Talking Through Tears: An evening with Venezuelan refugees

Andrea Juillerat-Olvera 2018

Last November I had the rare opportunity to spend the evening with a Venezuelan refugee family. My husband works at a Title I elementary school with a demographic that is about 75% Latino. It was there that he met Blanca and her son Jorge, Venezuelan refugees who arrived in August of 2017.
(I have changed their names to protect their identities.)

They arrived here in our city of 500,000 with absolutely nothing, having given it all up to get out. They currently live in a small one-bedroom, on the ground floor of a tower in an area with low socioeconomic status. The furnishings in their humble apartment are all from a thrift store, but tastefully chosen. Blanca invited us over to chat, but also to give me a facial with a skin care line she wants to try and sell. I agreed, and began by washing with a cleanser she provided. Next, using a small spatula she frosted my face with a soft cucumber mask. As the mask dried, we sipped tea and I asked her to tell me about Venezuela.

She and her husband, Gonzalez had been middle class people. Her husband worked in HR for a large food distributor. She worked retail in a dress boutique, doing tailoring and seamstress work. Together, they did well enough to live in relative comfort. Before the government fractured, Venezuela had free public education, including free higher education. Families like theirs took advantage of it, both Blanca and Gonzalez have Bachelors degrees.

They assumed that they would progress through life as their parents had, working hard, saving up, buying a home. Blanca and Gonzalez married and had one son, Jorge. Venezuela previously enjoyed a constitutional right to healthcare, and maintained a high quality socialized system provisioning that right. It was in this atmosphere of safety and stability that they began building their lives. Blanca emphasized that these things, free healthcare and education, existed before Chavez came to power. Admittedly, these benefits were still part of a neoliberal arrangement, with vast amounts of oil wealth going to the 1%. Nevertheless, she insists that wealth inequality is far worse now than it was under the previous party. Robust social safety nets existed, and as young parents, she and Gonzalez believed that social mobility was possible for all Venezuelans.

Things began to change with Chavez, who she describes as very much a ‘Trump-like’ figure. He spoke in sweeping populist rhetoric, bold statements that inflamed the poorest people of the nation. His party’s color was red. Everything he said and did was meant to sew discord among the populace, and it worked. People polarized roughly along the lines of ‘haves vs. have nots.’ The poorer folks placed great belief in the socialist vision he spoke of; he was swept into power on the wave of hope and trust. But, Chavez’s time in power didn’t quite go as expected. Some things got better, other things got worse and sadly, his administration wasn’t immune to corruption. His party, like the former party, was willing to loot public funds, restrict or propagandize media, and use the military in brutal, politically retaliatory ways. In the end, everyone felt bitter and disillusioned. Venezuela had cultivated two completely inept, corrupt, parties, no other choices remained. Chavez’s revolutionary discourse had worked, and a toxic malice swept across the country. Barely contained hate between Venezuelans simmered just below the surface. The poor, rural, aging, indigenous folks despised the young, educated, urban elite. With crisis brewing, Venezuela on the verge of civil war, Chavez flew to Cuba for cancer treatment, and died there. Nicolas Maduro, his Vice President, assumed control, but has been unable to effectively govern the country.

“He was a bus driver, you know?” she tells me, “no education, no training, just a politician of the worst kind.” As she described him, I realized it wasn’t so much his bus driving background that bothered her. It was the anti-intellectualism he represented. Educated, liberated, employed women like her, and all people with university degrees were cast as the ‘enemy’ by the poorer, rural, traditionalists. They tend to be suspicious of those from urban areas, or with higher education. For the youth of her generation, achieving a college degree earned them only scorn from their fellow Venezuelans, not respect.

With divisions already sewn so deeply, the country was a powder keg of unhappiness and blame. The impending food shortages would inevitably lead to massive civil unrest, and war. Maduro’s government began to nationalize everything they could, kicking out foreign businesses and investment, seizing domestic goods. All systems of production halted and began to dissemble. In this time of extreme scarcity Venezuelans resorted to violence, “And this,” said Blanca, “is when they began to eat their own.” As desperation led to violence, government systems failed, there was plenty of blame to go around. The truly rich were already gone. They had bolted at the first whiff of revolution, and so the nation’s poor turned their gaze onto the collapsing middle class. The struggle was now between ‘anyone with something vs. everyone with less than that.’

