Tuesday, July 10, 2007

American Visa by Juan De Recacoechea

Translated by Adrian Althoff
with an afterword by Ilan Stavans


Themes: Immigration, Urban life

ISBN-13: 978-1-933354-20-0 l 257 pages | $14.95
Published By: Akashic Books

When: April 2007

Anyone who has ever traveled abroad cannot help but understand the value of a visa. This little paper or ink stamp on your passport is your sole permission slip to enter a whole new world. But that little ink stamp usually comes with a hefty price especially if it is being issued by a country like the United States, Canada or Britain. You are required to have a zillion documents and all must be in good order with a healthy bank balance and other assets, like a house, car etc in your country of origin. So what happens to people that do not meet these requirements? Are they to be forever denied a chance to visit America, their dream country? That's especially hard when they live across the border and get to watch the American dream unfold but can have no part in it.

Just published by Akashic Books, "American Visa", the story of a Bolivian man's quest for a visa to America, has been described as nouvela noir or a tragicomic travelogue. Authored by Juan De Recacoechea, it has enjoyed incredible success in Latin America and is the highest selling Bolivian novel in over 20 years. In a country of only 9 million people, where the official illiteracy rate is estimated to be only 15%, Recacoechea’s success is no mean feat. "AmericanVisa" is only the second Bolivian book, and Recacoechea’s first, to be translated into English in 50 years!!!

Adrian Althoff, first got interested in this novel when his professors at Amherst asked him to find out what the most popular and bestselling novel in Bolivia was (a history major, he was in La Paz for his thesis research). After he ascertained it was "American Visa" he brought a copy home,read it and said "it was like getting hit with a tidal wave". He knew then he just had to translate it and bring it to the American reading public.

"American Visa" is not the kind of novel you would normally associate with Latin American writers..it is not a political novel and there is no hint of magical realism, instead the author chooses to focus on the La Paz of the 1990's.

The protagonist, Mario Alvarez, a retired school teacher and a huge fan of old-school American detective fiction, in particular Chandler and Chester Himes, travels to La Paz in quest of an American visa to visit his son in Miami. As he waits to obtain his visa he roams the streets of La Paz climbing up and down the Bolivian class ladder, mingling with the ladies of the night and getting drunk as often as he can. When despite getting a haircut and donning his best Prince-of-Wales suit, his visit to the US consulate is unsuccessful (the cocaine trade has made the Americans very suspicious of Bolivians) his story takes on lots of twists and turns and starts to resemble one of his much loved detective novels.

I have to confess I found this a hard novel to put down. Written in first person I was more than happy to walk the streets of La Paz (so vibrantly real in the book) with Mario Alvarez, seeing first hand why he was so desperate to leave Bolivia and to start a new life in the US. Recacoechea takes some amazing urban characters like prostitutes, transvestites, cocaine dealers, half-breeds, unscrupulous politicians, and weaves them masterfully into his fascinating tale. This book will also provide you some amazing insights into a class-conscious Bolivian society and will show you how the Latin-American people perceive the United States. At the end of the book you will walk away with a better understanding of why people will commit desperate acts to secure immigration to other countries, a definite plus when you consider that immigration is a hot button issue these days in the US.

I hope Akashic Books will bring more translations our way...I cannot believe this is only the 10th Bolivian text to be translated into English! As one critic remarked, " Ironic that Juan de Recacoechea’s protagonist spends all his time trying to get to America, when it is we who should be getting to Juan de Recacoechea. So true!

Finally, I thought I should share my favorite Bolivian recipe, Cocadas or Coconut Candies:
(for a picture, please go here)

(Coconut Candies or Macaroons)


2 2/3 cups shredded coconut
3/4 cup condensed milk
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon almond essence


  1. In a bowl, mix shredded coconut, egg, condensed milk, and almond essence until everything is well mixed.
  2. Let rest for two or three minutes.
  3. Spread butter on a baking sheet.
  4. Using two teaspoons, put small amounts of the mixture onto the baking sheet.
  5. Bake at medium temperature ( 325 Fahrenheit degrees) for twenty-five minutes or until they are golden, dry and smooth at the same time.

Yields 24 regular-size coconut candies.


karmic said...

Lotus, Not sure I have said this before, you truly have the most eclectic and impressive reading tastes.

I loved your post and thought you crystallized the essence of the book quite well, as well as how it spoke to you.

