Other stories filed under PROFILES
Longing to Belong
Decatur teacher recounts journey to the United States
April 17, 2019
Blackouts ravaged the country of Venezuela in spans ranging from hours to days throughout the months of March and April of this year. Recently according to The Guardian, the blackouts have reached a new extreme and have started to claim lives from the inability to keep food from spoiling in refrigerators, hospitals unable to keep machines running and a decline in the transportation systems. Six of these deaths have been babies. As the humanitarian crisis continues to grow, President Nicolas Maduro has abandoned his initial ban on international aid after a meeting with the Red Cross chief according to Al Jazeera.
The crisis is growing without much reprieve. Teacher Macyory Calderon recounts her experience watching the country slowly deteriorate and her escape to the United States.
The school bell rang as a young Calderon bolted out of the building towards the nearest river. She jumped into it, refreshed by its cool waters. The sweet smell of orange trees and strawberry bushes surrounded her. She remembers climbing the abundant fruit trees to ease the hunger that a long day at school brought.
“I remember my brother always got the oranges. We would make a basket in our shirts and we would fill it up and come home all full,” she said.
Calderon remembers picking fruit to be something she truly loved as a child and she now looks back on those memories with nostalgia.
At home, Calderon’s father was a politician in their city, Ejido. He was inspired by the ideals of Venezuela’s Democratic Action Party (AD), which was popularized in the 1960s following protests, Calderon said.
“[AD] was a new perspective and it was an answer for the dictatorship before,” Calderon said.
AD envisioned Venezuela as a Socialist Democracy. The party was in direct opposition to the United Socialist Party of Venezuela that was spearheaded by Hugo Chavez.
AD’s vision of democracy existed in Venezuela until 1998, when Hugo Chavez was first elected to be the president.
After his election, twelve-year-old Calderon knew her life in Venezuela was worsening when she turned on a telenovela. Instead of a story filled with romance and astonishing revelations, “Por Estas Calles” divulged the corruption of the government to the Venezuelan people. The young Calderon watched the show alongside 20 million other Venezuelans.
“So, I started thinking ‘my dad is a politician; is he doing bad things?’” she said.
Chavez ran his election on the promise that he would draft a new constitution, one that would end the corruption in Venezuelan politics and benefit the poor. The country soon became divided, Chavistas versus the AD.
“You had brothers who never spoke to each other, couples who got divorced because one was against Chavez and the other supported Chavez,” Calderon said. “You could never reconcile because the foundations of the beliefs were too different.”
The impoverished people of Venezuela needed an answer to their prayers and Chavez was that answer for many, promising both hope and wealth.
The first time Calderon went to the voting polls, Chavez’s name was on the ballot. She didn’t vote for him, although 56.20 percent of Venezuelans did.
“Once you grow and you experience a political situation like the one I had, to see my country go from a purely Democratic system where it was so rich and so good and so wonderful to totally get destroyed by [socialism],” Calderon said. “I can say that I totally disagree with socialism.”
When Chavez won the presidency in 1998, he created social welfare programs reliant on Venezuela’s primary export: oil. Venezuela’s economy seemed to be booming, the social welfare programs helped millions of Venezuelans and Chavez became an icon and a source of pride in many Venezuelan homes.
Chavez’s name in the Calderon household, though, brought frustration and anger. In Venezuela, being anti-government was unacceptable, and the Calderons and their friends were targeted by Chavez’s newly elected administration.
“We knew everything was bad in the sense of human rights, in the sense of freedom of speech, but the economic situation wasn’t bad,” Calderon said.
In order to tame the opposition, the government did not use police or the military but instead instituted a system of “Tupamaros” that turned neighbors against each other.
“We had people from the same community working for the government and spying on you,” she said. “So, if they knew you were against the government, they would go against you, shoot you, rape you, do everything to you.”
When the mayor of their town died and Calderon’s father became the interim, Calderon and her family’s views against the government became public knowledge. This made them prime targets for government oppression.
“We started off not having the same rights to buy certain things that the government controlled,” Calderon said. “The only way you could have access to ‘luxurious’ products was if you were registered in Chavez’s party.”
It then led to the government taking their land and property from them. The election of Chavez changed Calderon’s entire lifestyle, and not for the better.
In 2008, Calderon got the taste of a different country’s freedom when she got a scholarship opportunity to study at a university in the United States. She went to Central College in Pella, Iowa and was a language assistant as well as a student.
Living in Pella was a different experience for Calderon. She felt as though she was different from the residents of Pella’s white community. The culture and relationships between people contrasted with her Venezuelan life, but through trial and error, she learned the social formalities of the United States.
When she came back to Venezuela, the situation only got worse. Chavez’s regime took away human rights, especially women’s rights. Calderon felt her voice was constantly suppressed by his administration. So she started to look for another solution.
On July 24, 2011, Calderon came to the United States because of a different opportunity to study at Montclair State University in New Jersey. She received the Fulbright scholarship offered by the U.S. government in order to earn her master’s degree there.
“It was a Sunday,” she said. “I remember that day, it was totally a new start for me. I met all these people and I made really good friends, but that day changed my life because I never came back to Venezuela.”
