Thursday, September 8, 2011

Remembering Chile's 9/11

Vancouver theatre artist Carmen Aguirre looks back at her years in the Chilean resistance movement

By Noreen Mae Ritsema
September 8, 2011

Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary DaughterSomething Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter
By Carmen Aguirre
(Douglas & McIntyre, 2011;$32.95)

The year was 1973 and it is the September 11th that forever altered the lives of Chileans as a military coup removed socialist president Salvador Allende and General Augusto Pinochet took power. This led to widespread terror and repression, another 9/11 never to be forgotten.

Carmen Aguirre, author of Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, was a five-year-old in Chile at that time, and those events defined the trajectory of her life. She came to Canada the next year with her family as a political refugee and five years later, returned to South America as part of the Chilean resistance movement.

Aguirre's revolutionary training came to her early as she returned to South America at age 11 with her younger sister, mother and step-dad to take part in the Chilean resistance movement. Her family was responsible for a safe-house in Bolivia that sheltered resistance members. Later, as a young adult, she chose to continue working in the movement. Her life has been anything but regular, and she seamlessly and eloquently tells her early life story in her first book.

Something Fierce is the first memoir written in English and in the first person about the experience of being in the Chilean resistance movement in the 1980s. Aguirre feels like her story needed to be told because so many people involved in the resistance are dying, along with their stories.

There are numerous reasons Aguirre supposes that Chilean resistance stories haven't been published before, one being that they are not stories of triumph. Another is fear of government repercussions.

"The constitution that was put in place in Chile by Pinochet in 1980 is still intact and a large part of that constitution goes on and on about anti-terrorism laws and clauses that were used extensively during the dictatorship against any form of dissent," she explains.

Aguirre is also quick to point out that those anti-terrorism laws are not only being used against political dissidents, but against First Nations people in Chile as well. "First Nations people who are standing up to defend their land against multi-national mining corporations are being charged with terrorism," she says.

Her work clearly covers a significant portion of Chilean history, but Aguirre stresses that it is also about an important part of Canadian history because many Canadians also took part in the resistance. It is also considerable to note that Chilean refugees who came to Canada fleeing Pinochet's rule were the first refugees from the "third world" who were accepted into Canada because they were fleeing a right-wing dictatorship.

Arriving in Canada as a political refugee, Aguirre recalls forming part of Vancouver's first major visible Latino community. Conversely, she notes that because the Latino community was so small, they were actually quite invisible. Aside from a warm welcome from progressive Canadians who were aware of the situation in Chile and were already doing solidarity work, nobody else believed her stories about life in Chile.

"Certainly my personal experience as a child was that I kept my life completely divided between my home life, which was the Chilean refugee community life, and my school life," reminisces Aguirre. "I just kept them completely separate because nobody believed me when I would say that, for example, the national stadium in Santiago was being used as a concentration camp and my step-father had been arrested there -- people just thought I was crazy."

Based in Vancouver, Aguirre now describes herself as a theatre artist and has written 18 plays. In her book, she takes readers into her first theatrical forays in Argentina. She recalls wanting to be an actor since the age of three and describes it as her calling. "I think the only way to do it is if it is your calling. It doesn't let you choose, it chooses you. It's a very, very unconventional lifestyle in every way possible. There's a lot of hardship in it in every way possible. So it really does have to feel like your calling."

Fitting with her life, many of Aguirre's plays are political. For her, politics and theatre go hand in hand. "To me, art is political -- period. End of story. There is no question about that." Aguirre is currently working on a one-woman show called Blue Box that includes content from her book Something Fierce.
Noreen Mae Ritsema is a former rabble intern and a regular contributor to rabble's book lounge.

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