Photo: Alejandra Aguirre
in alphabetical disorder
handfuls of universes
infinities I pretend
yearn to understand
pointless efforts to persuade
persuade myself that
there is an order
this illiterate disorder
chaotic defenseless me
sucede La Vida
en desorden alfabético
puñados de universos
infinitos que pretendo
vanos intentos de convencer
convencerme de que
hay un orden
de la Vida
I was born in 1948 in Valdivia, a city that Pedro de Valdivia, the Spanish conqueror, founded in 1552 on the banks of a wide, blue river in the south of Chile. Most of my young years were spent there and in Valparaíso, a strong-spirited, colourful port on the country's central coast.
Both my parents were teachers by profession, but my mother didn't get the chance to work outside the home, so she turned our dining room into a classroom and practiced her teaching skills with us, her children, and our friends. Right after lunch – the main meal of the day – the table was cleared of dishes and out came the books, notebooks, pencils, ink wells, fountain pens and.... the chalk! Yes, the chalk. Our dining room also sported an old free standing blackboard that my mother had bought in a second hand store. In that room, she taught many kids, including my brothers and me, how to read and write.
As a child, I became an avid reader, a passion that I shared with the rest of the family and that my father fed by ensuring that every month, right after pay-day, we all went to the bookstore to get a new supply of books. That's how I became hooked on the work of Jules Verne and José Bento Renato Monteiro Lobato. These two writers taught me that a book can contain a whole world – people, places and stories which, as a reader, you can come to know and love as if they were part of your own life.
My mother loved to recite poetry and through her recitations at family gatherings I became interested in the writings of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Alfonsina Storni, Gabriela Mistral and Juana de Ibarburú. These poets' work confirmed what I had always known but had not been able to articulate myself: the world was dominated by men, and women's preoccupations could and did go beyond the domestic domain. Their poetry also offered me concrete examples of how to portray complex feelings, thoughts and observations effectively and beautifully.
My father, on the other hand, was an engaging and skilful story-teller. From him, I learned about the power of narratives; the ever-changing nature of memories; the importance of telling a story "well" -- describing places fully, letting the characters speak in their own voices, stringing the pieces of the narrative in the right order so as to create suspense, using humor...
While I thoroughly enjoyed and let myself get immersed in these aural-oral-literate-literary experiences, there was a part of me that knew all along that there is a huge gap between what happens in Life and what is conveyed through narratives and poetry. Would I ever be able to transpose-translate the chaotic nature of Life into the linear, orderly world of language?
Between 1966 and 1970, I attended the Pedagógico – the Faculty of Philosophy and Education of the University of Chile in Santiago. This was the period leading up to the election of Salvador Allende, and the Pedagógico bustled with social and political activism.
It didn't take me long to become involved in the literacy campaign sponsored by the Students' Federation in the shanty towns of Santiago. The abject poverty and sense of hopelessness, coupled with the dignity, intelligence and combative spirit I witnessed there, led me to realize that Chilean society needed profound transformations. So, by the time I graduated with a degree in English and obtained a Teaching Certificate, I had already joined millions of other Chileans in a broad and passionate movement that dreamed of and strove for a socialist country.
In March of 1971 I went back to Valdivia, where I taught English and literature, first at Escuela Normal and then at Universidad Austral. Salvador Allende had been elected President in September of 1970 and was beginning to implement some key reforms. The next two and a half years were marked by intense political struggles and extreme polarization. These were years of transformations and advancements towards a more egalitarian society, but also of dogged and vile opposition by the Chilean upper classes and both, flagrant and covert intervention by the US government, multinational corporations and the CIA.
We know the end to that story: the military coup of September 11, 1973 and the ensuing seventeen-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
These historical events changed my life forever. I left Chile with my family in December of 1973 and, after eight months in California, crossed the border into Canada on August 7, 1974.
In Vancouver, while doing graduate work at the University of British Columbia and working as a Teaching Assistant and a janitor, I became thoroughly involved in the solidarity movement with the Chilean Resistance to the dictatorship. We, Chileans, were joined by many Canadians in founding committees, organizing peñas, forming singing groups, engaging in speaking tours, staging plays, starting radio programs, carrying out hunger strikes, boycotting Chilean goods, publishing newsletters, liaising with unions, political parties, student organizations ...
