Growing Up and Growing Old in Venezuela
A collaboration between a grandfather and his granddaughter during a short visit becomes a way to work through the feelings of longing sparked by experiences of growing up and growing old while being apart from one’s loved ones.
by Andrea Caroni Schweitzer Gil
In less than a decade, more than six million Venezuelans have emigrated away from the country due to its current economic and political crisis. Often, migrants must separate from family members such as elderly parents and grandparents due to economic pressures. As the crisis deepens, it becomes harder for families to reunite. My family has been separated for almost ten years since my mother and I moved to Canada. During this time, I was lucky to come back to visit four times before my grandfather’s death in 2019.
When my mother and I migrated internationally, my grandparents also moved. They left my hometown of Caracas, where they had lived for over thirty years, in favour of living closer to my uncle, who lived in my grandfather’s hometown of Maracaibo. During a visit in 2018, my grandfather told me the story of how during his early adulthood, he had established an artist collective in the country club adjacent to the oil field where he worked. There, he hosted events such as poetry readings and literary discussions. I had always known my grandfather was an avid storyteller with a talent for writing prose, but I was unaware of the community he had formed to share his passion with others. Since I had not heard my grandfather’s poetry for many years, I asked him to choose one of the drawings I had made during my visit and write a poem about it (Figures 1 & 2).
My time in Maracaibo during this month-long visit was marked by a longing for what used to be. Longing for a time before my grandparents moved back to my grandfather’s hometown of Maracaibo; a time before the economic crisis forced us apart and made these visits a rare gift; a time when we all lived together in a large, breezy apartment in Caracas. It was a longing for something that I knew we could never have again. With his poem, my grandfather put into words the elusive sentiment I was experiencing. Through this collaboration, I found the words to describe something I had struggled to express. My grandfather’s words spoke of a sentiment familiar to all Venezuelans.
An elusive sentiment hidden in the abstract image becomes evident through the act of sharing it with someone close.
For me, the mystery that remains in this drawing is how in it I can clearly see the winding streets of Caracas which follow the city’s mountainous topography (Figure 3). You can get a sense of with the map on Figure 3. When I drew this, I had not been to Caracas in almost three years. Knowing that I was so close to my home city while not being able to visit produced a feeling of melancholy. Yet, I knew that it would not feel like my home next time I visited, as my grandparents did not live there anymore. I can now also see in my drawing the bright colours of the colonial houses in central Maracaibo. In Figure 4, you can see the street where my grandfather grew up. Although it aesthetically remains the same as it did when he was a kid, no one lives there any longer and the street has become an entertainment hub housing bars and restaurants.
Ilusión (hope, eagerness, yearning)
We know that we will never again experience that which we long for, but that same yearning drives us to connect and create.
My grandfather’s stories of growing up in the centre of Maracaibo are characterized by an invocation of independence and amusement. From swinging around treetops in his neighbourhood imitating Tarzan to sailing across Lake Maracaibo with a friend on a homemade raft, these stories painted an image of Maracaibo as a place of endless possibility and wonder. An ample terrain and a lavish body of water were the playgrounds that fuelled my grandfather’s creative and productive drive. During my grandfather’s early adulthood, the city remained a place of opportunity as he was able to move from poverty to privilege with the growth of the oil industry. In Figure 5, you can see a picture of how Lake Maracaibo looked like at the start of the oil boom in Venezuela, when my grandfather was born.
Although at the time of my visit, my grandfather was closer to his childhood home than he had been for decades, he no longer could experience it as her remembered. He could not exercise his independence as he had been accustomed to. The Maracaibo of his youth had not been built for an old man. But Maracaibo had also not been built to withstand the fall in oil prices we have experienced since 2015. Whereas in his childhood, my grandfather built a homemade raft to sail in the lake for fun, today’s fishermen must use homemade rafts due to lack of equipment and economic pressures (Figure 6). Every day, they risk their health in the waters of a lake now heavily polluted with petroleum.
The memory of what things were like before can be dangerous, as we may become consumed by it and forget why things have changed.
