Photo: Orlando Sentinel

We’re going straight, to, the Wild Wild West!

West Miami-Dade County, Florida, that is.

Just 60 years ago, the western portion of the Miami metropolitan area resembled a scene from Jumanji. Originally part of the Everglades —a wetland often compared to a grassy, slow-moving river in the southern tip of Florida— now a significant part of this swampland is known as “Doral.”

Just 60 years ago, the western portion of the Miami metropolitan area resembled a scene from Jumanji.

With all-American beginnings (in the 1950s, real estate couple Doris and Alfred Kaskel purchased 2,400 acres of land in West Miami and built their dream golf course and country club, naming it after a combination of “Doris” and “Alfred”), Doral has lived many lives since founded: in its’ second year of operation, it hosted the first Doral Open Invitational, Florida’s major PGA event. Since then, the country club has had several owners, the latest of which is President Donald Trump. Decades later, Kaskel’s grandson Bill developed Doral Estates and Doral Park attracting new families to the area with new residences, a police station, lighting, roads and landscaping that soon followed.

As the city’s slogan reads, Doral has gone “From Everglades to Industrial Center to Hometown,” and I would add: “…to Doralzuela.”

I mean, you know the place. Whether it’s una tía, un pana, or la ex, every Venezuelan knows someone who lives in Doral. Even if you don’t have any personal links, you’ve definitely ordered a package a domicilio, or asked a friend or family member for un trámite, vuelta de Cadivi or other fastidious favor. And chances are, it all traces back here.
Driving through Doral today is reminiscent of Caracas in the 90s. At every corner, you’ll find bakeries smelling of fresh cachitos, boutique stores selling Venezuelan-designed jewelry and fashion, and dozens of flyers promoting gigs or theater performances with Venezuelan artists as headliners. The sight of women who manage to look perfect for even the most insignificant of errands, and the jam-packed car washes at all hours (Venezuelans’ obsession with keeping spotless vehicles is real) also contribute to Doral feeling like “home.” And although that saudade that Juan Nagel mentions for La Venezuela de Antier will always be an undertone, this is a haven for thousands of Venezuelan expatriates and refugees, the largest number in the U.S., who have made of Doral their hopeful next chapter.

Doral’s population rose by 26.1% from 2010 to 2016, and within the Hispanic demographic of the city, almost 32% are of Venezuelan origin.

According to the last Census, Doral’s population rose by 26.1% —roughly 12,000 people—, from 2010 to 2016, and within the Hispanic demographic of the city, almost 32% are of Venezuelan origin. And we’re making our mark.

Before “Doralzuela the place,” comes “Doralzuela the feeling,” a vibe you only get from your people. When my husband lost his debit card, it was Mr. Ivan from Barquisimeto (former-languages-professor-turned-gas-station-cashier at our corner Speedway), who found it by the pump and saved it for him. Whenever I take a Lyft to the airport, nine out of ten times my drivers hail from Venezuela. Between stories of “Yo era, en mi época” and “Cuando yo hacía,” they make sure to offer the best service around.

“Doralzuela the place” is also a product of the brain-drain that has plagued Venezuela the past 19 years. Professionals of all disciplines, from business to entertainment, gastronomy to fitness, journalism to the arts, are bringing their know-how and making this city thrive. Doral is the Fastest Growing City in Florida, now home to nearly 8,000 businesses, cultural hotspots, award-winning food, top-ranking schools and each of these categories has Venezuelan entrepreneurship and ingenuity behind it.

Speaking of schools, Downtown Doral Charter Elementary School, with a large Venezuelan student body, is already considered one of the best schools in the United States, and it’s only a couple years old.

When I first moved here as a kid in 1996, Doral wasn’t even a thing; it was formally incorporated as a city in 2003, with a population of less than half of what it is today. I soon moved away, and it wasn’t until I moved back in 2015 that I witnessed the city’s transformation.

This growth speaks of the need to serve all the Doralzuelans that keep coming to this little ‘burb. An example of a Doral success story is Zumba instructor and personal trainer to Venezuelan actresses Gaby Espino and Marjorie de Sousa, Janettsy Chiszar. After riding the struggle bus in Miami for several years, Janettsy moved to Doral in 2014 and came to stay. She opened her first gym, Instapower 21, next to the iconic Venezuelan gathering hole, El Arepazo.

This growth speaks of the need to serve all the Doralzuelans that keep coming to this little ‘burb.

When I asked her what Doral and her gym mean to her, Janettsy told me
“Instapower 21 is much more than a gym, it’s a window of opportunity for me to help. Whether it’s giving Venezuelan instructors and trainers a job, donating a proceed of our earnings to non-profits back home or simply helping clients to cambiarse el chip and adapt to life in the U.S., my gym is a place that contributes to Venezuela every day.”

Like Janettsy, there are many other Doralzuelans making us proud. Venezuelan-owned Bocas House, serving Venezuelan-Peruvian cuisine and known for their insane milkshakes, is changing the food game here in Miami. The brains behind Bocas are César González —former nightclub owner in his native San Cristóbal—, and Levin De Grazia, hailing from a family of successful restaurateurs.

Bocas House was this year’s winner of The Miami Herald Munch Madness bracket, a big deal considering they beat out 64 others to be voted the best restaurant in Miami. To what do González and De Grazia owe their success?

Everything on the menu is “made in-house.”

All this doesn’t mean everything’s rainbows and butterflies in Doral, though. Hidden behind some walls are traces of illicit activities that have spilled from some of the worst criminal networks operating in Venezuela today. The city has been the site of several money laundering and drug trafficking busts, with U.S. federal investigations reporting millions of dollars in fraudulent transactions stemming from here. These covert operations align with some of bad rap the city gets, as a haven for fleeing chavistas.

But make no mistake: the Venezuelans who come here to make an honest living outnumber the bad seeds by a lot, and they make Doral worthwhile.

The Venezuelans who come here to make an honest living outnumber the bad seeds by a lot, and they make Doral worthwhile.

On the heels of Venezuela’s Independence Day, with the escalating humanitarian crisis, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find reasons to celebrate, but Doral’s 15th birthday should be one of them. The many Venezuelans that have moved to Doral and given their time, talent and treasures to this city have contributed to make it one of the most coveted areas to live, work and play in Miami. Like Janettsy and Mr. Ivan, my Lyft drivers and the owners of Bocas House, there are many starting anew, and if they can make it here, they can make it anywhere.

May the energy so many have invested in building a “home” in Doralzuela be deployed to rebuild back home soon, too.

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