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Something Fierce

By Carmen Aguirre

As my mother bit into her Big Mac, her glasses caught the reflection of a purple neon light somewhere behind me. Barry White's "Love's Theme," my favourite song, blasted from the loudspeaker. Mami looked hilarious in her new aqua eye-shadow. Her plucked eyebrows gave her a surprised expression. Then there was her frosted pink lipstick, which was smeared across her chin now, and the unfamiliar scent of Charlie. I'd helped her choose that perfume. The picture on the box showed one of Charlie's Angels doing the splits in mid-air, wearing a white pantsuit and platform shoes. In dressing for our trip that morning, my mother had followed her lead, though not the splits part, because she was four foot ten and round. Now here we were in a food court at Los Angeles International Airport, which my mother referred to as "l-a-x." She and I and my sister, Ale, had walked for ages through the terminal, looking for our gate, and the whole time she'd rubbed the palms of her hands into the small of her back, muttering, "Firing squad to the woman hater who invented heels."

It was June 1979, and the day before, in Vancouver, Mami had been a hippie. She'd been a hippie for as long as I'd been her daughter, in fact, which was eleven years now. That's why Ale and I had giggled when we saw her this morning, and why we'd been shocked a few weeks earlier when Mami announced we were going to a mall. She'd tried on most of the inventory at Suzie Creamcheese before settling on the white polyester pantsuit and some matching platforms at Aggies. She was usually dressed in frayed jeans with patches on the ass and a pair of old clogs. But this was a special occasion, requiring a new wardrobe to go with it, my mother had explained. We'd found her in the kitchen that morning blowing on her toenails, which were wet with red polish, humming Victor Jara's famous song "The Right To Live in Peace." Our passports were laid out like a fan on the table. The three of us hadn't looked back as we left our basement suite. Canada had taken us in after the coup in Chile five years earlier, but my mother had made it clear from day one that the refugee thing in the imperialist North was not for us. So our suitcases had been packed again, and our posters of Ho Chi Minh, Salvador Allende and Tupac Amaru taken down and given away. Rulo drove us to the airport in my mother's orange VW Bug, and Mami had several attacks of the giggles along the way, because he'd only just learned to drive. "Clutch, Rulo, clutch, you idiot!" she yelled. I'd never seen Rulo so excited, and I knew it was because he'd get to keep the car from that day on.

This part of the imperialist North, lax, was very different from anything I'd seen so far. In Vancouver, we and the few dozen other Chilean families had been the only Latinos. That city, where you could buy tropical fruit in the dead of winter, was full of white people who kept their bodies and faces perfectly still when they talked. At lax we were surrounded by the sound of Mexican Spanish, and there were black people everywhere. I could see palm trees and turquoise sky just beyond the glass walls of the airport. The lady who'd sold me a cheeseburger with no patty (I'd been a strict vegetarian since I was eight) had touched my cheek and spoken to me in Spanish. She'd recognized herself in me, and somehow I understood that. For the first time in five years, I thought maybe I belonged somewhere. But it couldn't possibly be here, because the North was the forbidden place of belonging.

A Colombian family at the table next to us argued and laughed and broke into spontaneous cumbia. When I went up to the counter for a second banana milkshake, one of the Colombian ladies asked me if I was going to Bogotá, like her. I shook my head. I couldn't explain where I was going or where I was coming from. There were too many winding roads leading each way. But she had recognized herself in me, too, and I swallowed down some tears hard and fast.

Back at our table, Mami was finishing her hamburger, her eyes far away. I'd never seen her eat a Big Mac before. McDonald's was the ultimate symbol of imperialism, so we had always boycotted it. Ale showed off a new helium balloon featuring a portrait of Ronald McDonald. It had been given to her by Ronald himself, who'd passed through moments ago. Two years before, when she was eight, Ale had run away from home. My parents and the other adults had never learned about my sister's bold attempt at a new life; they'd been too busy printing Victoria Final (Final Victory), the monthly newsletter they put out from our dining room table. It was my cousins Gonzalo and Macarena and I who followed Ale down the street and brought her back. She'd been clutching her Easy-Bake Oven, given to us by a church group that helped refugees. I sucked the airport milkshake past the knot in my throat.

