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Cocaine Republic

The bi-prop to Tocache slipped in and out of clouds, above the dark green of the jungle, and since I had a fever the colors were even more intense than usual. Clouds flowed down steep green moun­tains into the deeper green of the Huallaga River valley. The valley floor is broken up by the winding river and occasional tiny airstrips. The hillsides are speckled with coca plantations, like casual slashes in the thick jungle. “There are lots of Colombians in Tocache,” someone had told me in Tarapoto, further north. In the Huallaga, “Colombians” is shorthand for dog-kicking young men with shiny watches. “You shouldn’t go there,” the Tarapoto man had said. “Colombians will kill you just for looking at them.” Colombians have a very bad reputation in Peru.

The Huallaga River valley produces about 40 per cent of the world’s coca leaves, and Tocache’s in the middle of it. The leaves are refined into paste, which is then exported to Colombia to be turned into nose-worthy cocaine. Coca brings roughly $800 million a year into Peru, which recently passed Bolivia as the main source of raw paste. Coca paste is the country’s largest export. In the Huallaga, people use bi-props as if they were cabs. The airlines don’t have sched­ules; the pilot just lounges around until 10 people show up to fill the plane.

I got to Tocache a few days after a general strike to protest government coca-eradication schemes. “Viva Coca!” was scrawled on the town’s walls. “Coca or Death!” Such strikes are traditional in the Huallaga. There had been one last year to protest an attempt by antidrug police to establish a post in the region. 3000 citizens stoned the outpost, and two cars belonging to investigative police were burned. Months later in Uchiza, 27 miles upriver from Tocache, 250 armed citizens surrounded antidrug police, and forced them to leave town. “There wasn’t much shooting — [the drug police] judged they were not in a winning position,” one source said at the time.

These are examples of organized, pop­ular, even democratic violence. There are other kinds of violence in the Huallaga that are merely organized. The narcotra­ficantes have wars among themselves, notably the three famous battles of Ca­chicoto (40 dead), Monzón (40 dead), and Uchiza (100 dead). In April of this year, 40 miles south of Tocache along the Mar­ginal Highway, some 60 soldiers and po­lice were ambushed by narcotraficantes; six were killed. In March two groups of coca farmers fought each other with sticks, machetes, and revolvers, leaving 12 dead and 20 wounded. “Witnesses to the massacre revealed to police that the confrontation occurred because some farmers received 5 intis [about 30 cents] per kilo of coca leaves while others got 50 intis,” said a news report. For a while there was even “terrorism” in the Hualla­ga. From August 1984 to December 1985 the zone was placed under military con­trol because of the alleged presence of Shining Path guerrillas. Human rights activists say they’ve found several com­mon graves dating from this period, presumably a legacy of the armed forces. If you’re looking for violence, the Hualla­ga’s a good place to go.

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RADIO MARGINAL
I visited Nelson Chavez in his office at Radio Marginal. Nelson is one of those people everyone knows. He is perhaps the only resident of Tocache who could be considered a “booster.” A clean-cut, earnest man around 30, Nelson would listen attentively to ques­tions, then lean forward over the desk, gesturing with open hands, giving an impression of urgent frankness; he clearly felt there were grave misconceptions about Tocache, and he wanted to set them straight. The strike, he said, had not been violent (“What guns? I didn’t see any guns”). And there was no connec­tion between the strikers and narcotrafi­cantes, as was widely alleged.

Radio Marginal had, in a modest, way, supported Tocache’s strikes. It publi­cized the abusive behavior of the drug-­eradication programs. It treated the Front for the Defense of the Interests of the People of Tocache (FEDIP), which ran the strike, as a respectable political group. Radio Marginal had, in an unre­strained moment, encouraged the people of Tocache to help burn those two police cars.

But Nelson didn’t want to talk about militancy, he wanted to talk about devel­opment economics. Because the coca problem is essentially an economic one. People grow it, he says, because they need the money. Most of the farmers are small-timers, emigrants from the Andes who come down to grow coca rather than stay in the mountains and starve; Tocache province’s population has in­creased some 500 per cent since 1980, when the narcotraficantes’ investment program began showing returns. Yes, coca is more profitable than growing po­tatoes. A coca picker makes about $4.70 a day; a day laborer on the coastal planta­tions will get $1.30 a day; a laborer in the mountains would probably get even less, if there were work.

For those who have their own land the difference is still more dramatic: the next most remunerative crop, cocoa, pays about a fifth what coca does. Rice, the only other dimly profitable crop in the region, usually pays even less and re­quires enormous investment. All you have to do for coca is find an unclaimed hillside and cut down the trees.

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Coca farmers don’t, however, make a mint. The narcotraficantes and local middlemen control prices, and they’re not about to pay campesinos a lot of money they can just as easily keep for themselves. In any case, Nelson says, the campesinos would do something else if they could. Nobody likes the life. The police are violent, the narcos are violent, the military are violent. All the Colombians, all the prostitution — “All the hotels have prostitutes!” It’s not very wholesome when you’re raising a family.

Given these hardships, Nelson was surprisingly cheerful. He mentioned that Tocache really needs U.S. money for a hydroelectric project. If the town had this, he said, it would be able to develop a “modern economy.” He thought I might exert some influence back in the States toward getting funding. So maybe the cheerfulness was to say: Sure, things are bad here, but there’s a lot of potential. “The ground underneath Tocache is excellent. It could support very large buildings,” Nelson said. “We could expand tourism here. Tocache has excellent access to the jungle. It’s a beautiful setting.”

We drove around and around on Nel­son’s motorbike while night fell. Tocache doesn’t have a single paved road. It does have a half-dozen banks, several stereo dealerships, and countless restaurants, almost none of which have anything but beer on the menu. It also has six telex machines that do good business, mostly to Bolivia and Colombia.

Nelson, young and energetic, a bache­lor, kept shouting “Hi! How’s it going! What’s up!” to people as we putted by. The reaction was usually a slightly suspi­cious, weak smile. We went past an emp­ty lot where there was a dance party for young people. Lights were strung across the humid evening. Boys slicked back their hair with water, girls smoothed their dresses. “Tocache’s a great town,” Nelson said over the sound of his motor­bike, not for the first time.

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THE RIGHT KIND OF POOR
In Tocache I was staying with a Swiss missionary couple, Julio and Veroni­ca. They were, they felt, being run out of town. A mob had come and jeered outside their house earlier in the year. Julio didn’t visit outlying churches for fear of being killed. Their 20-year effort at moral and cultural promotion had been undone by six years of Colombians, coca paste, and consumer goods. The “old Tocache” they’d loved was gone. So they were heading for East Texas, to buy a mobile home and start over. They subjected me to many conversations about Texas, in exchange for room and board.

