Homero Carvalho Oliva: Women in Sepia

(Translated from Spanish by Hector Duarte Jr.)

The photographer and the maid are together an endangered species; ships passing in a long lost night. Vestiges of a time never to return. The photographer knows he is the last of his kind. His children long ago grew sick of financial strife and set off to conquer Spain. As far as maids, (the older, pretentious ladies call her a servant), a few might still be scattered around the well-to-do areas. Everyone has a day; Sunday is theirs. They used to preside over the city’s parks and plazas. Now they share space with street performers, end of days prophets, and all sorts of tricksters. Each Sunday, the photographer, seventy plus years marked on each wrinkle lining his face, irons his pants and patched shirt, he diligently cleans the wooden box inherited from his father. It was the box with which he recorded the images that years back made him well-known. His father gave him this advice then: be weary of religious envy, as each photograph contains the subject’s soul. He glances at some of the leftover instant sepias, recognizing a few kids dressed as cowboys, an enamored couple, and six lone girls dressed in polleras and blouses typically only worn by the women who live high up in the mountains. He delicately handles the prodigious wooden box even though no one respects magic anymore. He wraps a sun-worn cloth around the camera and puts it all inside a nylon sack. Like him, the tripod is tired and sometimes limps. The photographer hops on the first bus en route to the main plaza. The maid is dressed in a long purple skirt and curiously embroidered white blouse. Her boss gives her a few coins for the bus and she heads out for the street, finally free of her professionally domestic duties. At the corner, she waves down the bus that stops at La Plaza de Armas. There she buys a small sack of corn to feed the pigeons, a snow cone for the heat, and cotton candy for the nostalgia. A few modern photographers hound her for a picture from there digital cameras. She is waiting for the sun to be at its highest point. When objects and people start losing their shadows to the meridian shift, she asks the photographer with the ancient box for an image. They exchange glances for a quick moment, recognizing their partnership in misfortune. This is why she looks for him and he cuts her a deal. She poses with the Catedral de las Postales behind her and smiles with her mouth and soul, waiting for the photographer’s cue before he covers the box and she freezes her body. She waits and watches for her image to slowly etch itself onto the submerged paper, She smiles at the author of these instant photographs, pays his due, and places the rolled image between her large, indigenous breasts. Like every Sunday, the photographer wonders what she does with the image. She, guessing his thoughts, looks at him as if to ask forgiveness for bothering him yet again. She starts making the trip back to the house that is not her home. Crossing the plaza, she stops to chat with others just like her. Remembering distant places from her childhood makes her homesick. Back at her place of employment, she quietly tiptoes into her room at the other end of the yard far removed from the main house. From a packed suit case resting under the bed, she pulls out an old and rusted cookie tin that holds her most valued possessions: a medallion of the Virgin de Copacabana inherited from her mother; an armless doll; a silver ring given to her by a soldier who never returned to the village; a pair of gold earrings her father gave her on her fifteenth birthday when he said her beauty outshone the hoops, and a manila folder stuffed with all the photos she has ever taken since arriving at the village. She places the new picture with the old ones and places the envelope back in its hiding place, certain one day she will find someone to reveal her treasures to and tell them the story of the old photographer at the plaza.


Homero Carvalho Oliva was born in Beni, Bolivia in 1957. Carvalho has won many prizes at the national and international level and twice been awarded The National Novel Prize for Memoria de los espejos y La maquinaria de los secretos. His work has been published and translated the world over. It has appeared in over 30 national and international anthologies including Antología del cuento boliviano contemporáneo; The fatman from La Paz; El nuevo cuento latinoamericano (México); Profundidad de la memoria (Monte Ávila, Venezuela); Antología del microrelato, (Spain) and Se habla español, (México)

His poetry appears in Nueva Poesía Hispanoamericana, (Spain); Memoria del XX Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín, (Colombia), and Festival de Poesía de Lima, (Perú) , as well as Poetas del Oriente boliviano de Pedro Shimose. In 2012, he received the National Poetry Prize for Inventario Nocturno. In 2013, he published La Antología de Poesía Amazónica de Bolivia and la Antología Bolivia. His collection Tu voz habla en el viento unites the work of 55 authors. Among them, 3 Nobel Prize winners discussing Bolivia.

Homero (Foto de Gabriel Barceló)

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