Photo: T. René Rodríguez

I was walking the other day in Lima’s posh Miraflores neighborhood to the Parque del Amor, to get a glimpse of the Pacific, when we came across Manuel José. He wore an “SOS Venezuela” baseball cap, looking like a guerrero of 2017. Standing behind a wall as to not attract attention from municipal security guards, he was hawking simple candies for a sol. Even for street hawkers, this is the lowest rung.

Ileana, my wife, looked at his small box, pulled three candies and handed a ten soles bill. While he made change, I told Manuel to keep it. We shook hands as arm wrestlers. We teared up. He was a defeated warrior.

Manuel José is just a grain of sand; over 100,000 Venezuelans, are reaching Lima, with more arriving every day. And if you have an eye out, you’re bound to meet them.

Consider, for example, a tocayo, René, an older man we met on Avenida Brasil. René arrived with three generations of his family. He had worked in SIDOR for three years in the 80s, and had fond memories of Venezuela.

Sad for all the countrymen he couldn’t help, he was at least satisfied with what he achieved with Alberto, a young man from Caracas. For a month, Alberto worked as a painter in his house, clumsy and sort of lame at first, but quick to learn and meticulous.

Venezuela is not a distant country for many nationals. Sometimes, it seems like everyone in Lima knows someone who made the trip.

Turns out, Alberto is a mechanical engineer. After some fine references from René, he’s now wearing a uniform and driving a service truck, repairing A/Cs.

Same thing happened to Pati, one of my cousin’s best friends. Head of a popular cafeteria, she hired Emilia as part of the kitchen staff. From the start, Emilia was different; always one step ahead, taking control of crises, helping in the planning. Soon enough, she became Pati’s right hand, instrumental in the business’ growth.

Emilia is not yet 25, but she holds a degree in civil engineering.

Many Peruvians went to Venezuela in the 70s and 80s to escape economic hardships, and many have since returned, so Venezuela is not a distant country for many nationals. Sometimes, it seems like everyone in Lima knows someone who made the trip.

Just the other day (different from the one I already mentioned), I was walking after a majestic sunset with my wife and my 5-year-old under El Puente de los Suspiros, made famous by Chabuca Granda’s song. As we climbed the stairs, a young woman offered us marquesas. Her voice was a dead giveaway.

“Venezuelan” I pointed at her, “you’re gocha.”

She gave me a sweet smile.

Soy de San Cristobal!” she said.

We took some marquesas, walking away later with heavy hearts, maybe guilty for not helping in a bigger, more permanent fashion. Wondering what’s her past, what degree she hides under her arm, what dreams she had the day her feet touched Venezuelan soil for the last time. It’s what you feel when you hand three coins to a street dancer and the answer is an unmistakably Venezuelan “Dios te bendiga, mi amor.” It’s the knot in your throat when you see another youthful group with a styrofoam cooler and an “Arepas Venezolanas” sign.

How many more Venezuelans can Peru absorb? We’re aware of the young talent arriving (and the pain they carry), but where and how will these stories end? These are hard times and the compatriotas need a safe haven, they need the quality of life that Maduro’s government should have provided, but refused to do so. This is the true legacy of the Comandante: the Venezuelan immigrant, sailing to hopes of a brighter future on a river of their (and our) tears.

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