Ten years ago, Leo had dreadlocks. My first question when I met him was “How the hell do you keep them from smelling bad?”
“With patience and dedication, pal” he answered. The few times we hung out together, he struck me as a man who wasn’t easily intimidated and also someone who could kick your ass quite elegantly. He’s 1.78m with a wide nose, brown eyes and a well-cared-for skin with several tattoos attesting to his personal philosophy and job: he’s a musician.
Skeptical, he dressed to kill: well-ironed shirt, fashionable trousers with shoes fit for an English spy. Leo was aware that the place they were going was known for refusing entry to people who were badly dressed or who “looked poor”, or who otherwise broke away from the monochrome monotony. However, his friend knew the bouncers and talked to them so they’d let Leo in.Leo has the charisma required to get women’s attention. Oscar D’León and Franklin Virgüez can’t light a candle to what this singer does for the opposite sex to consider him such a good catch. Precisely because of his cunning, he didn’t refuse to go with a friend to a nightclub in Las Mercedes as a sort of wingman; his buddy asked him to go with him to test the waters with some girls that were waiting for them. “It’s just that scoring girls is too easy with you,” that’s the motto for the entourage around Leo.
When the staff noticed he was alone, the bouncers were quick to act.
Once they cleared that first obstacle, the night was all compliments, beers and phone numbers. At some point, Leo’s friend took off to go get some action. When the staff noticed he was alone, the bouncers were quick to act. They took him by the arm, moved the people away and threw him out of the place.
“Why are you doing this?” Leo asked.
“Because you don’t belong here. Because you’re black.”
He was understandably furious, especially because the two bouncers were as black as night themselves. Yes, these curators of race are “afrodescendientes,” as the Bolivarian Revolution calls them.
“I got a lot of support when I posted this story on social media. However, I decided not to push te envelope too much because some friends told me that the nightclub’s owners were thinking of coming after me if their place was shut down,” said Leo.
But still, a few nights after the incident, some of his friends decided to stage a protest before the nightclub. Mobile phones in hand and thanks to the power of the interconnected world, they broadcasted live as they berated the bouncers for not letting black people in.
One kept saying not to touch him. The other, more hostile, told them to stop recording unless they “wanted to get in trouble.”
I decided to look into this nightclub’s story and a source who chose to remain anonymous —bless that journalistic trick— told me the owner, a Ukrainian dude, had two other places shut down in the past due to illegal activity. Despite this, he’s well connected with certain people in the government, and he always gets the permits he needs. Apparently, his policy is that if you want to get into his parties, you gotta have a lot of money, the right cars and toys, and a skin tone he finds suitable.
A study, published by The Washington Post in 2013 ranked our tierra de gracia as South America’s most racist country.
Leo moved on. He didn’t let the incident get him down. But these situations signal an issue that’s the Venezuelan social equivalent of sweeping dust under the carpet: in this case, homebrewed racism. A study, published by The Washington Post in 2013, with data compiled by Max Fisher and collected by the World Values Survey, ranked our tierra de gracia as South America’s most racist country. Fisher reasons that this is due to unequal distribution of wealth which has distorted ethnic perceptions. You know, what we see in the media: dark-skinned and poor language are synonyms of bad and criminal.
In the survey, performed in over eighty countries, citizens were asked the following question: Who wouldn’t you want as your neighbor? Answers focused on skin color and social status.
There are also cases in this bountiful nation where a European name and being too white can result in bizarre experiences. Such is the case of Anacaona Gutiérrez, who went to the offices of the Housing Ministry in Las Mercedes to get registered when the government first started their population census for the Misión Vivienda. Once in line she felt like a communist in Miami; by the looks she got, she was keenly aware that she was the only blonde in the place. It’s as if they were saying “What is this one doing here?”
When it was her turn, the person in charge of receiving her documents asked her if she was Venezuelan. “Of course. I was born in the Concepción Palacios maternity hospital” Ana replied. “And where’s your mom from?” “She’s Spanish, but she’s been living here for the past ten years. She’s as Venezuelan as an arepa,” Ana retorted, her patience running low. She was then accused of being an opportunist seeking to profit from the benefits that president Chávez had given to the poor and those in need. She was told to buy her own house in La Lagunita, “where whiteys like you live” and that she would be thrown out by security if she didn’t leave.
There are also cases in this bountiful nation where a European name and being too white can result in bizarre experiences.
Ana was actually thrown out by security, but it was because she slapped the Venezuelan SS woman who pulled this on her. It didn’t matter that her cédula screamed Venezuelan in big letters; only skin color and social status were important in that institution: if you weren’t black and poor, you had no right to a house. See, racism doesn’t discriminate: we can all suffer from it at some point.
Take Sandra’s case, for instance. Her mom arrived in Venezuela from Ecuador 41 years ago. She was seven when she set foot in Caracas for the first time. She adopted the Ávila as part of her life and arepas as the only food blessed by God. What Sandra didn’t know is that her appearance would cause her disheartening experiences.
“I remember I had a Literature teacher in high school who told me that I had to speak right, not with that horrible accent people in Ecuador have. That she’d fail me if I didn’t learn to speak like a Venezuelan,” says Sandra, who is 45 years old now. She also has stories of how someone once screamed at her on the street “cotorra, go back to your cage!”, and how some well-dressed professors at the university told her to quit studying Law because “it wasn’t appropriate for a foreigner to graduate” in Venezuela.
“Your skin gradually thickens against life’s stupidity. I knew lots of people who saw me as a weirdo, but also the vast majority of people who stood by me. Venezuela still has a lot to learn about racism.”
We seem to be reticent to learn, though. For example, you can do a quick search among the dozens of Facebook groups called. “Venezolanos en —insert any country here—”. The first comments you’ll read from nationals of those countries is that Venezuelans are “lazy”, “incompetent” and we “don’t want to work to improve our own country.” Venezuelans are mistreated abroad too, and those experiences build up to a victim mentality: “woe be onto us, nobody likes us.”
There’s a name for that: poetic justice.