Santa Cruz de la Sierra: Where the Saints are Canonized

I’ve fallen in love with the craft of his writing. His ability to get into the head of his characters and stay glued there, is impeccable. I found myself going back to the same chapters—as if these narratives were musical compositions that one could never tire of.

I’m about to meet a great man—a man who’s won several prestigious literary prizes in Bolivia, Mexico, and the United States. He’s now the president of Fundación Cultural Banco Central de Bolivia (FCBCB), the cultural institution in charge of the country’s main repositories.

He’s agreed to meet me at Alexander’s Café on Monseñor Rivero, a popular strip for both locals and tourists in Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

He’s not late. I’m early. I can feel myself turning inwards, a strange inner solitude creeping up on me. It gives me some sort of comfortingly un-shakable sense of identity. I often enjoy being alone, to think my thoughts or get lost in a book like Santo Vituperio, in which the author adroitly juggles the whole spectrum of points of view, creating a sense of tension in the mind that stays there until the end of the story. The different chapters shift point of view, giving us different perspectives on the death of the prostitute, while also revealing the author’s ability to inhabit the minds and voices of wildly different narrators and characters.

“Writers put things down without deliberation and catch the very heartbeat of life.”

In Santo Vituperio, I found myself quickly beyond the terra firma of conventional narration. I liked the multiple POV because it reflected the messy reality of actual experience. No single person could have told the comprehensive story of Inés de la Muñecas. Also, I’m sure Homero had fun trying to find the human element in even the most disreputable places.

 

The café is just like he described in his book—crawling with people, chatters and bustles. The way the author fleshes out the world for the reader kept me hooked from page to page. People go by, arms entwined. Some drink their café irlandès alone, tapping restless fingers on the sugar-and-milk-and-napkins table. Someone is reading a copy of El Mundo; she’s ordered a sandwich de lomito. The friendly waitress, Belsa, keeps the customers happy.

I’m a bit nervous about meeting the author, but it’s only 10:00 o’clock, too early for a Huari. Santa Cruz has made a beer drinker out of me—a feat I would never have imagined possible.

Homero Carvalho Oliva arrives on time. He’s distinguished. There is an old-world dignity about him. Maybe it’s the elegant glasses; maybe it’s his distinctive mustache, which has been compared by Iván Castro Aruzamen to the brages (catfish) of the Beni River.

 

Homero is from Beni. He made Santa Cruz de la Sierra his home 20 years ago. In fact, his youngest daughter, Lucia Carmen, was born here. Hi son, Luis Antonio, was born in New York but grew up in Santa Cruz. He loves the warmth—not only of the climate, but also of the people. Cruceños are known for their hospitality. “I’m a real Cruceño,”Homero says. “I breathe, I love, I work, I live in this tremendous city.”

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Homero and his wife Carmen, in the 80s

If you want to know a place, read its writers. As written by Walt Whitman, one of Homero’s favorite poets, writers “put things down without deliberation” and “catch the very heartbeat of life.”

Belsa brings Homero a café. I order a large glass of freshly squeezed peach juice, and it comes with cold beads of water trickling downward. I fuss with the glass for a bit, nervous, but Homero is friendly.

We talk—mostly about literature, but also about music and Santa Cruz de la Sierra’s general culture.

Meeting friends at cafés in the thing to do in Santa Cruz. People share their sense of humor and budding dreams.  Secrets and gossip are whispered. As mentioned by Ruber Carvalho, Homero’s uncle, “In the cafés, stories are invented, love affairs are born. In the cafés, governments fall and saints are canonized.”

“I breathe, I love, I work, I live in this tremendous city.”

The saint he’s referring to is the main character of Santo Vituperio, Homero’s novel, and I think it’s particularly fitting that Homero and I meet here, at Alexander’s, since the novel takes place in the neighborhood. The “Monseñor Barlozzi” referred to in Santo Vituperio is actually Monseñor Rivero Avenue.

