For many Latinxs around the world, concepts like identity and belonging can be complex, nuanced, and difficult to grasp whether you’re first-generation, second-generation, or an immigrant yourself. In the case of many Venezuelans, the country’s gradual yet catastrophic descent into political turmoil and economic hardship has affected citizens and Venezuelans across the globe. Growing up in Maracaibo, capital of the state of Zulia, Venezuelan journalist and author Paula Ramón learned resilience and determination from her mother’s penchant for stability and her father’s willingness to work hard despite being born into a crisis. However, as the country’s political and economic instabilities bubbled to a head, Ramón and tons of other Venezuelans could only watch as the country slipped further into corruption, insecurity, and disorder. Through the years, as Ramón’s journey veered away from her mother and out of the country, the distance between them grew larger both physically and emotionally as Venezuela was thrown into a downward spiral of inflation, crime, and corruption.
When her mother passed away in December of 2018, Ramón found that the ties connecting her to her homeland had been severed, making her grief two-fold and leaving her to mourn her rootlessness. Today, the Los Angeles-based reporter is currently a correspondent for Agence France-Presse and is about to release her debut memoir Motherland, (October 31). The book intertwines the various stages of political and economic history in Venezuela with memories of her family, life in Venezuela, journalistic career, and her mother’s life to paint a portrait of a country in turmoil and the desperation and difficulties its people face.
“The idea was to explain the history of Venezuela through my mom’s life,” Ramón tells HipLatina. “When I started writing, there were a lot of situations going on in Brazil and in every country, in the U.S. as well with migration and the democracy debate. I think that also became part of the goal, like how to write a story for readers to understand a little about migrants, a little about migration, and also about the importance of democracy.”
Ramón begins her memoir diving into her parents’ individual histories/journeys before meeting, weaving in details of Venezuelan history at the time. Throughout the first couple chapters, Ramón reminisces on her childhood, recounting her mother’s various home remedies, the close relationship she had with her father, her strained relationship with her mother and brothers, and her frugal yet practical upbringing amidst the shifting social, political, and economic climates.
As Ramón enjoyed thinking about the Venezuela she grew up in, she shares that the first two chapters were the easiest to write: “I was more passionate to kind of remember the things about my childhood and the country that I was raised in, and this part of researching was really exciting for me because it gave me the opportunity to look back to things I put on a second shelf.”
Through the next couple chapters, Ramón recounts the growing political dissatisfaction and instability in Venezuela as well as her father’s passing in 1993 from heart failure, which she describes as the most difficult time that her family experienced as she remembers her own overwhelming grief and the constant fighting with her mother. Shortly after Ramón started journalism school, Hugo Chávez, who initially came onto the scene after launching a failed coup in 1992, secured the presidency in 1998. Supported by the majority, he began transforming the country’s political and legal structure, and through the years, violence, crime, and inflation became the norm under his regime.
By 2007, Ramón was a political reporter for the country’s leading newspaper after moving to Caracas. She recalls the violent marches, political alliances, military desertions, protests, and repression as well as the beatings, harassment, lawsuits, or prison time that political journalists faced due to their job while on the Chavismo beat: “In those days, the newspaper made us wear bulletproof vests and gas masks to cover protests, and we were required to sign liability waivers, which sent a chill down my spine.” Though it was nearly impossible to interview Chavista politicians, she managed to gain prominence as a reporter and develop sources close to Chávez through informal meetings with politicians.
From this point on, Ramón writes about her’s mother abandonment of the Chávez cause, the increase of crime and inflation and decrease of food, meeting her husband Fabiano, a Brazilian journalist, and moving with him to China, and missing her career and mom after leaving the country. At the tail end of 2012, the pair left China when Fabiano was relocated to Brazil, and after being in power for 14 long years, more than any leader in the history of Venezuelan democracy, Chávez died in March of 2013 after losing his battle with cancer, marking a turning point in the country’s history.
Once a staunch supporter of his, Ramón’s mother was frustrated with the fact that the man who said he would save Venezuela had left so many people hungry and vulnerable. His politics would live on through his successor, Nicolás Maduro. Ramón found herself arguing more with her mother, who started saying that she’d changed since living abroad or question whether she was Venezuelan enough, and she started feeling like she’d lost her mother to the distance between them.
“I’d become the mother and she the daughter. Leaving the country meant leaving her there, defenseless, exposed. It also meant losing her all over again; I lost her regularly, at every goodbye,” she wrote in the book.
The last three chapters of Ramón’s memoir are the most sobering, and she shares that they were the most difficult to write due to the painful memories they hold, covering her growing loneliness whilst building her career, the worsening difficulties of getting her mother the provisions and care she needed, the gradual deterioration of her marriage, and moving from countries including Uruguay, the U.S., and Brazil. Ramón had stopped doing the math, throwing any amount of money toward groceries, medicine, and supplies for her mother, and she began worrying for her health both physically and emotionally.
“I worried that mamá would give in to her grief and her fear of her own mortality. I was more exhausted than ever–time passed and I felt like I was running in place… No matter what I did, no one could convince me that I hadn’t failed my mother,” she wrote.
By 2017, thousands of people began leaving Venezuela in an exodus in search of a better life as power outages became more frequent, the government became more oppressive, the bolívar (their currency) became worthless, and resources like food and medicine became nearly impossible to access, including older brother Andrés. She recalls how during his journey, he became progressively more broken down in the voice messages he sent while crossing into Colombia. “This isn’t the country you left. We’ve reached a breaking point,” she remembers him saying with pain in his voice. “We have no choice but to leave. There’s no future here.”
