by Drew Walker
Venezuela is situated on the northern coast of South America. It is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea to the north, Brazil to the south, Colombia to the west and southwest, and Guyana to the east. The capital of Venezuela is Caracas, and other major cities include Valencia, Barquisimeto, Maracaibo, and Ciudad Guayana. Venezuela is the sixth-largest country in South America and has a population of about 10,800,000. The land of Venezuela can be divided into three main regions: coastal mountains, plains, and forest. The coastal mountains are confined to a small part of the north of the country, while the plains and forest areas make up most of the landscape. The Orinoco River divides the country between north and south.
Archaeologists estimate that the first people arrived in present-day Venezuela around 14,000 B.C. By the time the Spanish arrived at the end of the fifteenth century, there were an estimated half a million Indians living in this region, constituting a number of cultural groups and speaking languages derived from the three main linguistic families of Arawak, Carib, and Chibcha. In 1948, Christopher Columbus was the first European to arrive in Venezuela. At first assuming the land to be a large island, Columbus traveled east along the coast, where he encountered the wide mouth of the great Orinoco River. Knowing that no island could produce such a large river and outflow, Columbus realized that he was encountering a landmass much larger than he had assumed. When another explorer, Alonso de Ojeda, arrived a year later, he sailed westward along the coast. Ojeda observed houses that Indians had been built on stilts above the coastal water. These houses reminded Ojeda of the great Italian city of Venice, and he named this land "Venezuela," which in Spanish means "Little Venice." From 1500 to 1541, a series of Spanish settlements arose on the coast of Venezuela. Over the following centuries, the European and African populations in Venezuela continued to grow.
As the Spanish empire grew in South America and the Caribbean, Venezuela moved from the control of one province to the next until 1717. In that year, Venezuela was placed under the control of the viceroyalty of the Virreynato de la Nueva Granada in the Colombian city of Bogotá. Due to its difficult climate and the perceived lack of gold and other resources, Venezuela was largely ignored by the Spanish empire, while other countries such as Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia received the bulk of its attention and resources.
By the end of the eighteenth century, resistance to colonial rule in Venezuela grew. In 1806, a revolution began, headed by Francisco de Miranda. After trying to establish an alternative government in the capital city of Caracas, de Miranda was arrested and sent to Spain, where he died in prison a few years later. With the loss of Miranda, Simon Bolívar, a man who was to become the national hero of Venezuela, took control of the independence movement. Commanding a revolutionary army, Bolívar battled the Spaniards in Venezuela but did not succeed in ousting them from power. Withdrawing into Colombia and then Jamaica, Bolivar waited until 1817 to resume his battle for independence.
In 1817, Bolívar returned to Colombia and won a series of winning battles against Spanish forces. In August of 1819, Colombia became an independent nation. At a conference held later that year, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela were united into one state named Gran Colombia. In 1821, Bolívar and his army defeated the Spanish in Venezuela and won its independence. He and his deputy, Antonio José de Sucre, amassed a large army which liberated Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia by 1824. In 1829, Gran Colombia was split up into three separate countries.
Following Bolívar's death in 1830, a series of dictators ruled over Venezuela. During this time periods of civil war, political, and economic instability were frequent. It was not until the second decade of the twentieth century, when oil was discovered in Venezuela, that economic and social stability began to grow. By the end of the 1920s, Venezuela had become the largest exporter of oil in the world, yet the wealth obtained from these exports was confined to a tiny elite group while the majority of Venezuelans lived in poverty. Between 1935 and 1945, there was a great deal of civil unrest in Venezuela, as people demanded governmental reform and a more equitable distribution of Venezuela's oil wealth. In 1945, Rómulo Betancourt, the leader of the Acción Democrática (Democratic Action) party took over the government. These changes led to the creation of a new constitution in 1947 and to the election of well-known novelist Rómulo Gallegos as Venezuela's first democratically elected president. This new democratic regime had been in power only six months when a coup toppled the government, and a military officer named Marcus Pérez Jiménez took over. Pérez Jiménez was overthrown in 1958 and, through a coalition of civilians and military officers, Rómulo Betancourt was elected president. After a series of careful constitutional, economic, and social reforms, Betancourt stepped down in 1963. He was followed by a series of democratically elected presidents.
