They are dreamers. They are fighters. They are Venezuelan.
This is the story of Los Chamos, a small Venezuelan restaurant in the neighborhood of Laureles Medellín, with arepas that are (what I consider) the best kept secret of the city, and a family behind the business with an inspiring story to share.
I first met Fernando whom I thought at the time was the owner. Tall, stalky, and with a beard he looked to be about 30 despite actually being 21. I ordered my arepa de pabellon with a Coca-Cola, sat there, and ate in a state of bliss as I watched the local news on the TV.
High quality flavor. Excellent service. Affordable. Good ambiance. I will absolutely be back. I love Venezuelan food, but most especially how Los Chamos prepared it. So naturally I went back…like two days later.
Of course they remembered me. What tall blonde gringa would return so quickly to a Venezuelan restaurant and not be remembered? I ordered the same thing and was equally satisfied. Damn they just did it right. I was hooked.
I began returning, and over many arepas rellenas I got to know some of los chamos (the guys) that worked there. I found out that it was Fernando’s parents who are the owners. I immediately wanted to meet them to hear their story. I knew that having opened the restaurant only in the past 5 years amidst the current humanitarian crisis going on in their country that they must have seen difficult times before getting to where they are today with a successful business mounted in Medellín.
I met Ramon Andres, the father of the family, and then his wife Sonia who initially began the business. I can only describe them as whole heartedly welcoming and warm people. It was an instant and firm confirmation to how I had always viewed Venezuelans – friendly people with the biggest hearts. They were kind enough to hear about the project I am doing with my blog and Venezuelans in Medellín. Tell me your story I said, because the world deserves to hear it.
A COUNTRY IN SHAMBLES
For those who are not familiar with the specifics of the current political and economic crisis happening in Venezuela, I will provide a short summary of it here. It has its beginnings with the rise of populist leader Hugo Chávez in the late 1990s. After winning the presidency in 1998 promulgating a message of ‘power to the people’ he quickly sought to consolidate his power through various legislative and executive reforms. He immediately replaced the Congress with a National Assembly made entirely of supporters and began a war on the private sector through the nationalization, confiscation, and expropriation of thousands of private companies.
Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in world, even more than Saudi Arabia. The country’s situation took a turn for the worse when Chávez nationalized the oil reserves and replaced some 18,000 skilled technicians and mechanics at the state-run oil firm Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) with 100,000 of his supporters in 2003. The company was irrevocably damaged, production dropped dramatically, the injury rate more than tripled, and the country plunged head first into an economic crisis. With soaring poverty rates and increasing social urban unrest, Chávez responded by funneling state money into small armed groups known as ‘colectivos’ to control the masses and subdue protesters. The murder rate then spiked to one of the highest in the hemisphere. Starved, desperate, and helpless, Venezuelans began to flee.
The crisis continued under Chávez’s predecessor and strong supporter Nicolas Maduro when he became president in 2013. Maduro elevated the economic crisis to a humanitarian disaster that gained international attention when, in an attempt to generate more funds for imports, he printed more money causing sky high inflation and a food shortage that left serious implications on the population. With no way to make a living and empty shelves at nearly every grocery store, thousands poured into the streets demanding a recall referendum of the president. Maduro responded by deploying “heavily armed police and military units” resulting in “blood baths.”
There are varying statistics as to the exact number of Venezuelans who have fled. However, as described by Bloomberg Business, “The flood of people fleeing Venezuela’s crisis has become one of the world’s great mass migrations, surpassing the flow of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe.”
FROM VENEZUELA TO THE WORLD
It is in this context by which the Sánchez Pérez family comes into the story. For starters, they had it good in Venezuela. Better than you might imagine. The family is from Mérida, a city in the north western part of the country and a popular region for tourism for its stunning terrain. Both Sonia and her husband Ramón had worked in a Dutch laboratory for fifteen years and made very good salaries. “When I began at the laboratory, it went really well for me. I made very good money. So I focused on that, bought vacation homes, bought a new car, traveled, enjoyed, I mean we had an extraordinary life.”
So how did their lives change so dramatically? How did they end up in Medellín?
She tells me that around the turn of 2013 was when all the country’s current issues began, in other words, right around the time that Maduro took office. The laboratory where she worked sent her to Medellín Colombia for a few days to sell some of their natural products due to the shrunken market in Venezuela.
That was in 2013. She never returned.
“No idea at all that I was going to live here,” she says. Her thought was that she’d be in Medellin for just a few days, but when the laboratory was not doing well due to competition in Colombia she was left with no money to maintain herself nor for her family back home in Mérida. It was then that she had to start selling arepas in the street.
“One day I got up, I went out and I looked for a little street cart with a grill and a kitchen and it was there I started with the arepas.” A very common meal in her country, the arepa rellena (filled arepa) can be considered emblematic of Venezuelan culture and cuisine. Sonia would hand make make each one and with it shared a bit of her country’s culture and food with the people of Medellín. At the time, she was aided by another Venezuelan friend and her middle son Fernando, who, seeing no future for himself in Venezuela, had come to live with his mother in Colombia.