Though he uses fictionalized place names, Homero’s writing follows the characters to places easily recognizable by Cruceños.  Every scene of this novel is located in a setting that lives and breathes on the page—and outside of it.  The book thoroughly describes Santa Cruz’s lifestyle, and the collision between old-world and modernism, masterfully depicting the dark, inner lives of broken characters. Alcides Paerjas Moreno says the book questions the status quo and demystifies those elements that make us human. A series of events push Homero’s characters against each other, as well as against the traditions of the city, forever changing all of their lives.

 

The King, The Prince

Homero Carvalho writes in all genres—he’s a prolific novelist and storyteller, and the occasional poet and memoirist (El árbol de los recuerdos, 2010). “Occasional” shouldn’t been mistaken for “amateur.” Homero’s poetry holds the reader captive; it’s movingly precise in emotion and observation. “In his poems, he expresses the magic of being Latin American,” says his wife, Carmen Sandoval. The balance between rawness and polish allows his words to shine in the precisely jagged way a poet’s words should. He’s published La última cena, a collection of flash fiction pieces, a form very popular in the United States, but many of the pieces flirt with poetry. Homero also writes for children. El Rey Ilusión describes the never-ending struggle between illusion and reality.

He studied sociology, which probably contributed to his ability to skillfully explore human emotions. He’s also well-traveled. His position at the BCB allows his frequent trips to La Paz. His career as a writer has sent him all around Latin America. A few years ago, he represented Bolivia at the Miami Book Fair. He hopes to one day visit New Delhi and al-Magrib.

In the end, however, Homero will always come back to Santa Cruz de la Sierra. He cares about the community that embraced him. A successful book drive organized by Homero resulted in the donation of more than thirty copies of St. Exupéry’s The Little Prince to the Municipal Library and its neighborhood branches. At the book drive’s concluding event, Homero read part of the book translated in Spanish.

Homero himself been translated in several languages. One of his short stories was translated by Aza Zatz and included in the anthology The Fat Man from La Paz (2000). In fact, Homero’s work has been widely anthologized; he’s been published in Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia, and the United States. Professor César Chávez Taborga describes his prose as “deep and elegant.” The writer Pedro refers to Homero as prodigy, comparing him to Luis Borges (Argentina), Julio Cortazar (Argentina), and Ernesto Cardenal (Nicaragua).

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Homero is also an editor; he published several anthologies, including Bolivia, which includes works from writers around the world—39 poets, 5 storytellers, and 11 nonfiction writers. Who knew that Allen Ginsberg wrote about Bolivia (and managed to mention his culo in the very same piece)?

Homero and I sit, later, later, still talking, and drinking coffee and juice. We laugh, something I haven’t done in far too long.

 

On Wives and Mistresses

When asked about the difference between poetry and prose, Homero says, “When we write stories, we become gods, as we create our characters. Whereas poetry creates us, shapes us—our real essence, our inner self is revealed to us. Poetry allows us to connect to the cosmos.”

Homero compares the novel to a dutiful wife. “When I get home, there she is.” Poetry, on the other hand, is more of a lover. “I don’t know how, I don’t know when, she simply appears. I don’t know when she’ll leave me.”

 

I cross my legs and sit up straight. This conversation is a treat, a break from my busy life. I take another sip of durazno juice. I savor it. I make each moment, each sip of thick, rich, juice last as long as I possibly can.

“When we write stories, we become gods, as we create our characters. Whereas poetry creates us, shapes us—our real essence, our inner self is revealed to us. Poetry allows us to connect to the cosmos.”

I learn that Homero’s father was also a writer who owned a magnificent collection of books. These books, Homero loved them in a way, I imagine, that he can never love books again, because no one can ever love anything with the life-consuming intensity that they do as a child—a time when you learn how to feel, how to react, how to live life, and how to then turn that life back into words. But Homero continues to live and breathe books. Now his favorite authors include Gabriel García Marquez (Colombia), Luis Borges (Argentina), Pablo Neruda (Chile), Walt Whitman (United States), and Mario Bellatin (Mexico), author of Salon de Belleza. “He’s now working on a novel about narco-trafficking, a topic that has not been fully explored in Bolivia.

