Mena, for example, was once a national congressman in Venezuela. When he arrived in Miami 11 years ago, he delivered pizzas and painted houses while he waited for his work permit. He also went back to school to get a master’s degree.
“They have made their lives here and they have been successful in Miami,” said Eduardo Gamarra, political science professor at FIU. “They have given a new character to Miami.”
U.S. Census data shows that the Venezuelan community has higher educational and economic levels than most other Hispanic immigrant groups in South Florida. Venezuelans have also become one of the fastest-growing communities since Chávez took power in 1999. In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the Venezuelan population grew from 30,000 to more than 70,000 between 2000 and 2010.
Many Venezuelans have concentrated in Doral, which last year elected the state’s first Venezuelan mayor, Luigi Boria. On Wednesday, Boria said that he cannot imagine moving back to Venezuela after living in Florida for 23 years.
He said he’d like to go back to visit, but worries about security. Like many Venezuelans, Boria was robbed at gunpoint on the streets of Caracas in 2007. He hasn’t gone back.
“The society has been destroyed,” he said. “The social problem is a result of bad leadership.”
Gamarra said that improvements in security could encourage some Venezuelans living in Florida to return. He recalled how, during the 1990s, many Colombians moved to Miami to escape the violence associated with that country’s drug wars.
“But by the mid-2000s, many of them returned to Colombia because the economic and political conditions had improved,” he said, referring to policies under the administration of former president Alvaro Uribe.
In another comparison, Stepick remembered a similar feeling of hope for a democratic change among Haitian exiles after the fall of the Duvalier government.
“Most Haitian immigrants returned if they had the money and checked it out and then came to the conclusion that things hadn’t improved enough, that things were better in the United States,” he said.
Many Venezuelan exiles expressed gratitude for the opportunities they’ve received in the United States, while recognizing that their own journey was difficult.
Petrash had been a university professor in Venezuela. When she arrived in Miami in 2004, she taught at Miami Dade College and eventually became a television producer for América-Tevé on Channel 41. Recently she became the spokeswoman for the City of Doral, where she believes she can help others who arrive to Doral in search of opportunities.
“Going back is tough when your son is 20 and a university student,” Petrash said. “When your younger son is 14 and dreams of becoming a football star. When your children are already part of this country and when you have gone through that process of reinventing yourself.”
Lorenzo Di Stefano, who owns the restaurant El Arepazo 2 chain, said that he emigrated for his children and not for political reasons.
In 2000, Di Stefano’s family moved to Sarasota so that his small children could go to tennis academy.
“The original plan was to be in the United States a couple of years and then return to my country,” Di Stefano said. “But being here I began to see what was happening in Venezuela and that definitely allowed me to decide to stay.”
Then the family moved from Sarasota to Miami, where they soon adapted to “a very Latino atmosphere. I can assure that I feel very much at home here.”