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One Way Ticket: A Venezuelan Artist’s Journey to America
I have known Juan, a talented Venezuelan artist, for years. His story of coming to America deeply inspires me and reminds me of my own journey to this country, and the city both of us now call home.
I graduated from Law School on January 10th, 2013, amidst one of the darkest periods of uncertainty that Venezuela has ever experienced. That morning, as we received our college degrees, no one had heard from the president, who had been hospitalized for several weeks. There were rumors about his death or inability to take the oath of office after re-election in October 2012.
Through Twitter, we learned that Chavez had just been sworn in for a new presidential term using a “digital signature.” No one saw him sign, nor were there photos of the act. I graduated in a country governed by a blunt drawing made on an iPad. That’s where I come from.
I arrived in Caracas in 2007 after growing up in Maracay, a city in the center of the country with about one million inhabitants. Although I had chosen to study Law, my bias toward art was evident. Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by music, especially the lyrics, and in my adolescence, I began to write poems and read literature. Parallel to these activities, I liked to clear my mind by drawing with Sharpie markers, without paying much attention, as entertainment. I was unconsciously defining my way of being in the world.
On my 17th birthday, I was given an 88-key digital piano, and although my interest led me to the music conservatory, I almost gave up on the first day. I continued to play and learn on my own without scores. At that same age, I started hosting a two-hour live radio show for young people from Monday to Friday called “The Pencil Sharpener: Sharpening Your Ideas.” It allowed me to lead, moderate, and conduct my first interviews.
Despite that, I did not want to study journalism or literature in college. I chose Law because I was interested in politics and history. If I’m honest with myself, it was really because I felt that being an artist wouldn’t be able to provide me the hustle or financial stability I was seeking. That’s the truth.
Once in college, I joined the Poetry Workshop offered by the School of Literature on Wednesday nights. My law classes were in the morning, so for almost 5 years, I alternated between both. It was fun! Among lawyers, I was known as “the one who writes,” and among writers, I was “the one who studies law.” That in-between, far from bothering me, made me feel comfortable. I hate having to identify myself with just one thing when my interests vary.
Venezuela was in a constant state of political and social unrest at this time. The atmosphere was full of spirited and often dangerous demonstrations, security forces and government-backed militias beat students, and many were taken as political prisoners. We left Constitutional Law classes to protest regularly as if it were part of the curriculum.
The prospects for my senior year in college grew darker and darker. The country was approaching an even more volatile state, governed by the new presidential elections, the illness of President Chávez, the drop in the price of oil, and the political hostility in the streets. Unfortunately, in my personal life, the situation was not much better.
I am fortunate to have two mothers: Zulia, my biological mom, and Blanca, my dad’s wife. My dad was already married to her when I was born. My parents’ relationship ran parallel to my dad’s marriage. When I was 10 years old, I moved in with my dad and Blanca. When he died when I was 15, I continued to live there with her. She was a wonderful woman who taught me the power of love and forgiveness, because even though I was the product of infidelity, she had not been able to have children, so she took me in as her own. By the end of 2012, she was diagnosed with metastasis. In addition to the pain of seeing her suffer, I began to feel very afraid. I could sense what was going to happen. During that time, I had my first (and so far the only) panic attack, landing in the emergency room. Everything in my life was uncertain. Blanca could not attend my graduation because of her discomfort, and she passed away shortly after on April 1st, 2013.
Her death led to a series of very unfortunate events. Since I was not legally her son, and because everything happened so suddenly, part of her family turned fiercely against me. The result was that I could never return to the apartment where I grew up. I was never able to get my clothes, books, or even family photos. I mourned the loss of my home as well as my material possessions. Little did I know that my luck was about to change.
Days before my graduation, I managed to apply to the Creative Writing in Spanish program at New York University. Almost 4 months later, I was unexpectedly admitted into the program with a scholarship that covered a good part of the tuition. I was elated, and my despair slowly turned into hope. What everyone had told me was useless, the thing that would “get you nowhere in life,” was now offering me a future not only in the United States but in New York City.
I approached all the people and institutions that crossed my mind to find support. Finally, thanks to one of my Professors at the university, I was able to buy a plane ticket to New York. It was my first time abroad away from my home in Venezuela. I was 25 years old. Alejandra, a cousin of one of my best friends, received me in Brooklyn with great affection and generosity despite never having seen me in person.
From the moment I stepped off of the plane, New York felt like home. I don’t remember any discomfort or doubt. I began to live intensely and study in equal measure. I graduated from my Master’s program in May 2015, and that same month, Litoral Central, my first book of poetry, was published in the United States. By then, I had also begun to draw and paint more consistently. In 2016, my second book, The Known Heritage of Forms was published. In 2017 I hosted my first individual show of drawings and paintings, Desert Garden.
Along the way, I worked as Associate Editor of ViceVersa Magazine, a website that promotes the cultural life of Latin Americans in the United States through interviews, and I started writing about music with Guataca Nights NYC, a platform that promotes Venezuelan music and musicians around the world. Both opportunities allowed me to witness the phenomenon of migration closely and how New York served as a catalyst for people regardless of where they came from.
It has been 9 years since I arrived in the United States. I often feel that it was fate that brought me here. New York changed my life forever. I wouldn’t be able to understand who I am or what I have done without this city. I have had the opportunity to reinvent myself many times and turn those transformations into art. Here I became a writer and an artist, but above all, I lost the desire to be someone else. Lost in this city, I understood that each poem and painting is a mirror that reflects a lifelong search for one’s purpose and identity and the absurdity of never being able to find it.
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