The morning after Nelson’s optimistic sightseeing tour, Veronica said she’d had trouble sleeping because of the shooting. “I heard two people walking by, like they were drunk, outside the house. One of them kept saying, ‘Don’t kill me. Don’t kill me.'” I told Veronica over breakfast that I was going to the farm of Abelardo Collantes, head of FEDIP. So she prayed for me. “Please protect our friend when he goes out to the farm.” Like many local people, and all of the Lima press, she believed Collantes was involved with the narcotraficantes.

Collantes and I left Tocache standing in the back of a pickup. There were 15 to 20 others in the truck, and it was a small pickup. All during the drive Collantes —­ taut and wiry, standing in the front of the truck-bed with his hands spread on top of the cab, pulpit-style — gave a lecture on the local agrarian economy. Fertilizer’s too expensive; so are water, feed, machinery, seed. “All the best land is taken by big projects, like Emdepalma [an enormous plantation that produces palm oil for export]. It’s land that was taken away from farmers. The big projects forced farmers into the hills. So of course they plant coca. Nothing else grows there.”

Most of our fellow travelers were farm­ers, and they seemed a little embarrassed by Collantes. He was arguing on their behalf; but he was also stretching the truth. Emdepalma does have the best land. But most of the coca farmers, in­cluding Collantes, came down from the mountains in the ’70s and ’80s. Emde­palma was built in the late ’60s.

But Collantes was right about farmers’ costs. What little capital there is will go into coca. That includes loans made available by the year-old Garcia govern­ment to improve agricultural production. “We request an affirmation that [our borrowers] not use the money for coca cultivation,” the state Agrarian Bank’s local director told me. “But we aren’t too we rigid in this respect, because otherwise we might not be able to give loans.”

We rode several hours by truck then walked another half-mile through the jungle. Collantes’s house was a small platform on stilts with a thatched roof. A little stream went by the clearing, and in the stream were ducks. There were various farm animals wandering around, including a dozen guinea pigs, which are eaten on special occasions (the meat is lean and delicious; the little rodents are fattened on special herbs). Collantes isn’t a merchant prince but life at streamside looked, by Peruvian standards, pretty comfortable. In Peru, if you can eat suffi­ciently and sleep in safety you’re in the privileged class.

We sat down to lunch with Collantes’s wife, daughter, and the coca farmer from next door. “The government and the press have satan-ized this area. They say that the campesinos are like the narco­traficantes. But it isn’t so. People think we’re making a fortune here. But we’re just getting by.” The other farmer mainly nodded while Collantes talked.

After lunch Collantes took me on a tour of his property. He has an outbuild­ing full of farm machinery, mostly Ameri­can, all waiting for spare parts. We went by his fields of rice and maize. We went by a pig shed which he’s quit working on because of the price of feed. Then we walked up and up a jungle mountain. There was almost no path, it was very slippery and steep. Collantes, though not young, showed annoying stamina. Peruvi­an men sometimes get into this competi­tive thing when gringos visit.

“This … is where … they dry the leaves,” he said when we reached the ridge. We stood in a clearing and wheezed for a while. There was coca everywhere, light green leaves fluttering in the sun­light, against the deep green of the jun­gle. Dark clouds were rolling over the highest mountains, further to our left. We walked down into the middle of a coca field where a farmer had built a little open hut.

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In the hut Collantes returned to a fa­miliar theme — American morality. Is drug addiction increasing? he wants to know. Doesn’t all the drug abuse in my country bother people? Why do people pay so much for coca? If it’s harmful, why doesn’t the government do something about it?

I tried to give a little socioeconomic profile of drug abuse in America, explain­ing cocaine as an aspect of bourgeois consumerism. I told favorite anecdotes about Betty Ford and Pat Nixon being pharma­ceutical junkies. While carefully avoiding personal details, I tried to explain coke’s considerable allure. In any case, once Collantes heard the word “bourgeois” a few times he thought he’d gotten the drift and began to pay attention to other drugs, namely the plants around him — “The person who owns these doesn’t take very good care of them.”

A cool breeze was blowing through the hut, making it very pleasant. I took photos while Collantes scurried to stay out of them. It was odd to think that New York’s recreational habits were determining the fabric of life in a distant and unknown place. It was also odd to watch Collantes display his poverty, nervously jumping around some dimly perceived standard. He wanted to be the right kind of poor; he didn’t want to be ashamed; but he didn’t want to starve either. He had an idea that people far away think people like him are evil, or at least greedy.

Collantes left me on the road with two drunken drivers in an old Chevrolet. The three of us chatted about life in Tocache. The driver said that the shooting is worst near the center of town, and by the river.

“Why by the river?”

“They take the bodies to get rid of them.”

“And the current is strong enough to carry the bodies?”

“Sure it’s strong enough! It’s the Huallaga!”

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CAPITAL OF COCA
Tingo Maria was for several years the capital of Peru’s coca indus­try. Tourist books warned travel­ers not to go there. Tingo Maria is surrounded on three sides by hills; on the fourth side, the Mar­ginal Highway descends into the Huallaga valley. Some of the hills are supposed to represent the body of a woman. In Tingo’s heyday these hills served an im­portant purpose for visiting journalists. They provided a nice segue into adjec­tives about sensuousness, corruption, and moral abandon. But Tingo’s days as the country’s premier coca boomtown have passed, and so the adjectives have been abandoned as well.

Now it’s just “dirty,” or maybe “mean.” Tingo still runs on coca money, but it’s done more subtly than before. In 1982 the Reagan administration put pres­sure on then-president Belaunde to do something about the narcotics business. American advisers came, spent money, and created three programs: PEAH, which was intended to encourage alterna­tive crops and improve local infrastruc­ture, particularly in education and trans­port; CORAH, which would hire engi­neers and field workers to eradicate coca plantations; and UMOPAR, charged with protecting CORAH workers as well as in­vestigating narcotraficantes and demol­ishing clandestine airstrips.

These programs set up shop in Tingo Maria. As a result the hills immediately around the city are not thick with coca like the Huallaga further north. So the farmers who once worked the Tingo hills have either left or become peddlers or beggars or thieves. Tingo is the only Hua­llaga town with a large number of beggars.

Outside of greater Tingo Maria, how­ever, there’s not much evidence of the programs’ success. Airstrips are de­stroyed by UMOPAR then rebuilt in days; CORAH uproots the occasional plantation, but the amount of land under coca continues to increase. PEAH has had more lasting effect — it has contribut­ed to public works projects and educating local administrators — but the program is now moribund for lack of funds and gen­eral public antipathy within the coca zone.

