I grew up in Caracas, Venezuela. I was very lucky when I was growing up. Venezuela is a mono-producer. It has many natural resources but the main thing is oil, so the country was wealthy, especially in the 1970s. They call it the petro boom, petrodolares. There was a lot of money, actually in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, a lot of people were immigrating to Venezuela from all over the place. The neighborhood where I grew up was an Italian neighborhood, but there were a lot of people from Portugal, Spain, and other places in Europe after the second World War. The people from Spain were leaving a dictatorship.
So my immigration story is a long story. My whole family history is a history of immigration. It started with my grandfather. My grandfather was Jewish, and he was from Poland. Being Jewish in Poland at that time, in the 1930s, you could not go to university so he went to France to study chemistry. When he was in France all these other things started to happen. He lost part of his family in Holocaust. He couldn’t go back home. France was also being occupied by the Germans, so he kept going south. He changed his name and became part of the foreign legion. He was trying to survive. And then he met my grandmother in the southwest part of France and then my mom was born.
My mom went to Paris to study, which is a common thing to do for students who live in the provinces. Meanwhile my father was in Venezuela. He was an artist and he won a scholarship to study in Paris. It was May 1968 — a very historical moment. It was a big year all over the place. They met and then I was born and later on my parents decided to move to Venezuela.
My mother was a professor at a university, so we were middle class, but she was unconventional. My parents separated. We used to travel a lot, but my friends who had more means didn’t understand. They would say, “Does your mom have a lover somewhere?” She was a single mom and we rented our place. My mom is a product of May ’68. It was a formative time for my mom. It was a time where the idea was to rebel, not to follow. You didn’t get married. You didn’t have a bank account. You didn’t own anything. Some of the quarrels my parents had were over things like deciding to buy a washing machine. Why do you need a washing machine? You are questioning everything. I grew up with that kind of idea.
My mom did not have a bank account. She would get paid, and she would cash it, and she would carry it in her purse. At one point I went to a private school. I was the only person to pay in cash. They would said, “You’re not going to write a check? What is this?” We were probably middle class, but we didn’t do things in the middle-class style. My mom did not like saving or thinking about a career or making money. She was not interested.
When my mom came to Venezuela she embraced Venezuela. She became Venezuelan. She didn’t want anything to do with France. She wanted to only speak Spanish and learned it very quickly. She loved the culture, loved the people, so we mostly spoke Spanish. She was not on speaking terms with her parents for a while, but she does have siblings so we would travel. We would go to France and I would have to speak in French, but not at home in Venezuela, it was all Spanish.
I went to different schools. In elementary I did go to a private school, but an alternative school. It was in a house. My entire class was fourteen students. We were mostly people who were children of artists and writers. It was not a wealthy school. I went to a public high school for three years. In Venezuela at that time there was five years of high school. Three years were basic, you have to take courses that you don’t choose. And then you have the last two years that you decide if you want to go through humanities or science. You pretty much finish at age sixteen or seventeen. And then you can go to university directly. Those last two years I went to a private school and people there were wealthier than me.
Class there was a little bit different. For example, at one point we had a live-in maid, but we were also renting out a room to make more money. This maid was from Colombia. She didn’t have any papers. A lot of people from all over the place were coming to Venezuela to work. She had three kids. When I think back that must have been really hard for her. She would work really hard and then go back to Colombia. She had to take a bus. Usually when she would come back because she didn’t have papers, she would be put in jail and my mom would have to go bail her out. It didn’t happen all of the time, but you never knew. If they asked for papers and you didn’t have them, that’s it. When she was in the city it wasn’t a problem, but when she was crossing the border it was a problem.
There’s an east and west side of Caracas. It is a very class divided society. The closest I’ve felt in the US to Venezuela was going to Washington DC. There were very poor people and extremely wealthy people and a small middle class in there somewhere. We lived in a neighborhood that was mainly Italian, but it was by the hills. But we lived at the bottom of the hills, more middle class. As you went up the hill, it became wealthier. It was a very class conscious culture. The way that you speak, they would say, “Oh, you’re from this part of town, or from that part of town.” Class determined a lot of things there.
There is also a highway that surrounds the city. On the outside there are these favelas and they are huge. We called them ranchitos. These areas don’t have running water or electricity. A lot of houses were open; it’s the tropics. But it is a huge problem. A lot of people there are immigrants without papers that came from Colombia and Ecuador for jobs. Also, people who migrated from the rural areas. My father’s family came from the rural areas. You had a culture clash between people who are from the country and people from the city. The rural people didn’t go to school. They became this tertiary economy. A lot of people became maids or worked in construction.
In the 1970s and 80s there was lots of wealth and lots of opportunities that you could have for free. Amazing artists from all over the world would come to visit, amazing concerts that were free and accessible. But the bolivar, which is the money, was being subsidized by the state. When I was growing up it was 4.30 bolivares for one dollar. So to come to the States was very cheap. For middle class people, we aren’t talking about wealthy people. Everybody would go to Miami and go shopping. There was a nickname for this, tabarato. They would say, “This is so cheap, please give me two.” Everything was so cheap because of the exchange of the money.
