Maximiliano Barrientos was born in 1979 in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.
His books include Diary (2009, El Cuervo), Your photos when you start to get older (2011, Periférica), Hotels (2011, Periférica), The disappearance of the landscape (2015, Periférica) and A house on fire (2015, Eterna Cadencia).
The following text was read at the event “Sentidos abiertos” [Open senses], held at the Simón I. Patiño cultural center in Santa Cruz (October 19-23, 2015).
The periphery, for a boy who grew up in a neighborhood on the second ring in the ’80s, was the Villa Primero de Mayo. I was raised with that idea in my head. All the stories I heard from there were linked with violence, as if things like that didn’t happen in the central plaza, the hidden corners of the avenue Cañoto, the market on Los Pozos and Mutualista, the public university, the most oligarchic schools, and the central street Sucre, where one Friday in 2008 three thugs aimed their weapons at me and sprayed my face with pepper gas so as to make off with my wallet and cell phone.
Violence then covered and still covers every stratum of Santa Cruz, but for some reason that zone acquired a mythical aura in my imagination, as if it were a wild place that had more to do with the cinema than the boring middle class life my family led.
It was otherness and therefore mystery.
The years passed and it remained an abstraction, until things changed. For one month, I visited the city library in that area everyday in order to oversee creative writing sessions, and what I found there fascinated me. The Villa works as a synthesis of the city. Mechanic workshops, religious icon stalls and bars are everywhere, along with crowds, street dogs and traveling businesses set up in front of supermarkets. It’s a marvelous fusion of races and classes, a delirious sociological experiment.
In a sandy corner of the avenue 16 de julio, a few blocks away from the library, was a sculpture —to call it something— made of carburetors and car exhausts, like an idol from Mad Max.
I saw a man dressed in plastic bags, picking up trash with a stick at the end of which he’d stuck a knife. Two days later I found him in the same place, dressed the same way, working away at the same activity. His hair was long and burnt, as if he were a crazy rastafarian or prophet. His beard was extremely long and sheltered the remains of what I couldn’t even identify: rubbish, food, filth of all kinds. The people a few meters away didn’t even look at him, as if they were used to his silence. I fantasized that he lived outside language, and because of this he appeared more pure before my eyes.
There were nearly as many motels as bars. One, very close to where I gave classes, was called Euro Verde. Who would think of giving that name to a place intended for secret encounters? Attaching a name related to money to a place that promoted human contact seemed a brutal metaphor for capitalism, as if it wasn’t possible to think of sex without the seduction of cash, as if erecting that mutant totem to the aura of the dollar provoked an aphrodisiac effect.
The building was a large old house with a patio and trees, decorated with lamps that gave off a pale green light. Couples in their cars could enter through a passage without running the risk of being discovered. The site had a chilling and gorgeous sordidness. When I googled it I discovered that the previous year a man had died in one of its rooms from an overdose of viagra. The press note indicated that he was 63 years old and that he had entered one of the habitations accompanied by a woman of 20. She went into the bathroom and when she came out, she tripped over his lifeless body. Later five little blue pills were discovered scattered in the bed.
While returning home in a bus on the 82 line I thought that if I were to get down from it now, I wouldn’t know how to orient myself, what address to give, which street would lead me toward the fourth ring and which would lead me away. I liked that feeling of being lost and at the same time safe, as long as I wasn’t separated from the vehicle.
Safety in that case, or perhaps in all cases, depended on an act of faith. The bus was a bubble that isolated me from the environment while at the same time allowing me to look around me more slowly than if I had been walking. In that case my attention would be contaminated by the paranoia of being assaulted, and so my gaze would be biased by fear.
It’s an urban form of safari, I told myself as I looked through the window, a cheap way of doing tourism in my own city, of traveling through a place with people who led, at least in appearance, a life different from mine.
Isn’t this what tourism consists of? Isn’t there a dirty voyeuristic impulse at its origin? Why else would a gringo pay to visit Africa if he weren’t sure that at the end of a few weeks, he could return to his own comfortable life with the illusion of having had an experience?