Blanca told us that now in Venezuela you could be killed for a phone, a small piece of jewelry, or even a jar of milk. The ICC (International Criminal Court) has declared the current government in violation of a long list of human rights protections, but there is no muscle to oust them. Their questionable leader will most likely maintain his iron grip on the country as long as he can, since to let go will be his demise. The people do not consider his leadership legitimate, but any government structures that might have made peaceful change possible are gone. Even worse, his ownership of the military makes it impossible for Venezuelans to challenge him directly.

As desperation spread, threats to their lives increased. They witnessed, with horror and dismay, the devolution of civil society. There were so many kidnappings that Gonzalez had to hire an escort to see him to and from his job site. Finally, in 2015 his employer withdrew all investments and closed up shop, leaving Venezuela for good. He and Blanca lost everything; they took Jorge and went to their parents’ home for safety. It was a time of chaos, no imports coming in or exports going out of the country. Crops died, untended fields rotted, an entire year of agricultural efforts wasted, a huge loss for the country. No one was left who understood the macro-scale farming system, and people began to starve. Blanca’s voice tightened with emotion, and I watched her gain self-control after a few seconds.

‘Next mask!” she announced brightly, and removed the cucumber froth with a cold washcloth. Her pretty face was so close to mine while she intently applied the mud mask. I took the opportunity to observe the complexity of emotion at play in her eyes. Blanca continued while she worked, “Because of food scarcity and rampant violence, now there is only martial law…and hyperinflation continues.”

Blanca and Gonzalez were granted asylum for a few reasons, his former position with an American company helped, as did their relative education level. But when Blanca’s 14-year-old nephew was taken on his way home from school, the nightmarish threats became real. The kidnappers demanded a huge sum of money in exchange for his life, but her brother and his wife didn’t have it, neither did their parents. All their money, pooled together was still not enough. They were just a middle class family, barely holding on. Even with the sale of their parent’s home the ransom demand could not have been raised. It was a ludicrous amount. The family literally could not pay the sum demanded in exchange for the nephew. Since they could not pay the ransom, the kidnappers sold the boy to an organ trafficking operation. Her nephew was blindfolded and transported to a makeshift medical facility. He was drugged and hooded for most of the time, but he could sometimes hear the conversations of his kidnappers. Restrained to a table during some kind of ‘pre-op’ meeting, the would-be surgeon, a middle-aged woman, suddenly rejected him. She told the guards that the boy was ‘no good’, ‘not suitable,’ and in this way she saved his life. He was thrown into a van, naked and blindfolded, then tossed out of the back of the moving vehicle onto a city street. When he tore off his blindfold he saw sharpie markings all over his body where the surgeon would have sliced to harvest his organs.

After this incident, Gonzalez, Blanca and their extended family immediately started trying to get out of Venezuela. The police report from their nephew’s brush with death, proof of other threats to the family, and the immanent loss of everything, including her parents’ home, enabled Blanca, Gonzalez and Jorge to gain asylum. They arrived in the U.S. a few months ago and were sent to our city. Their son Jorge, age 8 was enrolled in the school where my husband works and Blanca became a parent volunteer. She spends many days a week there, helping out wherever she can. Jorge was the single quietest child I have ever observed in my life. His eyes, his posture, everything about him, and actually the whole family, shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Jorge is young, but he is absolutely aware of what happened to his cousin, and what it means.

The family does not seem comforted by the current political state of the U.S. They describe echoes of Venezuela’s mood prior to collapse, specifically the divisiveness of national discourse. While the people bicker, corruption and fascism are opportunistic, a creeping decay that readily infects any form of government. None are immune. Our leaders and theirs may carry different ideological banners, but if the end result is the same, it doesn’t really matter what you started out calling it.

Blanca and Gonzalez did not criticize the U.S., and in fact repeated how incredibly grateful they are for the food and medicine here. Just mentioning it brought tears to her eyes, tears that had been barely contained all night. “Venezuelans are dying from totally preventable things for lack of the most basic medicine, and healthcare services,” she explained. They both worry about family members who remain behind. All communication between the families is kept to an absolute minimum to prevent further kidnappings. Communication is problematic anyhow, since the current regime regularly throttles, censors, or blocks the Internet, and has resorted to destroying what little telecommunications network infrastructure remains.

We talked about other, happier things, while she refreshed my tea, but it was clear that her mind was in one place, and our talk soon reverted back to atrocity. Blanca described scenes of brutality, profound need, hunger, and she did not censor for Jorge. He did not speak, though he exhibited a great deal of affection for his parents throughout the course of the evening.