I think it was in the 1980s that the first devaluation happened. Money was going down and down in value. You’d have to ask an economist to really understand, but basically it was a bad model. Everything we consumed was imported. Venezuela wasn’t producing anything but oil. When you have this kind of monoproduction and a lot of corruption, it was just going to degrade.
As the money was disappearing then people started asking, “What do we do?” In the city people would say, “The day the people from the ranchitos come into the city, that’s it, we’re done.” That was the fear that they would come and take whatever they want. And that was what Hugo Chavez said. He talked to the people of the ranchitos and said, “You know what? You better come down into the city.” That was in the 1990s. That was the beginning of the situation we have today.
In Venezuela we are still dealing with the leftovers of the conquest. It really messed us up. There was no value of anything Venezuelan. Even the history. If I think about the way that I was taught, it was that history started in 1492. Were there people there before that? I don’t know. Only when the Spaniards showed up did history begin. That’s how we were brought up, very Eurocentric. Chavez was the first leader of indigenous and African descent who would say it. A lot of people don’t want to say it. I have asked my family on my father’s side, “What is our heritage? Can you tell me?” But nobody knows. I guess I’d have to do a DNA test. The slavery in Venezuela’s history is taboo; people are ashamed. Everyone grew up Eurocentric, thinking everything from Europe is good and everything indigenous is bad. They use the word indio as an insult. It means stupid, and idiot. It is linked to not having education, not being able to write, not owning anything. It is very negative. Chavez said he was proud of being indigenous and that he cared about the people of the ranchitos and the people who are poor. And he said that he was going to change this. We were like, “Oh my gosh, finally someone is saying these things that were never said before.” It was all very exciting and that is why he was so popular. They brought in schools to the ranchitos, taught them music. They brought from Cuba all the doctors so that people would have health clinics. He was really trying to change everything.
Unfortunately the corruption got in there and everything got very politicized. Then Chavez died and then this guy Maduro is the president. Now it is not what it was. All those things that they promised are not happening. Also the economics of oil played a role. The oil prices keep going down. Also, they only choose people from the political party to lead the refineries. And there are huge ecological disasters, oil spills in the Amazon. They want to extract and develop everything. There are still indigenous people who live in the Amazon and they have been subject to terrible abuse because the places where they live are being destroyed. It is not a good situation.
We left in 1986. I was seventeen. I had just finished high school. The economy was going down and the city became dangerous. My mom loved being in Venezuela, but it got hard. My dad passed away when I was eleven. Our car got stolen, our apartment got broken into twice. It became hard and not secure. When I finished high school my mom thought it was a good moment to go.
My grandfather had two brothers and one sister who survived, who at the end of WWII were relocating, coming from the camps, and one of my great uncles escaping Stalin in the Soviet Union. Everybody came to France because my grandmother’s family was upper middle class and had a big home. They tried to stay in France, but at that time the Jewish organizations were relocating everybody. They offered St. Louis, Missouri. Two of my great uncles went to St. Louis and that is what started the US connection. My grandfather stayed in France, but they lived in a very small town. And then my grandmother had a child, so I have an uncle who is one year older than me. This was in the late 1960s and everybody was leaving this town because there were no opportunities for young people. So they thought, well, why not go to the US? My grandfather wanted to be closer to his brothers in St. Louis. They decided to move to the US. In the 1980s my mother felt like she didn’t want to live in Venezuela anymore. She could have gone to France or the US. She and my grandmother started talking again. My mother wanted to be closer to her parents because they were getting older. So we moved to St. Louis. Get ready, let’s go!
Because my grandfather had become American, he sponsored my mother. And because I was a minor, I came with her. For us it was actually very easy and straightforward. I used to come and visit the US, but it was still quite a shock to move to the US, especially to the suburbs of the midwest. We always used to go there for Christmas, but I never lived there. I had lived in Caracas, which was a very noisy city, you walked everywhere, and there were lots of things happening around you and this place was so quiet. There was nobody. Where are the people? And everything was so clean. Everything was the same, the same color. My grandmother got into trouble in her subdivision because she wanted to paint her house turquoise. Now it is probably cool, but back then it was not cool.
It wasn’t my choice. I didn’t want to come to the US, to be honest. I remember in high school we had to study English and I said, “I don’t want to study English. I will never need to speak English. Why do I need to learn it?” It was stressful. I didn’t drive or have a car. It was cold. I think we moved in October. My uncle was going to college, but before he left he introduced me to some of his friends. I was very shocked about how young people entertained themselves. They did a lot of drugs. They would go to the basement and be doing all kinds of drugs I had never seen. It was very culturally different. I was shocked by many things.
Since I came in October they said I should just go to the local high school so that I could start learning English. They had a group of international students. I went to the high school and I was very surprised to see all the cliques.
