There was a moment in “Avengers: Endgame” that I gasped. Why not “The Vanished”? Was this tactless? Was this US looking forward with blinders on?
In “Endgame,” “The Disappeared” was the name given for the vanishing half of the galaxy’s population, done in at the snap of an Infinity-gloved hand by Thanos, but “The Disappeared” is already a group of people with an uneasy link to the US.
I wondered how this section of “Avengers: Endgame” would play in Chile and Argentina or how it would be translated. When I visited Argentina, I remember seeing a board filled with photos and a site that one fellow tourist thought was an archeological dig. It was a dig of a different sort, a search for bodies of “The Disappeared” or “Los Desaparecidos.”
“The Disappeared” in Argentina are the thousands of people who were taken from their homes and never returned under the military dictatorship that was installed after a US-backed (CIA) coup overthrew Juan Perón’s widow and third wife, Isabel, in 1976. (Juan Perón’s second wive Eva (Evita) died of cancer in 1952.)
Known as Operation Condor (Operación Cóndor), the targets were communists, socialists and other opponents of the right-wing governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay between 1968 and 1989. This was the CIA’s Dirty Wars in South America. Twenty-one years of interference that so many people ignore when they talk about the instability of Latin American countries.
Popular movies have touched on those times. The 1985 Brazilian-American film “Kiss of the Spider Woman” was based on a book written by Argentinian Manuel Puig and touches on political prisoners. Puig himself left Argentina for Mexico in 1973. The movie’s director, Hector Babenco, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina and raised in Mar del Plata. Both his parents were Jewish–his mother a Polish Jewish immigrant while his father was born in Argentina to a Ukrainian Jewish family. Babenco left Argentina to live in Europe in the 1960s and missed the Dirty Wars in Argentina. Instead, he had settled in Brazil.
When I mentioned “Kiss of the Spider Woman” to my husband, he called it a gay movie. I never thought of it as that, even at the second viewing. “Kiss of the Spider Woman” is about defiance of a dictatorship and love. Roger Ebert summed the movie up this way: “By the end of the film, what started out as a contest between two opposite personalities has expanded into a choice between two completely different attitudes toward life. And the choice is not sexual, although for a long time it seems so. It is between freedom and slavery.”
In “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” the society of fear under military dictator of this unnamed South American country is compared to Nazi Germany. Valentin scolds Molina for her escapism when there are people who are literally killing other people to keep control of the country. The novel was published in 1976 and set in an Argentine prison. Spain was the only Spanish-language country that would publish it and it was banned from Argentina until 1983, when the democratically elected Raúl Alfonsin became president of Argentina. Before Alfonsin became president, he had been a lawyer who petitioned for the freeing of Los Desaparecidos.
Carlos Saura, who is best known for his Spanish dance-related films, references the Dirty War in his 1998 “Tango” or “Tango no me dejes nunca,” because that is part of the history of tango, the dance of Argentina and Uruguay. During the movie, we’re told that they played tangos while torturing prisoners, those who represent Los Desaparecidos are thrown naked into a large pit.
Ebert described these sequences as having “special power,” writing “Another uses dancers as soldiers and suggests the time in Argentina’s history when many people disappeared forever. That time is also evoked by images of startling simplicity: Torture, for example, is suggested by light on a single chair.”
In “Endgame,” while the people are shown in a green field with large stones engraved with the names of The Disappeared, I couldn’t help but think of Argentina. A recent production of the tango opera, “María de Buenos Aires,” in Long Beach also touched on Los Desaparecidos even though the opera was originally produced in 1968 when the CIA operation was just beginning and the full scope had yet to be realized.
There have been angrier voices raised outside of South America about US intervention. In 2005, the Oscar-nominated (“The French Lieutenant’s Woman”) playwright Harold Pinter (1930-2008) made his Nobel Prize acceptance speech a “furious howl of outrage against American foreign policy” according to the New York Times. Pinter stated the US “supported and in many cases engendered every right-wing military dictatorship” in the last 50 years.