Our stepfather, Bob, had left Vancouver a few months earlier, and now we were flying to join him in Costa Rica, revolutionary Central America. Goodbye to my elementary school city, to the land of late-night janitor work, hand-me-down Barbie dolls and Salvation Army clothes. Goodbye to my father, who was staying behind.

My mother and father had gotten a divorce, joining so many other Chileans whose marriages had not withstood exile. One afternoon when Ale and I got home from school, my parents were waiting for us at opposite ends of the living room. Mami's glasses were all steamed up, and Papi was staring out the window, his chin quivering. My mother explained that she was moving out, that she couldn't be with my father anymore but she'd always be our best friend. She was going to live with some other women in a communal apartment, and we could visit her there and go to the park. After a long hug, she drove away in the orange VW, its trunk held down by a coat hanger, and just like that, our family was broken forever. The next time we saw Mami, she was on stage, singing with Rulo, my uncle Boris and the other Chileans with whom she'd formed the folk group Revolución. When we met up with her after the show, a terrible shyness hit me. I'd never had to meet my mother anywhere before, the way you meet a stranger.

Our house got filthy, and my father and Ale and I ate hot dogs for weeks. But the plants always looked nice, because Papi watered and trimmed them. Whenever we walked through the botanical garden at the university, where he worked part time as a gardener, he would point out his favourite ferns. Then he'd ask us how to spell cloud and ocean and highway, because he was revalidating his physics degree and studying English at the same time. He was a car washer at a Toyota dealership and had a paper route and janitor gigs, but his favourite job was at the botanical garden. Papi was a great admirer of nature. That's what he always said. A couple of months after the separation, he'd found solace in the arms of another Chilean exile who had split with her husband. We called her Aunt Tita.

Ale was licking ketchup off her fingers. My mother looked around, lit up a Matinée, then cleared her throat.

"Girls, we're not going to Costa Rica," she said.

Ale and I stared at her, one of us mid-swallow, the other mid-lick.

"We were never headed to Costa Rica, actually. That was a facade."

"What's a facade?" Ale asked. Ronald McDonald spied on us from the balloon bobbing above her head.

"A facade is when you make up a story because it's dangerous to tell the truth," Mami said. "It's a story you make up when you're involved in something bigger than yourself and you don't want to risk your life or the lives of others."

My mind raced back to the afternoon in Seattle when my mother had addressed a crowd wearing a long-haired wig and cat's-eye glasses. The organizers had introduced her as María. She'd explained to us later that it was safer that way; she'd been talking about the struggle in Chile, and not all of the photographers in the crowd had been with the newspapers. We'd stayed at a communal hippie house there, and a couple of the men had shaved off their beards and cut their long hair before we left for the rally. The men were in solidarity with us, my mother said. They were activists against the war in Vietnam, and they understood the danger of the situation.

Ale said, "You mean a facade is when you tell a big fat lie."

My mother looked weary. Her eyes moved around, as if she was searching for the right words. She shifted in her seat, crossing her legs as she sucked on her cigarette. Finally, she said, "It's not quite like that."

"Well, where are we going then?" I asked.

"I wish I could tell you, my precious girls, but I can't. Right now, we'll be taking a plane to Lima, Peru. Nobody else has this information about us. It has to do with being in the resistance, and I know you'll understand because you are both so strong and so smart and so mature."

I hadn't realized we were in the resistance. I'd just thought we were in solidarity with the resistance. But I felt too embarrassed to say that.

The plane to Lima wasn't leaving for two more hours, my mother told us. She leaned in close, her face super-serious. I knew better than to look away or to practise the hustle in my mind, as I sometimes did when I was worried. The resistance was underground, my mother said in a low voice. That meant it was top secret. We couldn't tell anybody, under any circumstances. There was a story we had to memorize, and she was going to go over it with us many times, so that when somebody asked us about ourselves, we'd know exactly what to say.

