“Does it happen often that people steal food?”, I ask Sandra.
The five elderly church volunteers are speaking over each other in consternation.
The chairs had been arranged too closely, so we couldn’t see who had been given a meal and who hadn’t. Some of the men were standing, and could have moved to another section to receive a second helping. We need to be more organized handing out the food. Work in teams. One row at a time.
Sandra sighs and replies: “No. This is the first time that this has happened.”
The church parking lot is mostly empty now. Only a few people linger, waiting for their turn to tell a former Miss World turned community organizer about their problems in the hopes that she’ll offer a solution.
We’ve just finished handing out about 140 free meals to Venezuelan migrants in the barrio Simon Bolivar in Barranquilla, Colombia. It’s almost 8:00 PM. Those we couldn’t feed with the 97 meals we’d packed just two hours earlier had received ham sandwiches that the volunteers put together on the spot.
A child no older than six whose parents are chatting nearby trips and falls besides me. He was carrying one of the meal containers we’d handed out, and its precious contents are now scattered across the parking lot. Two slices of bread and what’s left of a rice ration.
The child looks at the spilled food incredulously, then up at me. Without making a sound, he gets up and disappears into the small crowd still left in the church parking lot.
On the Front Line with Venezuelaquilla
Venezuelaquilla is a volunteer organization in the Colombian city of Barranquilla, on the country’s northern coast. Started six years ago, it has coalesced around Carmena “Pilin” Leon, a former Miss World who has been living here for nearly a decade. Circumstance has placed Venezuelaquilla on the front line of the Venezuelan exodus, as Barranquilla has become a hub for people fleeing misery and hunger in the country.
I was introduced to the group via its vice president, Juan, whom I met in a cafeteria in Barranquilla’s Universidad del Norte. I’d arrived in the city three days earlier to scope out the possibility of doing field work next year as part of my dissertation project on repression. A contact had arranged for us to meet so that I could get a better sense of who was migrating to the city from Venezuela, and whether any of them had been victims of repression at the hands of the Maduro regime.
After a pleasant introductory chat, Juan told me that Venezuelaquilla handed out free meals on Thursdays in the Simon Bolivar barrio, which is home to a large number of Venezuelan migrants. Today was Thursday, and Juan invited me to come along with him.
“Never turn down an invitation,” my dissertation supervisor—an anthropologist—once said to me.
“Of course! I’d love to come,” I replied.
To Simon Bolivar
Juan and I hopped into a tiny yellow taxi, one of the many waiting for tired students looking for a ride home outside one of the university’s gates. We were headed to Pilin’s home. On the drive over, Juan recited an impressive list of the initiatives Venezuelaquilla has been involved in, and some of the hopes that it had for the future.
I asked him how many Venezuelan migrants were in the city. Some 25,000, officially, but the actual number was around 125,000.
We arrived at Pilin’s home and were greeted at the gate by a huge, friendly dog. While we waited for Pilin to come out, Juan showed me a humble collection of donations on the garage floor.
“This is our base,” he said.
Among the collection of items were half a dozen boxes made to carry candy bars and other snacks. The boxes were fitted with a strap to hang around your neck to make them easier to carry.
“The people who sell candy at traffic lights can use these to carry their stuff”, Juan said while pointing at the boxes.
Every traffic light in the city has its own group of Venezuelans, sometimes five or six of them, who sell candy, water, and fruit to motorists stopped at red lights. Barranquilla’s tropical heat and unrelenting sun make any physical exertion taxing.
Pilin rushed out onto the garage, and after a hasty introduction we were in her car heading to Simon Bolivar. On the way there, Pilin and Juan pointed out the 7 de Abril barrio, an eclectic cluster of shacks that housed Venezuelan migrants. Near a stadium, we saw a tent city that was also home to migrants.
“It’s grown so much,” Juan pointed out. “The tents used to reach up to back there before, and now they’re right up here against the road.”
Once in Simon Bolivar, we parked outside an aquamarine home. Inside were Sandra, a volunteer with the organization, and her mother. They were getting ready to pack the meals that they had cooked into single-serving Styrofoam containers. They consisted of a serving of rice with some vegetables and ground beef, two slices of bread, and a bit of BBQ sauce for tang.
“I’m sweating like a horse,” the mother joked.
“When did you start cooking?”, Pilin asked.
“Yesterday,” she replied.
The home was cramped and we packed quickly, but an order developed immediately that made the exercise efficient and painless. In just a few minutes, we’d packed 97 meals into Pilin’s car and a roofed bicycle taxi that Sandra had hailed, and we were on our way.
“I’m also bringing bread, ham and mayonnaise,” Sandra said, “in case lots of people show up”.
At the Church of Santa Marta
We arrived at the parking lot of the Church of Santa Marta, just a few blocks from Sandra’s house, shortly before 6:00 PM. The parking lot was empty, save for an elderly attendant who guided Pilin into her spot.
