“Dear Mr. President”: Letter Writing in Postdictatorship Argentina

Sunday, January 8, 2017: 9:40 AM
Mile High Ballroom 1D (Colorado Convention Center)
Jennifer Adair, Fairfield University
This paper investigates letters sent to the president during Argentina’s “democratic transition,” a period which corresponds roughly to the government of Raúl Alfonsın (1983–1989). Alfonsín’s election in October 1983 heralded the return of democratic rule and the end of the nation’s most brutal period of military dictatorship (1976–1983), in which up to 30,000 people were disappeared. Over the course of the 1980s, thousands of Argentines saw the democratic opening as the opportunity to write unsolicited letters to the president, and their messages inspire reevaluations of the end of Latin American Cold War authoritarian regimes. Until recently, investigations of this period have been dominated by studies that analyze Latin America’s democratic returns as guided by government elites, electoral politics, and military trials. The personal letters examined in this paper take place between and around the headlines of the most dramatic institutional moments. As such, they complicate the very notion of democratic return by grounding political transformation in the quotidian realms of family, neighborhood, and marketplace, among others. Based on an analysis of over 5,000 letters sent to the president, the presentation analyzes public letter writing as a political act, wherein the boundaries between supplicant and leader are blurred and where the dynamics of citizenship and state-making are at their most vivid. As the paper argues, correspondence positioned individuals as both participants in and architects of the new democracy during the 1980s. The messages reflect a prolonged moment of political and economic change, distilled through personal experience and emotion, which reveal the shifting social meanings of “democracy” and the making of post-dictatorship Argentina.
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