"When someone asks where you were born, for example, you say Vancouver. If somebody asks you who Bob is, you say he's your father. In the blood sense. I know I can trust you girls to do this. That's why I brought you along. There are many other women going back to join the resistance, and they've left their kids behind or sent them to Cuba to be raised by volunteer families. But children belong with their mothers. I know that if we're careful, everything will be okay. And we'll all be together, the way we're meant to be."

Bob and my mother had moved in together after the divorce. He was a longshoreman, and he often brought us goodies from the port. He suffered from a terrible temper, but he kept a drawer full of Kit Kats in the kitchen and always offered us one after a fit of rage. We'd heard Bob's story many times. When he was nineteen, he'd hitchhiked all over the world, and because of what he saw he became a revolutionary. After Salvador Allende was elected in Chile, Bob hitchhiked there to offer his support. Lots of foreigners had done that. Allende was the first Marxist president in the world to take power through an election. He believed it was possible to make revolutionary changes without a revolution. Bob spent a year in Santiago, helping to build houses in the New Havana shantytown. Then the coup happened, with General Augusto Pinochet, whom Allende had recently appointed commander-in-chief of the armed forces, at the helm. When the military raided New Havana, Bob was arrested and put in the national stadium, which wasn't for soccer games anymore but had become a concentration camp. Bob had a line about that. "It was during my time there that I became a revolutionary with a capital R," he would say. He got this look in his eye sometimes, and his Adam's apple started quivering. My mother explained that it had to do with what had happened to Bob in the stadium during those two weeks, and what he saw happen to other people.

Three Canadians were being held in Chile right after the coup, and the Canadian embassy got them out. Out of jail, out of the country and onto the dictatorship's blacklist. When Bob got back to Canada, he formed a solidarity committee and organized a cross-country caravan. They set up camp on Parliament Hill until the prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, agreed to offer asylum to Chilean refugees. We'd been one of the first families to arrive, and Bob had helped us from the start. He became my gringo uncle after a while, then my stepfather. And now he was supposed to be my father, which was kind of funny. I guessed people would believe Ale and me, because Bob was Black Irish. That's how he explained his black hair and beard. Black Irish, raised on the wrong side of the tracks. My heart burst for him, for the fact he had almost died for Chile.

My mother continued with the new official story.

We were to tell people she was Peruvian, she said. 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 middleclass look. It all made sense now: my mother's Charlie's Angels attire, Ale and I in our brand-new shoes, all the rage with their white platforms and blue suede tops, the Pepsi logo stitched on the side. We had to look normal. Mainstream. We had to stand out for the right reasons from now on, not the wrong ones.

Lots of our friends in Vancouver had come straight from the detention centres in Chile. They'd arrived with crooked spines, missing an eye or their balls or nipples or fingernails. Like Rulo. He'd been held in the Dawson Island concentration camp, near Antarctica, and he was skinny as a skeleton when we picked him up at the airport. He was carrying a charango, a little guitar made from an armadillo shell. Rulo was seventeen when he landed in Vancouver, and Bob had taken him in. Rulo had tried to teach me how to play his tiny charango, but it was too hard to get my fingers into the right position. So I'd taught him the hustle instead. He really liked that.

I tuned back in to my mother as she squeezed our hands.

"To be in the resistance is a matter of life and death. To say the wrong thing to the wrong person is a matter of life and death. And it's 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 a better society. I'm asking a lot 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. So many of them die of curable diseases and work twelve-hour shifts in factories, without ever learning to read and write. We are fighting for a society in which all children have the right to a childhood. I'm so proud of you girls for being a part of that."

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. I thought about the sacrifices Rulo had made. He told us he'd handed his bones over to be broken methodically by the military, and he'd do it all again if he had to. He'd shown me his scars and let me touch them. Our sacrifice, my mother said, was a bit different. It would involve us acting as if we were rich, pretending to be something we were not. I swallowed past the stupid knot in my throat. It felt as if a huge vitamin pill had gotten stuck in there.

"That's all I can say for now," my mother was explaining. "So please don't ask me any questions. When one is in the resistance, one simply does what one is told to do. And for the time being, you will not be able to send letters or postcards to anybody." Her cigarette made a sizzling sound as she stamped it out in the ashtray. She kept her gaze down, avoiding our eyes. I thought of the stationery from Chinatown in my carry-on bag. My father had given it to me, with explicit orders to write often. I remembered him that morning, seeing us off at the airport, his shoulders heaving. "My girls, my girls, my girls," he'd murmured in our ears, his hands clutching the backs of our heads.

