Five Strong Migrant Women
On International Women’s Day, let’s know the stories of these Venezuelans who are doing great at making our terruño proud
Today it’s time to celebrate women’s achievements, and to assess the gender inequality gap that persists to see what we can do about it. It’s time to put the lens on the dire situation Venezuelan women face, but more importantly, it’s a good opportunity to celebrate the women who keep showing resilience, entrepreneurship, and a commitment to the rights of all people.
Unfortunately when it comes to Venezuelan women, we keep hearing how they have been disproportionately affected by the humanitarian crisis. We have also covered here the ugly scourge of feminicides in Venezuela and against Venezuelan migrant and refugee women.
However, to commemorate International Women’s Day, I decided with the editors’ green light to highlight the stories of five young, powerful women who most do not know but are doing excellent work in their respective (very diverse) fields. They inspire me and give me hope that Venezuela will be great once again, and I thought you should know them too.
Selene Soto Rodríguez, senior attorney at Women’s Link Worldwide
I was born in Valencia. When I was 17, I moved to Caracas to study Law in the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. I consider myself a migrant woman since this early stage as that decision prepared me to be constantly “on the move”.
I always say that mine is a privileged story of migration, and more recently I have started naming it as desarraigo. And I say it is privileged because I made the decision to leave. I first left Venezuela in 2010 to study English in the UK after I finished University. Soon after, I moved to Washington DC to do an internship at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) where I stayed for more than 7 years.
In Venezuela, I started working as a legal assistant in COFAVIC, an organization founded by strong women seeking justice for the events known as El Caracazo. At the IACHR, I was part of the team that litigated the case of Linda Loayza López on behalf of the Commission and before the Inter-American Court, a life-changing experience which made me realize how crucial it was to continuing working with a more focus approach on women rights and gender-based discrimination.
I decided to move to Colombia in 2018 to join Women’s Link Worldwide, an international organization that uses the power of law to advance the rights of women and girls that face gender-based violence and discrimination. I’m a senior attorney at the office in Bogotá. I’m more aware now that I’m a Venezuelan living in the country that has received more of our migrants. Unfortunately, stigmatization and specially sexualization of Venezuelan women is more present than ever not only in Colombia but in other countries.
I worked at the IACHR with the human rights situation here and I feel very connected to Colombia, whose people have given a remarkable fight to overcome one of the longest stories of conflict and violence in our region. That gives me hope about Venezuela.
Once I started working at Women’s Link I was charged with leading a project that seeks to make visible the impact that the humanitarian crisis is having in the access to sexual and reproductive rights for women and girls in Venezuela. This time I have had another kind of privilege: working closely with feminists and human rights defenders from and in my country. This has taught me about how our strength comes from within our genuine desire to rebuild our country. This project has also shown me that feminism is a very living word in Venezuela, convinced that facing gender-based violence is critical to have a democratic system and one that respects human rights.
At Women’s Link, from our legal and strategic litigation approach, we have been working very hard in the last two years to take before national courts cases of Venezuelan women that have been denied access to maternal care, safe abortions or that have been victim of human trafficking and sexual violence, and have endure several restrictions to their rights based on their nationality and/or their migratory status. I’m the only Venezuelan lawyer at Women’s Link but I can tell how my colleagues have made this fight their fight as well and share the joy when we have decisions like the one in 2019 in which the Supreme Court in Colombia stated that maternal care has to be guaranteed to Venezuelan women no matter their migratory status. The sorority these women have had with me is one of the great experiences in my path as a migrant woman.
I think that would be the message that I’d share with my compatriotas. The feminization of the crisis in Venezuela and in the migration context is real, and we need to pay attention to that.
I will always want to go back to Venezuela. Why? Because it’s home. Where else would I go back?
Gabriela Febres, entrepreneur
I was born in Maracaibo. I grew up in Venezuela until my mother decided to come to the United States in February of 1998. My grandmother was a teacher and had the opportunity to come to the United States (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) for a few courses, and my mom was born in the USA by chance. This made our immigration process easier, as far as paperwork goes, but we still very much followed the “American Dream” as most immigrants do.
My mom had a job lined up with an investment bank in Miami, which ended up closing, but she decided to come to the U.S. anyways and worked different jobs before landing the one she currently has been working at for over fifteen years. I lived precariously through my mom’s struggles as a single mom in a new country.
The years passed, and today I am co-founder and manager of Arepa Zone, Antojitos de tu País, Mosaico, and Wayoyo Coffee. Although I went to American University for a Music and Audio Production degree, the opportunity to start Antojitos de tu País arose and business was doing well so I focused my energy on the project. Then Arepa Zone was born in the form of a food truck. My mom jokes that she doesn’t understand how I am “so Venezuelan” since I’ve lived in the USA for over 20 years now. I don’t understand either but I’m so attached to my Venezuelan roots it’s only natural I now dedicate my life to spreading Venezuelan culture through food. When I was in college I would tell my flute professor that I wanted to play “El diablo suelto” and other Venezuelan music in my recitals; he had no option but to learn the music as well.
One of my earliest memories it’s me crying hysterically at the airport the day my mom and I left Venezuela. But in the end the sacrifice is worth it. There’s a future here and hopefully we will be able to return one day and build our country from the bottom up, using all that experience gained as immigrants. Quiero abrazar a mi abuela. Ver la casa donde pasé todos esos veranos con mi papá nuevamente. Quiero viajar en carro por mi país como lo hice con mi papá de niña.
