The Cycle

Mother and father were born into poverty. They worked hard, they helped the country rise and the country helped them rise with it. But now, it seems the cycle's back where it started.

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My parents grew up poor. Dirt poor, as they say.

My mother was a bastard child. Wait, we don’t say that anymore, do we? All right, she came from an unwed couple, back when this was a big deal. They lived in Puerto La Cruz. One day my Grandfather went to Margarita to visit family. He came back…married. My Grandmother did not take that too well. He would try to send money, and she would rip up the bills.

My father is an orphan. His mother died giving birth to his little sister, he was only two. His father went out to get help, left the midwife at the house and never came back. The four children were scattered among friends and relatives.

Let’s say my father was the luckiest of the lot, even though they fed him the same food they gave the dogs (sardines and pasta) and treated him like a servant. That’s some Oliver Twist shit right there. (*Spoiler alert* It doesn’t end like the book.)

My grandmother kept on giving birth to other children from different men. If only the pill and feminism had been available to her back then. She worked as a secretary. She and my great-grandmother tended the home. Her brothers, on the other hand, lounged around the house, barely working and dishing out periodic beatings to the children, lest they think that life was enjoyable and actually worth living.

Being poor isn’t just about being “poor”. It’s about violence, and hunger, and hopelessness.

My mother’s family moved a great deal. From Puerto La Cruz, to Lagunillas, following the oil. They passed her off as one of her uncle’s children, so she could study in the oil field school. She used to gaze at the fenced residences for the gringos. She still remembers wondering, with rage in her chest, why she had to be on the outside.

My father had a dream: to leave that house and never return. Wait. Not exactly. He wanted to return a self made man, with money, with power, with his head held high. He studied. Hard. He was bright. He wanted to go to college.

They both graduated from high school, not an easy task for children from low income families, then or now. But boy are they stubborn.

They met at the ‘Universidad de Oriente’. I would put a link to the site but the damn thing isn’t working. Typical UDO. They were still poor, but now something like a future gleamed before them.

My mother won a Fundayacucho Scholarship and finished her degree in Geology at the UDO Bolivar campus. My father finished his degree in Electrical Engineering at the UDO Puerto La Cruz. He used to do his tests with a fountain pen. He never made mistakes.

It was not hard to find a job then. Young, smart and professional, they went to work for the best companies. Mom started in the oil fields at El Jobo with Lagoven. Dad helped with the turbines in Guri. The country helped them rise, and they helped the country rise as well.

They bought a house, and then a car. They had kids (mistake? you be the judge). They helped their families. They could go back home with gifts and sweets and clothes. They were the ones that “made it out” and they struggled to help their families make it out as well.

And then it all went to hell.

My father never really let go of his past. He got very far, almost took flight, but that’s the thing about facing poverty and violence in your childhood: it will eat you up if you’re not careful. In the end, he left nothing behind but debts and heartbreak. He had no choice but to go back to his family home, the one he had tried so hard to run away from. He’s thin, and out of work, and now, his “siblings” are trying to evict him.

My mother fared better, much better. She broke the cycle for me and my sisters.

My grandfather, with all his faults (and boy If I start to list them here we could start a very macabre novel), at least ensured that each and everyone of his  seven children and many of his niece and nephews, got a college degree or at least finished high school. He would even bring in other family members in the house and pay for their studies.

He constructed the first middle school in Pampatar so children wouldn’t need to go all the way to Los Robles to study… Oh, Did I forget to mention he was the Governor of Nueva Esparta during 1970-1973?

He, the son of a humble woman from Pampatar who made her living selling fish. An unwed woman (This is surely a recurring theme in my family). Grandfather studied hard. He became a teacher. He rose and rose.  He wrote a book and then a few more, he planted a tree and then a few others, he had a child, and then 6 more.

He instilled in my mother the need for education. And Mom basically let us do anything we wanted if we always had good grades, the best grades. Basically we got scolded for anything under 17. “That was our only job” she said. “We had better damn do it right”. And we did.

But you see, education is not enough. My father was schooled, he was dragged down. My uncle also went to the Tecnica, he worked in Siderúrgica, making good money…they found him living in a landfill in Bolivar after being missing for many months.

The pain, the anger, the hurt, the injustice.  It cascades down to the next generations.

