Widgets Magazine


In exile and mourning Venezuela

Last time I spoke with my mom, she bitterly mourned the current state of Venezuela. Sandwiched in between her usual laments — those I learned to painfully swallow while abroad and, therefore, safe — cropped up a remark I had never heard before. This is not, she said, a war. Instead, this is like a war. At the moment, the distinction merely struck me as peculiar. I had never thought of my mom as a stickler for language.

Upon further reflection, though, I realized that worlds turn on the difference between like and not like. If Venezuela were actually engaged in a war, then many — perhaps all — of its problems would become understandable. Some would even be expected. Deaths, violence, destruction, famines, scarcity, unemployment, hopelessness — these are all among the known and studied consequences of large-scale armed conflicts.

Of course, the existence of a real state of war never lessened the sufferings of bereaved parents and hungry children. In other words, to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter whether Venezuela is involved in official combat or not — the fact remains that its people are undergoing considerable hardship.

Yet, the “like condition” does add a set of non-trivial stresses in Venezuela that an actual war would never enjoy. That is, everything terrible and sickening that happens back home feels intensely preventable. It also feels absurd and inexplicable. The sensation reminds me of an anecdote I read many years ago. In “The Black Swan,” Lebanese-American essayist Nassim Taleb describes his fellow exiles as continuously running “counterfactuals in their minds, generating alternative scenarios that could have happened and prevented” the baffling historical events that rid them of their country.

I have often tried doing the same, especially when asked by my non-Venezuelan friends for the reasons behind my country’s demise and ever-approaching collapse. Unlike my mom, however, who lived through the distant so-called golden years, I never knew anything that did not resemble chaos in Venezuela. Disappointment and frustration were always part of the status quo. Nostalgia only arrived once I left.

Some years ago, my sister described the mindset of the exile as perpetually wavering between the solía ser (used to be) and the podría ser (could be). She also joked that some Venezuelans lived abroad wishing to go back, while others never thought twice about their decision to leave. Some missed home, while others hoped to forget it. They all, however, shared memories of a vanished, never-again-to-be-seen, native land.

My mom calls often, and every time, I worry about the words I will use to try and assuage her. Sometimes, I feel the urge to overturn her grief. I want to have her read Robert Lowell’s 1967 sonnet on Caracas, the one in which he visits, “This house, this pioneer democracy, built / on foundations, not of rock, but blood as hard as rock.” I want her to hate the old Venezuela, so she might desist from bewailing the present one. I want to rationalize the insane reality she and the rest of my family are living through — find unforgivable faults in everything that came before.

But I fail.

Instead, by waters that are not warm and coral-blue like my Caribbean Sea, I sit and weep, remembering what I never knew.

– Ena Alvarado ’18


Contact Ena Alvarado at enaalva ‘at’ stanford.edu.