Photo: retrieved

“What do you have in Venezuela?” a friend yelled through the phone. “You can’t work, you can’t go out. There’s no food, or medicine, nothing!”

He had just offered me what many Venezuelans dream of: a place to stay, three meals a day and even an allowance. The catch? I’d be illegally in Trump’s U.S.

“There are ways to get papers” he said. “In any case, I’ll sign for everything. Trust me.”

I said I’d think about it and call him back. And never did.

It was tempting, but also dangerous. It was my third time in the United States, and the gap between Venezuela and the rest of the world felt bigger every time I visited. One couldn’t help feeling like Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson.

“There are ways to get papers” he said. “In any case, I’ll sign for everything. Trust me.”

There’s so much of everything. So many people, hundreds of stores selling thousands of things, and the food! There were also liberties most people in the developed world take for granted, the knowledge that if you need something from a store, they’ll have it and if you can’t afford it, it won’t cost three times more next week. Just going out without the constant fear of a bullet is a privilege.

But what I enjoyed the most was walking. Strolling aimlessly down the street, looking at people, visiting new places I might never see again, having conversations with strangers and learn something I didn’t know. Or just taking my time, enjoying life for the first time in a long, long time.

For over a decade, hundreds of thousands have joined the Bolivarian Diaspora looking for a better life abroad. At first, it seemed mostly like an upper class phenomenon, but as the crisis deepened, it reached Venezuelans of all ages and social classes. The number one priority wasn’t where to go, or in what circumstance, but simply flee, and once abroad figure out the rest.

At first, it seemed mostly like an upper class phenomenon, but as the crisis deepened, it reached Venezuelans of all ages and social classes.

It was no surprise, then, seeing people congratulating me on social media for what they thought was a “new stage of my life.” After all, they’ve seen dozens of friends and relatives moving overnight to Panama, Peru, Spain, or Chile, and I couldn’t help but wonder, what if I drop everything —my mother, a promising career, my home— and start from scratch?

Can I still call Venezuela a home?

Ilegales

Rodolfo and Jessica are old friends who live in central New Jersey with other three Venezuelans. It’s an old split-level house turned into a duplex, and in the months they’ve lived there, they have turned around the place, painting the walls and getting furniture, some from Walmart, others from the dumpster.

“We got the lease very cheap because the previous tenant used to cook meth” Rodolfo tells me, and I’m not sure if he’s joking. Like half the adult Venezuelans in the U.S., they have a college degree and, like everyone else in the house, they work as servers for a catering service.

Both of them are in a legal limbo. Technically, they are illegal immigrants and they are doing the paperwork to apply for political asylum, but Venezuela tops the list of asylum seekers in the U.S. with 14,700 applications in 2016.

Both of them are in a legal limbo. Technically, they are illegal immigrants and they are doing the paperwork to apply for political asylum.

Jessica tells me that the first few months, they treated themselves with concerts and things you would expect from two young adults living on their own, but they have sobered up and started to cut corners. The month before they had to pay $200 for a medical check-up and antibiotics.

But things are looking up for them, “I have a great opportunity with the warehouse, they are expanding” Rodolfo says. “I’m worried I will like it too much, you know? Only making money to hang there and nothing more.”

The United States is the number one destination for Venezuelans seeking a better life, with Spain a distant second. We’re hardly alone: there are over 54 million latinos there, mostly first and second-generation immigrants. In fact, it’s the second country with most Spanish speakers, after Mexico.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2014, it was estimated that between 25% to 30% of Venezuelans in the U.S. were in the country illegally, belonging in the top ten of countries whose citizens overstayed their tourist visa. I imagine things in the past three years have worsened the trend.

Return To Reality

With the current U.S. government hardening their stance on illegal immigration and paying extra attention to visiting Venezuelans, throwing yourself haphazardly to the Land of the Free isn’t the best of ideas.

Migration is hard, particularly when your country is falling apart.

Migration is hard, particularly when your country is falling apart. In the Miami airport bathroom, just waiting for my flight to Caracas, I engaged in small talk with a Cuban janitor. He reminded me that our tragedy, although painful, is hardly unique.

“Give hell to those carajos!” he added with passion.

The flight to Caracas was packed, mostly by people visiting relatives back home. For me, it was this. Reporting stories that would be ignored, doing the one thing I feel I’m good at for the benefit of others. Covering Venezuela is mostly a labor of love with a pinch of insanity, and as long I can keep my head above the waves, I have a reason to stay.

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Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.