My involvement and commitment to the Resistance movement took a new, more direct form when I agreed to help provide logistical support to members who needed to go in and out of Chile. Thus, between 1979 and 1984, I lived in Bolivia and Argentina,
After five years of underground work, I returned to Vancouver. The political scene in Chile was changing rapidly. In the early eighties, as resistance to the dictatorship had grown, so had the level of repression. The more radical sectors of the movement had been targeted with particular viciousness and Pinochet's forces had succeeded in eliminating some of their key leaders. By the mid eighties, the more moderate segments of the opposition began to emerge as the conductors of a broad coalition determined to replace Pinochet's regime with some kind of democratic government. In a desperate move, Pinochet held a plebiscite in 1988, lost it, and had to call a presidential election. Patricio Aylwin, a Christian Democrat, was elected President of Chile.
Upon my return to Vancouver in 1984, I enrolled in Simon Fraser University and worked towards a Master of Education degree, which I obtained in 1989.
During these years, I continued to support the Resistance Movement in Chile, but I also began to open my eyes to what was happening in Canada and started to embrace other causes.
Between 1985 and 1987 I worked as an adult basic literacy instructor at the Native Education Centre. This was a very rich learning experience for me. Every day I discovered something new about the history of this country; about the values, beliefs and traditions of its many aboriginal peoples; about the appalling living conditions on reserves; about residential schools and the long-lasting effects of colonization; about the many faces of racism... But also, I learned about my students' love of life, sense of humour, persistence, and determination to grow and reach their goals. Above all, though, what I found most rewarding was to witness their ability to think critically, name the issues and challenges they were facing, reflect upon them, discuss them, understand them, make connections, draw conclusions, articulate the individual and social actions necessary to bring about change.
My job at the Native Education Centre in Vancouver took me back to Santiago where, twenty years earlier, I had helped other groups of adults learn how to read and write. These were people who, just like the Chilean shanty-town dwellers, had been oppressed and marginalized; considered half-witted and ignorant. But there they were, proving to themselves and to the world that their lack of literacy skills had nothing to do with being stupid, but everything to do with the workings of an unjust society.
This initial experience with aboriginal students was followed by many years of work with First Nations communities across the country. Most of these endeavours are documented in my educational publications.
In the late eighties, I also taught basic literacy and trained literacy tutors at Douglas College and between 1991 and 1996 I helped coordinate an international project between the college and the Nicaraguan Institute for Popular Education and Research.
When I wasn't working at my paid jobs, I was taking part in the Aquelarre Collective, an organization composed of Latin American and Canadian women, founded in 1988. The collective's work was exhausting, but utterly rewarding as every three months we had a very concrete product to make us proud: Aquelarre Magazine, a bilingual, feminist and socialist publication, which served as a meeting place and a forum for Latin American women in Canada, Latin America and the world. In 1997, due to funding cuts, we had to stop production, but the collective's legacy of twenty one issues of Aquelarre remains in the collections of many libraries, both in print and a digital version.
Also in the early nineties, I became Vancouver correspondent for the Latin American Section of Radio Canada International, the international branch of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and began to teach prospective literacy instructors in the Adult Literacy Certificate Program of the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University. After ten years, the program was shut down and I had to reinvent myself once again, this time as a Sessional Lecturer in the Latin American Studies Program of SFU, where I taught Latin American Literature and Cultural Studies off and on until 2010.
In 2009 I was also fortunate to be invited to serve as Writer in Residence and Adjunct Professor in the Department of French, Hispanic and Italian Studies of the University of British Columbia.
Teaching Latin American literature and culture was both, a challenging and an exhilarating enterprise. I had to stay abreast of what was happening in the Latin American scene. I had to design sound and interesting curricula. I had to make good use of an opportunity I never thought I would have when I first came to Canada: the opportunity to expose young people to the writers, poets, playwrights, musicians, thinkers, visual artists, dancers, actors and filmmakers who make us Latin Americans proud.
I think my students appreciated and were inspired by the works we perused together. How not to enjoy a Pablo Neruda or an Alfonsina Storni poem, an Alicia Alonso performance, an Antonio Carlos Jobim composition, a Cristina Peri Rossi or a Julio Cortázar short story, an Eduardo Galeano vignette, a song in the voice of Mercedes Sosa or Susana Baca, a novel by Gabriel García Márquez?
