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June 20, 2011

The Daughter of the Disappeared

victoria's biological mother

Victoria's biological mother, Cori, at age 15.

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Isaac said the rights workers who'd researched her case were waiting to speak to her. Calling her boyfriend for moral support, Victoria numbly trailed Isaac to another nearby café. The five women waiting at a small table were young, about Victoria's age; many of them also had disappeared family members. Their expressions were solemn, and they spoke softly, showing Victoria a copy of her birth certificate. It was signed by a military official, Dr. Jorge Luis Magnacco, who has since been accused of coordinating many of the baby kidnappings at the Naval Mechanics School. Her head spinning, she could barely articulate the question looming in her mind: "Who are my real parents?"

The only way to know for sure would be to take a DNA test, the women explained. After the dictatorship, parents of missing prisoners had volunteered blood, which had been analyzed, stored in a national database, and used to identify remains and reunite families. The woman sitting next to her, Vero, gently took her hand. "I hated all of them," says Victoria now. Getting up, she walked to the bathroom, shaking uncontrollably. Her boyfriend came in and wrapped her in his arms, not saying a word, but she couldn't stop trembling.

That night, Victoria returned to the home where she'd grown up, despondent. She couldn't fathom what she'd learned, let alone face the question of the blood test. Going into her parents' bedroom, she reached into the closet drawer where her father kept his service revolver. She took it out of its case and held it in her hand, feeling its weight, wondering if she should follow his lead. Was this the only way to end her nightmare? Then the consequences dawned on her. "If I killed myself, someone was going to have to clean up. I thought of the practical stuff," she says. Putting the gun away, she left the room.

For the next three months, she was ridden with indecision and anxiety. If she took the test, the couple who raised her might go to prison for kidnapping. But she couldn't imagine not discovering the identities of her real parents. Meanwhile, the life she'd always known had fallen apart. Guilt — and looks of pity — plagued her in public, so she scaled back her volunteering. She went to class but wore all black, burying the high heels she loved and her trademark low-cut, bright dresses and miniskirts deep in her closet.

In October, her father emerged from his coma. As he lay in bed over the next few days, she confronted him with questions. He still couldn't speak but scrawled answers on a notepad. "It was very emotional," says Victoria, who has sworn never to reveal what they talked about. He promised to support her if she took the genetic test, even if it would put him in jail — a promise her mother had also made. As she wrestled with the choice, she relied on friends, who took her calls at all hours, met her for teary conversations over coffee, and brought her to the dance clubs she used to love so she could feel normal again under the bright lights.

"I tried to forget what was going on," she says. "But I couldn't block it out."

In late 2003, Victoria visited Vero; the investigator had become a close friend. In Vero's library, Victoria found a thick book of grainy photographs of disappeared prisoners. She froze when she spotted a black-and-white image of a woman with dark eyes and full lips: María Hilda Pérez, or "Cori." She'd been abducted when she was five months pregnant.

Victoria couldn't take her gaze from Cori's eyes. "They were like mine," she says. "Turned down at the ends, with long eyelashes." Suddenly, her natural curiosity roared back to life, and she was desperate to know whether Cori was her mother. Still, she didn't take the test. Finally, on March 24, 2004 — more than a year after seeing the photo — she went to a memorial for victims of the dictatorship at the Naval Mechanics School, the first time she'd set foot in the place where her biological parents were held captive and she was born. She found herself next to a woman named Paula, who revealed that she was five months pregnant. It couldn't have been just a coincidence, Victoria thought.

"If Cori was my mother, then I was as little as the baby in Paula's belly when she was here," she says. "It must have been terrible. She was valiant. The least I could do was find out who she was." The next month, Victoria had blood drawn at a local clinic. Agonizingly, the results were never returned. On June 26, she got tested again.

Four months later, on October 8, 2004, a judge summoned her to a dank federal courtroom in downtown Buenos Aires and read the results. She and Vero wept on each other's shoulders.

"Your mother was María Hilda Pérez, known as Cori," he said. "She named you Victoria." It was the first time she'd heard her given name. "Your father was named José María Donda," the judge continued. "Now, what do you want to be called?"

"Victoria," she replied. But she kept the name she grew up with, and goes by Victoria Analía Donda today. "I am who I am in part because of how I was raised," she says.

