Activist and rape survivor channels impulses into writing

By Dionne Christian

Carmen Aguirre.
Carmen Aguirre.

"I called the book Mexican Hooker #1 because I thought it was a funny and eye-catching title and if I saw a book with a name like that, I'd pick it up."

A minute or two into an interview with writer, actor, playwright, director and one-time Chilean revolutionary Carmen Aguirre and she wastes no time in making the point that the entertainment industry, in particular, persists with one-dimensional characters whose stories go unrecognised, let alone told.

"I actually auditioned for a character called Mexican Hooker #1; she didn't even have a name," says Aguirre, speaking from her home in Vancouver, Canada.

"Being a Latino actor in North America, more often than not the kinds of roles I get asked to audition for are stereotypical, quite racist. I was warned at drama school that this would happen and I would have to create my own work if I wanted to play a richer range of roles."

But there's a subtitle to Aguirre's second memoir: "And My Other Roles Since the Revolution". It's a tangible clue that her life has involved far more than being typecast as hookers and maids. If we care to dig a little deeper, we'll uncover much more complex stories.

She has told elements of her own story through numerous plays and two memoirs, Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter - amid some controversy, it was named 2012 Canada Reads Champion - and this year's Mexican Hooker #1 And My Other Roles Since the Revolution.

And what tales she has to tell. During her 49 years, Aguirre has been a Chilean refugee raised by a radical feminist mother, a member of the Chilean resistance, a drama school student, actress, teacher and writer, a mother - and she survived rape during her teenage years by one of Canada's most notorious serial rapists.

While Something Fierce focuses on her activism, Mexican Hooker #1 details how she coped with experiences so terrifying they left her with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Aged 13, Aguirre was raped in woods close to her home by John Oughton, a serial sex-attacker dubbed the paper bag rapist because he put a bag over the heads of his victims, or wore a mask himself, so he could not be identified. Oughton committed his crimes from 1977-85, when he was arrested. Two years later he was convicted of sex-related crimes and imprisoned.

She says writing about the rape - and it pervades the Mexican Hooker #1 story - wasn't difficult, says Aguirre, because she has spent decades healing through therapy, body work and meeting Oughton in a restorative justice meeting.

Aguirre is also one of a group of women who attends his parole hearings, held every two years, to lobby for him to remain behind bars. Strength has been gained through numbers.

"It [writing] wasn't personally cathartic; I would consider that kind of writing to be journal writing. The overall theme of the book is healing from PTSD, the effects of living in a state of constant terror and how you heal from that because, really, it's been a theme in my life since childhood."

Too true; one of her earliest memories was from 1973 when, aged 5, Aguirre, the daughter of left-wing academics, sat with her parents and younger sister Ale on their bed to listen to the final speech by Chilean President Salvador Allende as the presidential palace was bombed.

"They just wept."

The family fled Chile shortly after General Augusto Pinochet's coup, eventually making their way to Vancouver, Canada. During the coming months, they were to hear of the disappearances, deaths and torture of numerous friends and colleagues.

"I was too young to even know what it all meant but, of course, we wanted to go 'home'. I've never met a refugee who doesn't want to go home, to go back," Aguirre says. "That's why it's so wrong to call those now fleeing their homes in the Middle East 'migrants'. Being a migrant - an immigrant - is all about re-inventing yourself in a new land you've chosen to be. Being a refugee is all about the return."

That return came earlier than she may have imagined. Her parents divorced and her mother, Mami, married Bob Everton, who had narrowly escaped death by firing squad at Santiago's National Stadium during the days after the coup. While Everton tirelessly campaigned for the rights of Chilean refugees in Canada, he and Mami wanted to do more, so they took the family back to South America to run safe-houses for political dissidents.

The first Aguirre, then 11, and Ale knew about the plan was when they arrived at the airport and were told they weren't going on holiday to Costa Rica. From then on, life was lived precariously and always with one eye over her shoulder. The family moved from one South American hotspot to another, harbouring members of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR). Friends disappeared; sometimes Mami and Bob did, too, but remarkably they always returned to the children.

Mami was also a radical feminist and Aguirre says the messages her mother gave out - you are in charge of your body, never depend on a man - were powerful ones for a teenage girl. Aguirre even challenged her attacker, pointing out that what he was doing was rape.

"But there was an edge to that [feminist] movement which was almost anti-child," she says. "If a woman chose to have a child and dedicate herself to being a mother, that was looked down upon and not supported. I do not agree with that. For me the most revolutionary thing I can do right now is to spend time with my 9-year-old son."

She may have craved normality, but Aguirre married a resistance fighter and joined the MIR.

By the time she was 22, she had undertaken perilous border runs, aided the escape of political dissidents and learned to fly planes as low as possible through the Chilean mountains.

Then it was over. In 1988, Pinochet was voted out (although he didn't go immediately) and the resistance dissolved. Aguirre returned, without her husband, to Canada, completed theatre studies and has since channelled any revolutionary tendencies into theatre and writing.

That she has needed to be brave throughout her life is without question, but that courage has had to last to writing her memoirs at a time when, post 9-11, even the most innocuous of protests or activism can see your name put on a watchlist. To admit to having been part of a far-left movement once branded a guerilla organisation is daring indeed.

Aguirre says before he died, her stepfather urged her to write, saying the story needed to be told and many of those who could add to it were already dead. While she had long wanted to write, Aguirre was reluctant.

"Our movement was on the top of a list of terrorist movements. Chile's constitution is still Pinochet's, so there was a real fear around writing it, but Bob urged me on. He told me, 'there are not a lot of these types of memoirs written in the first person'."

Just how controversial her first book is was highlighted during the 2012 Canada Reads, an annual "battle of the books" competition organised and broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Five personalities champion five different books and at the end of each episode the panellists vote on a winning title until only one book is left. Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter ended as the top title.

But during the debate, panellist and lawyer Anne-France Goldwater described Aguirre as "a bloody terrorist" and declared "how we let her into Canada, I don't understand".

Aguirre has not been active in any movement for years. She says her activism is today focused on her work. She's even returned to Chile, taking part in events at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights.

"It was very exciting, very moving and, yes, I would love to go back because it's home but how am I going to make a living? So there's no plan to do that."

Carmen Aguirre speaks with screen producer, writer and director Dan Salmon at the Auckland Writers Festival on Friday, May 13, 10am.

- Canvas

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