“Little by little the people went to try the arepas. They liked them, and a woman there told me that I should start a business. I told her no because I was afraid of taxes and all that. And just like that… it was given. God had something wonderful for me in store and a gentleman rented me a space.”
Los Chamos opened in 2015 and has been met with great success selling their delicious arepas.
My personal favorite is the traditional arepa de pabellón. Pabellón criollo is very traditional Venezuelan dish. The pabellón arepa comes as a soft and warm arepa filled with a heavenly mixture of flavors: seasoned flanked steak, black beans, white cheese, and sweet plantains. But there are several different kinds of arepas, all filled with varying ingredients from seafood to chicken to cheese and vegetables.
When once asked by some Colombians why they don’t offer some Colombian options on the menu, Ramón had this response: “Colombians have liked our food. Paisas have liked our food. So why would be change it? It is distinguished from every other business.”
Sonia chimes in, “What we really want is to maintain the tradition, bring our flavor, bring the best of our country and all things ours to the world…that the world see us for our good flavor, for our good performance, for our work, for everything we do, and that they see us in this positive light, not as the country that maybe is shattered and crushed right now. [We want the world to see] … that we Venezuelans are hardworking with lots of dreams.”
For having left behind nearly everything but each other, for having faced extreme financial challenges upon emigrating, for having to put up with a government which abandoned its duty of protecting and upholding their inherent human rights, and for having to live through this difficult moment in their nation’s history, I believe this to be a very honorable and brave response. They certainly have shown their world that they are fighters.
WHERE IS THE ACCOUNTABILITY?
The fact of the matter is that the Sánchez Pérez family is here in Medellín Colombia out of necessity. The fact of the matter is that our international system, formed with the protection of basic human rights as its cornerstone and foundation, has failed. It’s not what happens to just one family, one population, or one nation, but what does this say about the world’s conviction to reject such actions by a nation’s leader and his blatant disregard for the lives and well-being of his citizens, more especially in a country that has historically held democratic values? There is certainly a point to be made here given that the media pays almost no attention to the crisis that has unfolded over many years now. It is seen by some as simply a domestic matter, and yet the question remains:
Where is the accountability?
When the economic situation worsens to a point that three out of four citizens report an average 19 pounds of involuntary weight loss per year, it is very difficult to understand why there have not been more swift action and more severe consequences for Maduro and his government. It is difficult to understand why the international community has not made more sweeping protection measures for emigrating Venezuelans, many of whom reach the threshold of classifying as refugees under the 1951 Geneva Convention. In a world with migration rates the highest we’ve ever seen, this is the moment when the international system (ie all nations together) needs to react in full force to prevent repressive governments, such as Maduro’s, from functioning and to rush to the aid of the victims.
More shame is to be put on the government of the United States, a top leader and influencer within the U.N. and Security Council, for failing to respond more seriously and comprehensively in the diplomatic arena. (But then again, we shouldn’t have high hopes that President Donald Trump will actually take responsible and appropriate actions when it comes to dealing with other nations.)
All this in light of the recent events which occurred on the 23rd of January, 2019 with Guaído stepping up to lead the nation and the EU calling for free and fair elections. Maduro is unwilling to give up power but is in a negotiating position. He has expelled the American ambassadors despite Trump’s claim that the Venezuelan government has no right to do so.
It looks as if change is on the brink, I mean how worse could the situation get with Maduro in power? The people are desperate for change. They are desperate for peace. They are done waiting. Venezuela is an incredible country that has fallen victim to a tyrant. But they don’t give up hope, they continue forward.
For what may seem like a hopeless and tragic situation, the general attitude and message of the Venezuelan people is astounding: keep moving forward (seguir adelante). The collective sentiment of resiliency is clearly evident to anyone who meets a Venezuelan outside of their country. I can only attribute this to a strong and unwavering belief in the beauty of their land and a deep love of their country that they can’t help but share.
The Sánchez Pérez family is the ultimate example of this. Despite already having a perfect life in their country, they did not roll over. They did not give up. They kept fighting for a better life and achieved what many would consider a dream of opening a small business that has grown in success and popularity over just a few short years. They even have plans to expand to another location.
It has been my privilege to share the story behind Los Chamos restaurant beyond simply a food review. Their kindness and warmth is unmatched by any business owners I’ve met and I am truly happy to know how successful their business has become. Here is the living proof that hard work coupled with a positive attitude can get you far.
Los Chamos Arepas Venezolanos y Algo Más is located at Circular 5 #70-30 in the neighborhood of Laureles in Medellín Colombia. This article, written as part of my project of Panas Venezolanos, is made with the intention to generate more awareness and education around the crisis that receives so little attention in mainstream news. Subscribe to my YouTube page for updates on my work with mis Panas Venezolanos.