“The Bernardi Sisters” carries us through the lives of Claudia and Patricia Bernardi—from their childhood and coming of age in Argentina, into their work for human rights for victims of war and violence around the world.
“We were fascinated with the ants!” said artist and human rights activist Claudia Bernardi in an extensive interview for The Hidden World of Girls.” We would work with a magnifying lens and look at the face of the ants and make tiny little portraits.”
“My mother was a very good seamstress and we would ask her to make dresses for the ants. She would say, ‘You have smaller fingers! You can do the stitching better!’ We would make furniture and tiny little dresses…whole wardrobes! The following day it was gone! And we would make very convoluted drawings of how the ants had taken these things down to their ant hole, and where they put the pictures.”
“If They Know, This will Not Happen
Claudia’s father was from Italy where he had studied engineering. He came to Buenos Aires after the second World War and took a job in a factory.
“My mother was very Catholic. My father, on the other hand was agnostic to the point of exhaustion. But they never quarreled. The only time I ever saw them quarrelling, was when television came to Argentina. I was about five years old. My father wanted us to watch the documentaries of the second World War. My mother didn’t want us to watch them. That’s the only time they had an argument. And we watched. I remember clearly going inside Auschwitz and seeing my father cry who I’ve never seen cry before. My mother cried, my sister cried, I’m crying. And I remember my father saying, ‘If they know this, this will not happen again.”
Claudia’s father died when she was eleven and Patri was eight. When Claudia was 16 her mother died. ”We entered youth orphans,” said Claudia. ” Alone. And the first step of the military junta coming in.”
The Dirty War
The Dirty War, from 1976-1983, was a campaign by Argentina’s military dictatorship against suspected left wing dissidents. More than 30,000 people were “disappeared” during these years. Known as “los desaparecidos” or “the disappeared” they were taken to secret government detention centers where they were tortured and killed.
“I don’t know what we knew at the time,” said Claudia who was studying architecture and fine arts and the University during this time. Patri was studying bio chemistry and later changed to anthropology.
“We knew very little of what was happening. The universities were occupied by the military. We all knew people who disappeared. We didn’t know where they were. We felt something bad was happening. Those were hard times. What we know now is so different that what we knew then.”
In 1983, after the fall of the Military Junta, investigations began into violations of human rights. At that time, forensic anthropology was little known. A group of anthropology students from the University began working with Clyde Snow, a well known forensic anthropologist from the United Sates, assisting him in Argentina’s first exhumations. Patri Bernardi was part of this group.
“Suddenly the “Disappeared” were not all away in Denmark or in Sweden or somewhere,” said Claudia. “The “Disappeared” were inside mass graves and my sister was opening them and looking at them and these were people like us!
“I remember at the time, 1983- 84 I was in the United States and my sister would not send letters to me through the mail because she was so concerned that this information would be intercepted. We were still in the dictatorship mentality.”
Patri secretly sent letters to Claudia through friends, describing the horrific truths of what they were uncovering in the exhumations.
“I would have dreams,” remembered Claudia, “and they were so palpable. In my dream there was this litany, almost a poem: ‘There are six people, there are six, inside the water.’ I would write my sister and she would say ‘that’s exactly what we found. There were six. Four men and two women, and yes, they were in water.’
“My art changed profoundly during this time. In my mind what I was making was an evolution from print-making into a third dimension, I called them amulets. And an Argentine friend came into my studio and she was appalled. ‘Claudia!’ she said, ‘Why are you doing dead people? All your studio is full of dead people, what’s going on?’ And I felt that someone had pulled my pants down because it was secret.” (Painting by Claudia Bernardi).
El Mozote, El Salvador
When the Argentine Forensic Anthropology team was formed, no one imagined that thirty years after they would be leaders in the forensic anthropology field investigating massacres, criminal acts and human rights violations around the world.
