo pude conocer la historia de mis padres biológicos y entender por qué luchaban por un mundo más justo. A veces, saber la verdad puede ser muy doloroso, pero también es algo muy liberador.

Martina: As of today in Argentina, after about 40 years, 130 grandchildren have reappeared. The Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. They say that they will continue their search until the last one reappears.

Tatiana Sfiligoy now works at the National Human Rights Secretariat and still collaborates with the Abuelas. She sees her story as a symbol of hope in the fight for memory, truth, and justice.

This story was produced by Tali Goldman, a journalist and writer from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

This is our last story of this season, but we'll be back soon with new episodes. In the meantime, you can subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite listening app to have our next episode delivered right to you. You can also go to to find transcripts and audio for all of the stories we've produced so far.

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The Duolingo Spanish Podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

This season our managing editor was David Alandete; our senior editor, Catalina May; our production managers, Román Frontini and Mariano Pagella; our pitches editor, Grant Fuller; our story hunter, Lucía Villavicencio, and our mastering engineers and sound designers were Martín Cruz Farga, Jeanne Montalvo, and Martine Chaussard. I'm the executive producer, Martina Castro. ¡Gracias por escuchar!


This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Producer: Tali Goldman
Narrator & Protagonist: Tatiana Sfiligoy Ruarte Britos
Script Editor: Catalina May
Sound Design and Mixing by: Martine Chaussard
Mastering Engineer: Martín Cruz Farga