THE FIRST VENEZUELANS IN AMERICA
There is no clear record of early settlement by Venezuelans in the United States. However, many migrations between South America and the United States did occur. It is also known that many European settlers first lived in Venezuela, only to immigrate to the United States. Therefore, it is possible that many Venezuelans arrived in the United States as European immigrants from South America.
SIGNIFICANT IMMIGRATION WAVES
In the nineteenth century, nearly ten times as many South Americans as Central Americans came to settle in the United States. From 1910 to 1930, the numbers of South Americans entering the United States each year was over 4,000. Most of these people were concentrated in urban areas of the northeastern United States, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. However, there are few definite figures as to how many of these immigrants came from Venezuela. Many Venezuelans entered the United States for schooling and remained after graduation, and they are frequently joined by relatives. Since the early 1980s, the opportunity to earn higher salaries, and economic fluctuations in Venezuela have attracted increasing numbers of Venezuelan professionals to the United States.
According to 1990 census figures, the states with the most Venezuelan Americans were: Florida, with 12,362; New York, with 5,559; California, with 4,575; Texas, with 3,295; New Jersey, with 2,130; Massachusetts, with 1,403; and Maryland, with 1,257. Urban areas such as Miami, New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., have the greatest concentrations of Venezuelan Americans.
Acculturation and Assimilation
The Venezuelan American population consists of a mixture of different social groups, reflecting the diversity in their homeland. Among middle-class immigrants, some 70 percent have a combined European, Indian, and African ancestry. Approximately 21 percent of Venezuelan Americans identify themselves as white, 8 percent as black, and 1 percent as Indian. Many Venezuelan Americans are descendants of Europeans from Spain, Italy, and Portugal. Venezuelan Americans often live in Latino communities within large metropolitan areas.
TRADITIONS, CUSTOMS, AND BELIEFS
Depending on an individual's family history, his or her traditions may reflect those of several different ethnic groups. The culture of Venezuelan Americans is heavily influenced by the Spaniards. Many cultural forms found within the Venezuelan American community are also seen among Caribbean peoples and Colombian Americans. It is often difficult to separate the religious elements of Venezuelan American culture from the more secular elements.
Venezuelans have long been influenced by American and European popular culture. These influences are more important place in Venezuelan culture than in that of its neighbors, and Venezuelan immigrants place a great deal of emphasis on popular culture. Baseball is a passion for many Venezuelan Americans, and they are often loyal supporters of hometown teams. Television programs, both in Spanish and English, are a great source of entertainment for Venezuelan Americans. Telenovelas, or soap operas, are particularly popular.
Many types of traditional cuisine are found within the Venezuelan American community. Venezuelan cuisine has a good deal in common with that of other Latin American and Caribbean countries. Among the many foods enjoyed are arepas, which are small pancakes made from corn. Arepas are often stuffed with different fillings, including beef, shrimp, ham, sausage, eggs, salad, avocado, and octopus. Another specialty is the empanada, a crescent-shaped, deep-fried turnover made of cornmeal, which is stuffed with chicken ( empanada de pollo ), cheese ( empanada de queso ), or beef ( empanada de carne ). A Venezuelan dish that is often served during Christmas is hallaca, which consists of chopped beef, pork, or chicken with vegetables and olives. This mixture is folded into a corn dough, wrapped in banana leaves, and steamed. A popular Venezuelan drink is tizana, which consists of chopped fruit and fruit juice. The types of fruit that are used to make tizana include papaw, banana, watermelon, cantaloupe, orange, and pineapple.
The Venezuelan American community listens to many forms of traditional and popular music. Perhaps the most well known type of Venezuelan music is a rhythm called the joropo. Featuring the music of an accordion, harp, cuatro venezolano (a small, guitarlike instrument), and maracas, the joropo is accompanied by an energetic dance performed by couples. Venezuelan Americans enjoy a full range of popular music: rock, salsa and other Caribbean forms, pop, country, Latin jazz, and classical.
