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Episode 77: Irse de Venezuela (Leaving Venezuela)

By Duolingo on Thu 18 Feb 2021

Pushed away by growing insecurity and political unrest in her country, a Venezuelan woman follows her dream of moving to Georgia, USA. There, she faces a tough reality of the language barrier and harsh work conditions…obstacles she meets with a fighter's spirit.

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Transcript

Martina: On the first day of her new job in Dalton, Georgia, 45-year-old Mercedes Visval was handed a hairnet, gloves, and a pair of rubber boots. She slipped them on then opened the door to a gray, windowless warehouse.

Mercedes: Cuando entré, pensé que me iba a morir del frío. Ese lugar era como una nevera. Había un olor muy fuerte a pollo. Mi trabajo era en una planta de pollo.

Martina: Mercedes's new job was in una planta de pollo — a chicken plant. She was led to a conveyor belt with chunks of raw chicken breast speeding past. Her job was to clean up the breasts, pulling out any remnants of feathers and bone with a sharp knife, un cuchillo afilado.

Mercedes: Mi cuchillo era muy afilado y la correa transportadora iba muy rápido. Tenía miedo de cortarme los dedos. Estaba de pie frente a la correa durante muchas horas y, al final del día, tenía un fuerte dolor en la espalda. Ese fue el trabajo más difícil de toda mi vida.

Martina: When she finished her shift, Mercedes's lips were chapped from the cold, her fingers frozen stiff. Not so long ago, back in Venezuela, she would have been pulling off a pair of sleek high-heeled pumps and nylon stockings at the end of her workday. But coming to Georgia had long been her dream, and she was willing to sacrifice for it.

Mercedes: Yo pensé: "Esta no puede ser mi vida. Esto tiene que ser temporal. Yo voy a salir de esto y después, voy a ayudar a otros en esta situación".

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast. I’m Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories, to help you improve your Spanish listening, and gain new perspectives on the world.

The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I’ll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Martina: Mercedes remembers the moment she made up her mind to leave Venezuela. It was a balmy evening in 1990, and she was coming home from a party. As she opened the front gate to her apartment building, a young man walked up to her, with a grin.

Mercedes: Él me dijo: "¡Deja la puerta abierta, por favor! ¡Yo también tengo que entrar!". Él parecía ser buena persona, así que lo dejé entrar. De un momento a otro, me atrapó por detrás.

Martina: The young man grabbed Mercedes from behind and pinned her arms down. He tried to yank her watch off. Mercedes struggled with him, thrashing and kicking. Suddenly, another man appeared at the door. He was the attacker's lookout.

Mercedes: El segundo hombre le decía: "¡Rápido!". Y el que me estaba atacando respondió: "¡Es que no es tan fácil!". Sentí el peligro, pero igual continué resistiéndome. El hombre no pudo quitarme el reloj y los dos se fueron corriendo.

Martina: After the assault, Mercedes didn't feel as safe in her own neighborhood as she used to. Her city, Caracas, has one of the highest murder rates in the world. And random kidnappings, secuestros, are common.

Mercedes: El problema de la inseguridad en Caracas es brutal. A la luz del día, secuestran a la gente en la calle para pedirles dinero a sus familiares. Cuando estás en el carro esperando en el semáforo, te atacan con pistola para robarte tu cartera o tu celular. Todos los días vives con mucho miedo.

Martina: Mercedes hadn't always felt this way about her home. She'd grown up in Caracas, a city with sunny, 70-degree weather year-round. And she came of age in the 1970s, at the height of the Venezuelan oil boom. Life back then was…good.

Mercedes: En Caracas hay una montaña muy bella y verde que se llama El Ávila. El mar del Caribe está a una hora en carro. Los fines de semana, yo iba a la playa o iba a caminar al Ávila. Era muy bonito.

Martina: Mercedes got a job at Venezuela's state-run oil company, PDVSA. It afforded her a solidly middle-class lifestyle. She was able to buy an apartment and a car, go on vacations. She got married, had two kids, then later divorced and remarried. One weekend, in the late 80s, Mercedes went to a talk hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. It was for Venezuelan professionals like her.

Mercedes: Nos sirvieron café y pasteles. Una muchacha nos hablaba de las oportunidades para trabajadores como nosotros en los Estados Unidos. También nos habló del estado de Georgia. Ella nos dijo: "Georgia es un estado del sur. La gente allá es muy cercana a su familia, como los venezolanos. Hay buen clima y la playa está cerca. Si van muy al norte, es frío y muy oscuro. ¡Georgia es la mejor opción!".

Martina: Mercedes began to wonder: what would it be like to move permanently to the United States? She'd always heard of the US as a land of opportunity. Friends who had moved there were doing well: they worked hard and were able to make a good living. She brought up the idea with her husband, Jesús.