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CORAH’s headquarters are in an un­marked white building on a side street and everyone in Tingo knows exactly how to get there. There’s a high protective wall around the compound. Behind the wall are men in civilian clothes with auto­matic weapons, and a staff of engineers and secretaries. I went to talk with two of the head engineers about Tocache’s strike. The government had said CORAH would be suspended while being “reeval­uated.” The Tocache Defense Front had taken this as their big victory. Collantes felt the strike had forced a re-think of eradication policies generally. The press in Lima took this idea and blew it up to mean there wouldn’t be any more plant-­eradication efforts. So I wanted to know what CORAH thought about that.

The two engineers weren’t eager to talk. When we met, in their conference room at dusk, they said I couldn’t use their names. As we talked it got darker in the room, and they were whispering. All of which seemed rather melodramatic except that the engineers were sincerely terrified. “Narcotics traffic has much in­fluence, but under the table. They have a lot of power, and a lot of money.” In November 1984, 19 engineers and work­ers from CORAH were murdered in their sleep.

As far as the engineers are concerned the Tocache strike was inconclusive. “We are going to continue. Everything’s pre­pared. And the eradication program will continue.” There’s apparently no com­munication between the farmers and the people pulling up their plants. “You can’t talk to those people.” I said I’d been in Tocache and they surprised me by asking what it was like. They’d never been.

Later, in Lima, I went to the U.S. em­bassy. Workmen were repairing the fa­cade, which had been bombed recently, causing the ambassador to flee (the state department gives Lima a risk-rating just below Beirut’s). The coca eradication is all paid for by the U.S.; I wanted to inter­view the man in charge. But when the interview finally took place I was told it was all Deep Background. This means that you can’t name anything more spe­cific than “informed sources.”

In Lima, informed sources say coca­-eradication efforts won’t get another pen­ny from the U.S., beyond current funding levels. They say “the Peruvian govern­ment is doing a very fine job,” but there just isn’t the money to expand coca­-eradication efforts. It’s not a priority for the Reagan administration, struggling as it is with budget cuts. Informed sources affirmed that Peru has surpassed Bolivia as a source of coca, despite Bolivia’s be­ing free of large-scale eradication pro­grams. (This was before the sending of American troops to Bolivia, that strange bit of war-on-crack propaganda.) In­formed sources sounded a note of cheer­ful pessimism. “It’s hard to compete with coca!” they said. “The Peruvian govern­ment doesn’t have marketable alterna­tives. And the U.S. doesn’t have enough money to replace the market.” Informed sources and I had a little chuckle imagin­ing the U.S. spending $800 million a year on Peru.

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DOLLARIZATION
So where, then, does the coca mon­ey go? Eight hundred million dollars is not spare change; Pe­ru’s total legal exports were less than $3 billion in 1985. The con­sensus opinion is that two-thirds of the coca dollars enter the banking sys­tem. All coca business is in U.S. dollars, either deposited directly by narcotrafi­cantes (farmers are generally paid in intis) or laundered through businesses. The remaining dollars stay in the informal currency market, either in Peru or, more likely, abroad.

During the Belaunde administration (1980-85), coca dollars, being the main source of foreign exchange, were the key to a process called “dollarization.” Be­launde’s U.S.-trained economic team be­lieved it was okay — often desirable — for a third world country regularly to deval­ue its currency. The devaluations are aimed at discouraging domestic demand, encouraging exports, and moving the giv­en currency to its rightful place vis-a-vis the international market. So Belaunde devalued Peru’s currency constantly.

This made dollar speculation extreme­ly popular. Both in terms of Peru’s cur­rency and internationally, given the strength of the dollar against other cur­rencies in those days, dollars were a great investment. All you had to do was hold them in your hand and their value increased.

The trick was to get them in your hand. And the best place to find them was the Huallaga. Peruvian banks, in­cluding several that were state-owned, opened branches in undistinguished towns like Tocache and Uchiza. Under Belaunde there was virtually no regulation of currency trading. Banks didn’t have to say how much they were changing, and deposits often didn’t have to report where the dollars came from.

The result was that anyone with dollars made a lot of money as the rest of Peru continued to suffer a horrible de­pression. It was a remarkably transparent way of shifting wealth from the poor to the rich. From 1980 to 1983 average real household income dropped by 24 per cent. At the same time, banks returned excellent profits. The Banco de Credito, for example, holds about a quarter of the foreign exchange in Peru’s banking system (and has its own light planes to make the Lima-Huallaga run). In 1984 it returned a profit of 24 per cent on capital.

The Garcia government, which took office in July of last year, had tried to change this coca-based “dollarization” of the economy. It has frozen almost all dollar assets in the banks, raised the per­centage of dollar assets that banks must keep in the Central Reserve, and en­forced a system of fixed exchange rates (after devaluing the inti 12 per cent right after corning into office). Banks are also required now to report daily on how much foreign currency they exchange.

Based on interviews with bankers, smugglers, and currency speculators in the Huallaga and Lima, demand for dollars has decreased greatly. And when the banks do have dollars, they’ll often just put them in the Central Reserve, since the government pays excellent interest as part of its effort to remove dollars from the market. The government has, in a sense, become a super-speculator, hoard­ing dollars that originated to a great ex­tent in the coca zone. The disastrous syndrome of devaluation and inflation has been broken, at least temporarily.

But the underlying causes of the struggle between currencies remain, namely the desire of the Peruvian rich, and ulti­mately of capitalists in the developed countries, to increase the value of their capital without investing in production.

Part of the government’s idea in freez­ing the dollar was that, deprived of their currency speculation scam, Peru’s capitalists would have to start investing in productive enterprise. But private investment has not shown substantial increase over the last year. Alejandro Toledo, an economist on the boards of three major Peruvian banks, said, “There’s no lack of capital. It’s just that there aren’t any investments that the banks have faith in.” If there’s no private investment there’s not likely to be much growth (public investment has decreased under the new administration). And if there isn’t much growth, then the government will eventually need to devalue its currency.

When the devaluations come, dollars will again be a favorite investment. For the Peruvian poor, this mean a further distribution of wealth upward. Relations between the narcotraficantes and the Lima bourgeoisie will grow more intimate. But in the Huallaga things wouldn’t change all that much. The de­mand for coca is more reliable than the demand for dollars.

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A PRISONER’S DAY
I went to visit the gringo narcotraficantes with my friend Joseph, a trade unionist. In Lurigancho, Lima’s main high-security prison, the gringos have their own building. They govern it themselves. There are almost no guards; the prisoners even run their own little restaurants on the main fioor.

Joseph had a friend inside named Rob­ert. Robert had been imprisoned when he was 17. He was, Joseph had warned me, “very degenerated — both physically and morally.” When we were a few yards from the building entrance there was a little high-pitched yelp from inside. We en­tered and Robert was embracing Joseph, his hands shaking and tears in his eyes. Joseph is a big man (he used to work in a factory, killing chickens by snapping their necks), which made Robert look very fragile. When we finally sat down Robert was breathing heavily. He said he’d been having problems with asthma. Several people told me later that he’d been smoking three or four coca paste joints a day since he went in six years ago. He had sores on his legs and face. His lips were wounds.