DANCES AND SONGS
The joropo musical form is accompanied by a song called "Alma Llanera," which has become the unofficial national anthem of Venezuela. Although folk dance is taught and performed by some Venezuelan Americans, most prefer modern dance. Parties, concerts, and nightclubs featuring salsa or merengue often provide Venezuelan Americans with opportunities to dance.
For many Venezuelan Americans, Carnival is the main festival of the year. Many Venezuelan Americans visit Venezuela during Carnival to reunite with family and friends. In the United States, groups gather to celebrate with music, drinking, singing, and dancing.
As a group, Venezuelan Americans possess no significant health problems. Some Venezuelan Americans prefer to visit practitioners of traditional medicine. Traditional medical remedies are readily available in many areas with large Hispanic American populations.
Although there are more than 25 Indian languages spoken in Venezuela, Spanish and English are the predominant languages of the Venezuelan American community. Most Venezuelan American children grow up using Spanish with their families and speak the language fluently. Some Venezuelan Americans speak "Spanglish," Spanish combined with a liberal usage of English words.
GREETINGS AND POPULAR EXPRESSIONS
While greetings vary among Venezuelan Americans, the standard greetings are: Hola (oh-la) for "Hello," Buenas días (boo-ay-nas dee-ahs) for "Good morning," Buenas tardes (boo-ay-nas tar-days) for "Good afternoon," Buenas noches (boo-ay-nas nochays) for "Good evening" or "Good night."
Family and Community Dynamics
Family ties are strong among Venezuelan Americans. Children are taught at an early age to view the family as the key unit of society. The heavy reliance on family ties and connections is a great strength for Venezuelan Americans, but may sometimes limit the ability of individuals to assimilate into the greater society and economy of the United States. The connection between family and community dynamics is often strong, and the pull of the family leads to concentrations of Venezuelan Americans in urban areas in which cultural, business and political networks may form that otherwise might not exist.
As a group, middle-class Venezuelan Americans share a proportionately higher education level than many other Hispanic American groups. Venezuelans have not found great difficulty in achieving success in English-speaking institutions of higher education. The teaching and preservation of the Spanish language is often regarded as a family priority, and many Venezuelan Americans try to ensure their children's fluency in Spanish.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN
The role of women in the Venezuelan American community is complex and varied. Traditionally, women were expected to submit to the will of male family members, and had the tasks of housekeeping, child-raising, and the moral education of the family. In these tasks, the women of the family shared in a great deal of the labor, drawing on networks in their villages, neighborhoods, and extended families. The home was often considered the private realm of the family and women its keepers, while the public realm was the place of men. The degree of conformity to these roles varied from urban to rural settings and between classes.
Many Venezuelan American women are active in the workforce. They are engaged in a variety of professions, including business, social work, and teaching. Possessing a high degree of literacy, many Venezuelan American women and their female children have found greater opportunities than their mothers and grandmothers did in Venezuela.
Venezuelan Americans are admitted into the Catholic Church through the sacrament of baptism. Catholic doctrine states that unless a person is reborn through water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. The rite begins with formal declarations made by the priest on behalf of the church, and by the parents and godparents on behalf of the child. The parents and the priest then trace the sign of the cross on the fore-head of the child. The priest, parents, godparents, and those attending pray together, and several passages are read from the Scriptures. The priest then blesses the baptismal water. The parents and godparents renounce Satan and profess their faith. Water is poured over the child's head, as a sign that she or he has been cleansed of original sin. The child is then annointed with chrism, a consecrated oil, and placed in a white baptismal garment. A candle is lit and, after a final prayer before the altar, the priest blesses all in attendance.
Opportunities for courtship are abundant within the Venezuelan American community. Single people meet and mix at school parties, weddings, festival celebrations, and nightclubs. Groups of young men and women often meet in clubs to dance and listen to music. In most instances, young people are allowed to choose whom they wish to date. However, dating outside of one's race or social class is often frowned upon by parents and other family members.