My Mom, I don’t know what she did or how she keeps on doing it. Although the fact that she was called Margaret Thatcher behind her back by coworkers does give me an idea (She was kind of hurt by that, I was kind of proud, go figure). She’s tough as nails, smart and hardworking.

Even when she was fired from PDVSA a few months before her retirement, even after being blackballed by the Venezuelan Oil Industry and having to leave the country to find a decent job; even after my father lost our house to a loanshark without telling us.  Even after all that. She has risen. Maybe it’s her particular type of faith, maybe it’s just a personality trait. Maybe she’s just really, really stubborn.

But because of her, we are here. Not unburnt by the past, but at least able to look at it from a distance.

***

A few months ago my Mother went to visit family in Venezuela. She made a pit stop in Panama to buy food, medicine and other essentials. She complained the whole time. Two suitcases filled to the brim (32Kg each, Thank You Santa Barbara Airlines) is not an easy thing to haul around at her age – sorry Mom! Frustrated, she solemnly declared that there was no way she would be doing that again.

And then she got to Puerto La Cruz. And saw my aunts and uncles, and cousins.

She was astounded.

My Aunties are all big ladies…OK Fat, they are all fat and have always been fat (Fat is not a bad word, get over it). But now, they are losing weight. And it’s not because they suddenly started following Sascha Fitness and drinking soy chia smoothies. It’s because they aren’t eating.

They get one decent meal a day, two if they’re lucky.

And the children, the children are always hungry.

Hopelessness.

That night, my uncle and mother sat beside each other on the porch of my Grandma’s house. Thinking about the past, reminiscing on the hardships. A few years ago, the memories were felt with a bittersweet tinge, they were far away, decades ago. You could laugh at them. Remember when we were hungry?. Ha ha ha. So funny.

My uncle is no longer comfortable with those memories. They bite. Hard.

“It’s like we are children again” he said.

But now, there is no hope on the horizon.

44 COMMENTS

    • Indeed. I am reminded of what my own grandmother used to tell us years ago, as she grew up during the Depression and raised 8 kids alone during WW2: We are what we have become BECAUSE of our hardships, not in spite of our hardships.

      Excellent article. I know I will be thinking about it all day.

  1. Very brave powerful gut wretching family story, also very deep in its insights and messages , poverty ravages the life of its victims because if comes with a social mileu and set of customs and experiences that moulds peoples mind and characters in ways that even people those with the resolution and spirit to scape it carry with them for the whole of their lives like a ticking time bomb that events can set off without warning. In spanish the word that comes to mind in describing the hard hitting story is ‘descarnada’ ….we must all thank Audrey for writing it . The story is the story of many people who coming from the ravages of poverty , rising to a better life through their moral stamina and effort find that unconrollable circumstances cause them to slide back into their life origins. In this case the circumstances are those of socia conditions causing a reimpoverishment of masses of people and which are the result of an obscenely inept and corrupt governance by some narcisitic and delusional and power mad group of men .

    One thing that the story does is confirm an idea that Ive had for a long time , that many Venezuelan women from the less fortunate classes are real heroes in the way they battle the adversities of life to help themselves and their children become better persons with more accomplished lives …….Ortega once visited Argentina many years ago and he was surprised to find that argentine women were a race apart, much better than the average man , he didnt think much of the latter and he wrote as much , but he was awed by the strenght resolution and energy shown by Argentine women ……. In Venezuela I ve observed the same thing again and again how a family is held together and launched into a better life by the efforts of ‘margaret thatcher’ mothers and sisters and aunts. In Venezuela they are the warrior race ……, I long for a day when women really take their place as leaders in Venezuelan society, I see that time as a coming of age of Venezuela as a modern society .

    The other tragedy which the story tells us about is how history can suddenly run amock and become a mass destroyer of lives , history being Chavez and the way he converted a flawed country into a ruin and a catastrophe with the candid complicity of so many of those poverty ravaged people that made him their idol. Again Audrey thank you for the gift of your heart rending and illuninating story.

    • That is what Milan Kundera calls vertigo:

      “Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves. “

  2. Excellent writing. I think many in Venezuela have very similar stories of hardship and perseverance against odds. It certainly reminds me of the struggles my grandparents faced in their youth.

