Photo by Lys Arango. Samanta, Amelie, Marwin and Jan at their home in Carabayllo, Peru.
Jan, 7-years-old, says he’s certain that if his parents had not decided to flee Venezuela, he would never have had such an exciting life. “I’ve travelled across four countries, walked through trails in the jungle, seen amazing landscapes and even felt the earth roar”, he says.
It all started in 2014, when the food shortages began in Venezuela. Samanta, Jan’s mother, was working in their family’s store when it was looted during a food distribution. She blocked the stairs to the second floor with her own body. Jan was sleeping upstairs.
Samanta suffered through the brutal attack. After everyone left, with her hair a mess and her clothes in tatters, she climbed the steps to the bedroom. Jan, who was three at the time, asked her what had happened, wide-eyed. She replied laughing that he had missed a really fun game: she played cops and robbers with the neighbours.
They closed the family shop and sold their possessions at a loss. After a year, they managed to save $1,000 to flee the country.
“We had to give my three puppies away,” says Jan, “because my mum said they couldn’t join us on our adventure.”
On September 26th, 2015, Samanta lined the waist of her old maternity pants with bundles of preciously saved banknotes. Samanta, Jan and her husband Marwin flew to northwest Venezuela, where they managed to cross into Colombia through a path in the jungle.
The mother-son duo travelled on foot, playing hide and seek so the militias along the border wouldn’t find them – “they ask you for money or death,” Samanta explains in a whisper. Marwin crossed the river in a canoe so that he could transport their suitcases as discreetly as possible.
Once across the border, the Mata Hernández family joined the increasing number of Venezuelans in exile, which according to the UN Refugee Agency, is around three million. Jan, Samanta and Marwin crossed Colombia in 50 hours, eventually making it to Ecuador.
“This is the largest migratory movement in the continent’s recent history,” says América Arias, Director of the NGO Action Against Hunger in Peru. The majority migrate because of the economic and social crisis in Venezuela. Hyperinflation has decimated wages and more than a decade of price controls have generated widespread shortages of basic goods. “Although Venezuelans have been leaving their country for several years, these movements increased in 2017 and accelerated even further in 2018,” explains Arias. According to estimates by the International Organization for Migration, an average of 5,500 people left the country every day in 2018. So far, most have crossed the border to neighbouring Colombia and, while some remain there, many continue, mainly to Ecuador, Peru and, to a lesser extent, Chile and Argentina.
Jan spent the trip admiring the changing landscapes from the van. “To keep his spirits up, we told him that he needed to stay strong to win the prize that awaited him at the end of the trip,” explains Samanta. Above all else, they wanted to make the experience as painless as possible for their child. “That’s why we turned the tragedy into a game,” explains Samanta.
They settled in Manta, on the Ecuadorian coast. Jan’s reward was a little sister: Amelie, who was born in March 2016. But the joy was short lived. A month later, the earth shook. “We were walking down the street when the world turned upside down – the tarmac moved like the waves of the sea and the buildings started to fall down like in the Transformers film,” describes Jan, making gestures of destruction with his hands. The earthquake on April 16 killed 673, wounded 6,274 and caused the collapse of civil infrastructure. Their home suffered severe damage and they had to abandon it. The Mata Hernández family was back to zero: no shelter, no money and no work. They lived off humanitarian aid in shelters managed by NGOs until they had no choice but to go on the road again.
They migrated to Peru and for a year-and-a-half lived on a hill in Carabayllo, in the outskirts of Lima. “I’ve made friends in the neighbourhood, although I know they see me as different from them,” Jan says without a hint of embarrassment. Jan is a strong boy, with a small nose and very lively green eyes. He has white skin and brown hair. However, what makes him different is not the colour of his skin or his eyes, but the epilepsy that he has recently been diagnosed with, which is causing muscle degeneration. Without temporary permission to stay, they do not have access to the public health service or formal work to allow his parents to pay for the medicine he needs. So until they manage to secure themselves legal residency, Samanta and Marwin work on the street for an average of 30-60 soles per day ($12 to $24 CDN per day).
“My favourite day of the week is when we fly over the cars,” says Jan, excited. He is referring to the days that Marwin sells sweets at traffic lights. His father carries him on his shoulders and they spread their wings from one side of the road to the other. The rest of the week, they go to the market, where they sell second-hand clothes. This time, Amelie went with them, but anaemia leaves her without any energy and she has spent the day sleeping. Unlike her brother, she is a shy, fragile girl. She is wearing a white dress with pink frills that encircles her waist and exposes her weak legs. She has white sneakers on, worn at the soles, which, when paired with the rest of her outfit, gives her the look of a Sleeping Beauty without a prince or a crown.
In their home, everything around them bears witness to the misery: the dirty tiled floor, the discoloured walls, two beds that fill half of the room, and in the other half, a wooden table. It’s on this table that Samanta serves their daily meal: white rice with potato skins and salt. But far from feeling down in such a dire environment, the Mata Hernández family seems to shine, especially when Marwin plays the guitar. The song he hums was composed by another Venezuelan immigrant, Reymar Perdomo, and is about the battle that he and many others who leave their countries in search of a better future have faced. It goes:
“I won’t stop, I’m still in the fight
Since I keep on making music and people listen to me
Being an immigrant isn’t screwing around
And whoever says otherwise, say it from outside”
There are currently 635,000 Venezuelans in Peru, and according to official estimates, it is expected that the number will increase to 1,300,000. There are as many stories as there are migrants, but what is clear is that all of them saw no alternative other than leaving their country in search of a new opportunity. The Mata Hernández family left three years ago, and although the road is riddled with obstacles, they try to see the positive side of the adventure on which they have embarked. Jan is certain: “We are winning because we don’t give up.”