Ode to the country in my memory

“From Cotiza To Petare”. Caracas by Teresita Cerdeira. Buy this print here.

I’m closing in on a year and a half of American life, and there is no leaving my “Venezuelanism” behind. It’s not just that it is impossible to live in Florida and not find another expatriate around –heck, the two workers ripping the wall on my apartment to fix it as I write this are Venezuelans– nor that I keep a healthy Twitter feed made up almost exclusively of my countrymen. It’s because I’m hanging on to it with both hands and a couple of teeth.

Crazy, I know. I mean, you already moved here, why would you want to hang on to something that just isn’t there anymore. This is something that many people have told me. Y. –it’s not enough to just call her “GF” anymore– works with a lady that refuses to say she’s Venezuelan to anyone. Some have even gone so far as telling me that, once they’ve established themselves abroad, they’re giving up their Venezuelan citizenship.

I can understand that. I truly do. Being a Venezuelan nowadays is one of the hardest things. Joanna Hausmann showed it ever so eloquently in her latest video. “You feel like you’re on a tight rope (…) with a sumo wrestler on the other end, and you don’t wanna fall, but you kinda do wanna fall…” Being a Venezuelan, be it that you’re living abroad or still at home, is a constant challenge in keeping your sanity. Heck, your sense of humor. It’s dealing not only with the craziness of the country –the blackouts, the crime, the scarcity, the general despair– from within or without, it’s dealing with the assholes that benefit from it, the tools that try to minimize it, the jerks that don’t care about it even as they call you their friend, and the well-meaning souls that don’t understand and to whom you try to explain for the umpteenth time –because you don’t want to feel so lonely on this, because loneliness feels like the slow lane to madness.

Except I truly don’t want to stop being Venezuelan. I don’t want to let go. Venezuela is more than just my country, my other home, my origin story. It’s my identity, my good side. It’s a whole lot of good things surrounded by bad things that sometimes stain them, like soot coming off an industrial chimney, but eventually find themselves clean again as they toss and tumble inside my memories.

Venezuela is Caracas, the capital, where I lived and grew up most of my life. It was walking through the Sabana Grande Boulevard, looking for an arcade where I could kill a few hours, or that cool Metallica or GnR T-shirt, plus an obscure CD that you could show off like a hidden treasure, while avoiding the myriads of street peddlers that tried to sell you everything from belts to notebooks to used books –which you of course bought. They were all right as long as they didn’t take up every single space (which they did) and you could avoid being robbed (which I could). It was watching those 50s-era signs that were taken away, an effort to erase a city’s memory, but were forver there.

Caracas was Los Palos Grandes, the one place for which I would have traded my childhood neighborhood, if only to say I lived the life of a sybarite. It was its every restaurant at every corner, a café in every block, a bookstore everywhere. It was its closeness to our Avila mountain to the north, and Francisco de Miranda Park (Parque del Este for everyone else) to the south, made it an urban sandwich between the best greenness the capital offered.

Caracas was downtown, even though it was rough to move there and even rougher to remember. Powerful buildings filled with powerful men were dotted on the outside by the poorest, the downtrodden, the strugglers. There was hatred in the “Hot Corner” where the “glories” of the Revolution were screamed out to anyone who heard it, whether they wanted to or not, right next to the love of a young couple who snuck a midday kiss, or families who came to see the resident sloth, surrounded by the inky black squirrels, a miniature parallel to the city around them, all at the shadow if the statue of the man who basically made Venezuela possible. It was the National Pantheon, where said man laid forever, as well as others who gave their own to make our country what it is, bad and good. It was tiny crevasses where you could find the best juices, the best chicha, the best “alternative” clothes. It was so much history –Congress, the Cathedral, the House of Culture– before men came who, again, wanted to erase that history.

Caracas was going up to our mountain, El Avila. “The painters, the palettes, how many a poet’s pen, how many eyes found a moment of solace”, the song said

Caracas was also the starting point for so many trips. Quick ones to La Guaira, my closest beaches. The trip through those first tunnels. The mountainside pock-marked with shacks, making sure poverty is a constant reminder. The first time you see the ocean, jumping up and down. The boulevards. The beach vendors. Stopping for ice and a hot empanada breakfast. That first dip in cold Caribbean waters, hoping to drain problems away. The parade of beautiful bodies for all tastes, the beers, the pastelitos, the other beers. The long drive home, hoping quietly that you can beat the traffic and the marauders that might do you harm, or the eternal wait for the bus ride home which feels like a cross-country trip through bandit country.

And Venezuela still is so much more. I just didn’t live through enough of it.

My love-at-first-sight moment with Maracaibo, Venezuela’s “coldest city”, because you need air conditioning everywhere to fight the almost constant 90ºF temperatures, filled with what could be the funniest, warmest people in the country.