  3. If you read Garcia Marquez’s Cien Anos de Soledad you realize the commonality of the matriarchy in the Caribbean. Women toll away in daily work keeping the household together, men dream to make big things, usually achieving nothing.

    My mother, an American, when she arrived in the late 70s to Venezuela observed the high number of women professionals. Her impression was that they Venezuela was perhaps even ahead of the US on this matter at that time.

    She also observed the tomcat attitude of Venezuelan men by which she concluded that this feminist achievement of professional women had probably less to do with the feminist movement and more to do with Venezuelan men being such mujeriegos.

    • I can’t speak to the matriarchy, but it is close to the truth, in my opinion. My wife (Venezuela expat physician) grew up in a family with strong male figures. (Her father/uncles owned a concrete/cement concern that was nationalized then ruined by Chavez.) Perhaps her family was the exception? Her mother and her father, however, grew up with only strong women who kept the family together. Drunken or absent fathers/husbands who complained endlessly about how they should be filthy rich and perpetually prosperous if not for (fill in the blank).

      FWIW, my physician wife started out as a nurse, and we met when she was completing a nursing internship in the United States. I also can’t speak to the attitudes of Venezuelan men to Venezuelan women, but when she met me, she said that I was “a breath of fresh air”. (or whatever the Venezuelan slang for that idiom is) In all honesty, I am nothing special to look at (El Guapo has been her pet name for me since 1985) and I can only offer her financial and emotional security as I can, and my unconditional love. I wish I knew more about the machismo/mujeriego that effects Vz males, but I only have horrible anecdotes from my wife and her aunts to go by.

    • FWIW, my wife loves her country of birth. We would both live there, if not for the fact that my career as a custom home builder and cabinet maker; and hers as a physician support so many of her extended family from here in the States. We have been able to send our two children, one adopted Honduran child, three of her nieces, two of her nephews and 8 others from her extended family through university.

      Break the cycle…. beautiful.

  4. Excellent and moving story. Venezuela is saved by it’s women. Hard working, dedicated and always looking their best. If it weren’t for them this country would be at the tail end of underdevelopment.

    • It is rapidly becoming the tail end of achievement, despite the strong work and ethics of Venezuelan women. For Chavismo to bring a country so low despite the Venezuelan woman is telling in regards to how dysfunctional Chavismo is. I don’t know what women have that we men don’t have, but I’m somewhat embarrassed for us!

      We got a panicked phone call last night from Maracaibo. Things are getting desperate. Our care packages are not getting through and some people are eating feral animals and pigeons.

  5. Bravo Audrey! Well written and very moving. No conclusion is needed.

    O.T., but it might interest students of English:

    Dirt poor: Means that your house does not have a floor and you walk on “dirt” inside. To keep things a little cleaner, people would put fresh straw or “thresh” on the floor which needed to be changed frequently. The front door was fixed with a piece of wood at the bottom to prevent the straw from spilling out. This was known as a “threshold”.

    Piss poor: People could make a few coins from selling their urine to the local hide tannery. It was demeaning, but if it made the difference between eating or not, people would.

    Doesn’t have a pot to piss in: Yet another step down the poorness ladder… people who could not even afford a pot to bring their urine to the tannery.

    • Having been raised in the United States, I can only add this.

      Dirt poor: Exactly. ( I consider my mother and father’s life beginning here. They had nothing because their parents never aspired. My father literally had dirt floors in the US in 1936. My mother, pine planks.)

      Piss poor: Clearly a step down the ladder, but nothing we were ever taught to embrace in the United States. To our shame, perhaps? (My grandfathers who had nothing despite whatever benefits the US could spare him after WW1 and WW2. Both chronic inebriates)

      Not having a pot to piss in (add: Nor a window to throw it out of) The bottom rung of the ladder. My great grandparents, who lived in ditches in Ohio. Buried anonymously in a potters field, from Leipzig, German territory and Ireland,parts unknown. (Then under colonial rule.)

      I look at myself. My children have grown up in prosperity. They want nothing. My daughter is off to med school in 14 months. (My son wants tee times at the local private golf course so he can break 80) And yet we look at our relatives who live in hope of a meal? My son isn’t insulated, but have we failed when the devastation is so close?