Joseph and Robert spoke in French for a while — they’re both French Canadi­an — then switched to Spanish for my benefit. Joseph suggested we go to the main meeting area and I could talk to some of the Americans there. We entered a large, appropriately filthy and horrible room. The second and third floors each had balconies from which one could look down to the main floor. The cells were set back from these balconies. Most of the cell doors were open, everyone moved around freely. There were no guards that I could see. Robert shouted out “Manny!” A short, jumpy-looking man got up from a nearby table and walked over to us. There were introductions.

Manny grew up in the Mission district of San Francisco. I grew up in Oakland, so we had a lot to talk about. We had the same favorite bar in San Francisco — ­Gino and Carlo. Manny’d done a lot of different jobs back home — accountant, hairdresser, selling men’s clothing, selling heirlooms. He’d had a 1938 Rolls-Royce Phantom III that he rented out as a lim­ousine, with him driving. He did nine months in a San Francisco city jail for seven kilos of marijuana. Then he worked in cocaine smuggling, until around dawn on November 23, 1982, when police wait­ed for him at the Lima airport on a tip he had cocaine. Sure enough, his shoe in­soles were full of white powder, 671 grams according to court testimony. Manny was supposed to get 12 grand for being the mule once he got back to SF. A Peruvian court gave him 10 years, taking into account he was a first offender.

“I’d been in [the narcotics business] for six or seven years. I think it was about time to go down. I’m kinda glad really.”

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Manny has seen the worst of the Peru­vian prison system. At first they put him in Sexto. “If these guys had seen Sexto, they’d think this is a country club. This is a fucking joke,” Manny said. A few years ago, hostages were taken in Sexto. Some of them were eventually tortured and burned. I asked Manny if he’d participat­ed in the takeover and he said, “Yes, you couldn’t help it. There weren’t any spectators. Everyone had to participate.” Manny also took notes on the uprising, which he says he’s hidden away. “That was one helluva show. I’d like to write it up someday.”

Most of Sexto’s prisoners were moved to Lurigancho. There, partly in response to the Sexto murders, the prisoners were allowed to “govern themselves.” Manny, being an American and moved by the Yankee entrepreneurial spirit, set about organizing the building’s financial sector.

“It used to be chaos. Everyone had to do their own enforcement.” Manny set himself up as a bookkeeper/financier. If someone had something to sell or hock, he’d find a buyer. If someone needed to borrow, Manny would find a lender. He kept track of all the deals in account ledgers. The main forms of exchange were joints of cocaine paste and cash. We went to Manny’s room and he showed me the books. “It’s all in there,” he said. And it was: dates, how many joints owed, rates of interest. Manny takes care of the enforcement, but he says there isn’t much need for it now. If people welsh they know they won’t get credit again. Since most of the borrowers are feeding coke habits, they’re careful not to lose their credit rating. “It’s something to do. I’m very busy around here.”

Two other Americans came in. Like Manny, they were small-timers, young; they had their own horror tales about the Peruvian justice system. One had gone on hunger strike to protest. “We used to have to carry him around. He really showed those motherfuckers.” He looked like hell.

There were copies of The Washington Post “International Edition” lying around. “It makes great rolling papers. Everyone uses it here.” No one was in a hurry to talk about anything and I gath­ered life moves slowly in Lurigancho. The Americans make colorful rugs to pass time. Manny showed me his rug-in-progress, and a photo of the painting it was based on, Colourful World by Karel Ap­pel. “Americans are different,” Manny said. “We’re the only ones who do this kind of stuff  here.”

I had to leave. Manny and I walked to the door, picking up Robert and Joseph along the way. Manny said, “It’s been good. I needed this. I needed this hard­-knocks schooling. This education in values. You leave here, you’re one sharp son of a bitch. No one will get over on you.” At the door Robert and Joseph embraced again. Manny gave me a copy of his indictment and asked me to call his dad in San Francisco, which I later did. “Thanks a lot for coming,” he said. “It really makes a prisoner’s day.”

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GRINGOS
Weeks later I talked to Joseph and he said Robert had gotten out. He was living in some kind of religious home; the bargain was that if he kicked the coca paste they’d lodge and feed him. According to Joseph, Robert had stayed clean for a week or two, but lately he’d been making long, poorly explained trips into Lima. His keepers didn’t like being lied to. They were think­ing of throwing him out.

How many months or years could he survive on the streets of Lima? How long would he want to survive? In Lurigancho Manny had said, “Robert hasn’t seen the light yet.” This came after a discussion of how Manny had seen the light. The “light” had to do with discipline, and “hard knocks.” Manny’d told me a story about Sexto, how the guards used to line up in two rows, with clubs, and make prisoners run the gauntlet, said he had a lump on his shoulder from those days and I could touch it. It was the size of a large walnut. I didn’t see how that was physically possible. Was it all scar tissue? Or a protruding bone?

The “light” apparently signified that Manny had been a prisoner long enough to become a citizen. This is not my idea of citizenship. But then, I don’t have a walnut-sized lump on my left shoulder, and I haven’t seen my friends killed in front of me, or run between rows of swinging clubs. Still, the idea that one is either a prisoner/citizen or a dangerous rebel seemed to lack moral subtlety.

Then I returned home and found that our highest public officials, and a proportion of the citizenry, have arrived at the same moral schema that Manny achieved only after four years in Peruvian prisons (and eight years of daily freebasing, by his own account). Politicians are vying for the chance to undergo drug-testing. The Reagan administration wants employers to screen for drugs before hiring, and hopes to institute tests for federal workers. The president points to rock and roll as a key cause of abuse. Some of his advisers urge the death penalty for dealers. Troops are sent to Bolivia to do symbolic, and comically inept, battle with the scourge. Which doesn’t make me agree with Manny, though I wondered how, from a Peruvian prison cell, he’d been able to anticipate the American mindset so exactly. ❖

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Natalia Sylvester’s Immigrant Song

When I ask Natalia Sylvester why her family chose to immigrate from Lima, Peru, to Miami in 1988, the 34-year-old writer laughs. The reason, she says, “changes depending on who you ask in my family.” Sylvester was four years old when her mother and father (a medical administrator and a doctor, respectively) chose to leave with Natalia and her older sister. Her mother has always been vague about why they immigrated, suggesting, in some ways, a question that is impossible to answer.