Ale asked my mother if she could get some more french fries. As she dug in, I watched the long shadows created by the setting sun. Were the planes I could hear all around me coming or going, I wondered? What if I were to pick up my travel bag right now and walk to the Canadian Pacific counter and get on a plane back to Vancouver? What if I were to join the Colombian family at the next table and become one of them? What if I were to walk through the glass doors that led to the vast city of L.A. and get on a bus and just stay in the part of town that it took me to? When I looked over at my mother, she was hugging her canvas carry-on bag to her chest and gazing off somewhere unreachable. A fresh Matinée burned between her fingers.

When the time came, we lined up at the Braniff counter with the other passengers, Peruvians and Ecuadorians. Our plane was due to stop in Quito before reaching Lima, and a lady in a beehive and pearls asked me if that's where I was from. No, I said. I was from Santiago. The lady smiled. "Santiago is one of the jewels of South America," she said. Wow. I hadn't known that. But then my mother elbowed me, and I remembered I was from Vancouver now, a place so distant it was already as if it had never existed. We were no longer exiles. We were a resistance family headed who knows where.

There was a kerfuffle at the counter up ahead, and a lady who looked like Julie from The Love Boat explained over the loudspeaker that since our plane was having technical difficulties, the airline was going to put us up at a hotel near the airport until morning. Ale and I gave each other a high-five. The only hotel we'd ever stayed in was the hotel for refugees the Canadian government had paid for when we first got to Vancouver.

In the bus lineup, a woman who had gel nails decorated with the U.S. flag shyly approached my mother. "I'm from Ecuador," she said in a rush, clenching her white clutch purse. "I'm twenty-five years old, and I came to L.A. to visit my uncle and auntie. He's the baseball sportscaster on Radio La Raza. Do you know him? Anyway, my nerves have gotten the better of me because my plane is delayed. I noticed that you are a señora with two girls. Would you mind taking care of me as well?" My mother nodded. I'd never spoken to one of these ladies before, with their feathered hair and heavy perfume. Ladies Mami had always referred to as a "bunch of fucking idiots." And now we'd get to share a room with one.

The hotel was actually a motel. Just like Malibu Barbie's house, I thought, except this motel was for economy-class Latinos whose flights had been delayed. The paint was peeling, and the Astroturf was stained. Ale and I smeared our faces with cream from the mini-containers in the bathroom and modelled the shower caps. There were so many channels on TV it made us dizzy.

It was four in the morning by the time we got into our beige double bed. My mother was supposed to share her bed with the lady, who was called Jackie. But Jackie was stationed at the plastic-wood vanity, rollers in her hair, putting different creams on her face and then wiping them off. From where I was lying, I could see her tweezing her eyebrows and then a trail of hair that led from her belly button to her vagina. My mother always called the private parts of the body by their proper names. If you said "down there," she would look you straight in the eye and say, "Vagina. Repeat after me: va-gi-na. Good." I wondered if Mami was asleep or just pretending.

Our plane took off without a hitch a few hours later. As we flew toward the equator, the passengers cheered and clapped and talked about their final destination: home. The last time Ale and my mother and I had been on a plane we'd flown north, in the middle of the night, as people wept into their hankies. Someone had spread a Chilean flag and a banner of Allende in the aisle. When the pilot announced over the loudspeaker, "We have crossed the border into Peru. We are out of Chile," the passengers, grown men and strong women, had cried even more loudly. Someone started singing the Chilean national anthem, and everyone joined in. My parents had put their arms around us and said, "You will never forget this. You. Will. Never. Forget." Their faces were distorted from all the crying. And now here we were, five years later, heading somewhere else. Somewhere south again.



*Excerpted from SOMETHING FIERCE: MEMOIRS OF A REVOLUTIONARY DAUGHTER by Carmen Aguirre © 2011. Published by Douglas & McIntyre, an imprint of D&M Publishers. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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