Piecing Together the Puzzle of Birth Identity in Argentina

By 11 November, 2023

“The Right to Identity is Universal”, artist Julieta Polimeni tells S&C.

Murales X Identidad de Origen is an Argentine project using murals to raise awareness of the appropriation of up to 3 million babies in Argentina. For decades, many women who gave birth were told that their baby had died, when the child was actually sold to couples who could not have children and registered as the couple’s biological child. The appropriation of the 500 children of the disappeared during the Argentine dictatorship of 1976-1983 is well-known, largely due to the work of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo who continue to search for their stolen grandchildren, but the stealing of babies outside of or not motivated by the dictatorship is considerably less well known.

Murales X Identidad de Origen was founded by mosaic and glass artist Julieta Polimeni, who, aged 40, learned she had been appropriated as a baby. Julieta is on a journey to find her birth mother. In this interview, Julieta tells me the story of Murales and explains what is happening in Argentina currently regarding birth identity, as well as how art can help the victims of this crime.

S&C: What is Murales X Identidad de Origen, how did it start, and what is the aim?

JP: Murales X Identidad de Origen is a project that aims to raise awareness of the problem in Argentina whereby almost 3 million people are searching for their birth identity because of, in my case at least, the removal and sale of children as a common practice within Argentine society for many years. The parents who raised these children were people who couldn’t have children and, instead of opting for the legal route of adoption, they appropriated them – which means they registered a child as their own biological child when they were not.

I confirmed I was not my parents’ biological daughter in 2020, at the age of 40. I always had doubts about my identity, and in 2016 I went to an organisation here called the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo who are searching for their grandchildren who were appropriated during the dictatorship of 1976-1983. Given I was born in 1980 and I had my doubts, I went to the Grandmothers who interviewed me and took a DNA sample which they compared with the samples of DNA from relatives of the disappeared at the National Bank of Genetic Data. The result was negative, meaning I do not match anyone currently in their database. So, I was left with this negative result, but without any more information on where to go next or how to continue my search.

In 2020, I spoke to my sister and shared my doubts with her, which made her question her own identity. She looked at her birth records and googled the name of the midwife who delivered her and discovered that there were already Facebook groups for people searching for their birth identity who had also been delivered by this midwife. We also read a newspaper article which described a network of around 20 doctors and midwives who targeted individual women and deceived them. They took their newborn baby away from them and told them the baby was stillborn, and they would then sell the baby to a couple who couldn’t have children. After discovering this, my sister and I confronted our mother and told her we had confirmation that we were not her biological daughters, which she confirmed was true.

So, between this situation and the pandemic, and my job as a mosaic and glass artist, Murales X Identidad de Origen was born. Through my work I had already made several murals with a social justice dimension, and I was aware of the way that murals impact society and spread messages because they are displayed in a public place for everyone to see. So Murales X Identidad de Origen began because of my personal situation and a need to express what was happening to me inside, and what happens for most people looking for their birth identity.

S&C: How did you find space to make the murals and what was the process to produce them?

JP: We completed the first mural in 2021 at the Hospital Posadas in Buenos Aires thanks to one of my former mosaics students who put me in touch with the coordinator of the memory space within the hospital grounds. This space is called the Chalet and it is a former clandestine detention centre from the dictatorship. Me and other artists met in my studio to produce mosaic pieces for the mural which we then installed on the wall over a few days. We had a lot of support, for example, businesses that make the tools and materials needed for mosaics donated them to us when we told them what we were doing.

Two women posing for a picture

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Julieta (left) stood with the first mural. The mural shows a woman whose face is made up of mosaic jigsaw puzzle pieces, with some missing and others flying in the air. The message reads ‘we all have a right to know our birth identity’.

Then, in 2022, we started planning our next mural, and a friend of mine told me about the nutrition students in the faculty of medicine at the University of Buenos Aires. Their faculty in the middle of the city has a garden behind it and they wanted to do something with the faculty wall facing the garden, so they gave it to us for the mural. 