As a lot of us immigrants can attest to, we know the meaning that that stamp has carried for us as we have moved to another land to call it home.

And you bring out a very important question about the ppl who get denied. As some may point out it is a bit of a crap shoot as to who gets a visa when requirements are not met, but a country also has a right to determine who comes in, sad as it may sound. The concerns are bigger given the times and problems with immigration as you so rightly point out.

I found it truly fascinating how this book was discovered and indeed what a discovery!

I also wonder (naively too if I may say so) if the protagonist truly met those colorful cast of characters or did they form on his mind as a result of the rejection of his visa and this offered him a respite from the harsh reality of his real world?

I also have to say I would lvoe to read the book to get an idea of how America is percieved by Bolivians. I would also love to visit Bolivia, I know someone who did and absolutely loved the place.

Incidentally this book has been made in to a Spanish language film and is available on DVD from Amazon. More info on it on IMDB. The only problem is to watch this, one must have a multi region DVD player. Most DVDs are region encoded (US and Canada are region 1) and can only play on compatible DVD players. Thus American Visa (DVD region 4) won't be playable except on a multi region DVD player.

And lastly loved the macaroon recipe. I love these. :)

Sorry about the longish comment.

Tara said...

What fascinating statistics about Bolivian literacy, and the translation of Bolivian books. I find this particularly interesting - the sister of a frind of ours went to Bolivia with the peace corp, and wound up staying, marrying a Bolivian farmer, and having 2 children. Their family is planning on coming to the US so that their children can be educated here. The tales I've heard about their life there are so stunning on every level. I appreciate your review of this book, I'm sure I wouldn't have heard of it otherwise and will pass it on.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay

Thank you, as always, for making my day with your kind words!

Reading the book made me realize how that four letter word "visa" can literally be a matter of life and death for some people. Having enough assets in my home country and also having an EEC passport meant I never had to worry about being denied a visa to another country and so I never really thought about the significance of that little stamp, but this book made me see how utterly frustrating it is for someone who needs so badly to leave his country and yet, will never be welcomed elsewhere. A sad situation to be in for sure.

The characters are all real Sanjay and very,very fascinating! This book will describe to you the nitty gritty of the streets of La Paz...which will at once, disgust and thrill you!

Also, thank you so much for the information on the DVD's perhaps this is why our local library and Blockbuster store won't carry it?

I, too, would like to visit Bolivia some day. La Paz is one of the highest capital cities in the world, isn't it? I think one of its nicknames is, "city that touches the sky".

Lotus Reads said...

Wow Tara, I am sure your friend's stories are absolutely fascinating! I guess immigration to the US for them was a non-issue because of your friend's sister's status as a US citizen. Is she happy to be returning to the US? I'll bet she'll miss Bolivia some. Thank you for spreading the word about the book!

karmic said...

Lotus, Thank you for your reply. Yes you truly had little to worry about especially with the EEC passport, that pretty much would have opened the gates for you to most countries. :)

I have been thru this whole process and it can be a bit nerve wracking to say the least. I knew a few folks who were denied a chance to go despite having enough assets.

I had my own nervous "moment". My first visa to the US (due to an error on their part) was only valid for 4 days. I was not even scheduled to fly till the week after and like a fool I never thought to check the dates on the stamp. I was just happy to have gotten one you know? It was someone I knew who saw it and pointed it out to me. After spending an almost sleepless night wondering if I could even get them to change it, I went back to the consulate and they cancelled that visa and gave me a new one. And this time I made sure everything looked ok on it. *phew*

I do agree that the region encoding might be a big reason for the movie not being available at the rental places, maybe it will show up for an online rental at one of these legal online movie rent/buy places?

I am glad the characters are so real and I can hardly wait to read this book.
And you are right about La Paz. It is the highest capital in the world.
Bolivia is also at times referred to as "The Tibet of the Latin Americas". No I did not know this part, but your post spurred me to go read up a bit more about it. Thank you so much for that. :)

FH said...

Hi Lotus,I heard that about all that trouble people go thru' for Visa too.For us,we came here from England ,so it was relatively easy.To go to England from India,Arvind just needed to pass the Med Entrance exams.I guess it's easy for professionals a bit.
Sounds like great book to read.Guess what? I am going to have Lasik surgery for my Myopia this month and I am excited that I can read again like before without getting headaches.Hopefully I will read this too!:))
I always thought Macaroons are from Australia.I make them sometimes with just sugar,coconut,Vanilla and Egg whites,love your recipe too.Thanks.

