Olga Talamante is central to the history of Chicana/o self-determination as it developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although her story has been told numerous times in Euroamerican progressive circles, it has largely remained outside the scope of Chicana/o Studies.
Olga’s story is one of agency, survival and community struggle against the power of the State. While the United States engages in imperialist wars abroad and clamps down on legitimate constitutionally protected dissent at home, Olga’s story reminds us that the struggle for human rights and human dignity continues.
Olga Talamante was born in 1950 in Mexicali, Baja California, México to Eduardo and Refugio Talamante. At the age of eleven, she and her family moved to Gilroy, California, the garlic capital of the world.
Her father, Eduardo worked in the fields, while her mother Refugio worked as a waitress. In high school, Olga excelled academically and was elected vice-president of her senior class at Gilroy High School in 1969.
Olga was one of the few Chicanas/os to be accepted and enrolled at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). At UCSC, Olga was active with the United Farm Workers (UFW), the Chicano anti-Viet Nam War movement, and the Chicano student movement.
As a young 23-year-old Chicana radical, Olga graduated with a B.A. in Latin American Studies. While doing field studies in Chiapas, México, Olga met several Argentinian radicals who introduced her to the idea of going to Argentina to organize and to study.
Olga was intrigued by the idea of going to Argentina, especially since she felt she could use her degree in Latin American Studies to further the cause of social justice.
At the time, Argentina had been bogged down by political instability for decades due in large part to several military coups that led to military control of the government. But growing workers’ and students’ dissent led to fragile changes in the political structure of Argentina and to the rise of what is commonly referred to as the “subversive years” (1969-1973) through the work of Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación (FAL).
The election of Dr. Hector Cámpora as president in 1973, moreover, signaled a new era in Argentine politics as hundreds of political prisoners were released.
It was in this climate, then, that Olga Talamante decided to travel to Argentina to work in solidarity with the growing radical student and labor movement.
Cámpora, however, decided not to seek re-election and Juan Perón returned from exile to assume the presidency with his wife Isabel de Perón becoming the vice-president of the country.
Upon her arrival to Argentina, Olga began working in one of the poorest sections in Buenos Aires in the Barrio San Francisco with the Peronist Youth Movement.
The death of Juan Perón pushed Argentina into a state of political chaos as a struggle between the left-wing and right-wing factions of the Peronist movement ensued. Isabel Perón assumed the presidency and the right-wing faction took control of the government.
On November 7, 1974, the Argentine government passed a series of new “State of Siege” laws that according to Olga were designed to halt student, worker, and other opposition dissent.
As Olga would state: “On November 7, the government issued a broad set of security regulations that banned political meetings, labor organizing, anti-government demonstrations. It was the new martial law and the beginning of the repressive period in Argentina.”
In the January 1975 issue of La Raza magazine, it was reported that Olga and twelve others had been arrested while attending a “bar-be-que.”
The new “State of Siege” laws in Argentina made it illegal for more than four people to be together at any one time. There had been at least fifteen people at the party.
Olga was accused of having direct links with the Montonero guerrillas, who were the militant wing of the Peronist Youth Movement, and which had recently declared war on Isabel Perón’s government.
It was also alleged that the Argentine federal police found two .45 caliber guns along with some “subversive literature.”
According to La Raza magazine, there were two other individuals who had attended the party but were not arrested and it was rumored that they had been shot, but nobody could confirm this. Nevertheless, there was no word on their whereabouts.
Olga and the other twelve were charged with violating the anti-subversive acts. Olga was unaware of the gun charge until she faced the judge at her “sentencing.”
While in prison, Olga was tortured. According to Olga, Argentine officials placed a burlap bag over her head with her hands tied behind her back and both feet tied together, while she gasped for air because she was “karate-chopped” in the stomach.
In a School of the Americas Watch interview in 2006, Olga further elaborated on her experiences:
They took me into another room where there were several other people. I heard several men’s voices. They untied my hands and feet and ordered me to take my clothes off. I hesitated, but they made it clear that there was no choice to make. Some hands sat me down on a bed. They pushed me down on the bed and spread my arms and legs, which were then tied to the posts of the bed, spread-eagle fashion.
