She's a Stranger in a Strange Land : Books: Poet Marjorie Agosin knows what it's like to be displaced. Now she's learning more about herself as she traces the lives of her peripatetic parents.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Groucho Marx once said he'd never join a club that would take him as a member. Colin Powell, on the other hand, would appear to have the members--he just can't decide where to take them.

Marx and Powell aside, however, most people seem content to define themselves by the values of whatever group they'd like to be identified with. Subscribe to one set of values, for instance, and you're a member of Generation X; subscribe to another, and you're part of the Pepsi Generation.

What, then, to make of Marjorie Agosin? If we are to be judged solely by the adjectives we choose, what presumptions can be made about a feminist American-born Chilean Jewish socialist human-rights activist of European descent?

Ask Agosin to describe herself, though, and her response is easier to get a handle on.

"I am," she says, "a writer."

It is a telling description, rootless by its lack of heritage and homeless in its lack of nationality. And it's a self-image that may not survive Agosin's latest work, a two-book project that explores her parents' lives and, in the process, sheds considerable light on Agosin's own identity.

In "A Cross and a Star" (University of New Mexico Press, 1995), Agosin, 40, a critically acclaimed poet, writes of her mother's experience growing up among Nazi colonizers in Osorno, Chile. She just finished the draft of her father's story, which traces his family's struggle with anti-Semitism across three continents.

"It's been a marvelous process, really, to reconstruct the life of my parents," Agosin says. And, she adds, it's been a process that has taught her much she didn't know about herself.

"You can't really know who you are," she says, "unless you know where you came from."

Born in Maryland to Chilean parents whose families had escaped the pogroms in Russia and political upheaval in Austria, Agosin moved with her parents to South America when she was3 months old.

Her father was a leftist intellectual who supported socialist Salvador Allende. But in the aftermath of Allende's presidential victory in 1970, student activists attacked Agosin's father, a distinguished scientist, and accused him of being an agent of the U.S. government.

Just as fascism had forced the family to flee Europe, now nationalism was chasing the Agosins out of Chile.

They eventually returned to the United States for what was to be a brief stay, but when Allende was killed in a 1973 coup, a deadly wave of retribution against progressives followed, stranding the family in a foreign country once again. The experience of being an innocent trapped between competing political ideologies left a deep mark on Agosin and has influenced much of the human rights work she does.

"Lots of refugees from Europe believed in Latin America they were going to experience a new political life," she says.

"But then we realized that between the fanaticism of somebody like Hitler . . . and sometimes the fanaticism of, let's say some extreme leftish dictatorship, there is almost the sameness. So this condition of always being an exile, I think, is part of this . . . pendulum of fascism and nationalism."

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"The thing that you can say goes through all of [Agosin's] work is an identification with displaced persons," says Elizabeth Horan, a professor of English at Arizona State University. "She's very aware of what it is to be from not anyplace else. I was going to say from someplace else, but that implies that you are from someplace. And that's not precisely the case with Marjorie.

"It's really impossible to put too much stress on the extent to which Chileans look on a Jew as not being Chilean, even though she's had three generations of her family living in Chile."

Deemed an outsider in Chile because she is a Jew, in the United States Agosin was doubly branded. She spoke no English when she entered high school in Georgia, but she knew enough about social graces to understand she was an outcast.

"Don't speak to her," she quickly learned her classmates were whispering behind her back. "She's a Jew and a Latin."

"That was my welcome into America," she says now, speaking by telephone from her traditional two-story wood-frame home along quiet Paine Street in Wellesley, Mass., not far from the route Paul Revere followed on his fateful midnight ride. "I was stunned by that and I've never been able to forget it--or to write about it. I didn't want to be in America. We had our feet in here but we had our hearts in Chile."

It wasn't until she married John Wiggins, a nuclear physicist and her husband of 18 years, that Agosin began to feel she belonged in this country. Which isn't to say she's completely left South America. Agosin still thinks in Spanish, writes in Spanish and, at Wellesley College, where she teaches Latin American literature, conducts her classes in Spanish.

At the same time, however, she admits that she'll never feel completely at home inside any man-made borders.

It's the same with many Jews, she says.

"I think of myself more as a woman of this Earth," she says. "It seems that Jews are kind of a nomadic people, a people that have been expelled from so many lands."

But most of Agosin's poems are deeply Latin American, both in theme and style. They are not easy reads, touching as they do on war and the ubiquitous government death squads; but then they are not supposed to be.

Agosin, like many Latin American poets of her generation, intends to disturb us, to provoke us, to make us think as well as feel. Toward that end, Agosin's political works, which are particularly well respected in Latin America, can be likened to those of Claribel Alegria of Nicaragua and Roque Dalton of El Salvador.

Yet she has not restricted her talents to politics, displaying a poetic versatility and range reminiscent of another Nicaraguan, Gioconda Belli. In a relatively young career dating from just 1978, Agosin has touched on such disparate themes as the Holocaust and the victims of Argentina's "dirty war" to nature, the paintings of Vincent van Gogh and the transmigration of food.

For a writer with her roots in Europe, her heart in Chile and her home in the United States, it somehow seems fitting that Agosin should have to visit yet another land to discover her heritage. So it was in Argentina, one of the countries that has been the most hostile toward Jews in recent times, that Agosin came to a new understanding of her Jewishness.

While working on the book "Circles of Madness"--which tells the story of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose weekly protests before the national palace shamed the architects of Argentina's "dirty war"--Agosin was moved in a deeply personal way. Although many of her 18 books have taken a year or more to complete, Agosin finished "Circles of Madness" in just 11 days, pausing only for short naps and long bouts of crying.

It was the third book she has devoted to the survivors of political violence in Chile and Argentina, work that has earned her a Peabody Award (for the documentary adaptation of her book "Scraps of Life: Chilean Arpilleras") and a Jeanneta Rankin Award for Achievement in Human Rights. But this experience left Agosin with something much more important than a plaque to hang on her wall.

"A lot of my Jewish ideas, let's say my coming of age with a Jewish identity, had to do with working so much with people who had had a family [member] that disappeared. Because I made the connection between the desaparecidos [disappeared ones] in Latin America and disappeared Jews in Europe," says Agosin, whose blond hair, green eyes and round face give away her European roots.

That awakening eventually led her away from the torment of strangers in South America to explore the painful history of her own family. It's been a rewarding journey.

"I have a wonderful relationship with my parents but I want to understand them because, in a way, I want to make all those people who have had very different lives--that their houses were burned in the pogroms and with the Nazis--I want them to be alive. And in ["A Cross and a Star"], they will always be alive," she says.

"I have had people that come up to me crying . . . and not be able to say a word. And then I know that what I have done has mattered.

"So Sarajevo matters to people who live in Jerusalem. So what happened in Oklahoma matters to people that live in Germany. So that's why I want to write. To make life really matter."

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