Nyssaneala said...

That sounds like a wonderful book. It is definitely jumping to the top of my TBR list.

I find it interesting, especially in light of the current immigration debate in America, that so many people argue that they aren't against immigration, just that current immigrants should obey the same laws that brought our ancestors here. Yet, it wasn't until 1915 that the United States required every person entering the country to have a passport!

Anonymous said...

Oh you've reminded me on my lovely experience with getting Spanish visa. And I wasn't aiming to immigrate or ... whatever. I won scholarship of Spanish Ministry of Education, I had paper from the Ministry, I had invitation letter from their University, I had recommendation letter from The Cervantes Institute (highest cultural institution in Spain), I had document that proves that all costs of my stay there including the trip is covered by scholarship, I had plane ticket (not reservation) ... I had everything you could imagine that they will ask for. That was I thought but naturally clerks in embassy are endlessly inventive.
I was sitting in the embassy with my backpack not knowing will I go or not. Eventually after some intervention from ... I don’t know, they gave me visa one hour before my flight. And then on every passport checking (two in Swiss and two in Spain) I received “special” treatment ... and so on...

That was the most disgusting experience I ever had with travels and bureaucracy.

Of course this title is going on my wish list :)

Happy Reader said...

Oh, Lotus! Wonderful post. I should definitely read this book. It reminds me of the agony my parents and I had to go thru' to obtain a visitor visa for them to enter United States.
Thanks for the macaroons recipe..I love anthing that's made of coconut and I'm going to give this a try!

Anonymous said...

me again, sorry.
Coconut on such height?!? I didn't know that Coconut Palm is growing in Andes.
You're sure it's not Cocadas or Coca Candies? LOL because coca plant is Bolivian national plant :)

Beenzzz said...

Brilliant review as always, Lotus! Isn't it interesting how others perceive Americans? It's strange to be an American abroad as well. I found myself becoming increasingly patriotic, yet sympathetic to the thoughts of the non-American. I could see just how pompous we must come across. I guess the best way to describe it is "prideful embarrassment." I hope that makes sense.
The cocadas sound simply delicious. There is a similar coconut dessert from Guyana called, "sugar cake." Sweet stuff!

Sai said...

Hey lotus:
As always a lovely and informative review. As an immigrant....can definitely emphatize with the issue. Perhaps I could blog about my own visa story, which is kinda interesting.

Lisa Johnson said...

That's amazing to me that so few Bolivian books have been translated into English. The more authors I learn about, the more I feel so restricted with knowing only one language fluently. There are so many wonderful books out there that aren't in English!

Oh and the recipe looks great and easy too! Another one for my stack! ; )

Radha said...

The bolivian macaroons sounds delicious! Where did you find the recepie?

Lotus Reads said...

@Sanjay ~ Whoa, that was some mistake, good thing you saw it before you got to the airport! But just in case you hadn't, couldn't immigration have wired the US immigration to rectify the mistake upon arrival? It sounds so simple to the layman, but I guess for security reasons they would never have let you board the flight, no?

I didn't know Bolivia was called the "Tibet of the Latin Americas", makes me want to go there even more now!

Lotus Reads said...

@Asha ~ I have had friends that have had the "Lasik" surgery and according to them it has opened up a brand new world to them, so congrats on making the decision to have surgery and may everything go smoothly.

Yes, I know the macaroons you are talking about...my mom used to make that kind. This is more like a candy. THanks for visiting Asha!

@Nyssaneala ~ Most everyone in the US has such passionate views on immigration, it amazing to listen to both sides of the issue. The bill that would have given amnesty to millions of undocumented workers fell flat on its face recently so that must have come as a huge blow to those working to have undocumented workers' rights legalized. Another moving story I read recently is "Enrique's Journey" by Sonia Nazario...have you read that one?

Id it is said...

Terrific review. Definitely makes me want to read it. Does the translation take away from the book in any way? I've always been wary of translations so I'm wondering how this one fared?
Also, I have friends from Bolivia who've watched a movie with the same title and I wonder if it's based on this novel.
Thanks for sharing another interesting read.

ML said...