Betty Gabriela Rodriguez, chair of Amazona Foundation
First, I left the country in 2010 and moved to Paris for a year, learned French and went back to Venezuela. Then, I moved to Paris again in 2014 after two robberies and a burglary, to pursue a master’s degree. Finally, two years after settling down in Paris, I started the migration process all over again in the United States to join my now husband.
Probably the hardest thing to adapt in France was not having a support structure. In the United States, it was probably losing my economic independence and starting from zero after going through a tremendous effort to get a decent job, a company to sponsor my visa and getting a place in France. In both countries I found mentors, families and friends who created a new sense of home for me. It’s very difficult for immigrants to open a door until someone grants them the first opportunity.
I have had mixed experiences in terms of getting support from other diaspora venezolanos. The class divisions we see in Venezuela still seem very present abroad.
I’m a lawyer but corporate social responsibility, social inclusion and gender equality are my passions. I have always looked for ways to build community and advance in social issues. I founded Amazona Foundation almost two years ago as a platform to raise awareness and build community around gender equality and women’s empowerment. We have a lot of work for this year, adding donor-based initiatives to our monthly events, more creative digital content and new alliances. We recently expanded our team with a new Board of Directors integrated by Rebeca Fernandez, Abby Wilhelm, Diana Temes and Veronica Alvarez. We will offer new initiatives here and abroad to connect more Hispanic women and probably members of the LGBTQ community.
What would I say to other migrant women? Don’t be afraid to start something that resonates with you. When you arrive in a new country you may find a lot of people who tell you what you need to do, and that’s fine, but if you don’t fit with that, take the confidence and initiative to do something on your own. Migration can be a beautiful opportunity to pursue new dreams.
Second, don’t be afraid to ask for help to articulate that idea you have in mind. Try to create a new circle. There are many people with different cultures and backgrounds who want to be supportive.
Third, join a group of other migrant women, who may be isolated very quickly, especially with kids or language barriers. It’s important to invest your time and even money to improve or maintain your agency.
Finally, forget about all those taboos about therapists. Migrating is very challenging and professional help may be the appropriate resource for you to cope and thrive.
In terms of feelings, I definitely want to go back to Venezuela, but the conditions have to be right, especially when considering raising children in the near future. Hopefully, we will be able to integrate those different types of Venezuela for the reconstruction of our country: the one that we create abroad as a diaspora, the one that stays struggling there.
Maria Corina Muskus, founder of Venezolanas Globales
I consider myself a woman of the world, now as a migrant, and in my second home country Mexico. But nobody can deny its roots.
Not all Venezuelans can leave the country for their higher education anymore. I recognize my privileges. I migrated in 2015 to Washington DC, to do my master’s degree in Gender and Human Rights at American University Washington College of Law, thanks to a scholarship given to me by this university. I loved being in the USA and being able to hide in this duality between Spanish and English, in being Latin but at the same time a white woman. The cultural shock was immediate, I remember that I was shocked by the silence in public buses, the distance between people, how difficult it was to start a conversation with others, I felt like the protagonist of Chimamanda Ngozi’s book Americanah. Another thing that I loved was how invisible I was to the other people on the street, nobody looked at me. Later I learned that us Latinas in the US normalize street harassment so much that it becomes part of our daily lives.
Having an uncle in Washington, DC was key in my migratory process. He had lived (and still lives) in Washington DC. Without him, my dream of studying in Washington and migrating to the US would have been another story.
I am in Mexico working in the advocacy area of a Mexican NGO. Despite this, I started Venezolanas Globales, an initiative that unites the Venezuelan diaspora abroad, together with Yenni Peña in 2018. As Marta Lagarde, a Mexican feminist, very well says, “the Alliance of women in commitment is as important as the fight against other phenomena of oppression and for creating spaces in which women can deploy new possibilities of life”. This phrase is at the heart of what Venezolanas Globales. We also have called this onboarding, which are all those tips of adaptation of the Venezuelan migrant to the host country and city that are shared through this network.
What would I recommend other Venezuelan migrant women? Dare, dare to talk to strangers, to ask for help, to join yoga groups, reading, music, dancing, whatever catches your attention. Get out of your comfort zone, you have no choice, migration is the perfect opportunity to reinvent yourself. Meet people, meet many people and connect with them, especially women.
Connect with who you are, migration makes you know the most beautiful and darkest parts of yourself. For example, I am a woman, migrant and Latina, and although in certain contexts these layers of identities are not favorable, they have been key to my work and professional experience.
I want to come back, of course. I find that the experiences Venezuelans have acquired abroad are extremely valuable for the recovery of the country.
Kelmary Salazar, singer
I’m from Lagunillas, Zulia. My own business started to do bad due to the economic situation and I came to the United States, in December 2016. I didn’t know what to do for a living. It was hard to leave my parents, my dad with a chronic disease, and not knowing if I would see them again. Fortunately, I had the support of a lot of people along the way who God put in my way, not just Venezuelans.
My life project is to make it in show-business and I’m putting all my energy on this.
Ego doesn’t help when you are in exile. Be patient. You gotta know how to wait, don’t get desperate, everything will come and go for good reason. Make your best effort to learn the language, as quickly as possible.
I would love to go back to Venezuela. But not before I succeed here in this country. I want my children to also thrive and live in this country of opportunity.
* The views are personal. They do not represent those of the Organization of American States.
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