Carmen Aguirre: Healing and Resistance

It seems like Carmen Aguirre has lived numerous lives. A renowned playwright and actor, she’s also a best-selling memoirist. Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter was a critically-acclaimed national bestseller, and the winner of Canada Reads in 2012.

Something Fierce told the story of Aguirre’s early years, including her life as teenager involved in the resistance movement against Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Published internationally, it will soon appear in Chile.

Aguirre has just published her second memoir, Mexican Hooker #1. Subtitled And My Other Roles Since the Revolution, it talks about her life in Vancouver, her training as an actor, and finding her calling as a writer and creator of politically-inspired theatre. The book also delves into a horrifying sexual assault she endured as a young teenager.

Carmen Aguirre came to Winnipeg as part of our Spring Literary Series this past June. W had a chance to sit with her, enjoying lunch on a sunny patio, and talking about why she wrote another memoir.

The new book opens as in December 1989, with a teenaged Carmen and her mother in Buenos Aries. Pinochet is gone and democratic elections for Chile are only a few days away. Yet, they share a feeling of disappointment, that the chance for meaningful change is slipping away.

Eventually, Carmen decides to move back to Canada, where she was living before she joined the Chilean resistance, and back to Vancouver, where she was accepted into acting school.

But her experience at the school, one of the most well-regarded in the country, was not what she was hoping for.

“I’ve always thought of theatre and the arts as tools for change,” she says. “Not exclusively, but it’s one of the things theatre’s good at.

“I was introduced to political theatre by my mother when I was a child. My mother toured the countryside, doing agitprop, rural theatre, for the socialist government. I thought all theatre was like that.”

But the school’s take on theatre was different. “Not only was it completely apolitical,” Aguirre says, “it was frowned upon to talk about politics.”

She was also disappointed when her instructors told her that because of the colour of her skin, and the inherent racism in Canadian theatre, the choice of roles offered her would always be limited. Hence the title of the book.

Salvation, and her vocation, came when Carmen was introduced to the Theatre of the Oppressed, a genre of theatre that promotes political and social change. Following that tradition, her plays, including The Refugee Hotel and Blue Box, are both political and autobiographical.

“I first came across it halfway through school,” she says. “I was having a terrible time there.

“Everything I was missing from theatre school I found there, the political part. This is like 25 years ago. Since then, I’ve facilitated dozens of workshops in every circumstance you could imagine: high schools, reserves, women’s prisons.”

Aguirre has written or co-written twenty-five plays. They’re like poetry, she says, where every word is so important. The memoirs, though, presented different challenges.

“They were both really hard to write. Not just emotionally, but technically. The new one was difficult because of the structure. I wanted to move back and forth in time without confusing the reader.”

Aguirre writes about a horrific event that took place when she was thirteen-years old. Reading the book, the attack is always on the periphery, from a flashback during a workshop at theatre school to the scene when her assailant is convicted for raping numerous women. Eventually, Aguirre meets other women who attacked by the same man, and they form an ad hoc community. By the end of the book, she confronts her assailant face-to-face.

“It’s a continuation of the first book,” she says about Mexican Hooker #1. “When touring, I was asked all sorts of questions, like, ‘How did you heal from all the terror in the first book?’

“In answering these questions, I came up with the theme of the book, which is healing from PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder].

“And the healing from the rape … it was the spine of the book.”