The long-running BBC One British TV series, “Silent Witness,” looked at another newer group of The Disappeared in 2017 Season 20 (Episodes 9 and 10, “Awakening”). In this two-episode case, The Disappeared are people taken as hostages by the drug cartels. You might, like someone I was speaking with, think the drugs are a typically Latin American problem, one that causes the collapse of their government, particularly if you aren’t aware of the US interference via Operation Condor. Yet marijuana (cannabis) and opium aren’t native to the Americas.
Marijuana originated in Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Opium has historically been used in the Mediterranean region and was used widely during the American Civil War. According to PBS Frontline, the Dutch first brought Indian opium to China (1700) and introduced the practice of smoking opium to the Chinese. The Chinese did not widely use opium because of the expense and lack of availability, but that changed when the British East India company forced Indian farmers to grow opium for distribution in China and by 1767 they were importing two thousand chests per year. By 1793, the British East India Company had established a monopoly. Some of the US East Coast entrepreneurs like Charles Cabot of Boston, Massachusetts, John Cushing under James and Thomas H. Perkins Company of Boston and John Jacob Astor of New York City, make their money through the opium smuggling.
The Chinese government opposed the British drug importation and that led to the First Opium War (UK against the Qing Dynasty, 1839-1842) and the Second Opium War (British, French and the US against the Qing Dynasty, 1856-1860).
Opium smoking becomes a concern in San Francisco and is banned except for Chinatown (1874). Federal law enforcement begins in 1890 and William Randolph Hearst uses this as part of his Yellow Peril anti-Asian campaigns in his publications.
Yet when the US feared the spread of Communism in Asia,
In order to maintain their relationship with the warlords while continuing to fund the struggle against communism, the U.S. and France supply the drug warlords and their armies with ammunition, arms and air transport for the production and sale of opium. The result: an explosion in the availability and illegal flow of heroin into the United States and into the hands of drug dealers and addicts.
In Vietnam (1965-1970), the CIA transported raw opium from Burma and Laos. Mexican opium comes into prominence after the fall of Saigon. Colombia drug lords introduce high-grade heroin in 1992. In “Endgame,” the first evidence of the widowed Clint Barton whereabouts is the slaying of drug cartel members in Mexico which is reported (by Jim Rhodey/War Machine).
In the episode “Silent Witness” episode, one of the main characters, Nikki (Emilia Fox), is kidnapped by the Mexican drug cartel when she travels to search for a former student. A deal is struck with her co-worker, Jack (David Caves). Her student had been helping in the search and identification of The Disappeared and the key to the mystery presented in “Awakening” is the mothers of The Disappeared.
That was true for Los Desaparacidos in Argentina. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo were mothers who pushed for the recovery and identification of Los Desaparacidos. These mothers began to protest by wearing white headscarves and marching in the Plaza de Mayo from 1977 in Buenos Aires. The plaza is in front of the presidential palace, Casa Rosada. There was even the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, women who search for the stolen infants of mothers who were killed; over a hundred children have been found.
“Avengers: Endgame” can’t be similarly inspired because the female Avengers (Natasha Romanoff/Black widow, Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, Nebula, Gamora, Hope van Dyne/Wasp) are not mothers and do not have families. Tony Stark/Iron Man, Clint Barton/Hawkeye and Scott Lang/Ant-Man are fathers.
South and Central America are not the only places with The Disappeared. In Northern Ireland, there are also The Disappeared, those who vanished during The Troubles. Yet those numbers are nowhere near those of South America.
I wonder if “Endgame” will play differently in a country where so many have disappeared. It seems much easier to detach from this part of the plot as a US citizen, living in a country where the government hasn’t forcibly taken thousands of people and made them disappear into the twilight zone of uncertainty.
As much as I enjoyed watching “Endgame,” the moments wrapped around the mourning of The Disappeared made me wonder how differently this might have played if there were more diversity in the movies, not only in terms of the failure to address Asians in the Marvel Comics Universe, but also in more nuanced portrayals of the second largest ethnic/racial group behind whites in the US and the peoples of the Americas.