From the arepa to the taco. Ilustración de Sofía Fernández Castelló
Illustration by Sofía Fernández Castelló

From the arepa to the taco

By Alejandro Peña

Alejandro Peña talks about the tortuous departure from his beloved Venezuela until arriving, not without strong fear, in Mexico: “Living in a country mired in crisis is a nightmare. Nothing makes sense. There are no hopes or dreams; the future is hidden behind the haze of uncertainty. The only option is to flee, far away.”

hecho por valedores

Alejandro Peña talks about the tortuous departure from his beloved Venezuela until arriving, not without strong fear, in Mexico: “Living in a country mired in crisis is a nightmare. Nothing makes sense. There are no hopes or dreams; the future is hidden behind the haze of uncertainty. The only option is to flee, far away.”

Venezuela was a prosperous country, a Latin American promise. It received large numbers of European migrants during World War II, and over time it continued to host more people from other parts of the world. It was a perfect country to invest. Many foreigners settled there after starting their own businesses and over the years, they formed entire families, mixing with those born in that rich oil land, with beautiful beaches, deserts, jungles, snow-capped mountains and extensive plains.

But the dictatorship arrived. An unforgettable December 1999, as a result of democratic elections, a military regime with socialist ideas would cling to power never to let go of it again. The president exiled private companies, humiliated and invalidated opposition political parties, closed the critical media of his administration, approved a new Constitution and created laws that favored him, reformed the structure of the State, lengthened the presidential term and established reelection. indefinite for positions of popular election, he fought with international democratic organizations and automatically ignored their system of norms and treaties, nationalized the oil company and ruined it, as well as all the other companies that he expropriated, seized all public institutions and subjected them to their ideals, generated a shortage of food and medicine typical of a country at war, gave weapons to the “collectives” (criminal groups located in popular neighborhoods) to use them as “protectors of the homeland” and resulted in an irreparable social chaos, devalued the currency several times and caused an inflation of more than three percentage figures.

All of the above has degenerated into a political, economic and social crisis that is recorded as one of the most serious in modern history. Millions of Venezuelans suffer extremely to get at least one ration of food a day, and those who need medicine usually suffer a constant ordeal. Last July of this year, the Organization of American States (OAS) indicated that Venezuelan migration could reach 7 million people by the end of 2021 or early 2022, even surpassing the exodus in Syria, considered until now the largest in the world, with more than 6.7 million refugees who have fled the war that started in 2011.

The OAS highlighted five reasons that push Venezuelans to flee their country:

  • A complex humanitarian emergency: United Nations data indicates that 1 of every 3 Venezuelans faces starvation conditions.
  • Human rights violations: the OAS General Secretary indicated that they have identified 18,093 extrajudicial executions carried out by state security forces or groups since 2014.
  • Widespread violence: the country is also plagued by crime and criminal gangs. The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence affirms that Caracas is the most violent city in South America.
  • Collapse of public services: Venezuelans experience daily cuts in electricity and water services. The Blackout Victims Committee ensures that in 2020 there were 157,719 blackouts throughout the country. Furthermore, 92% of households in Venezuela do not receive water regularly.
  • Economic collapse: according to the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela is the country with the highest inflation in the world (6,500%).

As a consequence of this devastating context, I, like many other Venezuelans, decided to emigrate. Perhaps my story is similar to that of many of my compatriots in exile.

One day, desperate and overwhelmed, I decided to buy a passage by land to Ecuador, where one of my cousins ​​lives. I asked him if he felt good there and he said yes. That was enough for me. Anguish leads you to make hasty decisions. In just a week I put some of my belongings in two large suitcases and a small one. It was like packing my life; While I was arranging the clothes, memories of happy moments, of friends, of trips, and at the same time many dreams that I had pending came to me.

The day of my departure I went with my soul numbed to the bus terminal. My mom accompanied me. None had cried. I was worried about the details of the trip and wanted to be on the road as soon as possible, to leave that country in ruins that made me sadder and sadder. When the bus left, and I saw my mother through the window full of tears, I began to cry too, unable to contain myself. Until that moment I realized that I was traveling into the unknown, and that I did not know when I would see my family, my friends and my country again.

The next day, we reached the territorial limit that separates Venezuela from Colombia, and since the Venezuelan regime closed the passage of vehicles, it is mandatory to cross on foot. We got off with our luggage and walked over the Simón Bolívar bridge, the meeting point between the two nations, to be able to board another bus. There were hundreds of Venezuelans emigrating. In the middle of the bridge, I turned my head and took one last look at the land where I was born. “See you soon Venezuela,” I said to myself, without being very sure of it.

Thus began my adventure full of sorrows and triumphs. Many sadnesses, but also joys. With good and bad people along the way, with disappointments and surprises, but, above all, with a perennial melancholy for Venezuela. You carry your country inside, and it will always be with you wherever you go. 