This same silence would help to inspire Sylvester’s first novel, Chasing the Sun, which follows the disruption of one man’s unhappy marriage after his wife has been kidnapped and held for ransom. Sylvester’s own grandfather, a successful businessman, was kidnapped shortly before her family left for Miami, but she didn’t learn of the abduction until she was twelve years old. It was a jarring revelation for Sylvester, even though the rest of her family seemed to know. “Everyone I asked, like my mom and my dad, would say, ‘Oh yeah, we kind of talk about it, but not really.’ ” Chasing the Sun would go on to be named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad, and would be chosen as Book of the Month by the National Latino Book Club.

Sylvester recently published her second novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home, which traces the trauma several generations of a Mexican American family face as they try to cross the border and settle into comfortable lives. When Martin and Isabel decide to get married on Día de los Muertos, Isabel knows his family history is fraught. But the appearance of Martin’s deceased father, Omar, and arrival of Martin’s teenage nephew from across the border help the family reconcile with their past. The premise, of a spirit helping to shed light on lost history, has been compared to that of Coco, but Sylvester’s work is less interested in revelations and happy endings. Her characters are marked by happenstance and ignorance, a testament to the devastating effects arbitrary laws can have on the lives of everyday people. The novel has been hailed as timely in the wake of increased anti-immigrant rhetoric, commentary Sylvester has explicitly rejected as well-intentioned but flattening. Like her parents’ reasons for immigrating, Everyone Knows You Go Home revels in uncertainty and refuses easy answers.

How would you classify Everyone Knows You Go Home? As I read it, I realized I had been thinking of it as a kind of ghost story/romance.

I don’t know that I was thinking about classification. I didn’t think of it as magical realism even though I feel it was very much influenced by magical realism. What people would term fantastical elements in this book is really an actual cultural tradition. It was a reflection of the way that your ancestors are always with you. That felt very natural to me. This is our truth in the real world, and maybe you can’t [illustrate] that when you only stick to what’s right in front of us. To me, that’s the point of fiction.

I did think of it as a love story, actually. You write to sort out your obsessions and maybe find answers to them. Looking back at my parents’ experience coming to the United States and everything they left behind, I always wondered, “How bad did things have to get in order for you to leave everything you know and love?” I ended up working that out through this love story between Omar and Elda [Martin’s mother].

Omar’s the catalyst for undoing so much shame in his family, but he’s also a ghost, so his ability to affect the story is limited. What does he symbolize in this narrative, and how did you craft his appearances?

I didn’t think of him so much as a ghost than as a spirit. In Western culture we often think of ghosts as associated with scary hauntings. It’s not in line with Día de los Muertos, or even how a lot of cultures similar to mine think of your dead. It’s not a terrifying thing. The fact that they’re with you can be very comforting.

There was a moment where I felt like Omar wasn’t doing enough, and I had to consciously push back against that. The way we teach craft in fiction is the idea that your protagonist has to be proactive. It’s often taught in this literal way that needs to be external as well as internal. Omar is the epitome of the internal force. It seemed like a very privileged way to teach craft, because not everyone in the world has the same amount of power [to act externally], but that doesn’t mean their story isn’t worth listening to.

If we decide to only tell the stories of those who have power, then what does that say about whose stories are being told? I had to embrace this idea that, though there’s not much he can do in this physical space, Omar is still a force. His story still matters.

I was struck by how these characters affect one another so far down the line. Did you always know these stories would be interconnected in this way?

I moved around so much when I was younger. This idea of “Where is home?” always stayed with me. I kept thinking about how, when you have an experience that deeply impacts you, a shared experience with others, then no one can take that away from you. How is that not a sense of home? I thought of migrants, the time and place they occupy as they’re together, which is this very in-between space, and everything they go through together. It’s something they would carry with them, always. It makes sense to me that they would go their separate ways in life, but at a root level still be intertwined.

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Depending on your definition, the sacrifices made by Omar and Elda were either worth it or not. Not everyone gets a happily every after in America. Is the ending of the novel a triumph or something more complicated?

I think it’s more about never knowing if it was worth it. My parents were the same age that I am now when they left. It was unimaginable to me. It’s something I felt I couldn’t grasp, those sacrifices. These days, I’ve been feeling it in a much more concrete way because I ponder that. I ponder, sometimes sitting in my own home, looking around, “None of this can come with us.” Or thinking, “How quickly do you know when it’s time to go?” There’s a big history of people having to flee their countries when they were being persecuted and it’s sometimes very sudden. I used to contemplate those things from the hypothetical, but it’s becoming less so.

The other question that comes with that is, “With everything you gave up, was it worth it, if we’re ending up in the same place?” When I wrote my first book, I learned about the politics in the Eighties and the Nineties that led to my parents leaving Peru. Even at that time I thought, “This sounds familiar.” Now more than ever it is familiar. It’s really heartbreaking to see what we’re going through right now. Almost every immigrant family can tell you, “Yeah, we’ve seen this before,” because they fled similar regimes. And here we are again. Where do you go next from that? We don’t know if it was worth it.  

I read your Writer Unboxed essay about people calling your novel political, or not political enough. How do you avoid the tokenization the publishing industry can sometimes foist on writers or color?

There were a few editors who said, “You know, I really love this, but we need to see less of the everyday things, it slows down the plot.” My agent asked, “What do you want to do about this? Tell me what you want to do.” I told her, “If this were a white man just writing about everyday experiences, it would be seen as talking about the human condition. No, I don’t want to revise it.” I didn’t want to take away the everyday joys and triumphs of these characters, and reduce them only to their suffering. She was 100 percent behind me on that. I think it’s important to find people who will hear you out and back you up.

To go back to the question, I try to embrace the ordinariness of my characters. You hear this narrative with immigrants sometimes. “Look at all these amazing accomplishments and contributions to U.S. society that immigrants have made.” The other extreme is, “Look at all these criminals.” What gets lost in the middle is the fact that the vast majority wants an ordinary life with access to food, love, and protection. If we can’t say that, then we’re not painting people as fully human.

That’s what’s so frustrating to me about the way we talk about the immigrant experience. The idea of what’s authentic is often just tied to how much they hurt. I didn’t want to write to that.

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With this anti-immigrant administration, there’s so much talk about art saving us in this political climate, but you didn’t write this novel to teach anyone about immigrants. Who did you write this for?

When I look back on my childhood, what defined it was seeing my parents try to navigate this new life, and the immigration system imposed upon them, and the uncertainty that came with it. There was always this feeling that you have to do everything right, or else any small misstep could ruin everything. We’d get sent back. My parents tried to protect me from that, but I would see so much of that anxiety. This book became an act of witnessing all that.

I saw how unfair it was that there were others within my family and community who, as hard as we had it, weren’t as lucky. How is it that they didn’t have the same opportunities that we did? What was the difference between us? It was nothing. All chance, whatever it said on a piece of paper. Contrived things. I was trying to say, “I see this.”

Everyone Knows You Go Home has been out for a few months now. How has it been received? Were there any reactions that you were surprised by?

