Argentina’s long lost generation: Robbed identity reappears late in life
Until the man he believed to be his father asked him to pull the truck over to the side of a road, because he needed to tell him something, Alejandro Rei had never heard of the “disappeared” generation of Argentina. He certainly had no inkling that his real identity had been robbed.
“You’re adopted and the child of a disappeared,” the older man sobbed.
The next five years would be a painful, cathartic road for the young man who lives in Buenos Aires and is among hundreds of babies believed “stolen” from their dissident parents during the dictatorship of 1976 to 1983. More than 100 have had their identities restored thanks to the tireless efforts of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, a group of women who banded together to find their progeny.
Through DNA testing, Mr. Rei now knows he is Alejandro Pedro Sandoval. His mother, a doe-eyed beauty named Liliana Fontana was rounded up in July 1977, about two and a half months pregnant, along with his father, Pedro Sandoval. She would carry out her pregnancy in a concentration camp, according to court testimonies. Neither one of Mr. Sandoval’s parents have been found.
By 2004, the authorities had zeroed in on the man he now refers to as his “appropriator” — Victor Rei, a military intelligence officer. Not long after the scene at the side of the road, Mr. Sandoval learned in the newspaper that Rei had been arrested for forging documents.
Rei dismissed the charges as merely “political.” Confused, battling feelings of guilt, Mr. Sandoval would defend the man who raised him, messing with a DNA sample by running a toothbrush through a dog’s hair. When a test confirmed his true identity, doubts lingered, even as he was overwhelmed by the emotion of meeting his new family.
“I see this giant man come in, who was my [maternal] grandfather, with tears in his eyes, and my grandmother behind him, basically crying,” says Mr. Sandoval, standing in his Buenos Aires kitchen drinking the traditional Argentine herbal drink called mate.
“I put my hand out to greet him, and he grabs me in this big bear hug and starts to cry. I always tell people, it was the first time I felt a really affectionate hug.” On his way to “seeing the truth”, Mr. Sandoval adopted two faces, he says, one for his new family, and one for the people who raised him.
Intent on seeing a trial come to fruition so he could officially change his identity, he kept in touch with Rei. The men made a pact: Mr. Sandoval would tell the truth and speak kindly of the way he was raised, if Rei confessed. In court in 2009, however, his appropriator was defiant, comparing what he had done to American families who adopted Vietnamese orphans during the Vietnam War. After a court sentenced Rei to 16 years in jail for hiding his identity and forging documents, Mr. Sandoval severed ties with that family.
“The trials do more for society than for us grandkids, because for me, having been part of all this, it doesn’t lessen the load, it doesn’t change anything,” said Mr. Sandoval. “But it makes a difference for society, because until you actually see what happened, you don’t believe it.”