My quick but memorable trips to Valencia and Maracay that felt like going to a next door’s neighbor. The gardens, the beaches, the friends, the lovers. The pastures filled with cows, and oxen, and buffaloes. The lusciousness of Henry Pittier National Park. The absolute spectacle that is Morrocoy, a group of islets and islands that spread across the Aragua coast like peaches on a tree. The field that commemorates the Battle of Carabobo, where independence was finally won. The birthplace of one of the world’s best rum, where you can also play paintball or ride the country’s last working steam locomotive.

Venezuela is also the Pearl of the Caribbean, Margarita Island. Two weeks of family and not-so-family vacation. The cheap liquor, thanks to the words “free port”. The casinos and night life. Again, the beautiful bodies, from all over the country and the world. The miles of beautiful beaches. The coconut shakes, the cachapas. The best empanadas in the country, in the middle of a market full of offers and hagglers. Breathtaking mangrove canals. It’s visiting a fishing village just to see the salt of the earth, but part of the sea. It’s seeing the colors of people who have lived the island life and just began to learn how to treat tourists.

Venezuela is the Andes, with tiny and beautiful little villages all across the highland moors, with our own breed of dog, big, hardy floofs called Mucuchies. The kindest people on the planet, too quick to offer some coffee for the cold while they get ready to ride their mules. Venezuela is also desert, in the Dunes of Coro (Médanos), a vast sand extension that makes you expect a Sphinx rise from within, a few minutes away from even more gorgeous beaches. Venezuela is also land of cowboys, the llaneros, men’s men, one with the wilderness that surrounds them, filled with the legends of dead murderers and murdered women. And Venezuela is also the deepest jungles, surrounding the Orinoco river, second only to the Amazon in the continent, “winding like a snake” right through the middle of our beautiful country.

Venezuela is all that. Or rather it was. Almost none of what I have described is true anymore, given the current situation. But above all, Venezuela is us. And that has not changed us. Our sense of humor, our dreams of grandeur that sometimes come. Our women and men, our pages, our voices. Venezuela is now one of the biggest countries in the world, because there are Venezuelans all over the world. The United States, Colombia, Spain, Canada, Italy, Peru, Germany, Australia, Japan, even Eritrea and Siberia. There are very few countries that haven’t heard the word “Venezuela”, and although it comes from heartbreak, I’m sure we try and say it with a smile.

I write these words and I wonder when will I see my country again, and under what circumstances. A joyous one, like a new baby. Or a sad one. Or just… one. I wonder if I will ever be able to stand at the foot of Angel Falls, or bathe in the waters of Los Roques. And as I feel what the Portuguese call saudade creep into me –a sad happiness, as it was once described to me, or a fond melancholy– I say it doesn’t matter.

I am Venezuelan, and proud of it.

Wait. Seek. Celebrate.

They looked like rejects from a Li’l Wayne video, four women ranging in age from sixteen to early thirties, gold teeth, pierced eyebrows, tattoos and fake blonde and purple hair . When I came up to their table, they hardly even acknowledged me. I only got to the “W” in “Welcome” when the youngest told me, or rather barked at me, “I already know what I want!”

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A position on voting, by someone who comes from a non-democracy

ELECTION-2018

One of the first things I did when I moved to the States was register to vote. You may think it’s a small thing, but it was one of those things I wanted to do to truly feel American. I would make my voting debut just a little less than a year later, on the Florida primaries (I registered as a Democrat) for the midterm elections on November 6. And then, last week, out of sheer coincidence, I voted early.

I don’t need to tell you this is a major election. The 2016 Presidentials started changing the political scene in this country at a breathtaking speed, and a way all too familiar for someone who comes from a place where democracy is dying a slow death (I never believe it dies, but more on that later). I see, concerned, things happening in my new country and all around the world that I have seen before. And I see young people react with indifference, making up hundreds of excuses. Or express disappointment, believing that there’s no point.

I’m here to tell you that’s exactly what most people in power want you to think, guys. Although it is certainly telling that, considering how everything is going on in the world, people continue going to the less democratic of leaders (oh hello, Brazil). But please, if you really think that you still will get nowhere voting, the only way to overcome that is, precisely, voting.

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A change is gonna come. Soon. For real

I get to a stoplight driving D. to a karate friend’s birthday party at a Chuck E. Cheese’s, and see the Facebook notification I’ve expected to receive every Saturday: the weekly schedule for the restaurant’s shifts, posted on the private group. I didn’t look at it right away, of course, being in a moving car at all, but also, I had the proverbial bad feeling. I decided to wait till I got home.

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“We come from the same place”

My next-to-last table for the day was a big one: nine people. Two men, three women, and four ladies between twelve and I’m guessing twenty. As I approached I heard them talking not in English. My first reaction was to assume they were of the same nationality as I’d say roughly seventy per cent of my customers. Not to mention, they were of no ethnicity I could assume.

