“I was supposed to be named Luciano or at least Evaristo, according to the names designated for babies born on October 26 by the Bristol calendar,” begins Mi vida, de Orinoca al Palacio Quemado or My life, from Orinoca to the Palacio Quemado. The 369-page book, a first-person account by Bolivian President Evo Morales, is filled with passages that humanize him and shed light on how a child born in one of the poorest villages on the high Andean plateau could become the most powerful man in the country.
“Both names were too long for my father,” Morales says. “In the end, he decided on Evo and in order to assign me the name he had to argue with the priest.”
The project is a new attempt to dig into the private life of one of the most influential leaders in Latin America. Argentinean writer Martín Sivak has already written Jefazo, while Darwin Pinto and Roberto Navia have published Un tal Evo. Mi vida has come to light thanks to Iván Canelas Alurralde, a 56-year-old journalist and former spokesperson for Morales. Canelas traveled to the districts where Evo grew up in order to capture the memories of his acquaintances and relatives. He dove into newspaper archives and wrangled the president’s tight office schedule in order to set up the interviews that give shape to this simple, lively work.
The book portrays the Bolivian head of state in a colloquial and direct style. The author removes himself completely from the text so that the president can take center stage.
In the prologue, Canelas writes that Morales was born on a special day: when Fidel Castro called on a million Cubans to march against American imperialism. It was also the day the Soviet Union made public the first known photographs of the dark side of the moon, the side we cannot see from Earth. The text emphasizes the twists of fate that enabled a poor peasant to get into politics and sweep into centers of influence that, up until recently, had mainly been occupied by upper- and middle-class professionals.
In the book, Canelas reveals that Morales almost died at birth, telling the tale with all the magical realist ingredients you find in a García Márquez story. His mother, María Ayma Mamani, was bleeding and craving bread. To keep her from fainting, her relatives had to boil a crust of bread in a mud pot. “I smelled it and without even pushing, the baby was born,” María later told her daughter Esther, Evo’s sister. “I ate and he dropped like a gunshot.”
The book also depicts an Evo Morales who has prescient dreams, and one who lived as a migrant in Argentina, selling ice cream while his father worked in a sugar cane plant. We see Evo Morales the bricklayer; Evo Morales the trumpeter. We see the Evo Morales who had to face the dearth of resources and opportunities before him. “I didn’t know what underwear was until I was 14 years old,” the Bolivian president recalled. The book is filled with evocative moments like this one.
One of the oddest episodes in this unfinished autobiography – it only chronicles Morales’ life up to his presidential win – is the unsuccessful theft of a small suitcase containing $10,000 that Evo wanted to use to buy a small parcel of land in Chapare, the cradle of the coca-growing sector. According to Canelas, if the robbery had been successful, Evo would probably not have become a union organizer and leader, and definitely not president. Bolivia’s history would have been a different one.
It sheds light on how a child from one of the poorest villages of the Andean plateau could become president
The book includes photos of a multitude of important places: from the president’s home in Orinoca, where the kitchen furniture and the lighter he used to brighten his nights remain, to the fields where he developed his love of soccer. The book also shows the sites where he was injured on multiple occasions during the time when the coca producers were systematically repressed.
The final pages have a political slant. Morales talks about the pressures he was under while he fought against abuses in the tropical region of Cochabamba in the north. He analyzes the 2003 crisis that led to the demise of former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and shares his point of view on the administrations that came before him.
Mi vida ends with an anecdote about the late Hugo Chávez Frías. The Venezuelan leader gave Morales a replica of Simón Bolívar’s sword. Three years later, Evo found the sheath empty. Someone had taken it without Morales ever noticing.
Translation: Dyane Jean François