“First of all, I don’t live in a fantasy world,” instructs Carmen Aguirre. “I didn’t want to be targeted as a terrorist. We live in a world and a time where taking up arms against any government is considered terrorism.”
This former revolutionary, who comes in a sleeveless, décolleté purple dress and red high-heeled sandals, has much to say across a table in an uptown Toronto café, in the heart of the self-congratulatory bourgeois world she so clearly holds in contempt.
Her new book, which caused her some hesitation before publishing, is called Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter.
And she lives up to the title.
She has the look of a woman in a cubist portrait: features almost too big for her face; her eyebrows, beautiful winged things over almond-shaped eyes, which she uses to pin you, assess you, and then release you when she’s had enough.
She is aware of the power of her appearance. “Many, many people have a stereotype of what a revolutionary would look like,” she informs me. “In a dress, wearing heels, doesn’t go with Che Guevera.”
The book, which took eight years to write, recounts her youth spent in the Chilean resistance against Pinochet’s right-wing dictatorship. Her family fled to Vancouver shortly after the coup in 1973. Six years later, her mother, by then divorced and remarried, took her two daughters back to South America where they lived a dangerous and secretive life as part of the underground resistance. At 18, Ms. Aguirre put herself in greater peril by joining the resistance herself. She and her husband at the time, Alejandro, whom she married for immigration and political reasons, conducted life-threatening border runs, dropping off “goods” and “items,” she writes in the book without divulging their content. She was also trained to fly planes as low as possible through Chilean mountains to avoid capture.
Did she feel the story was pent-up, in need of expression? Now 43, she had returned to Vancouver in 1990 at the age of 22 to pursue a career in theatre. “No,” she retorts immediately. “Because that’s therapy and not art.” She ruffles her long, frilly hair.
A stage, film and TV actor who has also written 18 plays, including The Refugee Hotel, which was nominated for a Dora Mavor Moore Award last year, she has often drawn on her experience in South America, material which makes her book a rich, harrowing read with anecdotes even a fiction writer might have trouble imagining. She recounts a time when military police surrounded her house in Chile, the year of the U.S.-backed military coup that ushered Pinochet in and brought to an end the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, of whom her family were supporters.
With her parents absent and only a babysitter at home, the soldiers, who came looking for evidence of subversion, took her and her sister outside. “I guess it’s the firing squad for you two,” said one. The girls were told to turn around and raise their arms. They heard laughter and the order to fire. Minutes later came the sound of the soldiers driving away. She was 5. Her sister, a year younger.
“I was shut down and traumatized from having lived in terror during my formative years,” she comments calmly about the fallout of her youth, pinning me with her eyes. “Of course,” she adds in a matter-of-fact tone.
She speaks as she writes in her book. “Relaxed concision” is how one reviewer put it. There is little display of passion with the exception of her sudden laughter, released in bursts, like steam.
But if her youth caused her distress as an adult, she doesn’t regret it. “What’s considered rebellion [in North America] is how much drugs and alcohol you could do,” she says. “I’m very happy I gave my youth to something so much bigger than me.
“I mourn the loss of that fierceness,” she continues, acknowledging that while her Vancouver-based life has risk – all artistic pursuit demands it, she says – it offers safety. (She writes of frequent meltdowns during her life in the resistance when fear and stress would overwhelm her.)
Most surprisingly, she bears no grudge against her mother, a writer, poet and novelist – now also in Vancouver – who teaches at Simon Fraser University. “So many people did what she did,” she says. Her mother and step-father set up safe houses during the seven years the family spent in Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. The girls witnessed gruesome scenes of tortured resistance fighters who recuperated in their midst. “My mother came from a radical feminist background that was very anti-mother, anti-child. Whenever you put your child first, you were a sellout, a fifties housewife, and you weren’t feminist.”
She speaks with the flattened tone of someone who knows how to defuse emotion, a manner of comporting herself that she learned in the resistance. “I’d worked hard to master the skill of killing my heart whenever I crossed the border,” she writes. But it’s also suggestive of someone who has undergone therapy to understand what she endured. “As a stage artist, the instrument is the body, so you have to deal with [the trauma] in order to access the instrument,” she says, acknowledging that she has done many years of psychotherapy. “The body will let you know very, very quickly how [screwed] up you are,” she explains, allowing a laugh to escape.
Despite the calm her life in Canada has, she doesn’t enjoy being an immigrant. “The main stereotype that I deal with is this notion that somehow this country is better than ours.” A burst of derision follows. “It’s ‘Oh, you must feel so lucky to be here.’” Another laugh. “That’s so incredibly insulting.” She shoots a withering look my way. “Within the immigrant community, we talk this way, but not outside. It’s the politically correct thing to say, ‘Oh, isn’t it beautiful here?’”
I ask if she has an antidote to the North American existence she doesn’t seem to want. “Salsa dancing every Friday night,” she says. Now a single mother of a four-year-old child, she had left her husband when in her 20s because she wasn’t sexually attracted to him. “Of course,” she instructed. “To not be sexually attracted to a husband when in your 20s is not a good thing.”
Does she have a boyfriend? She lifts her glass. Takes another sip. Places it back on the table. A subversive smile curls the corners of her generous lips. “I don’t have one of those,” she responds laconically. “To have one, he would have to so blow me out of the water.”