Mercedes: Jesús no quería irse. En esa época, él estudiaba en la mejor universidad pública de Venezuela, la Universidad Central. Él me decía: "Yo tengo una obligación muy grande con este país". Pero yo insistía porque me preocupaba la situación en Venezuela. Ya no podía salir a caminar por la calle sin tener miedo. No me sentía libre.

Martina: As Jesús and Mercedes went back and forth, the situation in Venezuela was taking a dramatic turn for the worse. Corruption was rampant, meaning that regular middle-class citizens like Mercedes had to offer bribes for everything, from getting a driver's license to signing their kid up for school. And crime was only continuing to rise. The country felt just plain unsafe, inseguro.

Mercedes: Lo peor de todo era la inseguridad. Caracas se estaba volviendo una ciudad muy peligrosa. Por ejemplo, si tenías un problema y tenías que ir a la policía, ellos no hacían nada si no les dabas dinero. Era frustrante. Nos sentíamos muy vulnerables.

Martina: Mercedes tried to brush aside her concerns and go on with life as usual. Until that fateful night in 1990, when she was assaulted. Later that year, Mercedes's husband was also assaulted twice. Both assaults happened in broad daylight, as he was coming home from work. It was just too much.

Mercedes: Mi esposo empezó a pensar como yo. Él ya no estaba seguro de querer quedarse en Venezuela.

Martina: Jesús and Mercedes reached an agreement. Mercedes would head to the US first. If she was able to establish herself, the rest of the family would follow. Mercedes's children were grown by then, so they could come on their own schedule.

Mercedes: Mi hijo ya trabajaba y vivía solo. Mi hija estaba comenzando la universidad. Ella quería venir conmigo, pero yo le dije: "Tienes que terminar tus estudios primero. Yo te quiero a mi lado, pero tienes que estar preparada profesionalmente".

Martina: Mercedes planned to enter the US on a tourist visa and figure out her work papers on the ground. She knew it wouldn't be easy, and that she wouldn't have access to the same kinds of jobs that she did in Venezuela. For that, she would have to learn English.

Mercedes: Yo no hablaba inglés y mi diploma venezolano no iba a tener el mismo valor en los Estados Unidos. Sin embargo, yo estaba preparada para hacer trabajos manuales para poder darle una mejor vida a mi familia. Yo no tenía miedo al trabajo físico y manual.

Martina: In 1993, Mercedes packed her bags, said goodbye to her family, and flew to America. She wanted to go to Georgia, but she didn't know anyone there. She did however, know Venezuelans living in New York.

Mercedes: Yo llegué a Nueva York, al apartamento de una amiga que vivía en Queens. Gracias a mis conexiones latinas, encontré un trabajo de housekeeping con una familia muy rica en Long Island. Yo limpiaba y ayudaba a la señora de la casa.

Martina: This was a big lifestyle change for Mercedes: she'd never had to clean someone else's house for a living. But it was a sacrifice she was willing to make to establish herself in the US.

Mercedes: Yo sabía que iba a tener que empezar desde abajo. Estaba lista para hacer todo tipo de trabajo: cocinar, limpiar, lavar… Nada de eso me molestaba. Mis jefes me ayudaron a obtener mi Green Card. Mi objetivo era salir adelante con la ayuda de Dios.

Martina: Mercedes lived in New York for three years, returning to Venezuela every December for the holidays. Though she learned to love the city, she found the freezing winters especially hard to deal with.

Mercedes: Recuerdo el viento en las avenidas cuando salía del subway. En esos tiempos, no existían los celulares ni el WhatsApp. Para hacer una llamada, yo tenía que ir a un teléfono público en la calle. ¡Hacía demasiado frío!

Martina: On one of those freezing days, Mercedes met a couple from a Venezuelan city called Valencia. They were visiting New York and planning on moving to the US. Like Mercedes, the woman would be going ahead of her husband. And she was headed to Georgia, where she knew a pastor.

Mercedes: ¡Georgia! Georgia siempre se quedó en mi mente… Me dijeron que conocían a un pastor allá, que el alquiler era barato, que el trabajo era fácil de encontrar y que no era necesario hablar inglés.

Martina: Mercedes kept in touch with the couple. During her annual trip to Venezuela that Christmas, she told her husband that they should consider heading to Georgia, too… This time, Jesús listened. In Venezuela, a new political movement was making both of them uneasy.

