Photo: Raúl Stolk

This Is My Country

This U.S. election cycle has forced us Venezuelan-Americans to face the complexities of belonging, even if it triggers memories we’d love to leave behind, even if some people don’t want us to speak up

When I arrived in the United States as a student I used to drop an ear from over people’s shoulders when hearing a conversation about politics without really participating. There are certain things that are expected of a migrant, and certainly shutting up about politics is one. They tell you that you must do as Romans do, and they tell you to mingle with the locals. Mix. Learn from them, socialize with them, and assimilate. “They” could be anyone (from your family back home to, in many cases, other migrants, to your “hosts”), and they usually don’t know how nearly impossible that is. Especially in New York where everybody is from out of town, and in Miami where locals are divided into tribes that share a language, an accent, and some culinary preferences. It’s confusing. This is a place that has changed significantly in the past twenty years, but that still runs by hundred-year-old codes. But no matter how much guaguancó is in the mix of the place you live in, if you weren’t born here, you’re a guest. Or plainly put, not an equal.

The thing is, lines are deeply drawn in this country. And where there used to be pride and patriotism, some now find nationalism. 

And “nationalisms are abominable.” Of all the great things that Venezuelan poet Rafael Cadenas has written and said, this line from his acceptance speech of the Reina Sofía prize in 2018 is the one that has stuck with me the most, because nationalism is rooted in the most primal form of division: exclusion. You are different, so you don’t belong here. 

But, what determines that a person “belongs” or not? Who determines what a migrant must assimilate to? How do you become an equal in this land?

There’s no easy road to becoming an American. The cleanest, most straightforward way is time-consuming, full of bureaucratic hurdles, and costs thousands of dollars in lawyer’s fees. Be it that you had a long stint with a work visa, that you had to inject a small fortune into the country, or that you had to demonstrate that you’re an outstanding individual with great skills, it’s not easy. And it’s harder for those fleeing conflict and misery. The pain of leaving behind your life and loved ones, risking everything crossing an ocean or dealing with human traffickers, to run from a situation so horrible that a leap towards uncertainty looks like the only choice. And then, there may never be a clear road for them to get the status they need, although their children will be born and considered as being from this country. Not at a cheap price, but because of someone’s sacrifice.

The thing is, lines are deeply drawn in this country. And where there used to be pride and patriotism, some now find nationalism. 

And then there’s asylum seekers. Like those Venezuelans escaping political persecution. Granted, there are many who try to take advantage of the system, trying to paint themselves as allies. But it’s also low to pass judgment on those escaping a humanitarian crisis. The reasons for a person looking to desperately leave their country are too painful to be measured from a position of privilege. 

And I’m not making excuses for those trying to subvert the system. Laws are there to be complied with. But all of these stories have a pathway that may (or may not) allow them to become Americans, and all of them involve a significant amount of pain.

The bottom line is you have to really want this. And if you get it, it’s because you earned it. 

Like I earned it.

And after all that pain, there are some who still expect you to bow your head.

A few weeks ago, we published an interview with French journalist Claire Meynial in which she said something that is one of the biggest truths I’ve heard in a while: “People aren’t spontaneously interested in things that aren’t in contact with them.” 

It’s a simple idea that carries a lot of weight, and it goes deeper than international conflict awareness. It makes sense for a person not to be actively searching for international causes to be worried about, but the problem is that this also happens with situations that are in plain sight. We tend to oversimplify what we don’t want to understand because most of us are lacking in empathy.

But on the other side of the road, those things you’re in contact with and affect you, especially when they involve trauma, become the stick by which you’ll measure everything and the lens that filters your reality. That is why I see Venezuela everywhere.

After being quarantined for months, like so many people who went into voluntary lockdowns, we decided to take a brief road trip to northern Florida. A contactless Airbnb near a beach, only the four of us. Thinking, of course, that we wouldn’t have to interact with people and that in the rare occasion masks and distance, as we’ve been practicing in Miami, would keep us safe.

So when we got there, we decided to explore a bit and get some provisions (mainly, beer and pizza). As we passed people while walking down the street with our masks on, we could hear giggling and joking, one large guy jumped in front of us and shouted “keep it great!” and as we walked away in the background people mumbling “no covid gonna…” We later witnessed a “build a wall” directed at a young couple speaking Spanish between them. The shock in their faces was disheartening. 

So, naturally, this sort of thing triggers my Venezuelan lens. Because we’ve seen that challenging, territorial, in-your-face stance before. An entitlement that comes from a mandate to exclude, to stand your ground, and intimidate. What gives you the right to intimidate? Just think about it for a second.

The entitlement to exclude. Exclusion, remember? That key ingredient of nationalism. Looking for any possible rift to polarize society, which then is turned into fodder for populism. Even when differences among people are not significant, populists will find a way to bring them to the top and make them relevant. Fissures that become valleys.

Even when differences among people are not significant, populists will find a way to bring them to the top and make them relevant. Fissures that become valleys.

And this is not about Donald Trump being like Hugo Chávez, we’ve been down that road many times. We’ve been serious about it and we’ve also made thousands of jokes comparing them. It’s not even about the crazy political landscape in South Florida where the “Latino vote” works differently than anywhere else. It’s understandable that Cuban-Americans and Venezuelan-Americans see the ghost of their traumas on both sides of the isle (remember, the lens), and that our communities are going crazy about this election. It’s about something much more complicated and grave. It’s about what leaders like Trump and Chávez can trigger in people. 

Every once in a while someone will come to make us bring all our prejudices to the surface, and reinforce them. To test us.

I saw it happen to my country, and when we realized what was going on, there wasn’t enough strength to fight back. Because people break, and humanity dissipates. And more often than not, they never heal. It takes generations to fix a broken society. That’s why we must elevate the good. We don’t have to be great, just good.

So what does assimilating mean? What are the rules? Do we really have to change people to make them palatable to an idea of a country that no longer is? Or do we have to integrate them, and take advantage of what they bring to the table, to make it work for everyone so we can all be proud of this country for what it will be, and not for the idea of what it used to be?

I have the right to voice my opinion without fear of reprisals. To criticize and mock the government. To oppose it. To demand competence and sobriety from its authorities. To love this country and to feel disappointed by it. To learn from it. To speak my native tongue at the volume that it’s supposed to be spoken and to share the things I appreciate from my culture. To make this place my own.

Because I have earned the right to walk tall in this land. My land.