That is what Venezuelans called my grandfather when he settled at Ciudad Bolívar, on the banks of the Orinoco River, taking refuge from World War II. It was a popular slang term to refer to a foreigner, a Spanish-like version of the title monsieur.
That was at the dawn of the 1940s when the Jews escaping from the clutches of Nazism found a land of grace that allowed their generation — as well as my mother’s and my own — to flourish to their maximum potential. Like every other group of immigrants, we focused on giving our very best to benefit the society that sheltered us in times of adversity.
“Caracas is a paradise,” my grandparents used to repeat for decades, according to my mother. Those were the years when there was no need to lock the doors of the house. What a life!
That paradise surrounded by the Caribbean and the Amazon, the Andes and Guyana, with flowers more aromatic than perfume and a sun more radiant than gold, was a magnet in the 20th century for waves and waves of immigrants from neighboring countries, the Old Continent, the Middle East and places as remote as China. Yet it was the soul of the native Venezuelan — warm, generous, respectful, tolerant — that captivated them more than anything else.
In that Venezuela where my mother grew up, people lived in harmony. There was neither racial hate nor resentment among socio-economic classes. And there was little crime, too.
If to foreigners it was paradise, for the natives it was the Garden of Eden. That is why the Venezuelans have traditionally been so rooted to their native soil. They had never felt the need to emigrate. Travels abroad were for temporary studies or work — and to go shopping, if you could afford it! — and the acquired knowledge was invested in the social fabric upon return.
The true face of Venezuela can be found in our joyous dances, our upbeat music, our traditional celebrations, our typical dishes and our guayoyo coffee.
The ’90s ruined it for us. A coup, looting, overwhelming inflation, exchange controls, a crime peak, the embezzlement of national patrimony, personal insecurity.
Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez reached power, charming the masses like a false messiah with his atrocious invention of 21st century socialism.
In the following 14 years the multiclass and multicultural nation that for many was the Venezuelan Dream was destroyed. Hate, family division were encouraged; the number of murders boomed; the electric fences were not enough to stop the growing, deeply resented crime. Democratic institutions eroded and power concentrated on a caudillo. Quality of life broadly collapsed. The scarcity of groceries, basic items and services became Venezuelans’ everyday headache. Inevitably, it all generated a flight of brains and capital.
That black cloud derailed the lives of hundreds of thousands who returned to their parents’ or grandparents’ countries of origin, or simply emigrated for the first time.
An entire nation was spiritually destroyed.
Many emigrants have been unjustifiably expropriated or fired, abducted or persecuted for political differences. They have been forced to abandon the comfort of the middle class to start from scratch again, cleaning floors in a different culture.
With their motherland in their hearts, Venezuelans in exile have lived in grief for years, mourning the country that died in their arms.
Although the day is yet to be seen in the horizon, when at long last spades will turn into plows and lances into garden shears, the death of Chávez closed a cycle of destruction.
The spirit of celebration in South Florida that has lured so much criticism hides a deep, acute pain in the soul.
It is not a feast to celebrate the death of a man who has done overall harm, but because hope is being born.
Unlike the folkloric popular song that says, “Long live Venezuela, my beloved land,” I, who like my grandfather arrived many springs ago to this other land of grace, sing instead, “Long live Venezuela, my wounded land.”