Awesome review, Lotus. What a fascinating topic - well, you always read fascinating books! :)

The cocadas looks delicious. I think I'll make it.

Lotus Reads said...

@Milan ~ Hi! Thanks for sharing your visa story with us, sadly, many of us have at least one visa horror story to share. At the best of times immigration officials are so cautious and wary of travelers and since 9/11 it has become more so.

lol@coca candies! I'm sure there's plenty of that too! ;) Have you read Taras Grescoe's book "The Devil's Picnic"? He has a really interesting chapter on his experience with Bolivian cocoa...I enjoyed reading it!

@Chitts ~ I really enjoyed this book..there was so much in there that spoke to me, and even though the protagonist was not the most likable character, I found myself growing very fond of him in the end. Yes, obtaining visas for older people is not the easiest task. Recently, the Canadian embassy in India made the parents of a friend really sweat while they debated their visa...it was granted to them in the end, but it was such a hassle!

@beenzzz~ You say it so well. Many of us don't realize how we in North America are perceived until you visit another country or read books by their local writers. I honestly think one of the highlights of this book was actually seeing America through the eyes of the Bolivians...it was more than interesting.

@Sai~ That's a great idea! You do have a knack for entertaining anecdotes and I would love to read your visa story...go for it!

@Anali ~ I always complain that there are just not enough translations, especially from Bolivia. Not sure what the problem is. Are we not interested in Bolivia? Is their literature somehow more difficult to translate than others? Somehow I would have thought there would be more translations. Hope someone can shed more light on this.

J said...

Intersting review Lotus. I have come across people here in UAE who go thru so much for a visa. Education definitely makes a huge difference to obtain a visa, but those without it really struggle. Now I have to get my hands on this book.

Do you mind if I blogroll you? Nice recipe too.

Lotus Reads said...

@Radha ~ It is, it is! Found it at a Bolivian cultural recipe site!

@Id ~Thank you! Thank you also for inquiring about the translation..I think it's a very ably translated book and not once did I feel like I was reading a translation,infact, I would so far as to say it reads even better than some books originally written in English! :) And yes, this book was made into a Spanish feature film, but read Sanjay's comments before procuring the DVD. Thanks so much for stopping by Id!

@ml~ Thank you! we have similar tastes in books I think! :) Do let me know when you make the cocadas..I hope they are a success!

@Jyothsna ~ How nice to have a visit from you! Ofcourse you may blogroll me...I will be stopping by your blog soon too. Hope you won't find it too difficult to get a copy of this book in the UAE?

Gentle Reader said...

Great post! This sounds like a great book. I'd love to learn about Bolivia's mean streets. And I'm going to try the recipe, too--sounds yummy, thanks!

Dewey said...

This sounds really good. I'm going to add it to my wishlist. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

My family members have to deal with visas as well when they come visit but they've always been fortunate (knock wood!) and have had no problems. I know though that visas/passports can be their own kind of special hell for a lot of people. Anyway, I hadn't heard of this book but sounds great and I'd love to read something set in Bolivia.

Little Miss Muffet said...

that sounds like a really good book! will look it up at the library..ur recipe sounds good too :)

Sugarlips said...

Lotus you are a review goddess :)

Really enjoyed reading the review along with droolicious recipe :) It sounds like a great book :)

Other day I was talking to my phuphoo in Pakistan. Her son lives in UK and she is trying from past few months to visit him but haven't succeeded yet. Recently they rejected her visa and the way she was blabbing about embassy people was hilarious :)

Stay Beautiful...!!

Anonymous said...

lotus - i'm here, i'm here!!:)
will email you tomorrow :)


Lotus Reads said...

@Gentle Reader ~ I love books where the city and its streets is a character in itself and this is what De Recacoechea does with La Paz. Hope you enjoy the read!

@Dewey ~ Sure! Thanks for stopping by!

@Iliana ~ The paucity of material from Bolivia was one of the reasons I wanted to read this book, the other was the fact that immigration was the main theme...I love immigration and immigrant stories.

@Ms Muffet ~ Thank you for the visit! Hope your library has the book!

@Sugarlips ~ Awww, lovely of you to say that! :) I hope your phuphoo gets to see her son soon, how frustrating it must be for her! Things between Britain and the Sub-Continent are not very rosy at the moment, unfortunately.

Lotus Reads said...