St. Louis is very racially divided, which I had never seen. In Venezuela class-wise it is very divided. There was certainly preference for lighter skin, but there is more classism than racism I would say. It is a little bit different. People are also very mixed. You do have a lot of people of European descent but it is also very mixed. People in the US identify by their ethnicity first, and I had not seen that. People would ask me, “What are you? What is your ethnicity?” I don’t know. The first time I heard the word Latina, I was like, “What?” I didn’t identify as Latina. It didn’t mean anything to me. Just because I speak Spanish I am in this category? At the time, it was a very US concept. It’s very regional. In Venezuela you identify more by your pedigree or your class. That so-and-so is from this family, or lives in this neighborhood. People who were darker would be made fun of. This family in my high school, a good friend, the other girls would make fun of her family because her parents were darker, but they were lawyers and doctors. They had made it. There weren’t the same divisions or segregation.
At the St. Louis high school I saw all the African Americans together. It looked like a movie because they had big boom boxes and they were rapping. Then you had the other cliques. You had the sporty guys with their big uniforms and the cheerleader girls with their very interesting hairstyles, very done, lots of makeup. I had never seen so much makeup. Coming from the outside it was very clear to me the different groupings. Maybe if someone from the outside had come to Venezuela they would have seen some things that I could not see. Also, in Venezuela you wear uniforms and people don’t wear so much makeup. But there are brands that are important. Like you would see girls wearing Cartier rings, so you knew they had money. Who could afford that?
By January I started a semester at a university to learn English. It was very international and I really liked it. I met people from Saudi Arabia, Japan, and two girls from Colombia that I became friends with. When you are in Venezuela people are very regional. I’m from Caracas, not just from Caracas, from the east side of Caracas. You don’t even identify with the provinces. I guess it’s like being a New Yorker. Because of that I felt like Colombia was like planet Mars. Living in the US I have learned a lot about Colombia and found out that we have a lot in common. Oh my gosh, you eat arepas too? And you call it this way too? Maybe if I was older I would see things differently, but as a teenager I had nothing to do with Colombia. But then I met these girls and that was fun. I met also a girl from Spain, so I did have Spanish-speaking friends. I didn’t say, now we are all the same community just because of language. It was more that if I liked that person we became friendly.
It took me a very long time to understand the idea of latino. With social media people hear other things from other places a lot more than they used to. And you hear this word, latino, for many things. About 4 million Venezuelans are out of the country and they are hearing the word latino. But that’s new. Growing up the word latino meant Latin, like from the Romans. Like the Italians and the French and the Portuguese were Latins. Latin meant that you were not Anglo-Saxon, usually you were darker vs lighter. Southern Europe vs Northern Europe. Being from Venezuela I saw racial problems, but what about class? But that was often not a good thing to say. Here were a lot of misunderstandings and trying to figure out different identities and problems. I definitely offended people. I had different ways of understanding race and ethnicity and it definitely clashed with how it is here.
A lot of Venezuelans have moved because of the economic situation, but when I moved it was rare. People here didn’t know anything about Venezuela. I also didn’t have many friends who immigrated so I didn’t have any people to share my experience. I tried to adapt but it is not an easy thing. When you grow up somewhere in your formative years it is like your brain is developing with the environment. You feel at home in this place. I’ve lived in the States for thirty years but I still don’t understand everything. I still have to figure things out constantly. It has been interesting to hear how they experience this and that as an immigrant. It has made me think. I have just been busy, just go go go go, just keep working and not having a moment to think, “Oh my gosh, I’m an immigrant and this is not easy. I had to leave all these things.” I am a slow person, I don’t react immediately to be like, “Wow, that was something. I had to adapt a lot.” To immigrate is very difficult. It really is. It’s complicated because I’m also older and I’m thinking about when I was young. Maybe anybody starts thinking back and that world of your childhood is gone. The Venezuela I knew was gone. If I go back it’s not there. I won’t find it. As you age you are separate from the places you started, your roots and your environment.
Language alone has been interesting. I used to write a lot. I wanted to be a writer. I had a diary and I would write in it all the time. Now I cannot write. I live in English, but I don’t feel confident. If I write I always have to ask someone to check to see if I am doing this correctly. I could just write that way as my voice, I mean, why not? My brain is shaped to speak Spanish, I teach Spanish, and I have conversations in Spanish, but I’m not reading all the time in Spanish. Everything is in English every day. It doesn’t come super naturally to me. I also have French, which is dying, but with my family I speak French. So I am very confused. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a language.
I always thought about the United States as a country of immigrants. My family always said it is a great country because it is a country of immigrants. You can come here and you can start over. No one is going to judge you. In France people are very very judgy and you will always be an outsider no matter what. In the US people have all kinds of accents. But now I feel all of a sudden it is not that way. We hear that there are people that are Americans and people who are not Americans and the immigrants are bad. So you start thinking, where do I fit in this puzzle? Who is allowed and who is not allowed? That is something new that I have not experienced before. It has made me think a lot about what does it mean to be a citizen or to be from somewhere. In the end we do all move. I never planned to move, I never knew I was going to yet here I am. I don’t even know why I’m here. It just kind of happened. I didn’t specifically plan to go do this. Events that happened in my life took me where I am.