In the 1980s the Argentine Team was asked by the United Nations Truth Commission to investigate violations perpetrated against the civilian population at El Mozote, El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War. The Team was to exhume a mass grave where a massacre of townspeople had occurred in 1981. Soldiers had raped, savaged and slaughtered 800 men, women and children in an anti-guerrilla campaign.
Patri asked Claudia to work with the team to create archaeological maps of the exhumation at El Mozote, El Salvador. In retrospect, Claudia thinks back on her life as “before El Mozote” and “after El Mozote.”
Working under the hot sun, with village people silently watching, the team excavated a small room-size plot of earth where a building had once stood. They uncovered 143 skeletons—almost all children. The average age was six years old. The children had been kept alive, herded together in a small room until the end of the town massacre. Then each child was shot at short range.
“This was the first time I ever saw the human remains of children,” remembered Claudia. “As bad as everything in Argentina had been, there was something so incomprehensible about these children. The remains were so small, like the skeletons of birds.” (Photo courtesy of “The Truth at El Mozote”, by Mark Danner).
From Claudia Bernardi’s journal:
October 20th, 1992 El Mozote, the United Nations Mission in El Salvador. There are 38 skeletons. We have uncovered them with brushes, gently. I have my hands in the earth searching for secrets of broken lives out of violence. Forensic anthropology is a highly scientific work, extremely meticulous and precise… It is quite incredible that Patri and I are living this experience together. I look at Patri. We have the same hands—our mother’s hands—long fingers, bony fingers. They move gently through the earth. Patri’s always quiet. Her body acquires impossible positions to get to the skeletons without disturbing them. I look at her and remember summers in Buenos Aires, birthday parties, sister quarrels, going to school in the cold mornings of the wet winter. How did we arrive to be in this exhumation together? The Bernardi sisters?
In March of 2005, Claudia Bernardi returned to El Salvador to work in collaboration with the community of Perquin to create an art school near the site of El Mozote.
“Although many years have passed since the end of the war, this is a community where many of the survivors are the ones who very likely carried out the massacres: ex-commanders, ex-combatants, ex-military people. And the children of everyone live together. So it is potentially a very volatile atmosphere.
“We decided to paint a mural at El Mozote in anticipation of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the massacre. The community was very divided. Half of the community wanted to paint the massacre and half of the community refused to admit that the massacre had ever been committed.
So it was more than an art project. It was a diplomatic project of great patience, in which as a school of art, we tried to find out what such different visions of the massacre had in common.
“Finally we came to realize that people wanted to paint a mural about how El Mozote was before the war and before the massacre. So even the people who did not want to recognize that a massacre had occurred, in this instant were alluding to the fact that yes, there was a massacre. We had over fifty, sixty people working together. Young, old, adults. I knew then and still think that project is the most important thing I have ever done or will ever do as an artist.”
The Perquin Model
The school’s success has led Claudia to taking the model of The Art School of Perquin to victims of war and abuse in Guatemala, Columbia and many countries around the world.
“The whole episode of healing for me is very complicated,” said Claudia.” I recognize why, especially in the United States, people want to talk about healing, but quite frankly maybe certain things don’t heal and cannot and should not heal.
What it can be is being transformed through the efforts of the community. That which has preceeded us has managed to be the sculptor of who we are. So we need to look at this hand that has damaged us, and has sculpted us. We are the product of this history, but we are not yet dead. We are alive and with that we are making something. I see art making as an enormous contribution. It really doesn’t matter what we make— we are making rather than subtracting. We are erecting rather than abolishing.
Over the years, Patri continued to work around the world with the Forensic Anthropology team. In Argentina, using new DNA technology, she has helped to identify the skeletons, bringing closure to families and victims of war. Recently she has retired.
“Patri is taking some time to think about the next step,” said Claudia. “She’s planting and gardening, which is a good thing. And she laughs and she tells me –and this is sort of sisters’ black humor–she says, ‘It’s a relief to be thinking about the earth above and not the earth below.”