On the Visa Issue

I am not a terrorist.” – sign on the National Mall, treatment April 2006

On that crisp April afternoon on the National Mall in Washington, DC, the multitude of Latinos and their families draped themselves in American flags, flags from their homeland and waved handwritten signs. Some of those placards pleaded for better treatment for undocumented immigrants, and some responding to the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, reiterated that the vast majority of documented and undocumented immigrants were here in this country to work, and not for some nefarious reason. They resented the fact that many equated them with those other foreign visitors that have entered the country with the sole intention of harming innocent people.

Earlier this week I logged onto my computer and caught a glimpse of a surprise headline in the digital version of Los Tiempos. The announcement that the Bolivian government would now require U.S. citizens to apply for a visa to visit the country instantly affected me. Limiting the rationale to reciprocity would have made it a little easier to swallow. Every country has a right to control their borders and know who is entering their country. Sure, it is a headache, but if you really want to visit, then it shouldn’t be too big of a deal. When I visited the Brazilian consulate in Cochabamba, the visa would cost nearly $100 and was in place because of said reciprocity logic. There was no complaint from me, but the official at the consulate made sure I knew why I was applying. “You (the U.S.) make us apply for visas, so that is why you have to,” said the visibly upset staff member. This unsolicited answer to a question I never asked really defeats the purpose.

However, reciprocity is only half of the answer. Other countries like Canada, Australia, and Bolivian ally, Venezuela all require citizens to apply for visas, but they are exempt from this new rule. When asked about this incongruency, especially of Venezuela, President Morales responded, “The Venezuelans don’t come to kill anyone here.”

The direct reference was to the unfortunate, yet obviously freak occurrence that took place earlier this year, when Tristen Jay Amero aka Claudius Lestat de Orleans detonated bombs in a La Paz hotel leaving two Bolivians dead. Soon after the news spread about this explosion, the official government response was one of suspicion. It had feared that it was an attack masterminded by the United States. As news leaked out about the tragic, strange and nonsensical past of the bomber, it became quite apparent that it was the work of a psychologically ill man. It is sad to think that it hasn’t been apparent enough to the government. Yes, in theory, the attack was by a U.S. citizen (even though he renounced his citizenship and was traveling with a World Service Authority passport), the percentage of the tens of thousands U.S. citizens that have committed murder in Bolivia is miniscule

Is that enough for a drastic change in policy or what is the real issue here?

I guess, at this point, I too resent the fact that I may be lumped into a category of people that are deemed to want to hurt Bolivia. I echo Miguel’s sentiments that this rule especially hurts Bolivian-Americans, a group of people that truly have stronger ties to the country than the regular U.S. citizen. Even though I was born in the United States to two Bolivian parents, I do consider Cochabamba to be my hometown. I have spent enough time there over the past six years to feel much more at home there, and it has always been my goal to return someday to work to make the country a better place. Fortunately, the Bolivian government now allows for dual citizenship. However, due to the new rule, many do not know how to obtain this special privilege. My next trip to Bolivia will be in February, and I am hoping that I will never have to apply for a visa to enter my own country.

Bolivian Festival in Manassas

Two weeks have passed since the Annual Bolivian Festival in Northern Virginia. If it hadn’t been for the complimentary admission ticket for those distributing information about Escuela Bolivia, site the organization which I am now a Board Member of, mind I would have probably skipped the event altogether.

First of all, treat the event which featured all of the area’s folkloric dance troupes, food vendors and throngs of Bolivians from all across the DC Metro area was located at a great distance from its usual location right in the heart of Arlington (or Arli-bamba as some say). Originally I thought this change of venue was to accommodate the growing number of immigrants who are being priced out of the housing market and obligated to live in the suburbs outside of the Beltway like Manassas, Virginia. However, I learned that the high school in Arlington that normally rented their field, decided to end that relationship with the organizing committee. Apparently last year, the field was left in such utter disarray from the Festival.

Manassas is about a 30 minute drive from Arlington. The admission ticket had a pretty hefty price of $15 per person, which included seeing the group Tupay perform later that evening. I certainly wasn’t going to stay another five hours to hear them. Imagine a family of six spending upwards of $150 – $200 with all of the food and drinks, and it may price a lot families out of attending. Yet, there were thousands of people in attendance (although it seemed that the majority were family members of the dance groups).

In the mid-afternoon, the various dance groups (toba, tinku, caporales, morenada, etc) lined up and waited their turn for NoVa’s own version of an entrada. Around this circular road on the Fairgrounds, people brought lawn chairs and displayed an utter lack of enthusiasm. Instead of a typical brass band providing backing music, a pick-up truck was loaded up with DJ equipment and speakers. Things were vastly different than the usual festive scene of Carnaval in Oruro. Perhaps the absence of beer vendors toned down the mood.
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Escuela Bolivia

I’m spoiled with the plethora of Bolivian restaurants, check activities and events in the Washington DC metro area, which is the heart of the Bolivian community in the U.S. However, everything is so spread out as families continue to move to the south due to the insane housing prices and high cost of living. Unless you count Cecilia’s restaurant on Columbia Pike, the Bolivian community lacks a true center.