In our city, Aramark controls the school district’s cafeterias, and they have strict rules. For example, each student must be given a serving of milk, fruit, vegetable, meat and grain. The students are dolled out the food in this way, whether they want it or not. There is another rule, that no food, which has been ‘served’, cannot be reclaimed or recycled: it must be thrown out. This means that every single school day hundreds of food items are passed out to the kids, and many of those same items, unopened, are tossed directly into the trashcan. Unopened pints of milk, oranges and apples that are completely intact, slices of meat, piles of vegetables, all of it, going directly into the trash. The students seem to care very little for the food they are served. No one is ever very excited, unless of course the lunch includes a mini bag of chips. Bags of Doritos, Lays, or any other brand name chips are hot items, but fruit is thrown out about 80% of the time. My husband works lunchroom duty on some days, this senseless waste passes before his eyes on a regular basis. The cafeteria workers attempt a few things to try and mitigate the waste. Sometimes they facilitate the gifting and bartering of items between students. If one is tossing a milk carton but another wants it, the trade can happen. Also, the lunchroom workers sometimes carefully reclaim fruit from the garbage and redistribute it among themselves — in total secrecy of course, they can all be fired for food reclamation.

The first time Blanca witnessed this scene in the cafeteria, while working as a volunteer, she burst into tears and became inconsolable. Her distress was so evident that she had to leave the school for the remainder of the day. At home she felt a surreal sense of shame, shame for just for having witnessed such an abhorrent squandering of resources — and guilt because her own friends and family back home live on the edge of starvation. In Venezuela people stand in lines 4–6 hours a day, for one jar of milk. When my husband spoke to her a few days later she was still overwhelmed with emotion. The scale of the waste in the school cafeteria just blew her mind.

I lay on the couch while she carefully removed the mud mask, and misted my face with something fresh. The third and final mask she applied was called a ‘face lift’ mask, and it went on with a big soft paintbrush. She applied a generous layer of it all over my face and on part of my neck. With smooth strokes, she worked the goop upwards, moving opposite of the direction gravity pulls my skin. She warned me that it would dry hard, and stretch my face, she warned me not to speak. This final phase would last 30 minutes, so I retreated from the kitchen and relaxed on the couch. Now that I was no longer at the table, everyone comfortably chatted in Spanish, which is also my husband’s native language. Their musical conversation was mostly lost to me, and I let it go. Closing my eyes, I considered all that I had heard, and it made me very sad.

Eventually the 30 minutes passed and Blanca began the removal of the ‘face lift’ mask. It was slow going, especially with only cold water on a small washcloth. It felt like an enormous layer of glue had dried and cracked on my face. Blanca removed as much as she could, but the substance was thick and hardened. Finally, I went into the bathroom for several long minutes to try and get it out of my hairline and eyebrows. I wished for a chisel and hot water, the sink didn’t offer anything more than lukewarm. I meticulously worked with a comb and cloth, but conscious of the time, I gave up and decided to continue to removal process at home later that night. Emerging from the bathroom, Blanca guided me to the kitchen, gave me a light mist of toner, and presented me a mirror. I was pleasantly surprised that it had worked. I’d guess about 5 years was taken off my face, and my skin glowed, each pore squeaky clean. “The effect will last about 72 hours,” she informed me, “you will feel your skin very tight, as if the mask is still there.” She wasn’t lying; it lasted for a couple days at least.

This skin care line also comes with an electronic device that firms the flesh, via the delivery of a mild, electrical current and vibration. The whole package is a $400 investment. I told Blanca that although I could not afford it now, I would think about it in the future. I tried to tip her $20 for the facial, but it backfired. She absolutely refused the money, insisting that the facial was a gift. I offered her the bill a couple of time, but she countered by saying that giving me the facial was important to her. The expression on her face told me that I’d hit some cultural snag. I am not sure why, but offering the tip was the wrong thing to do. I put my money away and just thanked her with hugs, and as much warmth as I could. Jorge shook my hand, and I wished him well. The family saw us to the door and we bid them good night.

As we drove home, my husband and I talked about how hard their transition must be. How difficult to understand a new culture, especially the current U.S. culture. They are devoutly Catholic, frightened, careful, and conservative in everything they do. The smell of marijuana in the apartment complex where they live concerns Blanca enough to keep Jorge indoors at all times. Jorge doesn’t seem to want to go out anyway. They are scared, like little animals seeking shelter in a storm.

Blanca’s words linger, and give me pause to consider the fragility of civil society. Breaking things is certainly easier than putting them back together. We can either be engaged, proactive citizens now, or we can be victims of a failed state later. At least we still have the choice.

Interpreter, Teacher, Artist.