To take one example, there’s that masterpiece of mutual explotation Paradise: Love by Ulrich Seidl. An elderly Austrian lady travels to Kenya, where she lets herself use others and be used in a way she’d never allow in her cold and ordered first world city.
It’s difficult for me to explain the route the bus took to return me to zones I could recognize. It turned and turned again, entering the neighborhoods of Villa Primero de Mayo cut off by railways, where trash accumulated to form small hills, and weeds grew in great empty lots to overtake walls covered in graffiti.
Two blocks before arriving at the site where cattle were killed and skinned to sate the carnivorous appetites of the citizens of Santa Cruz, I crossed through a street full of brothels. It was a bizarre version of what in the imagination of any South American must be the red zone in Amsterdam, since these establishments coexisted with chicken shops and cell phone outlets, mini groceries and unisex hairdressers, without scandalizing anybody.
There was a school in the vicinity. When I came back to the house at noon the whole zone was full of children. When I came back at night it had a different face, one that was made-up, with the fronts of buildings dressed in little colored lights. What was disconcerting was the coexistence of the two worlds, the bipolarity so successfully taken on: the extremes maintained a strange harmony that could only surprise an outsider.
Starting at eight at night, the whores appeared. They smoked in the entrance of establishments lacking windows, with corrugated iron sheets for roofs. Walking by them without even throwing them a reproachful glance, groups of married ladies returned home or went in search of fried chicken.
From the bus I saw young teenage couples leaning on cars or seated on sidewalks, along with inoffensive drunks sprawled on the ground after being thrown out of some dive, from which a monotonous deluge of reggaeton songs played just like in any other part of the city.
After many long minutes of travel, the slaughterhouse of the city appeared with its blood and smell indistinguishable from manure. Images assembled in my mind when I thought about how near the places where people paid to fuck, immense bodies of cattle were opened up, hung on hooks and converted into items for distribution in freezer cases and restaurants.
It was wretched, of course, but also fascinating to view how a city is ordered, the impulse that obliges it to populate space, to reproduce in a place where previously there was nothing but pampas. An impulse that makes it respond like any other body to sex and hunger, and the necessity to profit from those two needs.
In The Last Puritan, the philosopher George Santayana wrote that: “The cities are a second body for the human mind, a second organism that is more rational, more permanent and more decorative than the animal organism of flesh and blood: a natural and yet moral work, in which the soul puts its trophies of action and instruments of pleasure.”
Still seated in the bus, now moving through the Industrial Park, I imagined the slaughterhouse workers exhausted after hours of skinning cattle.
They entered the establishments —their white rubber boots sprinkled with blood— and exchanged words with some women who invented whatever lie that occurred to them to avoid telling the stories of their lives.
They drank and shouted insults, giving free rein to a rudeness that flowed naturally from their bodies, almost without malice, like the extension of a masculinity never questioned, not even when it was offensive or violent.
They laughed and swore, and fought with their fists when intoxication overcame them and made them particularly sensible to certain provocations or memories, from which they attempted to flee by hitting others and looking for others to hit them back.
They danced in front of rudimentary jukeboxes that projected videos of Central American groups or sad songs from the 80s that around here are known as “music for shagging”.
They slept lying on plastic tables, surrounded by bottles of Paceña or rum cola.
They did business with women just as tired but more cynical, more lucid.
Then came the tiny room, empty before being used, before the act was consummated.
The smells of piss and detergent hovered in the air without fully mixing, their respective essences preserved.
All this I imagined as the bus turned in front of the UPSA campus and entered the fourth ring, returning me to a place I recognized as my own, to a city in which I could feel myself a part.
As I finish writing this, weeks after the workshops and my visits to Villa Primero de Mayo have ended, I remember, as if it were a postcard in my head, the little sign on that motel where a 63 year old man supposedly died from an overdose of viagra. Just as Santayana said, all those sites —bars, brothels, fast food restaurants— were organs of the same body, one whose breathing could be heard at night.
— Translated by Jessica Sequeira