One of the most beautiful aspects of it has been having people share with me what meant the most to them. It’s always something different. It’s not just Latina immigrants. There is no such thing as “The Immigrant Experience,” and we tend to talk about it as if it’s a singular thing. But even within those experiences, the fact that we have all these commonalities is wonderful. It’s something that I was hoping to celebrate.

I had a friend once tell me, “When you think of your audience, don’t think of it in a marketing way. Think of it as who would you offer this as a gift to.” When we were younger, we all had books that felt like gifts the world was sending over to us at the right time. I just hope that it will find the people who will feel that way.

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In Postales, the Effects of U.S. Imperialism Are Shown Through Two Familes

In Postales, the effects of U.S. imperialism on Latin America play out through the microcosm of one white North American family’s interactions with a poor native family eking out a living in hardscrabble Peru. While the pairing of the different members of the two clans can tend toward the schematic, writer-director Josh Hyde allows the various interactions to play out in generally surprising ways. Essentially, the younger the people involved, the less likely the relationship is to be defined by mutual exploitation. While the white father is in Peru to arrange the sale of a piece of land out from under the central native family, his two daughters strike up rather different relationships with the Peruvian clan’s two boys. The older girl begins a romance with the older boy, but not one immune from his constant need to hustle for money. Only in the budding friendship between the 12-year-old American girl, Mary (Nadia Alexander), and the younger Peruvian boy, Pablo (Guimel Soria Martinez), a sensitive kid forced to peddle postcards in the city square, are the claims of imperialism temporarily suspended. Wandering off the beaten path, Mary gets a chance to witness the non-tourist reality of the country, a strategy that neatly mirrors Hyde’s own outsider’s sensitivity to the textures of Peruvian life.

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Commander in Chifa

Chinese restaurants can be found in every corner of the world, but that doesn’t mean they all serve the same thing. Every nation demands its own version of Chinese food, adapted for local tastes by cooks who know how to make do with available ingredients. Cuba loves stir-fries, for example, substituting slivered cucumbers and Maggi for the originally unavailable bean sprouts and soy sauce. Chinese-American contributions include chop suey, egg foo yong, and General Tso’s chicken. Indian-Chinese restaurants—of which NYC now has several—emphasize ginger, garlic, and lots of chiles. Known as chifas, Peruvian-Chinese eateries provide their own quirky take on Far Eastern fare.

Chinese immigrants arrived in Lima late in the 19th century as agricultural workers. The word “chifa” is probably a corruption of the Mandarin words for fried rice. Indeed, fried rice (arroz chaufa) and lo mein (tallarin) occupy the cuisine’s soft and savory center. New York has had a small collection of authentic chifas started by Peruvians for at least 20 years, and these modest cafés offer what might seem like a retrograde 1920s Cantonese bill of fare, reminding you of our neighborhood Chinese in its oldest and creakiest outer-borough incarnations. But now an ambitious new place has appeared among the car lots and big-box stores of Northern Boulevard in Jackson Heights, known as Chifa Restaurant.

The dining room is deep and quasi-elegant: Modern light fixtures provide a subdued glow, a scattering of nondescript art enlivens pinkish walls, and austere white cloths cover every table. These will inevitably be drenched in brown gravy before you depart. Prepare to use a fork instead of chopsticks, and drink plenty of water, because the food is as salty as an immigrant’s tears. Although the heart of the menu is standard chifa fare reproduced in slightly upscale renditions, the endless document also covers mainstream Peruvian, Chinese-American, modern Cantonese, and the inevitable spice-rubbed rotisserie chickens. There is even a smattering of Japanese dishes.

First, let’s look at the standard chifa stuff. Do you like wontons? With a comically small wad of pork filling, the ones done here are huge and deep-fried. Accompanied by a sweet red dip, the six ($6.95) make an agreeable shared snack in a trashy sort of way. But avoid at all costs kam lu wantan ($13.95), a house special that embeds these crisp dumplings like semiprecious jewels in a heap of shrimp, pork, chicken, onions, pea pods, carrots, and—yikes!—canned pineapple. For some unfathomable reason the mass is tinted an alarming pink, even though the tamarind sauce ought to be copper-colored.

Better to go with the arroz chaufa called aeropuerto ($6.95), so named because a Chinese restaurant near the Lima airport invented it in 1935. The tangled mass of rice and rice noodles comes dotted with garlicky chicken tidbits. Damn good, though it might remind you of Rice-a-Roni. Chifa also excels in the classic tallarines, using a delicate wheat noodle something like ramen. Identified with a former Portuguese island near Macao, tallarin Taypa ($14.95) tops a giant wad of noodles with beef, chicken, pork, quail eggs, green bell peppers, onions, carrots, mushrooms, and broccoli. Is a pattern becoming evident? The best productions of the chifa here involve an all-hands-on-deck approach, demonstrating a certain generosity of spirit on the part of the cook, but also a total indifference to nuance. When a tallarin is in the offing, the door of the pantry flies open.

Also available from a half-dozen storefronts nearby Roosevelt Avenue, the standard Peruvian roast chicken found at Chifa is sadly so-so. (The fragrant spice rub is said to be another legacy of Chinese immigration.) Of course, the creamy green sauce known as aji verde comes alongside, and you might want to order a chicken just to get some. What’s in it? Cilantro, green chiles, garlic, and mayo. Other mainstream Peruvian recipes fare better, including an aquarium-size ceviche ($10.95) containing multiple forms of pre-cooked seafood sided with boiled yams and corn nuts; and the wonderful lomo saltado, a wild combo of tender beef and pale french fries dripping brown gravy.

Skip the Japanese teriyaki in favor a single simple dish. Nabo encurtido ($3.50) is a razor-thin daikon pickle in a sweet vinaigrette, with a few slices of jalapeño tossed on top. Not only is it particularly good, you’ll find yourself nibbling it between bites of tallarin and arroz chaufa. It’s probably better for you than another crunchy wonton.

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Mercado on Kent: From Bilbao to Billyburg

Five years ago, news that a protégé of Spanish chef Ferran Adrià—the guru of molecular gastronomy—was coming to NYC would have turned out hordes of diners obsessed with foam, fog, and other fantastic transformations of familiar foods by color, shape, and texture.

Now, not so much. Mercado on Kent, the new venue of Adrià-apprenticed chef Peru Amandoz, opened on a rainy night in December, and almost nobody came. It lay in the shadow of the former Domino sugar factory in Williamsburg, a dark, forbidding waterfront quarter only now being populated by small rock clubs and quirky start-up businesses. Atypically, the restaurant was newly constructed, a striking corner building faced with gray metal, its roof rising from back to front like a ski jump. It might as well have been picked up by a tornado somewhere in Barcelona and set down here.