The majority of Venezuelan Americans marriages are performed by the Catholic Church. The priest, bride, groom, and wedding party all gather before the altar. The priest welcomes the couple and the congregation. This is followed by prayers and readings from both the Old and New Testaments. After the Gospel is read, the priest delivers a homily (sermon) based on the Scripture readings. He often speaks of the mystery of marriage, the dignity of love in marriage, the grace given by the sacrament, and the responsibilities of a married couple. The rite of marriage is then performed, with marriage vows according to Catholic custom. Following the wedding Mass, a celebration is held. The wedding couple receives gifts, traditional dishes are served, and entertainment is provided. In some cases, the wedding celebration lasts for several days.
INTERACTIONS WITH OTHERS
Venezuelan Americans frequently interact with other ethnic minorities, particularly other Hispanic groups. Interaction often takes place at festivals, concerts, and religious activities. Business, community work, and politics also offer opportunities to meet other Latin American and Caribbean peoples.
While the vast majority of Venezuelan Americans are Catholic, their attendance at Mass and other official religious functions is infrequent when compared with other Hispanic groups. However, Venezuelan Americans are quite religious. Many Venezuelan religious traditions exist, forming a complex synthesis of the religious and the secular, the official and the unofficial. Some secular persons are often revered as "saints" because of their good works and the positive impact that they had on others. For example, Simon Bolívar is honored as a great man and pictures of him often occupy a prominent place in the homes of Venezuelan Americans.
Other important figures include Dr. José Gregorio Hernández. Hernández was a medical doctor who had an illustrious career before his death in 1918. Considered to have had an unusual ability to heal, Hernández is venerated for inspiring health and healing. His image and story have made Hernández so famous that he is being considered for canonization as a Catholic saint. Another powerful image and figure is that of María Lionza. In a form of spirituality and imagery that mixes Catholic belief, traditional Afro-Venezuelan folk culture, and native Indian myth, the mysterious figure of Lionza is the center for many complex rituals about food, fortune, healing and safety. Lionza is referred to as "the Queen" or the "Spirit Queen" by her followers, and she, like Hernández, is seen as a figure of inspiration.
Employment and Economic Traditions
Venezuelan Americans are prominent in a variety of professions, particularly banking and the petroleum industry. They are often valued for their expertise in these areas. Venezuelan Americans also occupy important positions within the television, publishing, and radio industries.
Politics and Government
Many Venezuelan Americans have established careers in local politics and government. A growing number of Venezuelan Americans are also pursuing government service on the federal level. The political allegiances of Venezuelan Americans extend across the entire spectrum of American politics.
RELATIONS WITH FORMER COUNTRY
Venezuelan Americans maintain strong ties with Venezuela. Whether in business, family, or community life, Venezuelan Americans closely monitor events within Venezuela. Visits to the homeland are relatively frequent among first-generation immigrants, and visits by Venezuelans to relatives in the United States are also quite common.
Individual and Group Contributions
Carolina Herrera is a prominent fashion designer. Internationally known, Herrera was inducted into to the Fashion Hall of Fame in 1981, and received the MODA Award for Top Hispanic Designer in 1987.
Thomas Zapata (1961– ) attended Lawrence University and the Pratt Institute in New York, where he received a master's degree in architecture in 1984. Zapata earned a master's degree in building design at Columbia University. He was the winner of the Collegiate Schools of Architecture National Design Award for his work on the Schibsten Ditten Project in 1989. In 1990, he received the Design Award from the Canadian National Royal Trust Office Complex. Zapata also took third prize in the National Architecture Competition.
Ralph Morales is a prominent educator in the field of nutrition. Born in Los Angeles in 1940, Morales received a B.S. degree from La Sierra College in 1966, an M.S. degree from Loma Linda University in 1971, and a Ph.D. from Kansas State University in 1978. He has served as a assistant professor at Arizona State University, associate professor at the State University of New York, and a professor at San Francisco State University and California State University at Chico. Morales is noted for his many publications in the field of dietetics, and received an Outstanding Service Award from the American Dietetic Association in 1987.
