This is a difficult book to do justice to mainly because it needs to be experienced as the author experienced its events. When Carmen was six years old , she fled from Chile with her parents after the coup by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Her story actually begins five years after that when she and her sister Ale with their mother and stepfather return to South America as members of the resistance. In Vancouver, her parents had divorced. Her stepfather, Bob, who had been in Chile when Salvadore Allende was in power. Bob spent a year in Santiago helping to build houses and then Pinochet coup occurred. Back in Canada, Bob actively worked with Chilean refugees. Bob and Mami (also named Carmen) were on a list of nationals not allowed back into Pinochet’s Chile. In keeping with this the two girls were told “to tell people she (Mami) was Peruvian…The Chilean blood that ran through our veins could be no more. Our family was moving south because Bob was starting an import-export company. We’d shopped at the mall for the first time ever to put together a middle-class look. ”
Their Mami’s advice continued: “To be in the resistance is a mtter of life and death. To say the wrong thing to the wrong person is a matter of life and death. And it is impossible to know who the wrong person is. You must assume that everybody is the wrong person. In the resistance, we agree to give our lives to the people, for better society. I’m asking a loy of you, but you must remember that the sacrifices you’ll have to make are nothing compared with the majority of children in this world. ”
Carmen’s reaction to the above: “I was glad my mother had chosen to take us along, because I wanted to fight for the children, for the people of the world.”
Initially things go along fairly well. The girls sometimes spent days alone in a hotel room. “We had strict orders to keep the noise down an not to open the door to anyone… Late at night, when they thought Ale and I were asleep, I’d spy them sitting cross-legged on their bed, talking in hushed tones while they studied photographs of papers and maps. It looked as though someone had covered a wall with papers and then taken a snapshot of every sheet. They would read the papers using a magnifying glass and then go in the bathroom and close the door. I’d hear the click of a lighter, then the toilet flushing over and over again.
I wasn’t worried during the times they were gone, except about one direction they’d left me with – only me, not my sister. “If twenty-four hours pass and we don’t come back, call this number and say you’re with the Tall One and Raquel. Then hang up. Within an hour someone will knock on the door. Answer it, and then you and Ale go with that person.”
A week later, they left on a bus for Huancayo, a bus “packed to the rafters with families, chickens, piglets and giant sacks of fruit.” Because the bus broke down every so often the trip took 12 hours instead of 6. They went to Cuzco and Machu Picchu and eventually to Copacabana in Bolivia. Then to LaPaz and a new home in Miraflores where the girls went to school.
From La Paz the girls took a train trip by themselves more than 1200 miles in length! They went to Santiago in Chile where their parents could not go. They were accompanied only for the initial short period of the trip. You must read about this for yourself.
As a teenager, Carmen has some typical experiences and some not so typical ones. She goes to the movie Ice Castles three times and she thought Robby Benson was cute but at one showing the movie was interrupted by a woman who went on stage to denounce the dictator Luis Garcia Meza and to call for a minute of silence for a Socialist leader who had been killed after being tortured. Carmen remembers asking her stepfather if the speaker on stage, a woman, will be killed. “I don’t know, Bob said. “But you will remember her Carmencita, because what that woman did is the definition of courage.”
Carmen had four good friends in La Paz and she learned much from each of them. For instance her friend Lorena explained that Aymara Indians had had slaves as their ancestors. “Id had no clue there had been Africa slaves in Bolivia.” Another time she heard a story told by Lorena’s mother which had happened in a remote village to the east where her cousins had taken her to hear the Second Coming of Christ. “What did he say?” asked one of the girls present. “He spoke of freedom and independence. He spoke of the brotherhood of this continent.” And Carmen wrote: “Nobody said aloud that the man in the jungle had been Che Guevara, who was killed in Bolivia in 1967. Lorena’s mother had probably seen him when he’d first arrived in 1966.”
As Carmen got older she became more personally involved in the revolutionary/resistance movement and the tension in the narrative increases. Once when her parents go on an emergency mission she is left at home and runs out of food money. She could have gone or help but wasn’t sure her situation was classified as an extreme-case scenario. She “was proud to know that I[she] could survive on recycled tea bags dipped in boiling water, even though my diet had turned me into a chronic trembler.”
“I was eighteen years and seven months old, seated in a Lima cafe, the day I took the resistance oath. My voice low, I leaned in and spoke: I am committed to giving my life to the cause. I will die for the cause if need be. From now on my entire life is dedicated to the cause, which takes precedence over everything else….” The rest is well worth reading and pondering.
In the Acknowledgements Carmen Aguirre writes the following to her mother and her stepfather:
“I would like to thank my mother for teaching me that we were put on this earth to give. I would like to thank her, a fellow writer, for her unconditional support of this book and her blind trust in me. She has allowed me to write my version of the story, and in so doing to reveal her secrets. She has taught me everything I know about passion, courage, strength, conviction and integrity. She is a woman who could have spent her life in comfort but chose to give up her privilege for a greater cause. I had the good fortune of being raised by a revolutionary, and for that I am eternally grateful.”
“I would like the thank Bob Everton, my late stepfather, for urging me to write this book in the months before he died. A true internationalist, he fought for causes locally and globally until his last day on earth. To quote Bertolt Brecht, “There are men who fight for a day and they are good. There are men who fight for a year and they are better. There are men who fight for many years and they are better still. But there are those who fight their whole lives: these are the indispensable ones.” Bob’s exemplary life leads me in my decisions every day.”
author photo by Peter Dzenkiw