Once we’d unloaded the trunk, Juan and I began to lay out chairs in the parking lot. The church allows us to borrow them, Juan explained: just not the new ones.
We made several trips with our stacks of chairs. Getting through the tiny door of the church’s activity room out onto the parking lot was a challenge, since it was barely wide enough to fit a single person. We arranged the chairs into three areas: one for men, one for women, and one for children.
The chairs began to fill within minutes. A group of eager men took the first row; then, slowly, over the course of half an hour or so, the rest filled with women, children, and more men. That they all were in need of help was obvious. I wondered how many were about to eat their first meal of the day.
Father Mario stood before the men and delivered a quick message. He’d heard from parishioners who had hired some Venezuelan migrants to paint a house that, despite their assertions, they had no experience at all painting, and it showed in the poor quality of their work.
“Don’t say that you know how to do something if you don’t”, Father Mario said sternly. “It looks bad on me because I’m recommending you, and it looks worse on your community.”
A few men in the crowd nodded in agreement. “That’s right!”, a woman yelled.
“They’re all toderos“, Juan quipped to me. The term comes from the Spanish word “todo”, which means “everything”: jack-of-all-trades.
Father Mario left after giving a quick blessing, and we began to hand out the meals.
We served the children first. There were about 20 of them, ranging from around five to fourteen. Each meal was greeted with a polite gracias! and we quickly moved on to the women, and then to the men.
“People Leave Venezuela to Find a Way to Survive!”
Pilin was surrounded the entire night by small groups of people, many of whom no doubt recognized her from her 1981 coronation as Miss World. Some came to introduce themselves and shake her hand, but most had serious issues that they hoped she could help resolve.
“I saw her win on TV back in ’81!”, an elderly radiologist from Zulia stated gleefully. “I remember that beautiful green dress that she wore!”
“Did you think back then that you’d ever get to meet her?”, I asked.
“Never!”, replied the radiologist. “Life takes weird turns”.
A tall woman, probably around the age of 25, was now talking to Pilin. A small child clung to the woman’s shoulder. The woman told Pilin about an issue she had had recently at a local clinic, and about how the doctors there wanted to charge her money to see her.
“People leave Venezuela to find a way to survive! And you want me to pay how much to get help?”, the woman recounted.
Pilin listened attentively, not just to the tall woman with the child but to the dozen or so individuals who, each in their turn, approached her hoping for advice.
There was the pregnant young girl—she did not look older than 15—who asked Pilin for medical advice regarding pains she’d been having.
There were the two men who had walked from la raya [literally, “the line”, a nickname for the Venezuela-Colombia border] who’d arrived in Barranquilla the night before. They’d come with their birth certificates and Venezuelan identification, the men said, but their possessions had been stolen while they slept.
“I brought my son with me”, one of the men said, pointing to an eight-year-old boy crusted with dirt at his feet.
Seeing that Pilin might be overwhelmed, some turned to the other volunteers for advice.
Juan heard from a man whose wife and young daughter had accompanied him to the parking lot that night. The man said that he knew how to cook well, and that if he could find a grill he could set up a hamburger stand. The man had obviously given the idea serious thought: with him was an old baby carriage on which he had a haphazard collection of condiments and cooking utensils, there at the ready to serve his first customer.
“We can find him a grill,” Pilin said later in the car as she drove me back to my hotel.
“Or, find the materials and have someone build it for him,” she continued.
Juan nodded silently from the passenger seat.
I stood among the running children and those waiting for their turn with Pilin. I felt guilty being there. I was disappointed and upset at myself. Why was I wearing my new pair of shoes? I didn’t know I’d be here tonight, but still. Every barefoot child that I saw made the absurdity of my footwear all the more painful. I dreaded correcting people who asked how long I’d been living in Barranquilla (“Actually, I live in Canada, and I’ve been there for 20 years…”).
I caught a glimpse of a woman whom I was sure was an old childhood friend. It wasn’t her. But I wondered if anyone I’d grown up with was in that crowd, or somewhere else in Barranquilla that night. A burning kind of survivor’s guilt ran over me. I feel it still.
I noticed a man and his daughter holding hands, watching Pilin and the other volunteers talking to those still left in the parking lot. They caught my eye because the daughter, who was probably about 13, was wearing a pink dress and had a bow in her hair, and because they were eyeing the volunteers so patiently, waiting for the right time to make their approach.
Another tragic story, I thought. I wonder what they’d tell us? Did they also lose their documents? Or a relative? No matter what they shared with us, I thought, I could never understand the desperation that had forced them out of their homes, or the everyday struggles that now marked their lives.
Finally, the man and the daughter approached us hand-in-hand. They stopped a short distance away from us.
“Thank you so much,” said the man with a humble smile.
“Thank you!”, the young girl beamed.
With that they turned in unison and walked into the Barranquilla night.