While reading Juan de Recacoechea’s American Visa, I was surprised by how familiar the author’s writing style felt. It didn’t seem as though I were reading a book from Latin America – it felt like I was reading something written by a U.S. writer. I finally realized that, even though the characters were Bolivian and the setting was in La Paz, the book was written in a style the protagonist and narrator, Mario Alvarez, greatly admires – that of a noir novel. When visiting a bookstore, he observes: “I always liked noir novels about detectives and hoods that have clear beginnings and endings. Guys like Raymond Chandler and Chester Himes can change my life for a few hours, freeing me to see the world through the eyes of Philip Marlowe or Grave Digger Jones.”
Mario is a small-town Bolivian school teacher who goes to the capital city of La Paz to try to obtain an American tourist visa from the U.S. consulate. His son, who lives in Florida, has sent him a plane ticket, but Mario needs a visa in order to travel to the United States. Obtaining a visa is no small task, requiring Mario to prove that he has considerable financial assets. Otherwise, the fear is that he won’t return to Bolivia but will remain in the U.S. without permission.
When Mario goes to the U.S. consulate, he has numerous documents with him as evidence of his financial security. Unfortunately, they’re all forged. He doesn’t think this will be a problem, but while he’s waiting for his number to be called, he hears the people around him talking about how they are going to have to wait for three days while the consulate verifies their documents. In fact, one woman tells him the consulate hires detectives to do background checks on visa applicants. Disturbed by this news, Mario leaves the consulate and goes back to the cheap hotel where he’s staying.
The hotel houses a variety of colorful characters that one might expect to find in a noir novel: an unsavory desk clerk, a down-on-his-luck former diplomat, a resplendent transvestite named Gardenia, and, of course, a hooker with a heart of gold. The former diplomat tells Mario about a travel agency that, for a hefty fee, will handle the whole visa process for him. The rest of the book follows Mario’s adventures and misadventures as he tries to come up with the money for the fee.
The book’s afterword by Ilan Stavans explains how de Recacoechea came to write a book in this style. Stavans calls American Visa “a by-product of the ‘90s, a period of intense reaction to magical realism and its forgotten generals, clairvoyant prostitutes, and epidemics of insomnia,” as found in the works of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, for example. According to Stavans, “Juan de Recacoechea, along with an entire generation, became allergic to these stories, finding them too remote, too ethereal. Instead, he prefers the dirty urban landscape of La Paz, where the only thing magical is one’s talent to make ends meet.”
I have to admit that I found the gritty quality of de Recacoechea’s work to be much more accessible than the otherworldliness of the magical realists. But then, I’ve always been a sucker for a good noir novel.
Most of the things Mario and his friends ate in American Visa didn’t seem like they would be very easy to veganize. Even searching the Internet for a good vegan Bolivian recipe was a little daunting, with one website saying “[t]he Bolivian cuisine almost lacks for the vegetarian recipes.” Fortunately, that same website, Recipes Wikia, provided a recipe for huminta that didn’t require any changes or substitutions. Huminta (or humita, in some Latin American countries) is a casserole that’s usually prepared with corn, but the recipe I used called for quinoa. Other key ingredients included tofu, winter squash, tahini, and anise extract, but the overwhelming flavors in this recipe were quinoa and anise. I found it to be a little dense, and thought it could have benefited from less quinoa and more butternut squash. I’m going to follow the recipe’s suggestion to slice and pan-fry the leftovers. Everything is better fried, right?
GlobalGiving offers several options for donating to non-profit projects in Bolivia. The one I chose should be near and dear to the hearts of all vegans – addressing the problems created by the practice of monoculture farming that relies heavily on the use of pesticides. Sustainable Bolivia has created the Permaculture Practitioner Young Leaders Program to provide “practical training for 400 middle school students from agricultural areas.” According to Sustainable Bolivia, the “Permaculture techniques we teach will be aimed at improving soil fertility, harvesting water, and building living interactions that save time and increase productivity.” The hope is that the students who participate in this program will go home and share these permaculture techniques with their communities. More information about the Permaculture Practitioner Young Leaders Program is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/permaculture-sustainable-bolivia-mizque/.
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