 

From his father, Homero learned the language of literature. From his mother, he learned the language of nature—of life. And everything he saw, heard and felt would immediately be turned into paragraphs in his head. Homero doesn’t write for the money. In Bolivia, literature doesn’t put bread on the table. A writer who sells 1,000 books is considered a best-selling author—compared to 10,000 in Madrid. When I ask him why he writes, he mentions the way the eyes of his readers light up. That’s every writer’s dream—that someone will read their stories and finally understand something about him(her)self, or about other people, or about the way the world all fits together.

 

Chroniclers and Necessary Lies

According to the online magazine, Los Tiempos, Homero is well-known for the deep love for his country. He’s well read and his knowledgeable about Bolivian literature. I ask him to educate me. “Literature in Bolivia,” he says, “starts with the Spanish conquest.” He underlines the importance of the first Latin American chroniclers, particularly Pedro de Leon, Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Bartolomé de las Casas, and Bartolomé Árzans Orsua y Vela (author of “Historia de la Villa Imperial de Potosi”) who all wrote about life in the colonies.

Passion transforms our minds, nesting inside of us and changing how we see the world. After the Republic of Bolivia is founded in 1825, a vibrant effort is made to develop the cultural and literary life in Bolivia in order to solidify national identity. The historical novel, Juan de la Rosa, which relates the battle of Cochabamba is published pre-1923. Many confused (and still confuse) the facts from the fictional aspects of the book. The author, Nataniel Aguirre, writes about the women of Cochabamba turning into soldiers to defend the city—something that never happened but is believed to be factual by many Cruceños. Homero believes that the nation needed these necessary lies because their gave birth to heroes in the common imagination, which in turn made the national identity grow stronger.

In fact, Bolivian literature is marked by great historical accounts. In Guano Maldito, Joaquin Aguirre Lavayén recounts the War of the Pacific. Augusto Céspedes recounts the War of Cacho in Sangre del Mestizo, a literary gem that serves to proves that Historians can also be great storytellers. “El Pozo” is one of Bolivia’s short stories that have been anthologized the most. The presence of Che Guevarra in Bolivia (and later his death) was also a source of inspiration for many of Bolivia’s literary figures, including the Cruceño Julio de la Vega.

Tiwanaku Village (Bolivia)

Tiwanaku Village (Bolivia)

 

The Evil We Know

The 1970’s give birth to “la literature de las dictaturas” in all of Latin America. Writers denounce the monstrosities of the injustice that prevails at the time. In a famous verse, Eliodoro Aillón Terán (from Sucre) exclaims, “Allow me to speak of my village.” Roberto Echazu Navajas (from Tarija) writes, “This is no country.”

Someone once asked Homero, “Why aren’t there classical horror stories in Bolivia?” The answer: Bolivia didn’t need monsters like Dracula. “Our monsters were all too real,” Homero said. “Horror stories, romantic stories, fantasy stories—these only get published after democracy has been reestablished in Bolivia,” and soon follows the Latin American literary “boom,” which puts Latin America on the map of world literature, with writers such as Garcia-Marquez (Colombia), Cortázar (Argentina), and Céspedes (Bolivia). The language of these texts is dynamic, including native words.

 “Bolivia didn’t need monsters like Dracula. Our monsters were all too real.”

 

Putting Down Roots

What Cruceño writers do people read today? We take a trip to Lewy Libros, on Calle Junín. I locate a few books by Giovana Rivero, Blanca Elena Paz, and Roger Otero Lorent. Magela Baudoin and Alejandro Suarez. Many of the writers who live in Santa Cruz are “escritores radicados,” authors who are not originally from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, but chose to make the city their home, such as poets Pablo Osorio, Gary Daher, Gabriel Chávez, and Paola Senseve.

All intriguing. All in love with Santa Cruz.

I, myself, don’t want to leave.

I want to breathe, I want to love, I want to work, I want to live in this tremendous city.

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With Homero and his daughter Carmen Lucía

 

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