My March with Ivón

I traveled to Ciudad Bolívar determined to march. Then I met a remarkable old lady who put the entire thing in perspective.

This march is going to be be a big deal. The word is students from all the núcleos are coming to Ciudad Bolívar, people from Anzoátegui, from El Callao… all over Oriente. Political leaders are joining in, too, but the march isn’t about politics this time. It’s not some directive that came from Caracas.

It’s one of our guys who was killed.

At 6:45 a.m. I’m already at the Plaza Monumental in Puerto Ordaz. A friend of a friend told me the buses would take off from this place to Ciudad Bolivar, to take us to the march for Augusto Puga, the student that was killed by the police inside the Universidad de Oriente.

“Am I late?” They told me I should be there at 7, but no one’s arrived. I check my phone like ten times, maybe I misread? At least the day is fresh, as if it is about to rain but never does rain. I know my city; the scorching sun is on the way.

I cannot miss it, I want to protest.

At seven o’clock I consider going to the bus terminal. Maybe I’ll have to go on my own. I wouldn’t mind. After writing about the death of Augusto Puga, I have to be there. I talked to people who were there, who tended to the wounded. I felt their pain, their helplessness.

From the corner of my eye, I see two old women dressed in white, wearing sunglasses and fanny packs.

I approach to them:

“Are you going to the march too?”

“Of course,” one of them answers with a smile.

The other continues the conversation, “I couldn’t sleep last night, it got ugly in Los Mangos, they went inside the houses and took some of the chamos.

Students from all the núcleos are coming to Ciudad Bolívar, people from Anzoátegui, from El Callao… all over Oriente.

Los Mangos is one of the most prominent protesting neighborhoods in Puerto Ordaz. A kind of guayanés San Antonio de los Altos, protesters there constantly barricade the streets, disregarding all directives from MUD leaders. By now they’re extremely well organized: when they see National Guardsmen arriving, they know to hide out in their houses, melt away, only to come back out once they’ve left.

The guards have never managed to really discourage that protest and it’s a constant war.

During the 2014 protests, they got nicknamed Mangoquistán, a label they proudly spray-painted on the entrance of the housing development. The name stuck.

Slowly, people start arriving at the gathering spot. Everyone seems to know each other. I kind of feel like I don’t belong.

“Is Luisa coming?”

“No, she had some other things to do today.”

Another lady who just finished a phone call interrupts their conversation to say the group put together by opposition mayor Carlos Chancelor got attacked by colectivos. The group left Tumeremo at 4 a.m. to go to the march, but the road was blocked by a group of motorizados —pro-government motorbike gangs— who destroyed the buses, stole everyone’s phones and beat the protesters.

Protesters there constantly barricade the streets, disregarding all directives from MUD leaders.

Everyone agrees that they should hide all of their flags before getting to the march. Just in case colectivos were looking for buses from Puerto Ordaz. No one seems scared or discouraged by the news, just the opposite.

At 8:30 we get on the bus to Ciudad Bolívar with this chant:

¿Quienes somos?
¿Qué queremos?

The kid sitting at my side crosses himself as the bus starts moving.

We get there in an hour, and the march is already under way. We just have to follow the loud music to catch up. It’s a lot of people; it’s been a while since I saw a march this big.

In the middle of it all, I see a 70-year old lady walking slow. Like, really slow. Everyone notices her. Everyone cheers her commitment and takes pictures.

She says to no one in particular:

“We need to stay out on the streets. At least this old lady is still willing!”

With her cane in one hand and her purse in the other, she struggles to walk over a small bump on the pavement. She looks frail, as if she’s going to topple over any second, so I grab her arm and help her over it.

I’m pumped up by all the people and the enthusiasm all around. I’m eager to get to the front of the march, talk to the leaders, scream my lungs off, but I’m still holding the lady’s arm. I can’t just leave her here. There’s another bump on the road, and then another one, and then some more.

Then she drops this:

“My only son was killed by a grenade, 9 years ago. He was a military man, and was doing a raid in a slum as part of an anti-drug command.”

Now I definitely can’t leave her: she is telling me her origin story. I ask her if she came here by herself.

“Yes. I need to protest for my kids, because the thing they are doing with this country, eso no tiene nombre.

She tells me her name is Ivón Rivilla, She came alone to the march, her grandsons all live in Caracas, and she never got married. She tells me she never wanted to get married, because of her job. She was a professional dancer, but also an actress, writer and painter. Up until two years ago, she was the director of the dance group “Danzas Nekuima,” part of the Universidad de Oriente (UDO), and she used to travel to dance all around the world. It seems like quite a life. She tells me she’s writing a book about her travels and experiences.

