One man ended up in this sleepy border town deep in Peru’s Amazon because he had run out of money, another because she’d run out of hope. Yet another family came here, to Iñapari, a village of fewer than 3,000 people, because they said God had sent them.
As more than 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled their homeland in recent years, most are ending up in the region’s swollen capital cities. But a few are stumbling into small towns and villages across South America, communities they had never heard of — much less planned to visit or live in — until hunger and political chaos drove them from home.
One of those unlikely communities is Iñapari, a sun-scorched town of dirt roads and a smattering of restaurants and low slung motels in southeastern Peru on the border of Bolivia and Brazil. It’s about 2,400 miles from Caracas overland — far from the chaos and poverty of home, but far from everything else as well.
Emilio Marcano, a 49-year-old refrigerator repairman, is among the dozen or so Venezuelans who now call Iñapari home. He fled Venezuela with his family because he was tired of rampant crime and watching his neighbors go hungry. He sold three cars for a total of $1,600 and dragged his wife and two children over Venezuela’s southern border, across Brazil, and then to the Peruvian capital of Lima — a city that he thought would be “paradise on earth.”
Instead, he found himself struggling to hold down a job and care for his family. “We went from a situation where there wasn’t anything [in Venezuela] and there was hunger, to a place where there was everything but we were still going hungry,” he said.
Down to the family’s last few dollars, Marcano said God came to him in a vision and told him his “feet had to step on borders.”
He didn’t know what it meant, but he knew that he had to take his family back the way they came if they were to survive. On his way by bus to Brazil — and eventually Venezuela — the family stopped in Iñapari. That’s where their luck changed dramatically. A local woman offered the destitute family a free place to stay and another paid for radio ads advertising Marcano’s skills as a refrigerator repairman.
It was only later, when he looked at a map, that he realized he was almost literally standing on three international borders: Peru, Brazil and Bolivia.
On a recent weekend, Marcano sat outside his small home on a dusty road, surrounded by a dozen broken freezers and refrigerators that had been brought to him from all three countries. He said he was going to pull the radio ads because he was overwhelmed with work — one of the benefits of being the only repairman in 140 miles.
“This is virgin territory,” he said of his new home. “There’s nothing here, so they need everything.”
Since Marcano’s arrival eight months ago, about a dozen Venezuelans have followed, finding that their skills — superfluous in big cities — are in high demand in Iñapari. There’s the barber from the northwestern region of Delta de Amacuro, Venezuela, who routinely has a line of clients from Brazil and Peru. There’s the electronics repairman from the port city of Puerto La Cruz,
not far from Caracas, who recently worked on a solar panel brought to him by a Peruvian indigenous community.
Iñapari Mayor Alfonso Bernardo Cardozo said his town survives on sustainable forestry and weekend tourists from Brazil, who drive across the border for Iñapari’s roasted chicken. But he said the community struggles to keep its youth.
“Once our young ones study a professional career, they never come back,” he said. “We’re a small town, but there’s a lot of room for people here to work.”
On a recent weekend, three Venezuelans — a husband and wife and a friend they had met in the village — were planning their next business venture. The trio, along with the Venezuelan barber, had rented a space for $78 dollars a month where they can all work. They imagine it as a one-stop shop where locals can have their electronics fixed, get a haircut and have a bite to eat.
Adner Guerra, the 35-year-old electronics repairman, said he couldn’t have struck out on his own if he’d ended up in a big city like Lima — or even Puerto Maldonado, the provincial capital of Madre de Dios, which is about four hours away by bus.
Guerra gets regular reports from friends and family who remained in Lima. He hears stories about people working 11 hours a day at about one-third of Peru’s minimum wage. He also hears about the backlash in big cities, where the sight of Venezuelans singing, selling wares and begging for change has become increasingly common. Last week, the U.N. Refugee Agency launched an anti-discrimination campaign in Peru amid growing resentment in some quarters of the Venezuelan arrivals.
Guerra and others say they’ve also felt the sting of xenophobia in Iñaparai, but for the most part the town has embraced them. Here, they’re not stealing anyone’s job, he said. They’re providing needed services.
“We’ve been here for a month and started from zero,” he said. “There aren’t any electronics technicians here, so things have been going well.”
All of the new arrivals say what they miss most about home is family, so they’ve built a family of wayward friends. The barber, 55-year-old Jose Martinez, traveled to Iñapari with one grandson, but all the Venezuelans in the growing community call him el abuelo, or grandfather.
Martinez spent five weeks hitchhiking from southern Venezuela to Peru, sleeping on the streets for at least eight of those nights. Unlike the others, Martinez said he planned to end his journey at the first spot he could find work, which he had hoped would be in northern Brazil, closer to home.
But it wasn’t until he arrived in Iñapari that he found his skill with the electric razor was in high demand. As people lined up for Martinez’s buzz cuts and high tops, his grandson, Leonardo León, 30, said they left Venezuela because food had become too hard to find or simply too expensive. “It was like a tsunami,” he said. “One day to the next all the food in the city seemed to disappear.”
Life as a migrant, even in Iñapari, is a struggle. But at least here they can survive, put on weight and send money back home, León said.
Marcano — the deeply religious refrigerator repairman — said he fears his country is being punished by God, and he’s had visions that Venezuela’s hunger crisis will get worse before it gets better. In the midst of that storm, he’s grateful to have found shelter in Iñapari.
“I was talking to someone from out of town the other day and they said ‘Oh, you’re the famous repairman of Iñapari,’ ” he said with a touch of pride. “I feel like things are looking up for us.”
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