“From a young age we were taught to be fighters. We were fighting for a country that was being ripped away from us”- My sister
I could hear it from what seemed like miles away, the anticipation growing as the sound grew nearer and nearer. I turned to my parents with expectant eyes as the three of us sat in front of our open balcony windows.
“I hear it now,” I told them. It was like a call to action, the sound of an entire restless people who begged to be heard, who begged to say that they did not agree. It was the sound of pots and pans. It had become a nightly experience at that point.
The cazerolasos,a way for the protests to spread around the neighborhood. Each building on the block would empty out into the streets when the sound reached them and join the protest with their own pots and pans. Eventually it would reach the center of the neighborhood in a cacophony of sound. There were drummers, dancers, and of course the chants and songs everyone had come to know. I was too little to pronouncehalf of the words, so the international organization“OEA” all the adults were protesting became “oreja” to my childish ears. I don’t think at that moment I realized just what it meant to be staging a protest like this in a place like my neighborhood of La Urbina. To me, La Urbina was just home, but to many, it was part of a slew of gated communities where the wealthy lived. It meant that many of the government officials who lived in nearby communities of the same style would hear the message loud and clear. It was the first time I experienced and put into practice this form of protest and political discourse, of using my privilege to speak out and fight for something. While I didn’t know that is what I was doing at the time, I realize now that it is something I continue to strive for and continually consider.
I didn’t fully understand a lot of what was going on at the time. I knew things were dangerous, I knew it wasn’t safe to go outside, or to go to school, that I couldn’t play like a normal child. The danger was probably what I understood the best, but despite my parents’ countless explanations, I didn’t understand what the strike meant or what my family had to do with it. Having a father who was a businessman and an uncle who worked for the country’s top oil producer during the strike was a perk I would only come to understand years later. It meant that since both of them were risking their livelihoods and safety for this movement, they got the most up to date information the most quickly. Information that they would try to relay to the four children in front of them, sitting on the tile floor surrounded by dolls after yet another day off from school. Maybe to my older sister and cousins, these complex explanations of world-shifting politics made sense, but I doubt it. I doubt that any of our young minds could really make sense of what was going on around us at the time.
The lines for gasoline that spilled out into the streets were simply part of life, something I saw from the back seat of my mom’s car every day. Later, I would come to realize that people were camping out in their cars so they could fill up on gas in case of an emergency, in case of political persecution or a protest gone wrong. I didn’t understand the urgency of a new shipment of gasoline during the strike, that for a country run on oil, this meant everything. No one told me that my godfather had been the one to stop the ships in the middle of the ocean. No one told me that calls were being tapped so my mom had given him her cell phone because they weren’t technically family so his calls couldn’t be tracked down to her. It felt like he was family to us, in fact, it felt like he took half our family with him six months later when he left for America without saying if he was coming back. Although it wasn’t a term I could apply to myself, the words “political asylum” would become an integral part of my vocabulary five years later when I made my own trip to America and the land of exiled oil executives known as Katyzuela. Thousands of PDVSA employees had fled after the strike, after betraying the government that had employed them and persecuted them. Living only six doors down from my godfather after years apart almost felt like Venezuela again, when all it took was an elevator ride to bring our two families together. Except it wasn’t, we lived in tiny suburban castles now, and the streets were quiet.
However, not all of it was bad. Being a child during the strike was probably a blessing in disguise, certainly more fun than being an adult during the strike. It meant that I got to skip school for days and days on end. That I could hang out in my dad’s empty office while he tried to put his business back together in the face of a national standstill. I would run from room to room, sit at the expansive wooden desk covered with papers that were useless now, a tiny child in the grand leather chair of a business executive. I would pretend that I was a business executive myself, that I was running the country. I would call my sister and cousins on the extension to the other offices and together we would make up very official sounding names for make-believe assignments and tasks. Every day the games were different. Some days we were spies with walkie-talkies, hiding in the nooks and crannies of our apartment building because it was too dangerous outside. It didn’t matter that the walkie-talkies were actually a result of the fact that our calls were being tapped because we were together, we were children living through this experience. So in many ways, the strike pushed us all together, and I’ve found that in my particular family that’s how we do best. This theory would come to be tested for years, during hurricanes in Texas and periods of financial stress. We grew the most as a family whenever the outside world was raging all around us.
As I look back on this time in my life, I find myself looking through countless photo albums. Relics that I assumed had been packed up for ages. I saw pictures of me and my sister, holding a flag with distinctly 7 stars. Stars that we would meticulously come to count year after year ever since the president decided he could just change our identity. He could try. He could change the faces on the money, take away the extra zeroes, change the constitution, but our love and loyalty to our country would never be shaken. I scroll through Facebook now as a young adult, but the pictures are the same. Friends I grew up with holding the same flag, now with eight stars. They’re still taking to the streets, this time with gas masks slung around their necks because there truly is no telling what the government will do anymore. Their smiles shine with pride in their nation despite the fact that shadows surround their eyes and their bodies are deteriorating after months of hunger. We ship box after box of food, toiletries, sometimes the occasional gift, but it never seems to be enough. Every time I see a new picture of my friends or family they seem to have grown thinner, worn out by years and years of fighting, fighting for a country that is being ripped away from them. They climb on cars and wear gags and paint their bodies with colors and words, finding every way they can to scream out that this is not okay and they will not be silenced. The songs and chants are the same, still proclaiming love for Venezuela, for the home that held us like a loving mother in our childhood. We still sing with the desire that someday, someone will come along and love her the way she is meant to be loved. We still sing about color esperanza