Tiny But Mighty
Mar 03, 2020 11:53AM
By Scott Stewart
Marianna Berlin moved to the United States in search of adventure.
She was born in a U.S. Navy hospital in San Diego while her Venezuelan father participated in joint naval exercises, but she grew up in Venezuela. More than 20 years ago, at age 18, she received a letter from the U.S. government asking what nationality she intended to pursue.
“I wanted to pursue that American dream, to see what it is about America that we love so much in Venezuela,” Berlin said.
She figured she could always go home; but that’s no longer a viable option for her or many Venezuelans who have left in the intervening years—an estimated 4.5 million people, according to the United Nations.
Refugees and migrants have been fleeing violence and insecurity in the country for years, as the economy has collapsed and an autocratic government has tightened its grip on power.
Berlin’s parents are among the many left behind.
They’re basically prisoners in their own home,” she said.
She sends them food and other necessities, such as antibiotics, through “a black market of wonderful angels who help us get goods there,” but even that network has begun to break down.
Sometimes, it is impossible to send help, Berlin said. “It’s not safe. It’s very dangerous.”
Three years ago, the last time she traveled to Venezuela, Berlin faced harassment before she even embarked on her journey. Two days before her flight, officials told her they wouldn’t approve her visa unless she went to Chicago to get her documents stamped.
“That was the fastest $600 that I spent flying into Chicago,” she said. “But it didn’t end there, because then when I got to Venezuela, it was even worse. Going through customs, they put me through hell and back.”
They asked her why she was there. One of the airport officials grabbed her passport, childishly claiming it was burning his hands because it was American. She was put through the wringer for an hour before they let her collect her luggage. Then the military stopped her as she tried to leave the airport.
“It is intimidating because they’re military men with guns—not just little guns, the big ones,” Berlin said. “All I could see is my dad like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s going to get arrested.’ I could tell my father was terrified.”
Eventually, she was united with her father, and he told her it would be her last trip home.
“I’m torn between two worlds,” she said. “I want to see my family and my parents, and I miss them terribly. But I also made my life here. I have a job. I have a husband. I have kids. I have a life here. This is my home. But yet, Venezuela is also home.”
Her conflict is shared by many Venezuelan migrants who have built lives elsewhere but still have family back home.
The Venezuelan diaspora has grown rapidly in recent years, with an 8,000% increase in refugees since 2014. Many leave for the neighboring countries of Brazil and Colombia.
Several hundred have sought to make a new life in Nebraska, and a growing community of Venezuelans can be found in Omaha, connecting through social media, mutual friends, a few restaurants, and an annual gathering held each fall in a city park.
"Nebraskans have been so welcoming to these communities,” Berlin said.
Eduarmar Flores left Venezuela two years ago to join her sister in Omaha.
Access to food, water, and medicine was difficult to obtain.
“Those things are almost impossible there,” she said.
Crime is so bad that people can’t talk on a cellphone in public without risking being mugged.
Flores found work with a Venezuelan food truck in Omaha, and she took college classes when she arrived to learn English. Now she works as a paraprofessional in a dual-language kindergarten classroom in the Omaha Public Schools and at a local Walmart.
She’s planning a wedding with an American who loves Venezuelan food.
“I like Omaha,” Flores said. “It’s a good place to live.”
Life is good. She’s happy. But Flores still worries about her family in Venezuela. They often lack power, and they do not have internet connectivity, so staying in touch is difficult.
“I always try to call my mom and see how they are doing,” she said. “It’s really hard to stay in communication with them.”
Flores is thankful for her life in Omaha, and she said she appreciates having the freedom to express herself—something that’s become too much of a risk in Venezuela.
“Venezuela, 20 years ago, was the best country in South America,” she said. “Venezuela used to be so rich. Now, it’s poor—it’s poor like a country that has nothing.”
Venezuela is among the world’s largest exporters of oil.
The country controls a quarter of the world’s oil reserves, edging out Saudi Arabia as of the end of 2018, according to OPEC.
Oil helped make Venezuela a rich nation.
“We had everything we wanted,” Berlin said.
On the global stage, Venezuela was “tiny but mighty,” she said. Its people are highly educated and enjoy traveling. They used to visit the United States to go shopping for Christmas. The country was prosperous, and it had the highest standard of living in Latin America for decades.
Oil prices declined in the 1980s, however, bringing poverty, inflation, and political upheaval. Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998, and his Bolivarian Revolution ushered in a new constitution and nationalized key industries.
Nicolás Maduro assumed control of the country following Chávez’s death in 2013. Despite some ups and downs, the economy has remained in tatters. The country’s central bank places inflation at 130,000% in 2018, and the International Monetary Fund has projected rates in excess of 1 million percent.
Many workers in Venezuela earn the equivalent of a few U.S. dollars a month. The crisis has exceeded the depths of the Great Depression or the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving Venezuelans in a situation not typically seen outside of the aftermath of civil war.
Berlin said the military will distribute food, but only some get assistance.
“Certain houses don’t get it because of political views,” she said. “A bag of food would be cornmeal, a bag of pasta, or a bag of rice. It’s nearly impossible to have any protein.”
Another Omahan from Venezuela, Richard Mendoza, said his sister was recently diagnosed with tuberculosis and worries she won’t get the necessary medications.
“She had to go to a hospital and be on a waiting list in order to get treatment,” Mendoza said. “Two of the people on her waiting list have passed away. They died because they were not able to get the treatment on time. That’s the gravity of the situation.”