We started making the mural and we invited people from the mosaics world to get involved and design a jigsaw puzzle piece however they liked which would form part of the mural. Over 200 people including people from the faculty got involved, making pieces or helping to install the mural.

The inauguration of the second mural was very emotional, and a group of mothers whose babies were stolen came along, which is really important to us because there are more children searching than mothers. Mothers often do not search as a result of the trauma of their experience, because in many cases the mothers had a partner or husband and a much wanted baby on the way, but they were put to sleep to give birth and afterwards the midwife would tell them that the baby was dead, despite many mothers having heard their baby cry.

Artists, students and guests at the inauguration of the second mural. The painting shows two people hugging, representing the desire of those searching for their identity to meet their birth parents, with jigsaw puzzle pieces floating flying around.

S&C: What does the symbol of the jigsaw puzzle piece mean in the context of biological identity, and why did you choose it?

JP: The jigsaw puzzle piece is very significant because for those of us searching, we find ourselves as adults, with a job, a family, having formed our identities, suddenly learning a truth about ourselves that was hidden. It isn’t that we don’t have an identity, but what we need to do is complete it. And this sense of being incomplete is what the jigsaw puzzle piece represents for us as it fills in the blank and completes who we already are.

Julieta made this piece out of a mirror, showing a jigsaw piece and a puzzle missing a piece, across two frames. Each side belongs to each other and together they complete one another.

S&C: How can art help people who are looking for their birth identity?

JP: I think that art helps everyone who does it. Art has a way of connecting us with ourselves in an almost unconscious way. The people who come to my studio for classes want to alleviate pressure or are looking for a distraction, but they find that whilst working on the project and learning the technique, they start to connect with themselves. So the murals have this element whereby people get personal gratification and at the same time they are part of something bigger.

When those of us looking for our identity meet up to produce the murals, we share our personal stories and I think that in some way this helps to heal us. We can identify with one another’s stories and feelings, because it’s difficult to explain to others what we’re going through but between the other people searching for their identity we understand.

S&C: How has the community reacted to the murals?

JP: When I was talking to people about the murals, I realised that, with every person I spoke to, they had experienced or knew of a situation similar to what happened to me. Everyone. At first, people listen with surprise and don’t really understand. But when you mention situations where parents who couldn’t have children, who really wanted children, suddenly had a baby or they went on holiday and came back with a child, it gets them thinking and something clicks. They start to realise ‘you know what? That sounds familiar, I have a friend or a cousin –  and we don’t know where they came from, or my aunt and uncle can’t explain it’. The right to identity is universal.

S&C: Can you explain what is happening in Argentina at the moment regarding birth identity?

JP: There is a provincial law for the Buenos Aires province that was passed in 2021. It states that all those who have doubts about their identity have the right to be supported in searching through birth records to find their identity. However, even though the law was passed, it still needs to be regulated, as without regulation the law won’t come into effect. There is also a national law which people are trying to push through, but it has yet to be debated in congress, so there have been a series of projects but no more news.

Last year, the CONADI (the National Commission for the Right to Identity) opened the national programme for the right to identity. This programme aims to support the estimated 3 million of us who are not children of the disappeared to find our birth identity. Currently, 12,000 of us have entered our DNA into the national genetic data bank but haven’t had a match. That’s 12,000 people who were told ‘you are not the children of the disappeared, but we don’t know who your parents are, and we can’t do anything else’.

S&C: What are your plans for the future of Murales X Identidad de Origen?

JP: I am speaking to another of my former students, who now has her own studio in a locality called Glew, and we will most likely make our next mural there. However, at the moment I have a lot on with my work so I’m not sure when I will get started on that.

S&C: How can we follow you and keep up to date with the project?

JP: You can follow Murales X Identidad de Origen on Instagram at @muralesxlaidentidaddeorigen. You can follow my professional Instagram, @vive.creaciones – I publish my art, the classes I lead, the facilities and of course information about the murals.

Also, I would like to urge people in Argentina and across the world to submit a DNA sample or do an ancestry test, as you may be a relative of someone searching for their birth identity, and can help them to trace their origins. If anyone would like to know more or has any questions, you can email me at [email protected]  

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