      As a parent you always want your kid to do at least one better than you. I somehow think I ought to send him off to live with Tia Sophia. I am afraid he would end up dead. He thinks life is like a video game.

      • And yet, it seems that a good portion of the U.S. population wants to turn its back on capitalism, the engine that produced such a remarkable increase in prosperity in favor a model that has never failed to impoverish the citizens of the countries where it was applied. I wish we could send ALL of them to live with Tia Sophia.

        Sigh… The “Cycle” continues.

        • So true.
          I love my (my wife’s) Venezuela family. When a generation or two misses out on devastation, they forget, I fear.

  6. I am in my London office, about to cry, remembering the last time I saw my dad. He was sat underneath a three, his favourite spot, in front of his house. He looked so tired. Tired of life. Tired of been poor. I will always remember the shoes he was wearing. A pair of shoes that looked that they have walked across the Andes fighting his own battle against poverty. He is a truck driver; my mom is an unemployed teacher. Both remarried, I know have 2 step sisters, one form from each side. I look after them. I send them money every month so they can afford luxuries…caraotas… atun… and birthdays cakes.
    I was lucky, I did all my homework, I studied hard. I had caraotas, atun and birthdays cakes.

    • Mi esposa está llorando después de leer. (My own broken Spanish)
      My heart breaks. I love my Venezuelan family.Godspeed to all of you.

  7. Audrey is telling her story and i can only wonder ho many other stories will never be told!
    Damn chavista traitors and the cuban oppressors. You have brought misery to a once hopeful nation.

    It hurts to see how well was our own wealth used to corrupt everyone and destruct the country.
    It still works keeping some distracted.

    It will be sad to continue seeing the fall into anarchy that follows this stage.

  8. Audrey,

    Thank you! I really enjoy your writing and I find it wonderful you discuss women’s rights in Venezuela. I wish we could have your writing in Spanish. It is time to ruffle some feathers.

  9. Audrey, so very, very beautiful, and, yes, I’m crying as I write. Your story is the same as that of my wife’s, even your photo is similar, only difference being that my wife was brought up in rural surroundings, although her mother was the stalwart/inspiration, while her father did try hard, but was held back by ignorance/lack of education. My forebears in the U. S. traveled West 150 years ago, and spent their first winter living in caves carved in the banks of the Missouri River. They lived rurally fairly well, til the Great Depression, scars of which remained in my father until his death. Venezuela physically/geographically is a great, virtually unparalleled country, but has been plundered of its wealth/resources mainly by its own political leaders and their allies, leaving it with very little to work with to attempt a comeback. Your story is haunting in its tragedy, so movingly-well-written, and is clearly an all-time high for Caracas Chronicles. I thank you from the very bottom of my heart.

  10. Great post!! I also remember the stories of my Grandmother: moving to Caracas as a poor and single mother of 5. But what hurts me more is the present: most Venezuelans going back to a poverty they would have preferred to forget. A few weeks ago I went to Maracaibo and there, talking to an old man who guarded the cars at a restaurant, he said to me almost the same: “the hunger of our childhood has come back. But now is worse, there are no crops to feed on in our fields”.

  11. Thank you for that moving article. My wife has a very similar story to tell, one of six girls brought up in a Valencia barrio. She left school at 16 to help support her family finding work first as a cleaner in a gas station then as a clerk at Ford Motor Company. Ford sponsored her through “parasistema” to finish her schooling and then through night classes at Universidad de Carabobo to study Law. She taught her mother to read and write. She finished her working life in a multinational that was “expropriated” (but not paid for) by Chavez and then destroyed.

    As somebody else has said in the comments I am sure the Venezuelan women will, one day, help to rebuild the country. They are strong and determined.

  12. Your well-told and earnest account of your family’s history is truly extraordinary, Audrey. It shows how “guáramo” (and good discipline) allows some to rise, in spite of hardships, and how Lady Luck and Mr. Opportunity have a better chance of favouring those who prepare. But who are we to get high over a false sense of morality? How can we know without walking in the shoes of those who prefer or fall into another path? As such this may sound trite to say, but it seems like a positive direction in life, outside the vicious wheel of poverty, is impossible if one falls for the pitch of serpents, one being alcoholism, another being drugs, and a third, bad personal associations who sell a mirage through victimhood and blame (of the ‘other’) so as to flatter their egos.

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