Tectonic Women…Carmen Aguirre

Blog Post by Joy Ross-Jones, March 9, 2018

I’ve been chewing on the word bravery.

It first came up last year when Micheline and I were discussing Artista. She asked, “Do we want Artista to offer the participants a safe space or a brave space?” The embrace of the words brave space was a shift in the way Artista approaches telling stories and generating creative content during our workshops. The word came up again when making the decision, after a decade of watching the crisis in my home country, Venezuela, unfold, to create a piece of theatre that tells the story. This was both a frightening and empowering decision.

Author, actor and playwright Carmen Aguirre says, “Bravery isn’t about not feeling fear. A brave person is a person who feels fear and does what they feel they have to do regardless of the fear.” Carmen inspires me with her bravery; she does things I would only dream of doing for her country, and through her art. The stories she tells of her political experiences are beautiful.

Carmen was born in Chile to a family pushed into exile in 1973 by the military coup that overthrew Salvador Allende’s government and brought on Augusto Pinochet’s 17 year dictatorship. The Aguirre family were accepted into Vancouver as political refugees where Carmen lived for years before returning to Chile at the age of 18 to join the Chilean underground resistance. Carmen is a storyteller in various mediums who doesn’t shy away from delving into her lived experiences in her work. She offers her audiences the opportunity to observe and empathize with trauma and pain. What is it like to live in fear for your life every moment knowing that you are resisting a government that has no qualms disappearing you? What is it like to come face to face after several decades with your abuser, a serial rapist? How do you heal? Do you ever heal?

As a Venezuela-Canadian, I feel guilty that I am not doing enough for my country. Venezuela is a chosen one, a country being pillaged for its immense resource wealth. It piqued the interest of international powers who have assisted national politicians in implementing destabilization tactics, which have been used on repeat throughout history to take control of the legislature, weaken the will of the country’s people, and gain control over their resources. These include: scare the wealthy and educated out of the country, subjugate those who remain through intense dependence on the government for food and basic resources, thread violence through the concrete of every sidewalk, haze the country with a blinding fog of fear, and repeat, and repeat and repeat.

I try to not to use the binary of good and evil in my vocabulary. I want to believe in every human beings’ potential towards restitution, and labeling something as evil admits a defeat that restitution might not be possible. I make an exception here: there is evil amiss in my country where the homicide rate is the highest worldwide, where infant mortality is multiplying exponentially, where garbage dumps have become viable sources of food, and where our president refuses to acknowledge the crisis and accept international aid. It smells of sulphur to me.

I want to be brave like Carmen, but I am too afraid of men with guns to return to my country and try to make a difference. People who do that become political prisoners who are never heard from again. I want to be brave, but I’m afraid of giving up what I have, comfort and stability, to do so. I’m so impressed with Carmen that she returned to her country when her country was the eye of the storm, willing to risk her life to make a difference. She uses her art as a medium to tell these stories, offering a unique lens on complex and challenging issues. This is a form of bravery I am stepping into, but I am aware of my boundaries. Carmen reminds me that storytelling is an act of bravery and so is direct political action.

In her honour, and in honour of the myriad of women doing brave work today and those of the past, on whose shoulders we stand, I will continue to chew on and push towards bravery.

Joy Ross-Jones