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.

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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 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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