Something Fierce is Vancouver playwright and actor Carmen Aguirre’s memoir of growing up in the resistance as the daughter of a revolutionary Chilean mother in the decade between 1979 and 1989, a journey into selfhood in a high-stakes world of secrecy, fear, bravery and love.
Aguirre was 6 when she and her family fled to Canada as political refugees after the military coup of Sept. 11, 1973, which removed Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president of Chile, and brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power.
When, in 1978, the Chilean resistance called for exiled activists to return to Latin America, Carmen’s mother chose to take her daughters with her, rather than leaving them with relatives or with supporters in Cuba. Aguirre describes the experience of eating at McDonald’s in a food court at Los Angeles Airport and what that meant to the 11-year-old daughter of exiled Chileans, for whom McDonald’s is “the ultimate symbol of imperialism.”
She describes life in Chile on their return in rich detail and with life experiences that include everything from Charlie’s Angels to stories of torture. Her insights are often quite hilarious. Her mother, a revolutionary, had instilled her own values in her children. To suddenly have her mother, a hippie for as long as she could remember, dress in middle-class clothes and do things she didn’t believe in meant something was up. It was a façade, she says.
“A façade is when you make up a story because it’s dangerous to tell the truth. … It’s a story you make up when you are involved in something bigger than yourself and you don’t want to risk your life or the lives of others.”
Carmen and her sister are given a story to memorize – a new middle-class identity that explains their mother’s new clothes and behaviour – and armed with strict instructions not to trust anybody, to begin their life in the resistance.
Her seven-year journey takes us to war-ridden Peru, to Bolivia under the dictatorship of Luis Garcia Meza, where Carmen’s parents set up a safe house for members of the resistance, to Argentina, back to Canada, and to Chile, still under Pinochet. We see these places, their social and political climates, through her eyes. She shares with us her first kiss and her first boyfriends as frankly as she does the terror of searches and riots and her mother disappearing for weeks at a time. She learns about the resistance from adults using false names, and begins to wonder if she can trust them.
Torn between her developing personal and political convictions and her desire to be a normal teenager, the stress of living a double life reduces her to “an agoraphobic fifteen-year-old skeleton with obsessive-compulsive disorder,” and leads to a suicide attempt in an attempt to gain some control over her life. When she finally reveals all, it is to a relative stranger, and she reveals more than she ever has before; the Terror (capital T) she has carried in her heart since she was 5, when her house was stormed by soldiers looking for her parents. She has found her first compañero.
Ironically, it is after to returning to Canada that Aguirre, at 18, decides to join the resistance herself, and moves with her new husband to Argentina to begin a dangerous new life. That she retains the commitment of her revolutionary past is evident in such works as Refugee Hotel, a play about Chilean refugees nominated for a Dora Award for best new play in 2010.
Her story is the personal experience of a brave young woman evolving her understanding of herself and her place in the world, told with passion, personal insight, rich detail and humour. Only in hindsight can she say, “I tried to be a hero, but I was just the opposite: a teenager … who wanted to give everything to the struggle.”
Something Fierce is raw, courageously honest and funny; an insightful journey into the formation of a revolutionary soul.
Francisca Zentilli also came to Canada from Chile and although her truth is not so fierce, also travelled to Latin America in the late 1970s and mid-1980s with her family.
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