Photo: Gabriel Méndez

A few weeks ago, I was having a quick lunch at a burger joint near my office when I noticed the meat was undercooked. I told the waiter and he returned it to the kitchen, and nothing could have been further from my mind than La Resistencia, all those kids who came with shields and hoods to protest in Caracas last year. Life has a way of making you remember things, because sitting there, a young man about my age approached. He was well dressed but when he got closer, he raised his hands and politely asked if I had any leftovers for him.

For some reason, I empathized more with this man than with any other beggar before. Maybe it was the way he spoke; it felt like he could have been a friend from school with really bad luck, foreshadowing my worst nightmares of what could happen to those of us still here. I told him there would be leftovers for him after I finished, and he waited by the door.

A huge stroke of guilt filled me. What was the difference between me and him? What could have possibly happened (besides chavismo) to leave him begging for food? I felt disgusted for even returning my meal it in the first place, so I looked at the door and the man looked back. I waived to bring him inside, but he didn’t understand; he glanced at his clothes (which were dirty), shaking his head. After I insisted, he grabbed some strength and came in. For a moment, I even got scared; after all, this is Caracas, and Caracas bites.

What could have possibly happened (besides chavismo) to leave him begging for food?

I shook his hand and asked for his name. “Jonathan,” he replied a bit confused. I placed my plate and a glass of water on the other side of the table and asked him to sit down and eat whatever he wanted. With a combination of decorum and desperation, he ate the burger. His fingers were black from dirt and even blood, but he used a little spoon to spread different sauces between the bun and the meat, and then some on a corner of the plate for the chips.

When he was done, he cleaned his mouth and hands with a napkin, thanked me, and asked my name. I was wearing a Universidad Católica Andrés Bello jacket and, looking at it, he asked if I attended there. “I actually graduated yesterday,” I said. The juxtaposition of both realities was overwhelming; he looked up as if remembering, and told me he used to know some people studying there. He even graduated from high school and considered enrolling himself.

The topic shifted to misery and Venezuela, and I addressed the elephant in the room: “How long have you been on the streets?”

“Since November.” He got a bit emotional. “And it’s tougher by the month. It’s harder to find food now and you have to compete for garbage bags. When this started, I could buy things with the cash they gave me, but now that’s impossible. I miss my mom, you know. I miss my brothers, and the way we fought. I miss my house, sleeping in my bed, and the way my mom cooked.”

Tears dropped from his eyes.

“Where are they?” I asked.

Jonathan took a deep breath.

“I’m a convicted felon,” he said. “I was jailed for protesting last year and my family was prosecuted, so they had to flee the country. I’m under presentation regime now, so every month I must go to court.”

I miss my mom, you know. I miss my brothers, and the way we fought. I miss my house, sleeping in my bed, and the way my mom cooked.

The next bit asked fortitude of him: “This country is fucked up. I lost everything for believing in a project and politicians who didn’t deliver. The friends who fought with me forgot everything once I was jailed, and the people from your UCAB didn’t even send me water while I was in prison. When I got out, I was alone, and the government had destroyed everything. Everything is closed, no one will hire me and I have nowhere to live.”

In 2017, teenagers from everywhere in Venezuela fled their homes to fight in the first lines of the opposition’s protests. They ate what other protestors gave them and slept in hidden corners of the city. After protests got smaller and less frequent, they started begging for money and food, waiting for clashes to restart. They never did, and we saw less guerreros de La Resistencia on the streets. I thought they returned home, but in reality, the SEBIN found and raided their nests. Jonathan is living proof of what happened to them after we moved on with our lives.

Truth is, I don’t know, and will never know, how legit his tale is. Regardless, I told him to get out of here, I told him about the possibilities he could find if he reaches the border. His face glowed and he looked up, as if imagining having an actual future. He said he’d try to cross and find a job, but that maybe in the future he’d come back.

I just hope that, wherever he’s now, begging isn’t his way of life anymore.

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