MARLBOROUGH – A group of men and women sit around a table, telling stories and sharing a plate of tequeños—a typical Venezuelan hors d’oeuvre made of cheese wrapped in dough and fried – and empanadas.
Among them are a doctor, two attorneys, two engineers, a nurse and a small-business owner. They talk about their work and their families, and share advice. Jokes flow. Their words are punctuated with animated hand gestures. They speak with passion.
You wouldn’t know it to look at them but most of these people were complete strangers until just a few minutes ago.
What brings them together, aside from Carola Marquez and her husband Iran, the owners of Mama Rosa’s in Marlborough, is their shared stories of leaving Venezuela and coming to Massachusetts. But the journeys of the people from these two distinct groups – those who came decades ago and those who came in the last few years—have little in common.
According to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service statistics, in 2010 one of every 50 asylum applications was from a Venezuelan. In 2017, that number was one out of every five. Last year alone the number of asylum seekers from Venezuela was 2,311, making Venezuela the country where the most asylums seekers come from.
The movement is due to the political and economic crisis that has plagued Venezuela over the last decade. Once one of the richest countries in South America, Venezuela is now on the verge of collapse. Hunger, political persecution and lack of humanitarian aid and basic medicines have given rise to the latest exodus. Many of the people are making a new life in MetroWest.
The difference between those who immigrated in the 1990s, for example, and those who moved to the U.S. recently, is that the new wave of immigrants is not here by choice. They came here in order to survive.
“The government owned the union of the company where I worked,” said Jose Vargas, 29, a human resources worker for Sinohydro who now lives in Marlborough. “They made all the decisions. I tried to keep my job by going to some of the pro-government marches that they forced us to go to. But I disagreed with the government so they demoted me from HR to chauffeur and then they fired me. Two months later they fired my wife. I opened a business selling car parts and car insurance but I was attacked, beaten up and the final straw came when delinquents entered our home, took everything we owned and spread feces all over the house. We knew we were no longer safe. We were traumatized. We had to leave.”
In a different town, three engineers of PDVSA, the state-owned oil company, share a similar story about being forced to wear red shirts and being obliged to march in support of the government in order to keep their jobs. “We felt humiliated,” said Tulio Rodriguez, 33 of Marlborough, who was an engineer in Venezuela but now works as a painter. When asked how it feels to go from being an engineer to painting houses, he said, “In my country I had a profession that was hard to get, but here that title is worth nothing. But I still have my education and no one can take that away. But I need to work. And here I don’t have to fear.”
Dr. Pablo Hernandez Itriago, 47, of Millbury, a physician who moved to the U.S. in the 1990s, had a very different experience. “I came to do my postgrad,” he explained. “Little by little I saw my country disintegrating in front of my eyes. I used to go every year to spend Christmas or new years in Caracas. But two years ago I went to celebrate the 102nd birthday of my grandmother and I could not take my wife and son because it would have been too dangerous for them. I lost my country too,” he said.
He is currently the chief medical officer of Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Centers in Worcester, Framingham and Milford. He turned down higher-paying positions because he wanted to work in a safety net medical center where the need is greater. Among his patients are many of the new Venezuelan immigrants.
Immigration attorney Dayanna Moreno, 34, of Hopkinton, also came in the 1990s, when she was 9. She is adamant about asylum seekers getting proper legal advice. “Too many people go to services that are promising to get them asylum,” she said. “That it is easy. But it is not. And these services are not attorneys. What worries me the most, as an attorney, is not the money people can lose using these fake services – money can be recuperated – it is the consequences it will have on their immigration.”
Dayanna is often at Mama Rosa’s on weekends, giving advice to Venezuelan immigrants. During her hour-long commute to and from work every day, she is on the phone giving free advice to her mother’s “referrals,” newly arrived Venezuelans with questions about immigration.
Her mother, Carola Marquez, immigrated in the early 1990s with her two daughters, seeking a better life. There was crime and corruption in Venezuela then, but nothing like what it is now. Laws were different. Still, she had similar fears that immigrants face today. “I used to tell my children every day there is a box under the bed with money and phone numbers for them to call in case I didn’t show up to pick them up at school,” she recalled. “We even had a code. I told my daughters that they were only to leave with a person who tells them, ‘Me gustan tus caraotas,’” she said, laughing at the Spanish words for “I like your beans.” “Can you imagine what it’s like to tell your children that every day?” she said. “I think that is one of the reasons my daughter Dayanna became an immigration attorney.”
Carola remarried, and she and her husband Iran moved to Marlborough 15 years ago. They wanted to live in a town that was convenient to Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut. “So we opened a map and said here’s where all the highways cross … Marlborough.”
She worked as a real estate agent, which was her profession in Venezuela, until the market collapsed in 2008. She knew she had to find something different, so she worked in a hotel and at Sally’s Beauty Supply before becoming an insurance agent. Wanting something more stable, last October she and Iran opened Mama Rosa’s Pizza. When the holidays came, she began to cook traditional Venezuelan food. People liked it so much, it is now a regular part of her menu. But people don’t just go there for the food. During these times of diaspora, they go there to connect with other Venezuelans, to help each other, and to re-connect with their roots in a place where laughter is aloud and loud, problems are shared and solutions are created.
Belinda Soncini can be reached at [email protected]
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