–Welcome! Brazil?

One of the men, a burly specimen in his mid-fifties but with a kind smile, flashed said smile and said in broken Spanish:

–No, Brazil no. Egipcios.

–Oh!–, I said, a little taken aback but not losing own my smile–. Then we continue in English.

They were a lively although demanding group. The girls were very easy to laugh, and the youngest one was what you could call an old soul. Near the end of the meal one of the ladies called me over.

–Are you Indian by any chance?

–No, ma’am. Venezuelan–. I smiled again, and assumed a Punjabi accent–. Though I am greatly respectful of the wonderful people of India.

I got the expected laugh out of the table, but then one of the ladies grew a bit serious.

–How long have you been here, sir?

–Since November, ma’am.

–Things are not good back home, yes?

–Not quite ma’am. I guess back yours they are better, right?

–No, no–. She pointed to the burly man. –He’s Egyptian, he’s my brother in law. We’re Syrian.

My heart sank, as you can imagine. –I am so sorry, ma’am, for everything that is happening in your country. Where are you living now?

–We’re in Canada. They live in New York.

 

I looked over at the girls again, this time with new eyes. Do either of them remember their country? What had they seen? What have they told them?

–You have all my sympathies. My country is also causing an immigration problem in the region.

–Why is that?

First, a reminder. Syria has been in the midst of airst civil war since March, 2011, briefly after the events of the Arab Spring toppled regimes in Tunisia and yes, Egypt. Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad refused to back down or even make decent reforms, so a full-on war exploded. This was also the beginning of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, but it also caused one of the worst refugee crisis in history. More than five million Syrians have fled their country, mostly toward Europe, by land and by sea. Many have drowned, and many others are caught in diplomatic limbo in refugee camps all over, especially in Greece, where they are not exactly welcome with open arms.

With that in mind, I explain to the lady that Venezuela itself is starting to cause an immigration crisis. Estimates of how many of us have left the country vary a bit, but most say that the number is between two and three million, mostly middle-class.But as the Council on Foreign Affairs of the United Nations noted recently, it’s starting to get worse. Colombia, which is right next door, has seen some 250,000 Venezuelans come in between August 2017 and March 2018, with some estimates of as many as 3,000 coming in a day. And the rest of Latin America is not far behind: according to The Washington Post, Chile has seen a 1,388% increase of Venezuelan immigrants since 2015; Panama, who saw an overwhelming influx of my countrypeople between 2010 and 2016, imposed new visa requirements that make it that much harder to come in the coun try; and, well, there’s this guy, who doesn’t exactly make it easy.

After I explain this, the woman looks at me with a sad smile. “So we come from the same place”, she sighs.

They were obviously a well-to-do family, perhaps even educated. They all spoke very good English, if with an accent. They still had family in the capital (Damascus), but they had survived the worst part. I was amazed to agree with her, because although my country is not at war, I too left a life that would not have let me reach my full potential. It doesn’t help that Assad and the late Hugo Chavez were quite chummy.

After they left, I moved up to Ian, one of my fellow servers, and sighed.

–That family that’s leaving is Syrian, man. I can’t even imagine.

–Oh for real?– he asked.

–They live in New York and Toronto now. Talk about a change.

–I’ve always wondered, how people just leave their countries, start trying to find a job and what not.

–Well, look at me. I was a reporter back home, now I’m a waiter.

And so many people like that. Omar, one of our bussers, is an oil engineer. My GF is a graphic designer who used to run her own cake-designing businesses and now is a hostess. And how many doctors, lawyers, dentists, economists and the such are working as cabbies, salespeople, construction workers. Not all of us truly wanted to leave the country that saw us grow, but many had no choice. Which makes what Venezuelan turd-in-command, Nicolas Maduro, said this week — “I wouldn’t go to clean toilets in Miami”– particularly irritating. And of course many answered back.

It’s a sad fact of life that to better support your family, or at least help them, the best thing many of us could do was leave, doing things we’ve never thought we’d do. And any job dignifies, no matter if it is cleaning toilets. All we want is the chance to get ahead in life, be wherever we may be. And that applies to all immigrants or refugees, be they Syrian or Venezuelan.

As I picked up their table, two of the girls lingered behind. I asked their mother permission to say one last thing. They told me they were twelkve and fifteen.

–No matter where you are, girls, always remember and care for your country. Because your country made you who you are. Learn everything about it, as much as you can, because it’s going to be up to you to fix the mess that your elders have left behind. We’re counting on you.

They listened carefully, and smiled what I operceived as honest, interested smiles. I wonder what would come later, how they would grow up. Only time can tell, of course. Meanwhile, here we are, and here we go on.

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