Manuelita is like a lot of little girls living in Canada in the 1970s. She loves Barbies, digs Charlie’s Angels and knows all the dance moves for that disco hit The Hustle. But unlike most of her eight-year-old cohorts, she also idolizes Che Guevara, is familiar with protests and hunger strikes, and has fled a bloody South American coup.
Chile Con Carne, Carmen Aguirre’s witty, semi-autobiographical monologue about growing up as a refugee of Chile’s Pinochet regime, vividly captures the feelings of a child torn between two worlds. Manuelita desperately wants to fit in with her white, middle-class Canadian peers – to the extent that she wears a blond wig to school. But she’s also keenly aware that she’s an outsider, with parents who speak only Spanish, regard Canada as just a temporary haven and devote all their energies to opposing the military dictatorship that sent them into exile.
This early Aguirre play, getting a welcome revival from Toronto’s Latin American-themed Alameda company at the Factory Studio Theatre, has only gained in interest since it premiered here in 1999. Since then, the Vancouver playwright has published her bestselling 2011 memoir, Something Fierce, which chronicled her youth as part of the anti-Pinochet resistance movement. In retrospect, Chile Con Carne is a rehearsal for that book, a first glimpse into the beginnings of a fiery young revolutionary.
But when we first meet Manuelita – played by a sparky Paloma Nunez – she’s just a poor immigrant kid with her nose pressed against the candy-shop window of Western materialism. At school, she’s agog with awe and envy at one of her classmates in particular, a honey-hued princess named Leslie (Manuelita hears it as “Lassie”) who lives in a palatial Vancouver home and has an awesome Barbie collection. Manuelita, whose father works in a factory while her mother cleans houses, would give anything to have just one of those dolls. Leslie befriends her, but thinks she’s Mexican like the family maid, while the other kids refer to her sneeringly as “Speedy Gonzales” and call her homeland “Chile con carne.”
Manuelita’s refuge is a cedar tree in the nearby woods, where she goes to escape racist taunts and read the letters from her beloved grandmother back in Valparaiso. It also becomes the focus of her first radical acts. When she realizes the tree is destined to be chopped down, she and her Chilean “blood brother,” Josealito, set out to save it by any means necessary, from petitions to acts of vandalism.
Soon, Manuelita’s politicized home life bleeds into her school life, too. She has Leslie and the other girls playing guerrillas, stalking the woods like Che and his comrades in the Bolivian jungle. When she finally gets a Barbie she re-christens it “Tania,” after Che’s lover and fellow revolutionary. And she turns a children’s performance of Cinderella into a very funny political allegory, with the bourgeois wicked stepmother oppressing the proletarian heroine.
Along with her depiction of a budding activist, Aguirre paints a colourful picture of Vancouver’s Chilean community, which she would later expand into her play The Refugee Hotel, seen here a few seasons ago. The very real horrors – the abductions, the torture – endured by leftists under General Augusto Pinochet are leavened with the daily absurdities of the refugee experience. And Nunez’s Manuelita embodies some of that absurdity. She dons a succession of curly, ill-fitting blond wigs that fail to conceal her raven pigtails, while staring out at us plaintively with a Latina’s dark, liquid eyes. If her performance lacks nuance, she makes up for it with energy and passion.
The show is directed by Alameda’s founder, Marilo Nunez, who played the role of Manuelita in the original Toronto production. Her staging begins imaginatively, with a sequence using shadow puppets to portray Manuelita’s family, but doesn’t live up to its promise. It is, however, steeped in Chilean and Seventies flavour. Newsreel footage of Salvador Allende, whose elected Marxist government was toppled by Pinochet in 1973, is projected on a mountain backdrop by set designer Flavia Hevia that mimics the patchwork arpilleras associated with the Chilean resistance movement. And in Edgardo Moreno’s sound design, stirring Spanish songs from the Allende era are juxtaposed with the frivolous likes of Kung Fu Fighting and Elton John’s Island Girl.
This September marks the 40th anniversary of the coup that installed Pinochet. The general is dead now and Chile is again a democracy, while Aguirre’s play remains a modest but eloquent testament to that dark time, and to the generation of Chilean exiles that is part of its legacy.