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.
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.
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.