I’ve been in South America for six of the last twelve months, on two separate trips, and continue to wrestle with thoughts of identity during a crisis that directly affects the Venezuelan diaspora in the region—just not my livelihood.
My family moved to Canada when I was three years old and had it not been for our return to Venezuela in the early 2000's for a couple of years because my mom was sick, I might not identify as Venezuelan at all.
The only reason I speak decent Spanish is that I spent two years in Venezuela after becoming Canadian. Once we returned to Canada, for the next fifteen years I rarely thought about Venezuela, except for when I had short contact with family members.
Latin American migrants who move to the US, Canada or Europe at a young age likely don’t speak Spanish or identify closely to their lost culture because they spent their entire lives in a different country. The fact I don’t dance salsa or listen to Latin music makes me feel out of place when I tell someone in Colombia that I’m Venezuelan. I usually say I’m Venezuelan but grew up in Canada—"I’m a weird mix.”
While in South America I’ve lived another hybrid lifestyle: One as a gringo backpacker and the other as a Venezuelan affected by the migrant crisis.
My first backpacking trip began last year when I went to Colombia. I hadn’t left North America in over a decade and I never had traveled alone. Instead of arriving in a hostel to hang out with other travelers, I arrived in Bogota on the same day my cousin came from Venezuela. He left Venezuela in search of better life. I was on some sort of self-realization quest to “find myself through travel” or some bullshit like that after university.
Instead of exploring Bogota for touristy shit to do, I searched Bogota with my cousin for an apartment to rent and a job for him to work. I remember we got kicked out of the apartment where we arrived at and he was worried we’d be living on the streets. I wasn’t worried because I came loaded with gringo dollars and knew I could rent an Airbnb in two minutes. A family ended up renting us an apartment despite our lack of required paperwork because they had traveled to Venezuela in the past and felt sorry for our country’s situation.
Then I lived in Bogota doing whatever I wanted with my gringo dollars, while my cousin slaved away at a job that paid a bit above Colombia’s shit monthly minimum wage (about $400 CAD) for 240 hours a month of work. I sometimes made that much money every two days fucking around selling tours in Vancouver. I’ve met Venezuelans who are paid less than $10 a day in Colombia.
I wrote about this story for a local paper while I fucked around in Bogota. I few times I had to send medicine to Venezuela because my family couldn’t find any.
Once my cousin found some stability, I got on a bus and started a loop around Colombia. Everywhere I went I met Venezuelans—and Colombians—who were grinding to survive. You think your life is difficult in Canada or whatever first world country you’re in, think again. Over and over I was asked by Venezuelans and Colombians: “How can you afford to travel so long without working?”
When I went back to Canada, I only had to work for the summer to save enough to travel for over six months again.
Now back in South America, I traveled from Ecuador up to Colombia. The number of Venezuelans I saw struggling was mind-boggling. I met a young family friend in Guayaquil, Ecuador, who my mom helped escape Venezuela after his life was at risk for protesting in my hometown. Just as I arrived he was kicked out of the house he was in and an employer had withheld his pay for over a month. He told me he sometimes went to bed without eating the whole day.
I helped him, so he could go from Ecuador to Chile by bus. Apparently, there was more opportunity to work in Chile’s strong economy. When he messaged me from Chile he said it was the same struggle and he was out of money. He said he's OK now but "luchando"— fighting to survive.
Recently, I saw a video of a Venezuelan barber crying because he and his mom had opened a barbershop in Chile, only to have the Chileans kick him out of his own business after he completed all payments for the shop. The government didn’t protect him because he was in the country illegally. He lost everything after slaving for months.
I’ve met so many desperate people trying to survive throughout my travels. Now I’m covering the Venezuelan diaspora for a news site. It's hard not to get depressed with what I cover each day.
Yesterday I spoke to a lady who helped me with testimony for an article. She can’t find a job or a proper place to live. She told me she goes to bed with just a cup of water in her stomach. I gave her some money and bags of food since no one had helped her and her husband. She told me her kids say they want to come live with her because they have nothing to eat in Venezuela.
I realize how lucky I am. If my parents had flipped a coin and not gone to Canada, I might be a starving migrant right now. I’ve started to question nationality, countries, and borders. A large portion of our opportunities in life are determined by luck of what country you’re born into or what country you're allowed to live in.
You can watch all the fucking Gary V inspirational hustle videos you want, but if you’re a poor Venezuelan migrant or a Colombian in a “barrio,” slum, you’re pretty much fucked.
Yet they still have hope for a better future. Some will find it.
As easy as my life is, it's not easy being close to the situation Venezuelans live today.