Along the years I had admired and enjoyed the work of these and myriad other Latin American cultural workers and it gave me great pleasure to share that enjoyment with my students.
I write because I like it. I like the challenge of transposing-translating the chaotic nature of Life into the linear, orderly world of language.
I like to play around with words, feel their texture, hear their sound in my head and see them materialize on a piece of paper or a computer screen. I find it magical.
I am fortunate to have two languages to play with: Spanish and English.
Since the mid 1990's I have been a bilingual writer. A good part of the time, I complete my work in Spanish and then re-write it in English. Some of the time, it happens the other way around. But most of the time, I write by travelling between the two languages.
In the Foreword to my short story collection and a body to remember with, I explained that this process of bilingual and bicultural writing has become an integral part of my work and reflects very closely my hyphenated existence as a Chilean-Canadian. It also reflects the hyphenated content of my writing – my own and my characters' journeys from Chile's volcano-studded south, its mystic Atacama Desert and the jacaranda-lined streets of Santiago to the expansive beauty of the Canadian West Coast and bustling Commercial Drive in Vancouver. Back and forth I go, they go, mapping the everyday lives and emotional terrain of dual geographies.
I am not one of those people who always wanted to be a writer. When I was a child, I wanted to be a dancer. Then, I wanted to be a musician. Then, I wanted to be a secretary. Then, I wanted to be a teacher. All of these wishes came true in some way or another: I love to dance, sing and play music, I am my own secretary, and I did become a teacher by profession.
I did write poetry and short stories when I was young, but this didn't make me wish I could become a writer. I continued to write along the years, but not even after my short story "Acuarela" won an Honorary Mention in a contest sponsored by Paula Magazine and was published in March of 1973, did I consider myself to be a writer.
From an early age I enjoyed being involved in myriad activities at the same time. As a little girl, I took music and dance lessons, co-hosted a children's radio program and played sports. Later on I performed with dance troops, theatre groups and musical ensembles. And, of course, I went to school, worked at all kinds of jobs and became thoroughly involved in political activism. So, until the late eighties, writing was one more pursuit of mine, among many others.
In 1989, the Chilean dictatorship was replaced by a lukewarm democracy. The neoliberal economic system and the 1980 Constitution imposed by Pinochet were left intact and the dictator himself remained as Head of the Armed Forces and Senator for life. It was a change; after seventeen years, Chileans had managed to get rid of the dictatorship; of course, this was a welcome change, but not the one I and many others had wanted. The socialist Chile we had fought for so fiercely had eluded us once again.
I turned to my writing. I collected the poems, journal entries and stories I had written along the years. I started to write again and in the early nineties I decided that I would attempt to publish my work. I was lucky. In 1992, Women's Press released Guerra Prolongada/Protracted War and a few years later, Arsenal Pulp Press put out and a body to remember with and Editorial Los Andes, De cuerpo entero, its Spanish counterpart.
After fourteen years of off-and-on work, Women's Press Literary published my novel Retribution.
So, I am a writer, after all.
I am a writer who, at a critical point in her life, decided to write and publish so as to keep her activist soul alive.
I had come to understand the connection between language and activism many years before both, through my literacy work and through my readings. From Paulo Freire and the Popular Education movement I had learned that language is not a neutral tool for communication, but a loaded weapon. That the oppressors have used it since time immemorial to keep large sectors of the population subdued and to explain and justify their actions. That the oppressed can and do use it as a tool for liberation: to name the world, reflect upon it, exchange stories and ideas, and articulate the actions they can take so as to build a more equitable society.
From Eduardo Galeano, Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Alfonsina Storni, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Luisa Valenzuela, Gabriel García Márquez and many others, I had learned that literature can be an optimum vehicle to depict and denounce the realities of an unjust world and name our visions of a different, more equitable one. That even though greed and opprobrium continue to dominate the world and control our lives, we still have our words. We still have the ability to tell our stories and make our ideas and opinions known.
So, for me, writing and activism go hand in hand. To write is to protest. To write is to remember. To write is to bear witness. To write is to denounce. To write is to provoke and to propose. To write is to use the tool, the weapon called language in pursuit of justice; so that horror can turn into beauty, shame into dignity, and deceit into truth.