Meanwhile, Maduro has taken other steps to crush his rivals, denouncing Juan Guaidó—who claimed the presidency after Maduro’s 2018 re-election was rejected by the United States, European Union, and several Latin American nations—as “a puppet of American imperialism.” Maduro blames U.S. sanctions for his country’s worsening economic prospects.
The country’s bleak future is uncertain, but the continuation of a political stalemate—as hunger, disease, and crime continue unabated—remains likely for now.
Mendoza remembers Venezuela when it was perfect.
The owner of El Arepon Venezuelan food truck relocated to the United States to attend a Catholic seminary. He arrived in Wichita, Kansas, a couple weeks before 9/11.
“Everyone looked alike to me,” Mendoza said. “English was so weird. I couldn’t even get a word back then.”
He relocated to Omaha in 2003 to join his brother, a Catholic priest with the Archdiocese of Omaha. Although he left the seminary, Mendoza spent several years as director of liturgy and director of the youth group at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church.
Eventually, a new pastor arrived and cleaned house. Mendoza found himself working as a legal assistant at Curley Immigration Law.
Inspired by the food shortages in Venezuela, Mendoza launched the food truck in 2017 to help share his culture, and its takes on arepas, empanadas, and other Venezuelan fare, to the local community. He said he hopes to spread some happiness to others.
“There are three things…we consider the happiest things in life: food, sleep, and sex,” Mendoza said. “There are so many things bad going on right now. We also should bring a little bit of the good things.”
Through his work, Mendoza helps new immigrants find their place in Omaha. He recently became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
“I wasn’t expecting to find so many Venezuelans here in town,” Mendoza said.
Venezuelans have a variety of European heritages, as around 20,000 people claim German roots, and many others claim Dutch, Portuguese, and other European roots. That means they blend into the Nebraska melting pot more easily than South/Central American groups that largely claim Spanish roots.
“I can see a Venezuelan walking in the street, and I can say he’s an American,” Mendoza said. “You probably have one around you, and you don’t even know.”
maha’s Venezuelan community is a cross-section of different walks of life, including a recently retired professional baseball player.
Jheyser Azuaje played catcher for six years after being recruited by the Detroit Tigers’ Venezuelan Summer League in the Venezuelan state of Carabobo. He played on two championship teams in the VSL before it folded, and then he played rookie-level Minor League Baseball for the Tigers in the United States through 2018.
The opportunity to play baseball allowed him to provide support for his family in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital city, offering them a better life than most, even if he wishes he could give them more.
“It was really hard for me to go back to Venezuela,” he said. “I’d see my family have a good dinner, but also look outside the window and see people eating out of dumpsters.”
His family gave to others around Christmas, but inflation has taken its toll—as has a torn ACL that ended Azuaje’s baseball career.
After the injury, Azuaje and his wife, Kim Garcia, moved to Omaha. She is a legal assistant, and he works for a construction company.
“It’s a good community,” Garcia said. “It’s a better place for us to live, especially since we’re young and wanted to make a living.”
Azuaje hopes people understand that the crisis in Venezuela, along with its resulting crime rate, is not the fault of the Venezuelan people.
“Venezuela is a wonderful country,” he said. “You see a lot of immigrants from Venezuela from all over the world. I believe that they should be accepted because they never wanted to leave their country. They had to do it for survival.”
Susana Ruiz Morales left Venezuela to find a better life for her daughter.
The graphic designer at Metropolitan Community College said she has friends from home scattered across the globe, the result of Venezuelan migration that reversed direction over the course of a few generations.
When Ruiz Morales attended school in Venezuela, everyone’s parents or grandparents hailed from a different country.
“Venezuela was the best place to live,” she said. “All these people moved to Venezuela, and now are returning to everywhere—we are everywhere right now.”
Ruiz Morales became an international student after it became hard to get food for her and her daughter. She chose Nebraska because she has family here, an aunt and a sister, who both arrived as students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
She took classes at MCC in English, media, and communications, but her visa ran out. She spent a year in Spain before coming back to Omaha.
“Omaha is a really nice city,” she said.
Ruiz Morales’ work and family schedules don’t leave much free time, but she’s met students and other people from Venezuela. They connect through Facebook and through food, including Mendoza’s food truck and Rockbrook Village’s The Hunger Block, owned by a pair of restaurateurs from Caracas.
“You start to build a community,” Ruiz Morales said. “We are friendly people.”
Ruiz Morales married an American in 2018, adding a stepson to her family. She said it has been hard building a relationship that celebrates their shared cultures.
Venezuelans prioritize family and community in their lives, she said.
“We think that love is important to connect everybody,” Ruiz Morales said. “It’s challenging for us being far away from our country.”
For her, being apart from family and Venezuela’s natural beauty—from its tropical climate to Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall in the world—is like a native Nebraskan being pulled away from Cornhusker football, chili and cinnamon rolls, and other hallmarks of The Good Life.
Ruiz Morales said it feels like part of her is still back home.
“When something happens there, then you feel the pain for your people and your place,” she said. “It’s sad.”
When she was younger, she would have never imagined Venezuela facing its current crisis.
“I miss Venezuela so much,” Ruiz Morales said. “Sometimes I cry thinking of Venezuela and my people. I miss my friends, my family. But, you know, it is part of life. And I really want this situation changed in Venezuela. I pray for that every day.”
Visit latinocenter.org for more information about people from many Central/South American countries, including Venezuela.This article was printed in the March/April 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.