The Venezuelans Are Coming

waitress at counter

Patricia Duben working her shift at Arepas Café. (Natasha Payés/NY City Lens.)

The United States had always been a vacation destination for Patricia Duben, not a place to settle. A Venezuelan national, she vacationed twice a year to Mexico, Panama, Argentina, and sometimes Miami. But over time, her quality of life in Venezuela worsened. Although she has a bachelor’s degree in music production, opportunities for economic and personal growth became dismal, Duben said. Basic staples like deodorant and soap became scarce. Every time she went out for a night on the town, Duben, 25, said she worried about her safety. She feared being robbed at gunpoint, or worse.

So three years ago, she sold her Mitsubishi Jeep and purchased a one-way ticket to New York City. “I don’t plan to return” to Venezuela, Duben said. “I can’t live there.” Duben said. She waitresses part-time and takes classes through a continuing education program at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Venezuelans have been leaving their country since well before Nicholás Maduro became president in 2013. However, in recent years many young and professional Venezuelans have begun moving to New York, often enrolling in higher education programs, qualifying them for student visas.

They are scattered across the United States, but Florida and New York have remained the two hot spots for Venezuelan newcomers. Nearly 14,500 of them have settled in New York since 2006, with the largest age group ranging from 25 to 44 years old. Of those living in New York State, some 9,600 Venezuelans live in the city, according to 2010 Census and the American Community Survey data, and the number has likely grown since then. Although there are not any large Venezuelan enclaves in the city, as this population tends to scatter, Venezuelans make up one of the top ten foreign-born immigrant groups in two neighborhoods–College Point and Longwood–based on the city’s 2013 Newest New Yorkers publication.

Clara Irazabal, the Latin Lab director and an assistant professor of Urban Planning in the Graduate School of Architecture at Columbia University, said Venezuelan immigration is a new phenomenon that is understudied. (Irazabal’s scholarship focuses on research pertinent to urban planning in Latin America and the Caribbean. She is also Venezuelan.) “Venezuela was once known as a country that received migrants from all over the world, but in the last 10 to 15 years, the trend has reversed,” she said. Irazabal chalked it up to political and economic forces that compelled Venezuelans to immigrate.

In the early 1990s, Venezuela had four different presidents before Hugo Chávez became president in 1999. And though the economy was a bit unstable in the early 90s, it eventually worsened during Chávez’s presidency.

For those who move to other states or other Spanish-speaking countries, she said, migration is typically a family affair: First the father moves and then the rest of the family follows, said Irazabal. But the general profile of Venezuelans who relocate to New York City, she said, is young and professional, and middle class or higher. She added that New York Venezuelans hope to continue their careers, but usually they have to start all over and take a blue-collar job to live in one of the five boroughs. Eventually, she said, they often settle in another city or country that is affordable and suitable for their lifestyles, places like Weston, Florida. Based on 2010 Census data, Weston has one of the largest Venezuelan populations in the U.S.—nearly 6,900 Venezuelans reside in this south Florida suburb.

Scribbling orders on a notepad and serving food at Arepas Grill in Astoria, Queens was a career change for Alexandra Borges. Before immigrating to the United States, Borges, 29, worked at a currency exchange agency called Cencoex. She earned two bachelors degrees, one in international trade and the other in customs administration. Her life was good, she said, until Caracas became an unsafe city to live in and it became increasingly difficult to buy food and basic items. In October 2013, Borges left Venezuela on a student visa and enrolled in ASA College in the city. This will be her third degree.

Man sitting at table.

Siul Alvarado, a waiter at Arepas Grill Restaurant in Astoria, Queens. (Natasha Payé/NY City Lens.)

Siul Alvarado, also a waiter at Arepas Grill, fled Venezuela and immigrated to New York for similar reasons. “I was tired of insecurity, not because I wanted the American dream,” he said. Alvarado, 26, said he never imagined he would be living in the States; it had always been a vacation destination. Like Borges, he is well educated; he earned a master’s degree in business administration and worked in private banking in Caracas. But Alvarado, too, talks of his quality of life grew dim in Venezuela. He, too, talked about self-imposed curfews to ensure his own safety. “If you want to be safe, you have to be in the house no later than 8 p.m.,” he said.

It has been two years since Alvarado moved to New York. He takes English as a second language courses at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. He does not know what he plans to do in the future, but for now he says he does not want to go back.