@Amna ~ Here at last, yeay!!! E-mail me ok?


jenclair said...

That the protagonist is a retired school teacher (ahem) and a fan of Chandleresque detective fiction adds just that personal touch. The opportunity to examine La Paz and reasons for wanting to immigrate are also compelling and, as you mention, current. Thanks for another great suggestion.

Tara said...

Lotus, you are right, immigration will be a non-issue for them. In fact they have tried it before but the husband has not really been interested in learning English in the past...I think she's glad to be coming back to the US for the sake of the children. I don't think they have much contact with other children; also their life is apparently so primitive that the Mom isn't able to spend the kind of time she'd like to 'teaching' them early childhood things. I hope things work out for them. My friend was very happy to hear of this book, and plans to read it.

karmic said...

Lotus. It may have been nothing to do with security, my visa was 4 day visa and would have exxpired. But you are right too, things are just not that simple.
And you know when I was in my teens I would confuse Bavaria and Bolivia? Don't ask why :)

gs said...

that was a great review,lr.having faced the trauma of getting visa for l when she went to the us for her undergrad studies,i can empathise with the protogonist of the novel.thanks to your reviews,i have made a long shopping list of books to be bought in the us,if not available here,during h's visit.

Framed said...

Where do you find such interesting books? This one is defintely one I want to read. Sounds fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Oh no! Another to add to my never ending read list!

And Angel, where are you. I have been posting like mad on my reading room blog.

Lotus Reads said...

@jenclair ~ I have a strong feeling you will love the book, but the ex-school teacher and a love of Chandler are the only commonalities you share with the protagonist. Mario Alvarez is not the most likable person around, but you, you are the best!

@Tara ~ Thank you for the update. What a fascinating family! It will be interesting to see how everyone adjusts to the United States, I am sure the kids will love North America! Thank you for telling your friend about the book!

@Sanjay ~ Ahhh true, in those days connections were not as swift as they are today, right? lol@ mixing up Bavaria with Bolivia, it's easy enough to do I guess! :)

@gs ~ Thank you for your nice comment! Funny how every non-American seems to have a visa story worth telling!

@Framed ~ So happy to see you here! I discovered this gem on the BBC World News. They were interviewing the translator, Adrian Althoff and when I realized it was about Bolivia AND immigration, I knew I wanted to read it and I am glad I did!

@Gautami ~ Sorry! I haven't been as active in the blogosphere as I would like. It's summer holidays here and the kids keep me busy. Come September and god willing everything will be back on track. Glad to see you are reading so much!!!

Bookfool said...

Oh, wow, that sounds absolutely fascinating. I'll have to look for it. And, the coconut candy sounds a bit sinful. I'm printing it out. Thanks for yet another fabulous review.

Bookfool said...

Update: The husband was heading to the grocery store, so I printed the recipe out and he got the ingredients. He already cooked them and they're delicious! Now, back onto the treadmill. :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Nancy!

You are quick! :) So glad you were able to make the cocadas, I meant to make them on the weekend, but didn't get to it...my ingredients are sitting on my kitchen shelf. Thank you so much for the visit and for trying the candy, hope it wasn't too sweet for you. Sometimes I forget that not everybody likes really sweet treats. Most Indian sweets tend to be very sweet, so my sweet tooth is accustomed to rather large doses of sugar, help!!!

Bookfool said...

I have quite a sweet tooth, unfortunately, Lotus. You do need *lots* of water with cocadas!! Milk probably would be a good drink to tone them down a bit, too, but I guzzled water. :)

Anonymous said...

It is a pity that this Lotus is such an ignorant.
AMERICAN VISA is a very good book and, as Bolivian, I am proud of it. I am also a friend of Juan, the author, and know that he deserves to be known everywhere.
But to say all kinds of nonsense about Bolivian books cannot help readers or writers.
To say that Juan's book is the first Bolivian book to be translated to English in 50 years is not only to be ignorant, it is also to be stupid. Does Lotus believe he is the only reader of Bolivian books?
I can think of at least 20 Bolivian books translated to English since 1980, not to mention older books. One of those is my Biting Silence, which has not one but two editions.
With Google and Yahoo in his computer, Lotus has no excuse for his ignorance. What? Is somebody paying him to write as he writes? American Visa does not need that kind of help.
Lotus, please do your work well or keep your mouth shut. You are not helping anybody with this kind of stories.