Venezuelan Community Grows in New York

Oriana Rivera, 18, who moved to the Big Apple in June of last year and is currently studying English. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

Oriana Rivera, 18, who moved to the Big Apple in June of last year, is currently studying English. (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

Over a decade ago, when Venezuelan Juan Carlos Flores migrated to New York, his community was barely noticeable among the diverse Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens.

“We didn’t stand out among our Mexican and Colombian neighbors,” said Flores, organizer for Amanecer Gaitero, an annual concert that attracts nearly 400 Venezuelans from the tri-state area. “It used to be an immense joy to hear the Venezuelan accent on the street or in restaurants. In those days, there were so few of us.”

Immigration into the Big Apple from the South American country has increased significantly in the last few years. The worsening sociopolitical and economic crisis endured by Venezuela has pushed many people to escape the disproportionate crime rate, exorbitant inflation and food scarcity forcing citizens to stand in long lines to purchase basic goods. Moreover, data shows that many migrants are asking for political asylum when they reach the U.S.

According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, Venezuelan immigrants are spread throughout the country, Florida and New York being the most common destinations for the newcomers. This was the case for Oriana Rivera, 18, who moved to the Big Apple in June of last year and is currently studying English.

“All the socioeconomic problems pushed young people like me to leave the country. Many have graduated, but others like me did not finish college,” said Rivera, who now lives in Astoria.

Oriana obtained a student visa to migrate to New York City. She is currently staying with an aunt while she studies English, and works as a waitress at a Harlem restaurant.

“Getting a tourist visa is very hard. I got a grant to study the language, and that was my ticket out,” she said. “I went from a small city called Cagua to an enormous city. It was really hard, but I was able to adapt quickly.”

According to the 2010 Census and the American Community Survey, nearly 14,500 Venezuelans have been living in New York since 2006. Of those, 9,600 live in the city, although community organizers believe that the number has increased since 2011.

“It is evident that there are more of us. Supermarkets and bodegas in neighborhoods like Astoria and Jackson Heights are selling our national products, so that means that there is demand,” said Flores. “We are spread out all the way to Long Island and New Jersey, and more people arrive every day.”

Proof that there are more

Flores organized the first Amanecer Gaitero concert seven years ago, and the reason the event enjoys its current relevance is the significant growth of the Queens Venezuelan community. The party, held in November in Jackson Heights, celebrates the music, dances and culture of Venezuela.

“The crowd dances to the rhythm of the Venezuelan gaita. It is symbolic,” said Flores. “We are gaining ground.”

Even though there is not a large Venezuelan enclave in the city as exists for the Mexican and Dominican communities, this group constitutes one of the 10 main foreign-born immigrant populations living in the College Point and Longwood neighborhoods, according to the city’s 2013 “Newest New Yorkers” report.

Clara Irazábal, director of Latin Lab and Assistant Professor of Urban Planning in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, said that Venezuelans ‒ especially young ones ‒ are leaving their country in growing numbers.

“Labor conditions in Venezuela are not ideal,” said Irazábal. “Young people are looking to come to New York and get a college education but they find themselves in limbo. They face instability and great stress when the time comes to extend their stay in the U.S.”

Like Oriana Rivera, many young people enter the country with a student visa, but back in their country they face limitations to obtain grants and to access educational programs. “I want to return to Venezuela and finish college with the money I saved working here in New York. After that, I’d like to come back and build a future here,” said Rivera.

Irazábal highlighted the fact that Venezuelans are still not a large enough community to stand out for their numbers among other Latino communities.

“We Venezuelans are a very new migrant group in New York, but there are already explicit concentrations in other areas of the country such as South Florida,” said the scholar.

Highly educated

A clear indication of growth is the Census data reflecting that the Venezuelan community’s numbers doubled in more than 117 cities throughout the country. (…) The newcomers are mostly families with college-educated young adults. The Census figures state that 51 percent of them have a professional degree, a higher education level than most Hispanic immigrants have upon arrival.

Jenner Pelay, who administrates the “Venezolanos en Nueva York” Facebook page ‒ created in 2009 and which has 11,433 followers ‒ said that the new Venezuelan immigration in the city is clearly visible on social media.

“Many are looking for apartments or for a job on these pages aimed at Venezuelans. You did not see this five years ago,” said Pelay. “The first page I created years ago was not successful because we weren’t as many as we are today.”

Pelay, who came to New York in 2002, said that his community’s growth can also be seen with the opening of new Venezuelan restaurants. There are currently around 20 of them in the East Village, Chelsea, Williamsburg, Bushwick, Washington Heights and Astoria neighborhoods, according to the Eater website.

Pelay points out that Venezuelans only started participating in the Hispanic Day Parade in 2011, but that other events have shown the community’s relevance, including the Noche Venezolana ‒ Venezuelan Night ‒ held at Citi Field; festivities celebrated around Venezuela’s independence day; the Arepazo – a traditional arepa tasting – as well as Amanecer Gaitero.

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