Mercedes: Los chavistas tenían un mensaje muy populista. Ellos llamaban a la gente de la clase media como nosotros "los oligarcas". ¡Pero yo tuve que trabajar mucho! Mi familia no tenía mucho dinero. Eso me preocupó y a Jesús también. Entonces tomamos una decisión juntos. Nos íbamos a ir de Venezuela. Yo iba a viajar a Georgia en enero de 1996 y él iba a ir después, en febrero. Empaqué mis cosas y compré un billete de avión para Atlanta.

Martina: Mercedes made her plan: she would go to Georgia, and be roommates with the woman she'd met from Valencia. She was excited as she packed up her things. But then, she got a phone call.

Mercedes: Era la muchacha que iba a ser mi compañera de cuarto y tenía malas noticias. Había tenido un accidente de auto y tuvo que pagar mucho dinero en el hospital. Ya no tenía más dinero para pagar el apartamento en Georgia. Mis planes para ir a Georgia se hacían más difíciles y se veían cada vez más lejos.

Martina: Despite the bad news, Mercedes stuck with her plan of moving to Georgia. It had been on her mind since she had first arrived in America, and she was determined. The problem was, she'd no idea how to get from the airport in Atlanta to her final destination, a sleepy little town called Ringgold.

Mercedes: Ringgold quedaba a dos horas del aeropuerto. No sabía cómo llegar, pero Dios me mandó unos ángeles. Conocí a una familia de Puerto Rico en el aeropuerto. Ellos me dijeron que me podían llevar al pueblo. Estaba muy agradecida.

Martina: Mercedes made it to Ringgold thanks to the kindness of strangers who gave her a ride. But her troubles weren't over yet. Her roommate was broke, and Mercedes had to loan her money for rent. Their threadbare apartment was nearly empty.

Mercedes: Ringgold era un pueblo lejos de todo, no había nada qué hacer y yo me sentía muy sola. En la casa no teníamos ni sofá, ni cama, así que dormíamos en el suelo. ¡Necesitaba de todo! Llamé a mi esposo en Venezuela y le dije: "Trae una cafetera, cosas para la cama y para la cocina también".

Martina: Mercedes had picked up some English over the years, but it was still shaky. So her work options were limited. Before she arrived, her roommate had found a place that would hire both of them, no English required. It was the chicken plant. She started working there in February 1996.

Mercedes: Cuando empecé a trabajar en la planta de pollo, fue un shock muy grande. Las condiciones de trabajo eran muy difíciles. Hacía mucho frío y el fuerte ruido de las máquinas era constante. La mayoría de los otros trabajadores eran de México, Guatemala o El Salvador. Muchos eran indocumentados y nadie hablaba inglés.

Martina: Mercedes was one of the only documented workers at the chicken plant. She noticed that her undocumented colleagues had it even harder than she did. They were given the most gruesome tasks, slaughtering the chickens, dismembering them, or pulling out their organs. She felt they were being taken advantage of, se aprovechaban de ellos.

Mercedes: Yo veía que los jefes se aprovechaban mucho de ellos. Hay que decir las cosas directamente: era una forma de abuso. Algunos colegas tenían años trabajando en la planta y sus salarios eran los mismos. Yo les decía: "Tienen que aprender a hablar inglés para poder defenderse".

Martina: Mercedes was 46 by then, and the work at the plant left her exhausted. So exhausted that it completely slipped her mind to call the power company to change the name on the electricity bill….

Mercedes: Un viernes, nosotras regresamos a casa del trabajo y no teníamos electricidad. Era el mes de febrero ¡y hacía mucho frío! No teníamos ni luz ni calefacción.

Martina: The electricity was cut off and there was no heat, or calefacción. Mercedes's power was shut off the day before Jesús was scheduled to arrive in Atlanta. To make things worse, Mercedes had bought a beat-up, second-hand Chevy to pick him up at the airport, and it wouldn't start. Fighting back tears, Mercedes called her husband.

Mercedes: Yo le dije: "Mi amor, no tengo carro y no hay electricidad en la casa". Él me respondió: "Tranquila, mi amor. Yo ya voy a estar contigo".

Martina: The next day, Mercedes found a ride to pick up Jesús at the airport. Reunited, they hugged each other, in tears. Eventually, Jesús joked: "Don't worry. I brought a bottle of Venezuelan rum."

Mercedes: Una vecina nos prestó un pequeño calefactor de queroseno para no tener tanto frío. Cuando llegó la noche, nos cubrimos como pudimos y comenzamos a tomarnos la botella de ron venezolano. ¡El mejor ron del mundo! Estábamos felices de estar juntos.

Martina: The next day, Jesús got the old Chevy to start up again. He and Mercedes drove around to second-hand stores in the area to buy things for the apartment.

Mercedes: Compramos algunas cosas: un sofá por 100 dólares y un televisor por 99 dólares. ¡Era mucho dinero en esos tiempos! Poco a poco, las cosas estaban mejorando.

