BUENOS AIRES — Azucena Villaflor was not a woman who sought fame or notoriety. The ex-telephone operator and shopkeeper with a grade-school education ran an orderly home, put meals on the table and fretted about her four children.
For most of her 53 years, Villaflor's only major political sentiment was an enduring devotion to Eva Peron, the iconic former first lady revered by the Argentine working classes.
"My mother was nothing more than a housewife," recalled Cecilia De Vicenti, the youngest of Villaflor's children and her only daughter, now 44.
But as somber Argentines today mark the 30th anniversary of the military coup that ushered in the so-called dirty war, Villaflor is being remembered as an unlikely hero and patriot.
Villaflor is credited with founding the era's landmark and much-emulated human rights group, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose haunting protests outside the rose-hued government center downtown helped discredit a dictatorship that touted itself as an ally of freedom and liberty.
The mothers' white head scarves became a worldwide symbol of democratic resistance to an immoral regime bent on killing off its enemies -- a long list that began with leftists and trade unionists.
In an era of roaming kidnapping squads and official impunity, Villaflor and other mothers posed a simple question: Donde estan? Where are they, our sons and daughters? Where, in her case, was her son, Nestor De Vicenti?
She never lived to get an answer. Villaflor ultimately joined her son on the list of up to 30,000 people who "disappeared" between 1976 and 1983.
Nestor, Azucena's second child, was a dreamer and idealist who eschewed study of architecture to organize factory hands and assist residents of poor neighborhoods. His relatives said they never saw Nestor with a weapon, but his ideals in the turbulent 1970s echoed those of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the middle-class Argentine revolutionary who had been executed in 1967 in Bolivia.
On Nov. 30, 1976, Nestor and his girlfriend, Raquel Mangin, were arrested without incident in southern Buenos Aires. Their families never saw them again. Both were 24. They were "disappeared."
That warp of the verb "to disappear" was among the lasting legacies of South America's era of dictatorships. People didn't disappear. Someone disappeared them. In Argentina, it usually went this way: A Ford Falcon pulled to the curb. Armed plainclothes security men shoved someone into the vehicle. They disappeared him.
Villaflor made repeated inquiries at the Interior Ministry and tried to enlist the help of the military vicar, getting no further than his secretary. She asked questions. She heard the indifferent refrain that blamed the victims: Por algo sera. "It had to be for something."
She met other mothers. "This is useless," Villaflor told them one day early in 1977, as they gloomily waited their turns outside yet another ministry. "We have to go to the Plaza de Mayo," the main square in downtown Buenos Aires.
If they could not get answers from the bottom, they would seek them at the top: Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, the leader of Argentina's military junta.
"We need to get to Videla," Villaflor told the other mothers. "We have to organize this ourselves."
The mothers met in cafes and living rooms, churches and parks. They first appeared publicly in the Plaza de Mayo on the afternoon of April 30, 1977, a Saturday in the Southern Hemisphere's autumn.
Fewer than 20 women attended that first session. They were mostly mothers, but a few were more distant relatives of the disappeared. The group eventually opted to meet on the plaza every Thursday at 3:30 p.m. The mothers adopted their trademark head scarves weeks after their first public appearance, when an excursion to a religious shrine highlighted the need to identify one another quickly in a crowd.
They gathered weekly until well after the regime crumbled in 1983. Disparaged as "las locas" -- the crazy ones -- of the plaza, the mothers received little local press early on.
They never met Videla, who eventually answered the question, Donde estan? "They are neither alive or dead. They are disappeared," he said in a television interview.
But the mothers movement generated an occasional story in the international media. The group made an effort to contact U.S. diplomats, including Cyrus Vance, then secretary of State in the Carter administration, during his trip here.
At the center of it all stood Villaflor, a stocky brunet who was always carrying a folder on her missing son, gently coaxing other mothers to come forward.
"She was a born leader, spontaneous, always with ideas, always helping," Nora de Cortinas, one of the early mother activists, told the historian Enrique Arrosagaray, who wrote a biography of Villaflor. "She was like the mother hen who watched out for all of us."