Downstairs was an ambitious bakery where exceptional bread and rolls were made; upstairs a vast, open space, with a bar featuring lots of standing room and an adjacent dining room with booths, tables, and counter seating that looked into a pair of wood-burning ovens in an admirable act of gustatory theater. Don’t singe your eyebrows! The place described itself as a Basque tapas bar, but all the intimacy suggested by that designation was absent—and few things on the short menu were recognizably Basque. What’s more, the place opened with no liquor license. Distressingly, molecular gastronaut Amandoz was out the door one month later—reportedly due to visa issues. Peru, we hardly knew ye!

In his place has appeared Mikel Treviño, who actually grew up in Bilbao, the largest city in Spain’s Basque Country. He has 86’d his predecessor’s big, sloppy sandwiches and the handful of dishes with molecular pretenses, including a little something called “omelet in glass,” involving an egg yolk at the bottom of a tumbler of fine-grained potato foam and quite arresting in its own way. He has also added recipes from his homeland in what has become a lengthier menu but retained many of Amandoz’s small plates, including a trio of amazing croquettes ($8) featuring Serrano ham, mushrooms, and clams, each nestled on a contrasting sautéed or creamed substance. Amandoz’s brochetas de pulpo were a revelation, too: marshmallow-tender baby octopus tentacles dusted with paprika and paired with peanut-size potatoes.

The platters of charcuterie and cheese have been simplified somewhat by Treviño and a fatty, small-bore sausage called fuet eliminated from the menu. (Pronounced correctly, it sounds like a fart escaping, but the earthy taste and crumbly texture was unforgettable.) The new chef has added a salt-cod casserole served in a skillet ($6), do-it-yourself toasts featuring a crab amalgam, and a delicate fry-up of small sea creatures, including smelts and baby squid ($11). These all come with bread baked downstairs, the selection of which varied wildly on my visits. One night, there were savory rolls containing chocolate chips; another time, a walnut-raisin loaf. If the restaurant’s menu confined itself to small dishes, it would be an unqualified triumph.

But inevitably, Mercado has strayed into entrée territory, where tapas bars should never tarry. Main courses are contrary to the spirit of the genre, which suggests convivial snacking with a glass or two of wine. And many entrées are unsatisfactory in less theoretical ways. With Dr. Atkins looking on approvingly, fideuà ($19)—a Basque recipe of seafood-topped noodles—is gutted of its pasta so that only a small quantity remains, locked in greasy gravy under two clams, two shrimp, and one giant octopus tentacle. So, too, chicken stew ($23) proves a hard-to-plow-through slurry of eggplant, baby vegetables, and poultry in tomato sauce. I don’t care whose mother’s recipe this is—it’s not very good. Indeed, the best entrée is a chorizo burger ($14) served with homemade potato chips. But since when are burgers even remotely Basque?

After having heard employees promise the liquor license in “one or two weeks” at various times in January and February, in person and over the phone, I decided to go ahead with my review anyway. Actually, the BYOB policy made Mercado an amazing restaurant bargain, obscure location and uneven bill of fare notwithstanding. I found myself drinking a nice Nebbiolo one night and homemade sake brewed by a friend on another. The sake went particularly well with the bread-focused small plates, tradition be damned.

But maybe by the time you read this, Mercado on Kent will no longer be the city’s only tapas bar that doesn’t serve alcohol.

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La Mar Cebicheria Peruana: Raw Power

There are lots of cheap Peruvian restaurants in Queens that serve great renditions of Andean classics like aji de gallina, papas Huancaina, and seco de cordero—but also manage to turn out terrible ceviches, made from off-tasting frozen seafood. Now it’s time to turn the tables. How about an upscale Peruvian place with perfect ceviches and mediocre everything else?

Your prayers are answered at La Mar Cebicheria Peruana. Located in the old Tabla space on Madison Square, the restaurant is the brainchild of Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio, who has transformed ceviches from peasant fare to haute cuisine. Our branch is the eighth in his Lima-based chain, which already boasted clones in Madrid, Panama, and San Francisco.

La Mar’s NYC premises—a former marble-encrusted bank lobby—has always been ungainly. Now, the ground floor looks like a motel coffee shop, with a black stairway sweeping upward to the more desirable second-floor dining room, where a vast mortise in the floor allows you to gaze pityingly down on those seated below. On the way up, hundreds of corn kernels are suspended in front of one wall with strings.

Unfortunately, even if you have a reservation at an obscure hour (say, 6 p.m. Monday), the staff will try to keep you downstairs drinking as long as possible, and use other tricks to prevent you from gaining the upstairs room. Don’t feel like you’re being singled out; the staff treats everyone badly in this regard. Once upstairs—an hour after your reservation time, following several visits to the greeter’s podium—you’ll find yourself finally seated with gleaming silverware and stiff white napery.

A slightly confusing bill of fare has been set before you. Here’s a hint: Anything made with raw fish is spectacular. The first section is the menu’s heart—a series of seven ceviches, each enough for two. These are not the dryish ceviches of Mexico, nor the soupy ones of Ecuador. La Mar’s lie somewhere in between, with a modest amount of juice in the bottom of the shallow plate. You’re going to end up drinking it, and that’s all to the good—Peruvians regard the liquid as an aphrodisiac.

The plainest (“elegance,” $17) features superior-grade fluke with little balls of orange yam and comically huge kernels of white corn in a sour, pale broth; the most elaborate (“chifa,” $19) is a clusterfuck of hamachi, green mango, pickles, and tiny wontons in a sesame dressing. Despite the almost random elements, these still read as ceviches—though in La Mar’s renditions, the fish is not “cooked” to opacity in its acidic solution, but only lightly glossed. The one ceviche I didn’t dig was “earth,” a collection of rubbery raw mushrooms, with no seafood whatsoever. You can sample any three for $24, but the portions are minuscule.

Equally good are Acurio’s tiraditos, luxuriant quantities of sashimi drowning in a citric solution with striking colors. The signature La Mar ($17) spotlights hamachi in a bright yellow marinade, and there’s no better raw fish in town. Another favors fatty salmon belly in passion-fruit juice—once again the color knocks your eyes out before the fish slides pleasingly down your gullet.

There’s a gray area, taste-wise, on the menu inhabited by causas. In Peru, these are heaps of mashed potatoes mixed with other substances to form hearty meals. At La Mar, the dish has been translated into the idiom of carbophobia, so that miniature cones of mashed spuds are surmounted by diverse bits of seafood. Order the tasting of all three ($21) to enjoy the wild hues, rather than the slender nourishment they provide. Once into the arena of traditional peasant fare, the menu founders badly. The national dish of aji de gallina—shreds of poultry in a fiery yellow sauce—is here rendered as bland breast in something resembling salt-free Velveeta.

