Photo: YouTube, retrieved.
José Rafael Guzmán is the last person you’d expect behind Caminantes, a hybrid between a YouTube vlog and a documentary series, where he and field producer Silvia Baquero walk from Cucuta, Colombia, in the Venezuela-Colombia border, to Lima, Peru. They talk to people, sleep in shelters and follow the path thousands of Venezuelan migrants have done before.
Mostly known for his comedy work, Guzmán had his breakthrough in 2012, becoming a regular fixture in the new scene of Venezuelan comedians, known for their strong online presence and their surreal, no holds barred-brand of humor that either clicks with you or completely annoys you.
In the first episode of his new adventure, Guzmán and Baquero cross the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, go through the Colombian state of Norte de Santander and reach Pamplona, where some Venezuelans, most of them unaccustomed to the altitude and weather of the Andean páramo, spent the night in shelters run by the generosity of locals.
Talking to Caracas Chronicles, Guzmán explains how the idea came to his friend Alain Gomez, singer of the band Famasloop. “I told him it was insane and just too rough. He said he thought I was the only one who could do it and that encouraged me.”
After all, Guzmán is no stranger to this kind of work. Last year, on his vlog Comida, Calle y Comedia (“Food, Street, and Comedy”) he documented five days living on the streets of Mexico City and, indeed, Caminantes might be Comida, Calle y Comedia’s cousin, with editor César Kensen working on both.
Guzmán’s humor tends to be of the gross-out variety, and could turn off some of his audience — it doesn’t make a very comfortable fit with the gravity of the situation. One of the first random moments is an explanation by Merida mayor Omar Lares cut by Guzmán singing about tickles and vaginas while rubbing a dog’s belly. There’s also a running gag about him shaking a previously urinated-on hand with strangers he meets along the way.
“It’s more than proven that humor is a very effective way to get a message across,” Guzmán says. “When you make fun, there’s somebody who feels bad about it, who feels attacked or insulted, and if you watch the footage, no one is feeling insulted.”
Humor can be helpful get around a bleak reality. In the first two episodes Guzmán and Baquero bond with an electrician nicknamed Papelón, who has been walking for three days and won’t stop until reaching Bogotá. Despite the evident markings of hunger on his body and his cracked feet, Papelón remains in high spirits.
They all crack jokes, along with fellow emigrant Geraldine, when Guzmán gives Papelón a pair of popsicle-patterned socks, since he doesn’t have any. Laughter makes a warm moment out of a cold night in an unknown land.
But laughter can be dangerous. Chataing TV, Guzmán’s introduction to most Venezuelans, was abruptly cancelled in 2014 after host Luis Chataing made fun of the flimsy evidence presented of a presidential assassination attempt; in 2017, Guzman’s radio show Calma Pueblo went off the air after Information Minister Ernesto Villegas denounced it for making fun of a seven-year-old boy.
Guzmán says that “as long nobody involved in the making of these videos is feeling insulted, I’m completely calm.”
Episode two, which finds Guzmán and Baquero departing from Pamplona, is much more grounded, tone-wise. There’s humor but the harshness of the situation starts to settle, and Guzmán takes a moment to sit and talk to the migrants about their reason for leaving. Here you have a nurse, a cobbler, and they’re thankful for having some food and the possibility of an honest job.
So far, the first episode of Caminantes pulled over 200,000 views on YouTube in two weeks and the second got almost 100,000 in five days. Guzmán admits they didn’t manage to record everything they went through: “There was one night when it rained the whole time, it was 2 or 3 [Cº] degrees and we got wet and an Evangelical lady went out and started to sing. You can imagine the insanity. It was a very difficult moment, both physically and mentally. […] I was tired, I had a fever. You could say I had a small breakdown.”
But he has no regrets. “After that, you gain a certain power. Not something pretentious, just knowing you have a power over yourself and you’re capable of something very few people think they can. Many have actually done it.”
It might not be perfect, but it surely wins the narrative against inviting over some Spanish “tourist” to record herself in shopping malls.