Venezuelans: Searching for a Lost Home

It depends on when you left, it depends on where you are and if you’re happy there. We all know why people leave Venezuela, but it’s mostly slow and difficult to start calling that new place “home”.

Photo: AP retrieved

Venezuelans are amongst the first diasporic groups to emerge in the 21st Century in Latin America. Numbers vary—anywhere between three and five million Venezuelans have migrated in the past two decades. In the midst of a harsh economic and political crisis, the flow does not seem to abate, with almost 40,000 people crossing the border with Colombia each day.  

Once that border is crossed, they are no longer home.   

Venezuelans are amongst the first diasporic groups to emerge in the 21st Century in Latin America.

This is an unprecedented event in the country’s history. We had never moved to another country in big waves; we feel we have shared the same land, political space and socio-cultural references since time immemorial. Thus, we trace our family roots in Venezuela to an unimaginable and distant past. We can trace, perhaps, the sudden move from the Llanos and Andean towns to Caracas and other cities, from the small fishing village of La Rita or La Ceiba, to the then bustling port of Maracaibo, from anywhere countryside to oil campamentos or towns that would eventually become dense, chaotic cities.  

But we lack episodes or instances of migration in our national narrative.

How do Venezuelans go about finding home elsewhere? Depending on many factors (when we left, where we are, what we do, who we’re with), some of us might be able to recreate a sense of continuity, to adopt the local accent or switch languages and cultural references. We might trade our cultural expectations, rituals and desires for those of our local contemporaries, we might adapt or, even more, assimilate the place and people where we’re currently involved with.

As time passes by, we might become familiar with—and embrace—bits and pieces of the place we’re now in, especially where it matters the most: Our friend who, after a few years of moving to San José, becomes a passionate supporter of the Costa Rican soccer team; the other friend of European ancestry who starts discovering her family roots in the Basque Country; the Maracucho who loves the Australian bush and embraces the personal discovery of its rich landscape. We might carry multiple passports with pride and embrace a new sense of nationality, reciting national anthems by heart, feeling pride with other flags.  

As time passes by, we might become familiar with—and embrace—bits and pieces of the place we’re now in.

We can adapt to a new place, time, context and community, and eventually adopt it as a home, like many Europeans embraced Venezuela and carry it in their souls.

Yet, for the vast majority of us, that exercise doesn’t develop a sense of home in the traditional sense—even after decades overseas. Unconsciously, once we move abroad, we engage in a search for that natural connection that our homeland used to provide (and process the emotional baggage that we carry from Venezuela, including traumas of different sorts). We try to recreate our old home in the new place, or engage in a gradual discovery of new elements to anchor our identity.  

Nevertheless, nothing is like the home we left behind. A whole context, people, culture, history and outlook cannot be easily replaced, and all exercises of replicating the homeland overseas will prove futile. In this respect, we’re not different from any other group of migrants, ours is a universal experience. We can feel a connection with others, particularly those who have left their countries against their will. We might feel the loneliness of the exile, but we are not the only ones.

Don’t take me wrong, there is “the Venezuelan migrant experience”—broad, ill defined and complex as it is. It has a core of loss, a shared sense of pain and longing that’s acute in the recent wave of migrants who have left looking to escape a catastrophic crisis. They have witnessed, painfully, the destruction of their livelihoods and communities. Most leave impoverished, without opportunities, hungry and torn. For them, the task of searching a home might feel distant. Before being home anywhere, one needs to survive.

Our past is heavy and we carry it wherever we go.  We bear la herencia de la tribu, and we cannot share it easily wherever we settle.  

Don’t take me wrong, there is “the Venezuelan migrant experience”—broad, ill defined and complex as it is.

Additionally, with the country’s sudden and dramatic collapse, we are deprived from a sense of familiarity with our country of origin, as Venezuela is transformed into an unrecognizable place in meaningful ways. Those who stay are subject to another (arguably more painful) process of displacement, a deconstruction of the reality they used to know.

Everyone engages in different strategies to negotiate the pain, we appeal to useful tokens of nostalgia to digest the indigestible.  Because remembering the present home can be as painful as leaving it, we seek solace in the past.  As time passes by, more Venezuelans circulate pictures of the country that was (or that they imagine it was), and anchor in images of abject beauty of our beaches, plains and mountains.  We also share anachronistic images of our mid to late 20th Century, taking refuge in a past where “our” version of modernity isn’t contested or vanquished.  

We recreate an image of a country that we can feel, in our minds, hopeful and secure, even if it’s a partial or distorted memory.     

Many Venezuelans partake in global cultural discourses wherever they live and develop their personality in directions that transcend time and place. They become renowned athletes, artists, professionals, entrepreneurs and leaders. But the Venezuelan diaspora lives the ambivalence of the modern exile: You can never go away far enough to sever the links with your homeland. Of course, there’s WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, and Venezuelans use these platforms to keep connections alive and preserve the human networks.

But, every once in a while, someone still asks:  Where are you from? And the first word that comes to mind is “Venezuela.”