Then the electric shocks began. They knew to attack some of the most sensitive areas of the body. When the electric current was applied, I could only scream.
The terror came after the electric shock. They are going to do it again, I thought. A pillow was put over my head to muffle my scream. I panicked. I must be able to breathe and scream in order to survive, I thought. I must be able to breathe. After about the third time that the electric current was applied, I figured what I thought was a brilliant maneuver.
I waited until the pillow was put on my head, then right before the hands holding it pushed down hard on it, I turned my head sideways and was so relieved to be able to take in a breath. I just had to be really alert so I could move my head back in upright position before the pillow was pulled up. It was a project, and it helped me focus. I knew that was the only way I could survive.
Olga wrote letters to her family and friends in the United States describing her arrest and ordeal. Promptly the Olga Talamante Defense Committee (OTDC) was organized in Oakland, California.
Despite the torture she suffered, in one of her letters to her parents, Olga boldly declared, “I love life enough to struggle for it, and I’m happy to be living this historic moment even if I’m imprisoned, because I know that in spite of it, my thoughts, and others like you, are free.”
In a January 29, 1975 letter, Olga strong in spirit recounted the following:
I’m happy to know that my brother and sister campesinos continue firm in La Causa. It was in the fields that I learned of the inhuman exploitation and miserable living conditions that many of us suffer due to an economic system which puts material riches before a person’s dignity. It was as a Chicana campesina that I learned to struggle and my being here in Argentina is but a consequence of that consciousness. You should all be proud to know that I’m called “Chicana” by the compañeros and by the police, too! The first ones do it with love and international solidarity, and the second ones with hate and international despair.
Meanwhile, Chicanas/os accused the Gerald Ford Administration of complicity for supporting the repressive Argentine government in silencing political dissidents. Time and time again, the Ford Administration claimed that “we are doing the best we can” to release Olga, an American citizen.
Many Chicanas/os suspected that the Ford Administration didn’t want Olga released for fear that Olga’s story would reach the American people as well as embarrass the United States internationally.
Chicanas/os felt betrayed by the Ford Administration and thus they began an all-out effort to unmask the lies and complicity of the U.S. government by sending letters, passing resolutions of support within Chicano organizations, informing the community via the media, and pressuring elected officials to call for the release of Olga and end U.S. support of repression in Argentina.
The Chicana/o community was urged to send letters to Robert Hill the U.S Ambassador to Argentina. One sample letter circulated stated:
The case of Olga Talamante and the twelve Argentines arrested with her show the lengths to which the Argentine Government will go in suppressing democratic rights and the extent to which the U.S. Government will lie to its citizens back home in order to hide its complicity with this repression.
I demand the immediate release of Olga and her companions, Olga’s immediate return to the U.S. and the restoration of democratic rights in Argentina.
After an intense grass-roots effort led by the OTDC, Olga was released sixteen months later in 1976. Olga’s experiences focused attention on the repressive and violent nature of the State vis-à-vis women.
As the United States government uses the pretext of its never ending War on Terror to imprison without trial, kidnap suspected “terrorists,” normalizes the apparatus of rendition, resorts to assassinating American citizens with drone strikes in foreign countries, and most recently having been found to have been conducting mass illegal surveillance of virtually every person on the planet, Olga’s story is relevant today for it demonstrates that illegal U.S. government conduct is not a new phenomenon but part and parcel of a history of governmental criminal activity.
Olga Talamante’s story represents the interconnectedness of the struggle for human rights internationally. Chicanas have always been at the forefront of the struggle for liberation.
Contrary to the Euroamerican and Hispanic narrative that the Chicana/o has been historically apolitical, the struggle of Olga Talamante and the OTDC reminds us that the Chicana/o community has always resisted injustice and has organized to defend its own.
It is a Chicana/o story that must be told, especially at a time when our constitutional rights have been trampled upon by the State, and when Chicana/o Studies is being assaulted by Euroamerican and Hispanic right wing factions who want to erase our history.