The opportunity for her was as much about studying as it was to have a second option should the situation in Venezuela escalate. When things took a turn for the worse, Calderon decided to go through the process of obtaining asylum status.
Calderon continued to follow the political situation in her home country. Her father, after receiving death threats for helping a member of the opposition escape, decided to join his daughter and applied for asylum in the United States as well.
Those who opposed Chavez were frowned upon and even persecuted during his 14-year term. Chavez was often accused of ruling with authoritarian corruption, but many supported him because of his economic success, according to the New York Times.
On March 5, 2013, Chavez died.
“I remember crying of happiness when Chavez died,” Calderon said. “After, we had very high hopes that the opposition would win, but we already knew that every time [politicians] cheat they go past midnight to announce the election.”
It was past midnight when Chavez’s former vice president, Nicolás Maduro, came on the air and announced that he had won.
Calderon describes the United States as a safe haven from the social and political corruption she left in Venezuela. In 2016, however, she realized she went from one all-encompassing political situation to another when Donald Trump began to campaign for presidency.
In January of 2017, Trump was elected. Calderon was worried about President Trump’s policies because of his perceived anti-Latin American stance and the similarity of polarizing political tactics used by the reigning politicians in Venezuela.
“I don’t think I could sleep [the night trump was elected], I have an impression that it was the worst night,” Calderon said. “I compare Trump being elected as the same experience I had when Chavez was reelected because to me they are both different faces of the same coin, Chavez was extreme left and Trump is extreme right.”
The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is continuing to grow and, according to the Mercy Corps, is now the worst in the Western Hemisphere. People are fleeing the country in droves and the United Nations predicts a record 5.3 million people to obtain refugee or migrant status before the end of 2019.
Calderon has a personal connection to the current plight of these people, not just from her own experiences, but from stories from her brother who has not been able to escape the economically devastated country with his own family.
“There is no justice, there is no one that you can complain about anything to,” she said. “You can die for having a pair of shoes. You can die for anything. Even if we want to help, and send things, we stopped sending things that are considered valuable because we put their lives at risk. It is like being in a country that is in war, it’s exactly the same feeling.”
Over the summer of 2018, Calderon was finally able to see her brother after 5 years by meeting him in a town in Colombia right outside of Venezuela’s borders. She described the encounter as melancholic but was happy to catch up with her brother who she has a close relationship with.
“Even when Colombia is in such a bad condition, my brother was so amazed of Colombia and to see his eyes shining just when we got to supermarkets because he was able to see food, is just so heartbreaking because [Venezuela] is just so bad,” she said. “Everything that is happening there it’s just very sad.”
Calderon has lived in the United States for almost eight years and has seen the privilege that people throughout the United States, especially in Decatur, relish in. She affirms that her belief of privilege is having basic necessities like water, food and medicine.
Calderon, herself, also has access to these essential benefits but remembers a time when she didn’t and how her brother still doesn’t. She asks others to appreciate what they have.
“It’s very hard to tell someone to feel something that they have never experienced,” Calderon said. “I can tell you all of this and you are aware of it, but then in your normal life you go back because you never had my experience, but once you are placed in a situation like mine, you can understand.”
Calderon’s visit with her brother also reminded her of how much she misses Venezuela and the culture familiar to her. She visited a town where Venezuela and Colombia were simply separated by a bridge and her hometown was only a couple of hours away by car.
The terms of Calderon’s asylum state that she is not permitted to enter Venezuela with the current government situation or else her “credible fear” of the government will be disproven and her status will be revoked.“I had all of these nightmares and dreams where I crossed the bridge and I was not able to come back and it was terrible. It’s a combination of wanting to go and see things and being afraid, it’s a mental state that I cannot wish for, not even to my enemies,” she said. “It is just such a bad feeling where you don’t feel like you belong to anywhere because you cannot belong to your own country because you can never go back, but you don’t belong to the country where you applied for asylum so it’s a limbo that is very bad.”
Currently, Calderon prefers not to rigidly follow the constantly sad news regarding Venezuela and all of their growing humanitarian problems.
“My parents are always mad at me because I never want to talk about it, I don’t want to know,” Calderon said. “They feel like I’m neglecting my country and they think I’m embarrassed by it now, but I just don’t want to set my whole mood sad because of what is happening. I prefer to remember all of the things about my country that are good.”
Calderon is grateful for the opportunity that the United States has given her to escape a potentially fatal situation, but she hopes that she can one day return to her cherished culture.
“There are so many beautiful things about my culture that I worship, that I love and that I like to share, but I am sad,” she said. “I miss my food, I miss my landscape, I miss my people. It was never my dream to live somewhere else, it was so warm, the culture was so different and we’re just here because circumstances pushed us to be here.”
Calderon is constantly worried that she will never be able to see Venezuela again and the political situation may not be resolved in her lifetime.
“I love [the United States] and I’m so grateful to be here and not in Venezuela,” she said, “But if Venezuela were somehow normal, with all of the struggles a country could have like it was safe I would live in Venezuela for sure.”
Check out a timeline of important events from Calderon’s journey:
Contact the writers, Aly Yamamoto at email@example.com and Erin Gaul at firstname.lastname@example.org