As of last month, my term began on the Board of Directors of the Escuela Bolivia, an Arlington-based organization that has the potential to be that center. This organization provides Saturday morning classes in English as a Second Language for immigrants, Spanish and Bolivian cultural lessons for their children, and Spanish classes for the wider community. The organization was formed partly to preserve some of the cultural traditions often lost as immigrant children grow up in the United States.

I am still rather new to the area and I am still learning my way through the nuances of this community. Besides knowing most of the Bolivian restaurants by heart and news gathered from Los Tiempos USA, I do not hold a vast knowledge of this community’s history.

A loosely related group of cultural organizations, small businesses and media outlets that cater to Bolivians provides this community with a link to their homelands. Yet, this lack of unifying force really emphasizes what is missing. That is where I see the Escuela’s vast potential for being this all inclusive organization. I may be actively taking over responsibility for the website, which could serve as a sort of virtual meeting place providing resources, links and up to date information for this community.

Yet, I am still puzzled by the large gap between recently arrived immigrants and Bolivian-Americans who may operate primarily in English. There has to be a way to bring those two groups together, by possibly providing lectures, Bolivian movie screenings, and other activities that cater to others like me (Bolivian-Americans). Any ideas?

: We are still looking for others in the area who are interested in serving on the Board. If you would like to be considered or would like more information, please email me: eduardo [at] barrioflores [dot] net

Update 2: I have been getting some really good emails from Bolivians in the area who share that they too would like to get involved in general with the community. Please write me an email or leave a comment, on what you would like to see in the community or what information would help you feel part of it all.

Bolivian Films at NMAI

Two Bolivian movies have been included in the National Museum of the American Indian’s First Nations/First Films series. Both films will be shown on Saturday, May 21 at 12:00 p.m. at the NMAI on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

A little more about this series:

First NationsFirst Features celebrates the groundbreaking feature films of indigenous directors from around the globe. Over the past two decades, these filmmakers have broken barriers to native film production, garnering major awards worldwide, from Cannes to Sundance to Kautokeino. The works featured in this showcase, whether classics or premieres, are “firsts” for their directors and the First Nations’ communities they come from. Drawing on both traditional and contemporary experiences, the films offer gripping stories—from warrior legends to current dilemmas of family and identity—that bring audiences into the dramas of these very different worlds with their distinctive narratives and aesthetics.

The two films that will be featured at this time will be:

Loving Each Other in the Shadows (Llanthupi munakuy) 2001. Bolivia.
Directed by Marcelina Cárdenas Sausa (Quechua). With Aydee Alvarez, Samuel Vedia Callamullo. A divided village sets the stage for a star-crossed love affair, a story based on Quechua oral tradition. 47 min.

Angels of the Earth (Los angeles de la tierra) 2001. Bolivia.
Directed by Patricio Luna (Aymara). With Alfredo Copa and Reynaldo Yujiro. A cautionary tale about city life told through an acrimonious encounter between two brothers from a poor mountain village. In Aymara, English subtitles. 40 min.

Bolivians in Virginia (Part I)

Jokingly they refer to Arlington, recipe VA as “Arlibamba” in reference to the huge number of Bolivian immigrants, especially those from Cochabamba who headed the first wave of mass movement twenty years ago. I’ve only been the area for less than a year, but my wish is to get more involved with the Bolivian community in the Metro DC area. Throughout my post-college life I’ve gravitated towards the Latino immigrant community in Omaha. However, that community was exclusively Mexican and Salvadoran. This was my chance to make some connections and see how I can contribute to a Bolivian community.

The U.S. subsidiary Los Tiempos USA of the Cochabamba newspaper of the same name had printed an open invitation to Bolivian immigrants to a meeting with members of the Diplomatic staff from the Bolivian embassy and consulate. Center stage would be a dialogue about immigration issues and an update on the progress towards the issuance of a Matrícular Consular, a card that all Bolivian immigrants could obtain as a form of identification much like their Mexican counterparts.

By the time the start time of 7 p.m. had arrived, only a small handful of people were anxiously waiting in the offices of the Centro de Justicia in Falls Church. I took a seat near the back, which was a perfect spot to sit back and observe and listen to what would take place over the next three hours.

As people waited for the program to start and as more people would wander in according to Latino time, complete strangers would find a common bond. As their fellow strangers in a strange land, the Bolivian immigrants would swap stories. The first question asked was always “how long have you been here?” with the average length of time being around three years. The next query would be about their hometown back in Bolivia. As usual, most were from Cochabamba, with Paceños and Cruceños also in the room.

The informal conversation over the next 15 minutes while everyone waited for the room to fill, would range from criticisms towards immigrants who now were residents or citizens, how they rarely care about those who recently arrived to the whole autonomy issue raging on back in Bolivia. Naturally I wanted to jump in to the conversation, but I decided to just listen.

In spite of the differences of hometown, length of stay in the country or whether or not they were in the country legally, most of the people who came out on a cold Thursday night had something in common: they were all looking for a better life for themselves and their families within the context of a lingering cloud of uncertainty that weighs heavily. No one knows what the future holds, especially for the tens of thousands of undocumented Bolivian immigrants living in the immediate area.

To be continued.