Ramón makes sure to weave in defining moments in Venezuelan history that changed the country forever and led it down the spiral that caused the refugee crisis and mass migrations of today. Detailing the beginning of political disillusion, the various coups she grew up seeing on TV, the gradual depreciation of the bolívar (the currency), the increasing shortages of basic food and medicine, the milestones of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro’s regimes, and the rise of inflation and crime in Venezuela, Ramón says that she wanted to be able to showcase how the South American country got to the point it’s at today and what it means to someone living through those changes:
“What I wanted to put in there was something that helped people understand what happened, how the country came to the point that it is, those crucial moments that turned our history around, and also to put things about the economy and the health system and education and politics so people could understand how difficult what we’re talking about here is and how someone can struggle every day just to have a coffee or bread.”
While many Venezuelans and media around the world solely blame Chávez’ socialism as to why the country is failing, Ramón does a deep dive on the unstable history of the country and the controversial and increasingly oppressive political regimes of the past two decades. She highlights how things like the lack of basic needs, worthlessness of the national currency, inflation rates in the hundreds and tens of thousands, and unregulated civilian and institutional violence caused a migration crisis that left the country bleeding out and the border and hemorrhaging more of its people by the day.
As Venezuela is frequently used as a political talking point in terms of democracy and migration, Ramón sets the record straight by highlighting the specific characteristics of Venezuela that allowed it to get to this point, sharing that what happened in Venezuela is a product of the country’s history and lack of democracy rather than leftism or socialism.
“Venezuela is always pictured by politicians like ‘Oh look, this is what the left wants; they want us to become the next Venezuela.’ Venezuela has its own characteristics, like being an oil state… It’s not a left against right dilemma,” she tells us. “It’s lack of democracy; the government that took power destroyed democracy basically, and that’s why we can’t run fair elections and that’s why they own the state now. There’s no way that you can become Venezuela.”
One of Ramón’s main focuses in Motherland was to show a different perspective of Venezuela’s growing refugee crisis, which she covers in detail throughout the last chapters of her book. Hoping to bring more context to a difficult concept like migration, Ramón goes into detail about the heartbreaking sight of the ramshackle and unhygienic refugee shelters for Venezuelan immigrants in northern Brazil. Remembering the headlines and images about the thousands of Venezuelans crossing the border however they can, Ramón explains the severe dangers that these migrants go through just for a chance of a better life abroad.
“People are risking their lives. People are crossing the jungle. I go frequently to the border to interview migrants, and they always say the same thing: the jungle is nothing compared to what comes afterwards. With crossing Mexico, for example, they are being kidnapped, killed, put in jail, tortured,” she explains. “The final step is crossing the river. They do whatever they have to do just to put their feet in American soil.”
A significant recurring theme that shows up in the book is Ramón’s desire to make her mother proud through her career and accomplishments, which she never quite seems to understand or celebrate. Despite her ability to get the resources her mother had less and less access to in Venezuela over time, Ramón finds it difficult to meet her expectations, doing everything she can to get her the care and provisions she desperately needs even at the expense of her personal life and mental health. A great source of her stress was the fact that no matter how many times she urged her to leave Venezuela and sell their childhood house, her mother wouldn’t budge, claiming that it was her home and she didn’t want to go anywhere else. Reading through this situation in the memoir, Ramón brings up an important point that isn’t often talked about in discussions about migration; it’s extremely difficult to convince elders to leave their native countries, as the journey can be hard for them due to limited mobility and feeling like they’re abandoning their home.
“When we talk about these situations, we don’t talk about the elderly. Migration is a process commonly for younger generations,” Ramon says. “It’s their life. It’s what they know; it’s their friends, their house, their street. It’s hard for them to leave whatever they know, even if their family is abroad.”
After her mother’s passing in 2018, Ramón took it extremely hard, feeling like she was now truly alone with both of her parents gone. Exploring the impact her mother had on her life, the readers can see how despite their differences and the distance between them, the care they had for one another, as with many tense mother-daughter relationships, transcended borders. Reminiscing on her mother’s life and her disappointment in the country’s downfall in her later years, Ramón decided she wanted to tell the story of her mother against the backdrop of the chaotic changes in Venezuela to honor her wish of making a difference in a way.
As Ramón reflects on her memories both inside and outside of Venezuela throughout her memoir, she frequently mentions the idea of nostalgia for the country she grew up in and the feelings of rootlessness she begins feeling through her travels for work.
“When you live far from home, the nostalgia comes and goes. You romanticize memories and wallow in the absences. You survive on stories, and the adage that the past is always better becomes truer by the day. Reminiscing becomes your favorite pastime. I insisted on reliving things that were dead,” she writes in the last few chapters.
For many Latinas, identity is already complex enough, but for Venezolanas who grew up in their native country, one that is no longer the place it once was, the sadness and feelings of grief are on another level, especially as more news about the hopelessness in the country and struggles of their migrant paisanos come out. Ramón shares her desire to return to a country that many don’t believe exists anymore, including herself.
“I feel super connected to Venezuela in a nostalgic way; when I talk to Venezuelans, my accent comes back full force,” she says. “I think the difficult part for me is that I feel connected to something that is not there anymore; not only because the country is completely unrecognizable, but because my friends aren’t there anymore, my mom is not there anymore, my dad is not there—-nothing that is familiar to me is there anymore.”
This level of vulnerability she shares in the book was a challenge for her as a private person accustomed to writing about others as a journalist, but it was also an opportunity to tell a story not often told in publishing, helping others who are displaced and struggling to feel seen.
“When I receive feedback from people saying that the book touched them in some way, that made them think about their lives or their countries or their families, I think that’s really rewarding for somebody that writes because what you really want is someone to read the story and take something from that.”