Seco de cordero ($34) disappoints, too. In Queens, it’s a hearty goat stew served with plenty of rice; here a fussy arrangement of two small lamb chops planted in a tablespoonful of mashed potatoes, with a few cubes of lamb shoulder and two baby carrots looking on disconsolately. Arroz de mariscos turns out to be greasy seafood fried rice in a portion that would fill only half a white carryout container.

Ultimately, my friends and I concluded we should have sat downstairs. There, at least, you can order a ceviche and a pisco sour (Peru’s favorite cocktail), and escape into the night with a positive impression of the La Mar—for only about $40.

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SNACK ATTACK

Instead of hiding a bag of microwave popcorn in your tote bag when you go to the movies this weekend, take the high road and attend the New York Food Film Festival. This multi-sensory and gluttonous event offers four days of food-related documentaries and short films in which viewers will be served the same foods, drinks, and desserts they see on the screen. There’s “A Cheers to Burgers and Beers,” a night of documentary shorts about craft beers and burger-making with sliders, beer-flavored cupcakes from Ovenly, and dozens of craft brews for tasting. “Mistura + More” features a doc about a food festival in Peru and a sampling of South American foods and desserts. There’s also, unsurprisingly, a Food Porn Party, which boasts a collection of visually arresting food shorts with names including “Amor Pulpo” combined with lobster, French pastries, and samples from Saxon + Parole, the new restaurant on the Bowery.

Oct. 13-16, 2011

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Lima Limon Brings a Citrusy Addition to Little Latin America

Fifteen years ago, Roosevelt Avenue—the border between Elmhurst and Jackson Heights from the BQE east to Junction Boulevard—was mainly Colombian. But as successive waves of Mexican and Ecuadorian immigrants arrived, the complexion of the street changed. Now, with the further appearance of Argentine, Uruguayan, and Venezuelan businesses along the commercial strip, the moniker “Little Latin American” can be justly conferred.

Stroll along the lively thoroughfare in the deep shadow of the elevated 7 train, and feel like you’re in Quito or Caracas. Street vendors fry blood sausages and pork skins, stalls flog discount ropas and zapatos with a merchandising style distinctly un-Wal-Mart, lunch counters vend tongue tacos and hot dogs topped with ham and pineapple, and Spanish is the sole language spoken. There are low-life bars and strip clubs, too, along with family-style restaurants of many nationalities—though, as midnight approaches, the street assumes a slightly more menacing aura as late-evening shoppers scurry for the train.

Peruvian restaurants have been the most recent to arrive in numbers, the majority chicken rotisseries with limited menus. Punning on the name of the capital, newcomer Lima Limon is, by contrast, a full-blown restaurant, distinguishing itself by big picture windows that allow you to survey the interior from the street, and a relentlessly green color scheme that casts a pall over the diners’ faces. Lemons are scattered everywhere, stuck in vases and heaped in little piles, even in the bathroom. You’ll find the same emphasis on citrus in the food.

Ceviches are a point of pride, and if you normally hesitate to eat raw fish at a place you’re not entirely familiar with, take my advice and don’t worry here. Leche de tigre (“tiger’s milk,” $10.95) is the best, a tart, milky solution served in a tall soda glass with a pair of sizeable shrimp hanging on the rim for dear life. In the murky depths dredge up baby octopus tentacles, squid rings, ground shrimp, and the occasional hunk of corvina, the most beloved fish in Peru. Did I mention that the concoction is commonly called Peruvian Viagra?

Also in a ceviche vein—though entirely cooked—are burly stuffed mussels (half-dozen, $6), which come lined up like Panzer tanks and stuffed with parti-colored peppers and onions; on the side is a shot glass of lemony marinade. You’ll wish it were rum. If you prefer your seafood stewed, the best choice is picante de mariscos ($13.95), a vast plate resembling a thick French bouillabaisse gone strangely astray. Present are the same constellation of tiny sea creatures, concealed beneath an orange blanket of sauce. Eat it by roughly mashing the potatoes on the bottom with the seafood to make a flavorful pap. Any sauce left over (and there will be plenty) can be mixed with the accompanying rice—one is never at a loss for starch at Lima Limon.

Indeed, as in southern Mexican cooking, thick and colorful gravies of ancient origin are the cuisine’s centerpiece. In common with picante de mariscos, most use spuds as a backdrop. Named after a town high in the Andes, papas a la Huancaína refers to an over-potatoes cheese flow whose canary color is the result of massive amounts of turmeric—accorded Most Important Spice status in Peru. Cheese was introduced to South America by the Conquistadores. Ocopa ($7) is more unusual: potatoes swamped with a green sauce so dark, it verges on slate gray. Huacatay produces the striking color, an herb related to marigold and tarragon that leaves a minty undertaste in the mouth.

This being Queens rather than Peru, meat has an enhanced importance on the menu. The thin-sliced sirloin called churransca is available either pan-sautéed or breaded and fried, both equally delicious. One version features tallarin—lo mein noodles brought to South America by Chinese immigrants, but here resembling spaghetti with melted Texas pimento cheese. The same steak also plays an important part in lomo saltado ($11), strips of meat tossed with sautéed onions, peppers, and French fries. It’s so good, you’ll gobble it down immediately.

You’ll be seduced by the stews offered only on weekends. There’s one made with big hunks of goat, for sure, and another featuring beef and more cilantro than you’ve ever seen in one place before. But for a real Andean treat, try olluquito ($11.75)—beef braised with onions and olluco, a tuber that tastes almost like a potato, but not quite. As you chew it, you’ll notice a strange slippery texture. Not exactly like munching on a lubricated condom, but pretty close.

rsietsema@villagevoice.com

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AYLLÓN ENDURES

The genre of musica criolla is an amorous, spare blend of indigenous Peruvian, African, and Spanish sounds—and in Peru, it is more succinctly defined as Eva Ayllón. The Lima singer/songwriter is one of her country’s most iconic musicians, a star who boasts three Latin Grammy nominations and more than 20 albums in her discography. Her 1977 debut, Kipus y Eva, is widely regarded as a touchstone of musica criolla and Latin music overall; backed by a 12-piece ensemble at Town Hall, she will celebrate its legacy and her majestic career.

Fri., Oct. 8, 8 p.m., 2010

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La Trinchera Luminosa del Presidente Gonzalo

Dir. Jim Finn (2007).
That’s “The Shining Trench of President Gonzalo,” an uncanny artifact that purports to be a late-’80s agit-prop celebrating the revolutionary women in Peru’s maximum-security Canto Grande prison. Seemingly filmed in the courtyard of a New Mexico motel, this is Jim Finn’s most intractable work—historically rigorous yet blatantly fabricated, politically correct, profoundly absurd and infectiously set to “the inexhaustible beat of revolution.”

Thu., July 29, 3 p.m., 2010