FILM, TELEVISION, AND THEATER
Iliana Veronica Lopez de Gamero is a Venezuelan American who has achieved fame as a ballet dancer. Born in 1963, Lopez de Gamero has danced with the San Francisco Ballet, the Ballet Corps of the Cleveland Opera House, and as a soloist for the Berlin Opera House and the Düsseldorf Opera House. She was a finalist at the IV International Ballet Competition in Moscow in 1981, and was principal dancer of the Miami City Ballet in 1987.
Radamés Jose Soto is a notable Venezuelan American journalist. Born in 1959, he studied journalism at the University of Miami, and received a bachelor's degree in 1982. Soto worked as a news reporter for the Los Angeles Times from 1984 until 1986. He then pursued a career in television journalism, working for Channel 47 in New York and WPIX in New York. Soto has been nominated for the Irene Taylor Award, and won the 1989 ACE Award for best journalist. Another figure in the field of journalism is Ricardo Aranbarri. Born in 1959, he studied television production at Emerson College in Boston, from which he received a bachelor's degree in 1985. He has worked as an assistant producer for Venezolna De Television and for Venevision, and as a broadcast journalist and producer for WXTV in Secaucus, New Jersey.
Singer and lyricist Mariah Carey was born in New York City in 1970. Her debut album, Mariah Carey, soared to number one on the Billboard charts and remained there for more than five months. Seven million copies of the album were sold, and four singles from the album reached number one on the pop charts. Carey has released several other successful albums, and has become one of the most popular recording artists in the world.
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Venezuelan American scientist Francisco Dallmeier (1953– ) is a leading ornithologist (a biologist who studies birds). Dallmeier attended the Universidad Central de Venezuela and Colorado State University, where he received a master's degree in wildlife ecology in 1984, and a Ph.D. in 1986. Dallmeier served as director of the La Salle University Museum of Natural History from 1973 to 1977, biologist and educational coordinator for INELMECA from 1977 to 1981, program manager for the Smithsonian Institute's Man and the Biosphere Biological Diversity Program from 1986 to 1988, acting director of this program from 1988 to 1989 and then director from 1989 on. He is a prominent figure in the area of biodiversity research in the United States.
Federico Moreno (1952– ) immigrated to the United States with his family in 1963. He attended the University of Notre Dame, and received a bachelor's degree in government. After teaching at Atlantic Community College and Stockton State College, Moreno attended law school and earned his law degree from the University of Miami. After two years at a private law firm, Moreno worked as a public defender. For four years, he maintained a private law practice. In 1986, Moreno became a judge in Dade County, Florida, and later served for three years as a judge in Florida's Circuit Court. In 1990, President Bush appointed Moreno to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.
Ana María Distefano is a Venezuelan American and a prominent government official. Born in 1951, Distefano attended the University of Pittsburgh, where she received a bachelor's degree in 1983. After several positions in the private sector, she came to work for the United States Department of Commerce in its Minority Business Development Agency and later in the public Information Office of its Bureau of the Census. Distefano has received awards and honors from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Hispanic Association of Media Arts and Science, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Public Relations Society of America, and other organizations.
Venezuelan Americans are great fans of baseball. Unlike other South American countries, baseball rather than soccer is the national sport. Baseball was first introduced to Venezuela as a result of the oil boom of the early twentieth century. The sport quickly spread from oil workers' camps to every city, town, and village across the country. Many Venezuelan Americans enjoy playing baseball and actively support major and minor league Venezuelan teams.
Many current and former professional baseball players in the United States are Venezuelan Americans. Among these are Luis Aparicio, one of baseball's greatest shortstops. Aparicio holds records for number of games played by a shortstop, double plays, and assists. He was Rookie of the Year in 1956 and played on All-Star teams from 1958 to 1964 and from 1970 to 1972. In 1984, Aparicio was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Dave Concepción, another talented shortstop, played with the Cincinnati Reds from 1970 to 1988, was named captain of the Reds in 1973, played in three World Series, and was a member of All-Star teams in 1972 and from 1975 to 1982.