Gradually, Victoria pieced together the story of her biological parents' lives, using a book of pictures and documents human-rights workers had given her. Her mother, Cori, she learned, had been a liberal activist, too. After falling madly in love with Victoria's father at university and marrying him in 1975, Cori was arrested, reportedly set up by her brother-in-law, Adolfo — Victoria's biological father's older brother, chief of operations at the Naval Mechanics School. Adolfo had long been mortified by his younger brother's left-wing politics.

Cori was captured at a train station where she'd been told to meet a fellow activist. Beaten and hooded, she was stuffed into a pickup truck. At a red light, she jumped out, sprinting until the high heels she was wearing snapped. In no time, her captors caught up to her. Victoria's father, learning of Cori's abduction later that day, found the shoes, discarded, by the station. He was jailed soon after. Victoria's parents saw each other for the last time in prison. Their captors brought her mother into her father's interrogation room to confirm his identity. They pretended not to know one another. Soon after giving birth — four months after her capture — Cori was drugged, loaded into a Fokker military airplane, and thrown alive into La Plata River, the fate of many of her fellow political prisoners. Her brother-in-law, Adolfo, was likely the one who approved her murder. José María's body was never found.

Victoria contacted her mother's side of the family, who'd since moved to Canada. But she resisted getting to know them, sure they would detest the people who'd raised her, whom she continued to love. Then, in March 2005, Cori's sister — Victoria's aunt — contacted her to tell her that Cori's mother, Leontina, Victoria's maternal grandmother, had Alzheimer's disease. Leontina had begged Adolfo (who is still alive and is now on trial for his crimes) for information about Cori in the years after her disappearance. Heartbroken at his stonewalling, she had moved to Toronto in 1987. Her remaining children, Victoria's aunts and uncles, had already made new lives there. Victoria decided to go to Canada to meet them the next month, in April.

The weeklong trip was bittersweet. "We were related, but they didn't really know me, and I didn't know them," Victoria says. She suspects she wasn't the granddaughter they'd expected: When they asked if she had a boyfriend, she answered, only half-jokingly, "Two." And when she told her grandmother she was an activist, Leontina exclaimed, "Oh, no! Another lefty!" with humor — and dismay. But Victoria hoarded every tidbit about her parents, asking obsessively what they were like, how they met, and what they ate. Her sassy mother had also loved to wear high heels. And like Victoria, Cori had had her father wrapped around her little finger.

Back home, overwhelmed, Victoria tried therapy, but what made her feel alive was community activism. She started volunteering again. Her life story had become so well-known by then that, in 2007, at 30, she ran for — and won — a congressional seat representing Buenos Aires. In 2009, she became president of the Human Rights Commission, which monitors the trials of accused repressors (including her "father").

Still, her family situation haunted her. In 2009, Esther, the woman who'd raised her, died. Their affectionate relationship had continued — Esther was never charged with kidnapping, thanks to the testimony of Victoria and her sister, Carla (who was later revealed to be the daughter of another disappeared couple). They told investigators Esther couldn't have been aware the adoption papers she'd signed changed their identities because she was illiterate at the time. (In fact, as a schoolgirl, Victoria had taught Esther to read and write.) Victoria says Esther believed Victoria was her father's daughter by another woman.

As for the man she grew up thinking was her father, Victoria visits him every two weeks, bringing cakes and medialunas, small Argentine croissants, to the secure ward where he is being held during his yearlong trial. He could spend the rest of his life in prison for the crimes of torturing and kidnapping; Victoria believes he should be punished. While she refers to him and Esther as her "appropriators" in public, she calls them mamá and papá in private.

"You can't turn love off like it's a faucet," she says. "He has to pay his debt to society. But I love him." Still, they don't talk about politics, she says, smiling. She believes he has repented for his crimes. His suicide attempt before the statue "was a way to ask for forgiveness from my mother, and from us."

The book that the rights workers gave Victoria on her biological parents is now tucked away in the wicker drawer of an end table in her living room, next to photos of the parents who raised her, articles about her family, and a purple cloisonné necklace from Leontina. She rarely goes through it anymore. "I've closed the stage of searching desperately to find my parents," she says. "I was looking for them in other people. Now I look for them in myself."

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