Martina: Mercedes knew that for things to get better at work, too, she needed to improve her English. So, she took free classes offered by the city three times a week after work. It made a difference.

Mercedes: No tenía otra forma de ganar dinero en Ringgold sin un mejor nivel de inglés. Sin embargo, poco a poco, las cosas mejoraron y mi inglés también. Yo era como la traductora de los otros trabajadores de la planta.

Martina: A few months in, Mercedes was promoted to supervise her section at the chicken plant. And a year later, she found a much better job with a rug manufacturer. Things were looking up. She felt like the life she had first envisioned when leaving Venezuela was finally coming together.

Mercedes: El salario y las condiciones de trabajo eran mejores que en la planta de pollo. Yo estaba feliz de cambiar, pero no dejaba de pensar en mi tiempo en la planta de pollo. Esa fue una de las experiencias más difíciles de mi vida.

Martina: Mercedes decided it was time to make some changes. For a long time, factory jobs had been the only jobs she had access to in the U.S. But they were getting to be a real strain on her health. And now, her English had improved enough that she could explore other options.

Mercedes: Mi esposo me decía: "Yo sé que tú puedes hacer mucho más. Los trabajos en las fábricas no son tu única opción".

Martina: Mercedes applied to teach evening classes at the same city-run school where she had studied. It was an introductory class for immigrants like her.

Mercedes: Esa gente necesita mucha ayuda. Llegan a los Estados Unidos y son muy vulnerables. Algunos difícilmente saben leer o escribir. La primera cosa que les enseñaba era a escribir y a deletrear su nombre en inglés. Les enseñaba a decir: "I'm sorry, I don't speak English, but my name is…". Eso ya es un paso muy importante.

Martina: Mercedes found out that improving her English had been a great idea. She applied for a job as a bilingual caseworker at a local nonprofit called the Family Support Council, where she still works today.

Mercedes: Mi trabajo me da mucha satisfacción, mucho más que el trabajo que tenía en Venezuela. A veces, en la calle veo a las familias con quienes trabajé. Las personas me dan las gracias y me dicen: "Mi hijo entró a la universidad y eso fue gracias a usted".

Martina: It took years for Mercedes to find her place in the United States. And it was challenging. But looking back, she has no regrets. In the years since she left Venezuela, the country has faced an unprecedented economic crisis, with severe shortages of food, water, and medicine.

Mercedes: La gente en Venezuela no tiene casi nada. Las últimas veces que fui a visitar, vi que cuando la gente sacaba sus bolsas de basura a la calle, llegaban muchas personas y las abrían, buscando comida. Ver eso fue un shock muy grande, la gente se está muriendo de hambre. A mi familia que todavía está en Venezuela, le envío seis cajas al mes con cosas básicas que son imposibles de encontrar en Venezuela.

Martina: Within the last decade, over 4 million people have fled Venezuela as the economic and humanitarian crisis there deepens. The crisis has all but wiped out the country's middle class. For Venezuelans who have immigrated to Georgia, Mercedes offers them all the support and advice she can.

Mercedes: Yo trato de ayudar a los venezolanos que llegan a Georgia. Siempre les digo: "You have to work and study. You have to go to school and learn English. In this country, if you work hard you can have a very good life."

Martina: Mercedes Visval works at the Family Support Council and lives in Dalton, Georgia with her husband Jesús. Her son Samuel and daughter Mariana also ended up relocating to Georgia. They now live nearby with their spouses and Mercedes's grandchildren.

This story was produced by Adonde Media's Lorena Galliot.

We'd love to know what you thought of this episode! You can write us an email at podcast@duolingo.com and call and leave us a voicemail or audio message on WhatsApp, at +1-703-953-93-69. Don’t forget to say your name and where you're from!

This is Alex, in the UK…

Alex: Hi, Duolingo, my name's Alex, and I'm learning Spanish for the first time because I want to go and live in Perú. And… and so I'm beginning from scratch. And I found the podcast incredibly insightful and helpful. And I like also that this comes from a true story. And… and it was easy to follow. And the context that was given by the English speaker didn't say too much about what was said beforehand, and it allowed me to figure it out myself. And it really did help. Thank you.

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The Duolingo Spanish Podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I’m the executive producer, Martina Castro. ¡Gracias por escuchar!

Credits

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Script Writer: Lorena Galliot
Narrator & Protagonist: Mercedes Visval
Senior Editor: Stephanie Joyce
Managing Editor: David E. Alandete
Mixed by: Martín Pérez Roa
Sound Design & Mastering Engineer: Antonio Romero
Executive Producer/Editor: Martina Castro
Production Manager: Román Frontini
Assistant Producer: Caro Rolando