Other Venezuelan American baseball players include: Alvaro Espinoza, an infielder who has played for the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees; Andrés José Galarraga, a first baseman for the Atlanta Braves and 1993 National League batting champion; Ozzie Guillén, who was both the American League Rookie Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year in 1985, and a member of the 1990 American League All-Star Team; Carlos Alberto Martínez, who played for the Chicago White Sox in 1988; Carlos Narcis Quintana, who joined the Boston Red Sox in 1988; Manny Trillo, second baseman for the National League All-Star team in 1979, 1981, and 1982, National Silver Slugger team 1980 and 1981, and member of the National League All-Star Team in 1977 from 1981 to 1983; Omar Vizquel, a shortstop with the Cleveland Indians and six-time Gold Glove winner; and Bo Díaz, who appeared in five World Series games and was named to both the 1981 American All-Star team and the 1987 National League All-Star team.
Marisol Escobar is a prominent Venezuelan American sculptor and painter. During the 1960s, Escobar gained international fame as a sculptor. Known for her strong political commitments and overproduced eccentricity, she created works that sparked controversy, changing in inspiration and style greatly over the following decades. Escobar's works can be found both in private art collections and in art museums. In the 1990s, she continued to produce new work, and became active in public education concerning the spread and treatment of AIDS.
There are eight Spanish-language newspapers published daily in the United States, each including coverage of the Venezuelan American community. Two are published in New York, two in Miami, one in Chicago, and three in El Paso, Texas. The Spanish-language newspapers that are most widely read by Venezuelan Americans are El Diario/La Prensa and Noticias del Mundo, which serve the New York area; El Nuevo Herald and El Diario de las Américas in Miami; and El Mañana in Chicago.
Two popular Spanish-language magazines among Venezuelan Americans are Temas and Réplica. Three English-language magazines, Hispanic, Hispanic Business, and Hispanic Link, are also widely read . Two bilingual magazines, Vista and Saludos Hispanos, are also well-received . Academic and professional journals of interest to Venezuelan Americans include Americas Review, Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, Journal of Hispanic Policy, and Latino Studies Journal.
There are approximately 35 AM and 115 FM radio stations that broadcast Spanish-language programming in the United States. In addition, 75 AM and 15 FM stations dedicate significant portions of their air time to Spanish-language programming. Most of these stations include news, music, and other programs of interest to the Venezuelan American community.
In many major American cities, there are television stations that broadcast exclusively in Spanish. These stations are also available to other areas through cable and satellite television. They offer a wide variety of news, entertainment, and educational programs for both Venezuelan Americans and the larger Hispanic community in the United States.
Organizations and Associations
Embassy of Venezuela.
Address: 2445 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20008.
Telephone: (202) 797-3800.
Museums and Research Centers
Florida Museum of Hispanic and Latin American Art.
Address: 4006 Aurora Street, Coral Gables, Florida 33146.
Telephone: (305) 444-7060.
Fax: (305) 261-6996.
Online: http://www.latinoweb.com/museo/ .
Museum of Latin American Art.
Address: 628 Alamitos Avenue, Long Beach, California 90802.
Telephone: (562) 437-1689.
Fax: (562) 437-7043.
Online: http://www.molaa.com/index.htm .
Sources for Additional Study
Hispanic Policy Development Project. The Hispanic Almanac. Washington, DC: Hispanic Development Project, 1984.
Meier, Matt S., with Conchita Franco Serri and Richard A. Garcia. Notable Latino Americans: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Rudolph, Donna Keyse and G.A. Historical Dictionary of Venezuela. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1996.
Venezuelan Democracy Under Stress, edited by Jennifer L. McCoy et al. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994.
Wright, Winthrop R. Café con Leche: Race, Class, and National Image in Venezuela. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.