Photo by Omar Rondón.
The first concert I attended when I was a child was a vallenato concert. Typically, during the February fairs in Merida, a couple of avenues were entirely closed off for live bands and dancing people who, along with “vallenato rockstars” partied till dawn drinking cheap beer on the streets. My dad loved cumbia and vallenato, he was a bus driver, and that was the music I heard every day before going to school.
Music was one of the ways in which we grew familiar and empathetic with the Colombian diaspora that fled in terror from the conflict of the armed guerrillas, paracos and drug tsars that scourged the border cities during the 90s. We made vallenato our own and shared it at the same time we embraced that pain which was also ours, somehow.
Now, decades later, the mark of the mass Colombian migration still persists in Western Venezuelan culture, in the language and the food. Living in the border means having two families, one on each side of the line. It means cohabiting with tension, getting used to displacement, surviving the limbo between exile and return. It means repeating the narrative of Ithaka, of the prodigal son.
This Friday 22nd, with the sun shining in orange waterfalls above the 300,000 people who sang in unison “La tierra del olvido” by Carlos Vives at the Venezuela Aid Live concert in Cucuta, I understood that one of the strongest bonds between Venezuela and Colombia is the hope that arises from singing together about the return to home. The oppressors and monsters change face and territory, but we always meet and sing side by side to confront exile, sadness and death.
Living in the border means having two families, one on each side of the line. It means cohabitating with tension, getting used to displacement, surviving the limbo between exile and return.
Besides a clear media strategy to bring the spotlight on the humanitarian crisis we’re experiencing at the other side of the bridge, the concert was a huge gamble to keep the borders open. The fact that hundreds of thousands of people crossed over and back for several days to join in, as a single voice, isn’t just a demonstration of clear and concrete political determination, but also a boycott against the chavista propaganda that holds absolute control within the country’s borders. The reality is quite different: these borders belong to the people who, with or without documents, cross over every day to survive, work, study or trade by their own rules.
The entire style of the concert was a clever mixture between the Live Aid from the 80s and lots of nostalgia for the past age of Venezuelan entertainment. It wasn’t a coincidence that the great majority of the artists invited saw their media boom between 2002 and 2007—the years that marked the end of show business under chavista censorship—and that many of the event’s hosts were former staffers of Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV)—shut down by Hugo Chávez as one of his most radical measures against the media—and that the speeches constantly repeated that one of the things that would return along with democracy would be the enjoyment, the spectacle, the TV stations.
Some might think this is superficial, but it’s much more significant than it seems. Show business, the arts and entertainment are essential within a free society—because they represent people’s individual autonomy on their time and money—and they’re sworn enemies of totalitarianisms, which dismiss and destroy any form of artistic expression whose end isn’t utilitarian or propagandistic.
They directly blocked every TV signal that was broadcasting the event because the message “Venezuelans, you’re not alone” is more powerful than any aircraft carrier, tank or soldier in the world.
In Venezuela, the fence slowly surrounded the arts and music to the point of turning them into something alien and peripheral; for many years there haven’t been great concerts or events, and producers kept their distance, avoiding any kind of risk. The regime has also arbitrarily shut off many national and international artists, singers and musicians for expressing their dissatisfaction and anger with the tyranny.
On the afternoon of this February 22nd, they directly blocked every TV signal that was broadcasting the event because the message “Venezuelans, you’re not alone” is more powerful than any aircraft carrier, tank or soldier in the world when it’s about confronting a bunch of thugs who want you isolated, broken, on your knees. The decision of holding it in Cucuta and not in any other border was definitive, because this city has been the main witness of our drama and our most generous and tolerant ally.
For the couple of days I’ve been here writing the #CucutaChronicles along with Gaby Mesones at night in our hotel/carwash/pool/brothel, the city hasn’t been alien to be, but painfully familiar. The food, the people, the lifestyle and the glimmer of its stores, restaurants and streets takes me back to my hometown, now destroyed and darkened by poverty and hunger. I also sang this Friday along with my brothers to return home. To return to that place where, despite decades of suffering and shadow, we were safe and took care of each other.