I always found tremendous joy in listening to my grandfather’s stories. During my childhood, I considered it almost impossible that my hometown would afford me the same independence he had enjoyed. The stories painted a picture of what independence could look like elsewhere. The mountains that frame the landscape of Caracas possessed an unmistakable allure, but they also represented the boundaries of possibility (Figure 7). The topography of the city made distances much larger than they would be on flatter terrain, so I depended on my grandfather and my mother to drive me anywhere I wanted to go. As a teenager, my family urged me to learn how to drive, but I refused. I knew that driving would not give me the kind of independence I wanted. To choose driving meant giving up on something else. I wanted my feet and my curiosity to be the only tools I needed to go where I desired, as they had been for my grandfather in his youth.
The one time I agreed to take a driving lesson from my mom, we had an encounter with an armed thug. At that moment I decided I would never try to drive again. Figure 8 is a picture I drew after the fact. My mom did not think the man had a gun at all. I thought I saw my mom’s cellphone poking out of her bag, but it was not. It was inside her pocket. You can see how chaotic and juvenile this drawing is compared to the previous one. However, it helps me understand how I felt in that moment. Although we were unharmed by this encounter, and this would be considered as a minor incident by the standard of any other resident of Caracas, it marked the culmination of a childhood where independence was made impossible by the constant threat of crime. I moved to Canada soon after.
The work of care for the ones you love exists within and across national boundaries.
During my final months living in Venezuela. I continued to depend on my grandfather to drive me around. For him, driving had become an integral part of his identity in his later adulthood. He found immense pride in knowing the best ways to get around the city in the shortest time. But as he developed cataracts in his eyes and struggled with memory loss, the thought of giving up his car meant giving up his independence. Eventually, he got into enough accidents and lost his way enough times that the need to give up became as evident to him as it had been for the rest of the family for years.
My grandparents did not often leave their house in Maracaibo, as they had no way of getting around, but they never really felt at home inside of it either. Figure 9 is a picture I took from my grandparents’ yard one of the endless evenings when there was an outage in the neighbourhood. This kind of security setup is very common, but the following year a new wire with spikes was added, given the frequency of power outages. Growing old meant my grandfather had to lose the freedom he had cherished throughout his life. Whereas his environment was vast and lush in Caracas, his new home in his old town was small and foreign.
The landscape of Caracas, an image I will always look to for comfort, also represents a false sense of freedom. A freedom we never really had, as it was always depended on things we could not individually control. The price of oil, economic policy, and urban planning made my experience growing up in Venezuela vastly different to my grandfather’s. But it also made his experiences of growing up and growing old in the same city incredibly disparate. Immigrants who are lucky enough to come back for a visit will often say that they do not recognize the Venezuela they left. Those who stay, live every day in uncertainty, often citing that they do not know that normalcy is anymore.
A commentary on form:
The aim of this writing collage was to tell an ethnographic story about cross-generational experiences of growing up and growing old in Venezuela during times of rapid social change. Using creative methodologies, I aimed to provoke a sensory experience that resembles that of everyday life in Venezuela. Creative methodologies allow anthropologists to create imaginative ethnographies that can widen our understandings of social life. By engaging with a collage of creative non-fiction and visual media, I explored themes that are central to contemporary Venezuelan society. The practice of multi-modal ethnography opened up an opportunity to engage with themes involving crime, intergenerational relationships, mobility, and rapid socio-economic change without the necessity to talk about politics. The discourse about Venezuela at home and abroad cannot escape mention of the divide between government and opposition. Through this story, I make a strong commentary about growing old in Venezuela without resorting to the same tropes.
Through the crafting of this essay, I realized that perhaps the free form drawing I presented would not have meant much to me at all had my grandfather not chosen to write about it. Now that I have his words, I can see things I had not noticed before. Combining the two mediums into one creates a product with a new meaning altogether. By drawing the assault at gunpoint, I also made it into a single tangible thing. This drawing is an embodied image of that moment. Finally, the photographs I included provide an example of the textures and colours of life in Venezuela, and they allowed me to focus my writing on the experience of being there.