After living two months in Ecuador and two years in Peru, I decided to come to Mexico. It always caught my attention. Since I was young, I dreamed of visiting it: its cultural richness fascinated me, its history as the cradle of the Aztec and Mayan empires seemed wonderful to me, its film productions from the mid-20th century were a delight for me. In short, it was always a dream destination, even when I did not even imagine that I would have to flee from a humanitarian crisis.

Upon landing in Mexico City, I was full of illusions, plans and objectives. Although I cannot deny that I was also a bit tired of not having a fixed place to live, of not having a home, of feeling adrift. And with Venezuela always in my thoughts, more and more sunk and shattered.

I rented a room with the help of a friend, and started the immigration procedures the next morning. I was worried. Although I had informed myself well before arriving, and had knowledge of a good part of the process, doubts and fears always arise in the face of possible obstacles.

First, I had to go to the Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees (COMAR). I read that it was necessary to arrive very early, so at 6 in the morning I was already there, forming on the outskirts of the building until they allowed us to enter. Every day they serve large groups of foreigners who come to request refuge. I saw people from Central America, Cuba and Haiti, along with other Venezuelans. All impatient and nervous.

Upon entering their facilities, they placed us in an area on the first floor, where they serve first-time visitors. There, they explained to us the rights that we have as refugee claimants, but also the requirements that we had to fulfill and what would happen if we did not fulfill them. Foreigners who did not speak Spanish were served by bilingual or polyglot employees. French is usually the most required language.

We gave the passport, the proof of legal entry to the country and a simple form with some basic information, and then they asked us to go one by one to a small office where a COMAR worker asked us detailed questions about our particular cases.

After a few hours, they informed us who could start the refugee application process. That day almost all of us were accepted, except for two cases for non-compliance with requirements.

At that moment I felt a great relief. That first step meant a lot to me. When you are a migrant, you realize how important it is to have papers. Every procedure, no matter how basic, requires identification that certifies your legal stay in that country. Without that, it’s like you don’t exist.

That same day they also gave us the CURP, that is, our Unique Population Registration Code, which in Mexico is an alphanumeric code with which all people residing in this country, both nationals and foreigners, are registered. We were all pleasantly surprised, it showed on our faces. It is important to mention that a great advantage of this process is that it is completely free and they emphasize that point from the moment you arrive at COMAR, to avoid possible scams.

The next step was to go to the National Migration Institute (INM). There, with several basic requirements, I applied for temporary residence while they processed my refugee application at COMAR, a process that could take a few months.

If you meet all the requirements, after a few days they give you a small green card with your personal information and a short legend that says “temporary residence”. When I had it in my hands I felt joy: everything was progressing correctly. That identification allowed me to work legally, which was not among my plans, or anyone’s.

This was followed by a personal interview at COMAR with an expert on humanitarian issues. There, they asked me in a more detailed way about my personal history and my reasons for requesting refuge in Mexico. In addition, they asked me for proof (if I had any) of the danger I was running in my country and why my safety would be threatened if I returned. I had them. Many people get nervous about this interview, because based on it, it is decided whether your refugee application is approved or not. The important thing is to tell the truth.

After that interview, I had to wait for them to contact me to return to COMAR and know the answer in person. They called me after three months. The day I went I had anxiety. I guess it’s normal: what they told me that day would determine my future.

As I waited, all my thoughts swirled uncontrollably. I visualized my remaining options if the answer was negative. Nerves are like that, they make you walk through desolate scenarios.

Several minutes passed before the same specialist who interviewed me appeared and directed me to enter a small office. On the outside I wanted to appear calm, but inside I desperately begged for my refugee claim to be approved. Going from country to country looking for a “normal” life is not easy, and over time you wear yourself out emotionally.

After a few brief introductory words that I hardly heard because my mind was clouded, the specialist finally got to the decisive part: “The Mexican Commission for Refugee Aid… Has approved your refugee application,” he said so quickly that I hardly believed him. The soul returned to my body automatically. I felt immense gratitude, I think I said thank you several times in a row. I remember it was a sunny day, but even if it had been cloudy, it would still look bright to me. I came out with a smile of those that come from the deepest part of being.

That same day, COMAR gave me a sheet attesting to my welcome as a refugee. With that record, I went to the INM to submit an application to change immigration status, from temporary residence to permanent residence. It is necessary to wait a while for your request to be processed. They contacted me after a month and a half. We were starting the pandemic, but everything was still working as regularly as possible and in less than half an hour I already had my new card with the legend that said: “permanent resident”. At last, my immigration process had been completed successfully and in less than I imagined.

Honestly, recounting the entire process, I must say that it was quite efficient, agile, and correct. They always treated me well, both at COMAR and at the INM. Each step took the exact time that was indicated to me from the beginning, and the doubts that arose were immediately clarified. We even received financial aid and food supplies at COMAR facilities. Quite a surprise for me. I am very grateful to Mexico for welcoming me smoothly. It is a huge and diverse country; a little intimidating at times, but it is definitely a land full of wonders.

Alejandro Peña

Valedor and full time journalist. Left handed, Cinephile, loves reading, coffee and chocolate. Against social farces. Another Venezuelan migrant.

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