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What it's like to arrive at a place called exile Add to ...

It has taken Carmen Aguirre more than a decade to bring her play The Refugee Hotel to the stage, but then she is a woman accustomed to waiting.

As a child in her native Chile, she waited in hiding with her parents - university professors and members of the Revolutionary Left Movement on the run from agents of the fascist Augusto Pinochet regime - and younger sister until they could flee to Canada. Four days after they left, their safe house was raided and shut down.

A few years later, as a teenager, Aguirre returned to South America with her mother (her parents had divorced by then) and helped her run safe houses for Chilean political refugees in Bolivia and Argentina, which meant more years of waiting for the activists who might or might not arrive.

And a few years later, as an adult, she returned yet again to take charge of the border safe houses herself, an experience fraught with peril. Again, there were long, tension-filled nights of waiting, listening for the sounds of danger.

Aguirre has written a memoir, Something Fierce, which chronicles those later years, and her work in the Chilean resistance movement. It's expected to be published next year.

One of 14 plays she has written, The Refugee Hotel, is culled from her memories of the family's arrival in Vancouver in 1974. The central character of the show, which opens at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille tonight, is based on her uncle, a former political prisoner, tortured while in custody, who was the first Chilean refugee to arrive in Vancouver. The action takes place over a week, during which old relationships unravel and new ones coalesce.

She tried repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to find a Vancouver company willing to produce it. This year, Toronto's Alameda Theatre Company, which promotes Latin-Canadian theatre artists, agreed to mount the show. Several members of that cast, which included Leanna Brodie, Terrence Bryant, Carlos Gonzalez-Vio, Cheri Maracle, Paloma Nunez, Bea Pizano, and Paula Rivera, have first-hand experience of the tumultuous political life of Central and South America.

The play was originally scheduled to have its world premiere at the Factory Theatre in Toronto six years ago, but was cancelled amid allegations of racial and cultural insensitivity.

Aguirre withdrew the play, alleging that Factory director Ken Gass tried to cast white actors in roles that should be played by non-whites. Gass denied the charges, but Aguirre eventually decided that "his vision of the world is vastly different from mine. I don't know if we could have seen eye-to-eye during rehearsals."

This time out, Aguirre is directing and doing her own casting.

Five years after arriving in Vancouver, Aguirre went back to South America with her black-listed mother. She recalls one nerve-wracking train ride with her younger sister; using fake passports, they were travelling to see their grandparents, still inside Chile. Later, she ran her own safe houses in Patagonia and worked in the revolution's headquarters in Lima, Peru.

Her father, who spent 10 years working as a janitor in Vancouver while he requalified for his academic degrees, knew of her clandestine work, but said nothing. "He knew what we were doing, but he also knew enough not to ask questions," she says.

Although the Pinochet dictatorship ended in 1990, "the system itself," Aguirre maintains, "did not change. Pinochet remained the head of the senate, with sweeping powers to command the armed forces. "The neo-liberal economic system remained in place and social services were not reinstated. We'd been fighting for revolutionary change. And we lost."

She might have returned to Chile, but instead came back to Vancouver in the early 1990s to study theatre at Studio 68. Since then, she's worked in collaboration with James Fagan Tait and The Electric Company, been playwright-in-residence at The Vancouver Playhouse and at Touchstone Theatre, and was part of the writing team on Da Vinci's Inquest's final season. She's also appeared in more than two dozen films and TV episodes, too often, she quips, playing the role of Mexican Hooker No. 1 or Latina Waitress.

A new work, a one-woman showed called Blue Box, commissioned by Toronto's Nightswimming Theatre, deals with a woman wanted by the secret police while obsessively following the man she loves. "It's about hunting and being hunted."

But her political convictions have not changed. She remains firmly committed to social-justice issues and to racial equity in Canadian theatre. "I look forward to the day when we can stop seeing these people - racial and ethnic minorities -as a risk."

The Refugee Hotel runs until Oct. 4 at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille.

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