Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Diversity Series

Welcome To America, Leave Your Voice At Home
By Alejandro Fernandez

Small adobe shacks. Unforgiving heat. Modest economy. Rampant corruption. Religious fervor. Compared to the world of HDTV, satellite radio, Starbucks coffee, Big Macs, iPods, and countless other luxuries, those descriptions appear insultingly gruesome.

Few Americans can imagine such living conditions outside of PBS documentaries airing on their plasma television screens. Even fewer Americans can dream of living under such conditions.

“When I tell people what life was like in Venezuela, many people feel sorry for me,” says Coralia Blanco, 69. “They envision a little, frail girl with dirty clothing and a sad face. They assume I am happy now in America, the land of abundance and choice,” she says, “and that I would never want to return to La Asuncion.”

Coralia Blanco enjoys a group hug

Blanco, a widow for two years, was born in La Asuncion, the capital of Margarita Island, the largest and most important island of Nueva Esparta, one of the 23 Venezuelan states. Margarita covers an area of approximately 410 squared miles. Its tropical climate, two mountain ranges, and countless exotic beaches explain its honorable nickname, The Pearl of the Caribbean.

“I left the Pearl of the Caribbean and all my people for the epicenter of concrete,” Blanco says. “It’s really difficult to get up and go outside sometimes, especially now that the heavenly father has taken my Manuel [her husband for 45 years]. It’s difficult knowing that clear blue water, salty air, and friendly smiles do not await me on the streets of Newark.”

Blanco’s gentle nature makes her an ideal
Nanny, one of her part-time jobs.

Blanco says she misses hearing the waves break, the birds sing, and the church bell announcing the time. "I miss sneaking off to the beach for a few hours after school before I had to go home and help my mother with the chores. You might think I’m crazy, but I even miss my mother punishing me for being late, or for ruining my Sunday shoes hiking. I miss it all,” she says.

Immigration statistics are often difficult to collect, and many times unreliable. In any case, it is safe to say that Coralia Blanco is not the only Venezuelan who misses her land. The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2000 census, lists the total Venezuelans in the U.S. at 126,000, while unofficial figures indicate that as many as 150,000 Venezuelans have moved to the U.S. under Hugo Chavez’s rule. According to The New York Times, the Venezuelan community in the U.S. has grown more than 94 percent this decade, from 91,507 in 2000, the year after Hugo Chavez took office, to 177,866 in 2006.

Other sources, like El Venezolano and El Nuevo Herald, two Miami-based newspapers published in Spanish, estimate as many as 180,000 Venezuelans currently live in Florida alone, whereas Census Bureau demographers believe 40,781 live in the Sunshine State.

If nothing else, these statistics reveal changing trends. During its oil boom in the 1960s and 1970s, Venezuela absorbed more than 500,000 Colombians and Caribbeans, and an estimated 1.5 million Europeans (primarily from Spain, Portugal, and Italy) between 1940 and 1970. Now, Venezuelans are the ones seeking social stability and financial opportunities elsewhere.

Coralia Blanco was born at a tumultuous time. In 1939, the Western powers prepared for what eventually became a long and costly war—in terms of both money and human resources. While Venezuela did not enter World War II, times where no less turbulent. Malaria was the biggest killer. Personal feuds and rivalries dominated political affairs. Marx, Castro, Betancourt, Medina, Chalbaud, and Contreras were household names. Foreign companies salivated over the prospect of Venezuelan oil.

“When I was six or seven years old, my brother told me stories about American and British businessmen who went to our lagoons and mountains,” Blanco explains. “They were very excited about a black gooey substance that came out of the earth. The children were awestruck by the men’s interest in it. Our mothers had reprimanded us for getting dirty, and yet here were these white men wearing expensive suits and smiling like little children.”

When narrating her country’s history and its current position in the world, Blanco diverts her round brown eyes. She is embarrassed and disappointed by the fact that the rest of the world seems to paint Venezuela in a poor light. Venezuela rarely makes it onto the pages, airwaves, or websites of The New York Times, CBS, CNN and other news outlets. When the news media does run a story on the South American country, it often revolves around Hugo Chavez’s corrupt government, border conflicts with Colombia, or crimes like kidnappings and murders.

Blanco yearns to be heard.

Blanco has tried to expand Americans’ knowledge of Venezuela since she first landed in Newark, New Jersey in 1969. Her first significant encounter was with leftist students from Rutgers University who embraced the Argentinean revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

“Che Guevara had been killed two years earlier in Bolivia. People thought I embraced his ideology simply because I fled a country—probably the only country in South America—that did not embrace Guevara or Castro and their ideologies,” Blanco says. “You can’t begin to imagine the reactions Manuel and I received when our neighbor’s son found out our stance on a lot of issues of the time. People thought that we would be Socialists just because we came from Venezuela. They did not understand that Venezuela had a very functional democracy at the time and that our reasons for emigrating were of a more personal nature.”

Herein lies the biggest problem all immigrants face. Their voices are not heard. Sociological “experts” often cite the difficulty of leaving loved ones behind and the need to adapt to new languages, customs, schedules, people, and lifestyles as the prevalent challenges for people moving to new countries, especially after childhood. But these problems are miniscule when compared to the solitude, helplessness, and repression that result from being mute.

“I do not dislike America. America has given me a lot more than I could have imagined," Blanco says. I send a good sum of money to my family every month. I live in an apartment bigger than anything I ever read about. I have a television set. I have all these great things and yet I feel sad at times."

Some people define such sadness as nostalgia, a yearning for one’s home. “Maybe it is nostalgia,” Blanco acquiesces. “I yearn for the days I spoke and people listened.”

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