It’s a lot of people; it’s been a while since I saw a march this big.

“Once, a man I met traveling, a Spaniard, came looking for me, to propose me; but I sent him away. He wanted me to retire, become a stay-at-home mom,” she says. “But I couldn’t leave my boys.” She means her dancers.

“Time was, the greatest theater companies would come to Venezuela,” she continues. “They’d sail in through the Orinoco River and present their shows here in Ciudad Bolívar before going to Caracas. This was a cultural emporium: painters, musicians, actors, everything. But things fall apart. I don’t know exactly when, but my city changed. Ciudad Bolívar turned into a bunch of savages.”

She tells me she has to beg for money from time to time.

“Medicines are expensive, and the pension I get doesn’t go very far. I made Bs.8,000 in a day. No wonder there are so many people asking for money.”

At this point the march is too far off. We can barely see the flags and the cars. I don’t mind, we’re marching at our own pace now. It’s like a march for two.

As she reminisces, I realize she’s making me want to read the book she’s writing. She’s about to tell me about the time when she impersonated a lawyer to get a student out of jail, but then we stumble on three men drinking some beers beside a pickup truck. They must be around 40 and seem to be sharing a funny story.

I don’t know exactly when, but my city changed. Ciudad Bolívar turned into a bunch of savages.

Without missing a beat, Ivón switches to a fragile voice, almost as she is about to cry, and this exchange happens:

“Sir could you give me some money? I’m hungry.”

“Are you hungry? Really hungry? It doesn’t show.”

“Must be the sad face I have.”

As the man takes a few Bs.100 bills out of his pocket, she says “Thanks, I’ll go on with the march.”

“Are you in the march? Have some more, then; for the march.”

She switches in and out of character fast — all those years of acting. I’m too impressed to say anything. I get the sense it’s routine for her.

When we walk off, she tells me, almost laughing, that she’s not ashamed to beg for money, the worst thing that can happen is that they say no. “It’s not like I’m stealing or something.”

Then the march starts coming our way. Everything turns into Mad Max in a matter of seconds. Soon, everyone around us is hooded or masked, many have homemade shields, helmets and gloves. It’s a different march now. To barricade the roads, they bring out construction blocks and smash them on the street to crack them.

A car is leading the march. It has a sound system strapped with ropes to an opened trunk, playing this song:

The whole setup is powered up by a small electric generator strapped to the roof of the car with still more rope. It’s the guitar player from Mad Max, #TropicalMierda style.

Ivón asks me what’s going on, but I’m just as confused as she is. She just sits on the sidewalk in front of a mall to take some medicine and have a drink of water. When she’s done I help her stand up before going to ask some of the encapuchados —hooded student protesters— what’s going on.

At this point, the official march has ended. The political leaders hand in a document at the Fiscalía (Prosecutor’s Office), and now the students are going to the decanato a few blocks away. All of the political leaders, and all the leaders for that matter, seem to have disappeared.

Everyone’s expecting the repression from the security forces any second so I try to leave before all that happens.

I leave Ivón with one of her friends, an old man who sells cigarettes and coffee on the streets, and I rush to the meeting point where my ride home is supposed to wait for me.

Before I leave, Ivón tells me she would keep protesting, accompanying the chamos. Of course, at her own pace. She knows what it’s like to lose a son. She spent her whole life dealing with students at the UDO, so Augusto Puga’s particular death hit closer to her heart. She also knew and helped build the cool Ciudad Bolívar of the 70s, and knows what it has become now, in her own words.

“Ciudad Bolívar was a beautiful city,” she tells me, “but know we don’t have much of it left. Now it’s run by a bunch of savages that only mock its culture. That’s why we need to get rid of these coñoemadres.

At this point, the official march has ended… All of the political leaders, and all the leaders for that matter, seem to have disappeared.

I miss my ride for a few minutes (the bus took off immediately after the driver saw the Mad Max car making the rounds) so I leg it on out to the bus terminal, just a few blocks away.

In line to get on the bus, I’m still thinking about Ivón. Maybe that’s why I notice three other older ladies begging for money in different parts of the bus terminal. The one who approaches accosts me: “give me money for food” she says angrily. No sense of performance to gain sympathy points or anything — she’s not Ivón.

Still, I give her about Bs. 800: everything I had in my pocket. She doesn’t  count it. She moves on to the next person; I get on my bus.

Carlos Hernández

Ciudad Guayana economist moonlighting as the keyboardist of a progressive power metal band. Carlos knows how to play Truco. 4 8 15 16 23 42