Rossana Arteaga-Lopenza is the President of Casa de Venezuela Delaware Valley, a bilingual nonprofit organization whose purpose is to advance the cultural heritage of Venezuela through a range of programs and services. What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of that conversation.
Benjamin Wagner: Rosanna, we like to start with a sense of your Highlands …
Rossana Arteaga-Lopenza: We are so blessed to live here in The Highlands. The best thing for me is the trees all around our neighborhood. And the beautiful sidewalk where we can see people walking their dogs and neighbors waving to each other and actually talking to each other because it’s a small community. It’s fantastic to slowly and steadily get to know everyone.
Lindsey DiSabatino: Tell us about your journey from Venezuela to this neighborhood.
Rossana: I was born in Caracas, the capital. I moved to the United States when I was a young girl. We moved to North Carolina to The Triangle, Durham. In fact, that’s where my parents still live.
Long story short, my husband and I met while we were working. We had a beautiful baby. In fact, now we have three, but the first one was born in Durham. He went to law school in Durham, and then he had an internship in Dover. So that’s kind of a little bit of the reason why we move to Delaware.
That was a shocking experience. It was the first time out of you know, moving to a different state for me. As an immigrant, you tend to be close to your nucleur family, your parents and your siblings. So that was the first time that I got to move.
But to my surprise, I didn’t know at the time, but back in 2008 – because Dover is a big Air Force base – to my surprise, there were a lot of Venezuelan families in the area. So I it really was a highlight of the year. We livef in Dover for a year and then we moved to Wilmington, and we haven’t looked back.
Lindsey: I didn’t know that Delaware had such a large Venezuelan community.
Rossana: Yeah, in the Air Force, serving as reserves. It was it was really astonishing for me and my husband. He thought he was taking me away from the Venezuelan community in North Carolina!
Lindsey: Can you tell us a little bit about the Venezuelan culture? Like, what is their music or dance or art?
Rossana: Venezuelans are Caribbean. We are on the top of South America. We face the Caribbean Sea. We are right beside Colombia, Brazil and Guyana. It’s one of the countries that has the biggest oil reserve and the biggest natural gas reserves. It used to be a well one of the most wealthy country in the hemisphere. People are very friendly, very happy, they will make a joke, even in their darkest time. And I think that is an amazing kind of attitude to life. And people in general, are very diverse.
We haven’t ever been immigrants per se, but we have welcomed a very diverse population throughout our years, especially after World War One, World War Two, [when] we had a lot of Europeans coming to South America.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with a current humanitarian crisis that we face. But now Venezuelans have been forced to flee due to political unrest. It’s been a learning experience for Venezuelans because they haven’t been forced to immigrate. Sin the last seven years, everything has gotten worse.
Benjamin: From my quick due diligence, it sounds like a major component of the Venezuelan population is has been forced to leave the country …
Rossana: 10% of the population. And I truly I am honored that you guys have given me this opportunity and this outlet to talk about it, because a lot of our communities are not familiar with the situation. At least seven million Venezuelan immigrants have fled in the last least seven years. [It is] the worst humanitarian crisis. We don’t have a conflict like a war or declared war. It’s due to political unrest. Right now, we have a hyperinflation. So people are finding desperate measures to survive and to help their family.
It’s kind of like a brain drain by waves; the people who leave the country first [are] those who have a job offer or it’s the wealthy [who can] go to another country to, to study. Now the poorest people are traveling even by foot around the region. It needs more attention.
We’ve been forced to open Casa de Venezuela Delaware because there are so many Venezuelans coming to the state of Delaware that they need an organization that welcomes them into the American system and caters them around. We want to be able to help citizens be part of the community, be good citizens. In general, so that’s our hope.
Benjamin: How does Casa de Venezuela provide support?
Rossana: Casa de Venezuela was founded in 2004. So it’s been 17 years in the Delaware Valley. Because the situation in Venezuela wasn’t so bad, it was a cultural organization. It was important for Venezuelans who grew up here in the United States. and for the new generation. In my case, I’m a mother of three, bicultural children, if I don’t tell them about my country, they won’t really be able to know about my it, because, sadly, you can not travel back and forth. So if I don’t teach them, or if I don’t cook our food, you know, it’s hard for them to feel part of such culture growing here in the United States.
Because of the unrest in the country, we have been forced to do a lot of advocacy work. One of our one of biggest accomplishment was the President Biden, proud Delawareans, granted temporary protection status for many Venezuelans who didn’t have a legal way to be in the United States.
We have known and many dentists and doctors and engineers that were driving in Uber, while they were working at a restaurant. By having the TPS, they were able to have that temporary protection status and be able to work and have health care, which is extremely important when you’re going to a new country
Obviously, education is a huge part. So we also have a partnership with LYTE Scholars. It’s a great Delaware organization. And we believe that only through education can really tackle societal problems. So we help these men and families to know and understand the educational system so their kids can continue to go to college, go to school and go to high school. We try to literally be the house, la casa. The house is safe harbor.
Benjamin: What levers do you think about when you think about how you create community? How do you start to parse through what the needs are and then begin to prioritize?
Rossana: That’s the million dollar question! The way we try to tackle it’s a slowly and steady first of all, through education, doing these sort of events where we are able to talk about country, and able to talk about the challenges that we have as a community that is unseen for many.
Because when people’s think about the Hispanic or the Latino community mainly think about Mexicans. We have a huge Puerto Rican community here, and a Dominican community in the area. But the Venezuelan community is relatively new. So we’re still kind of in the shadows.
So this is when Casa Venezuela love comes in, sends you an email and tries to work with you. Hopefully 2022 we can work with Delaware art museum. We have great artists that we live here in our state. Why not highlight Venezuelan and other minority groups ?
And I think a nice easy way to share intimate community is sharing a plate. I think it’s important to open spaces that we can share our food and our culture. Slowly and steadily.
Many of you have seen my flag in front of my house. I switch them back and forth. In fact, you know, something very interesting? Venezuela and the United States go way back to our founding fathers. There is a statue of one of the founding Venezuelan founding fathers in front of the Franklin Museum, there is a statue of Francisco de Miranda, because he fought for the American Revolution.
There is also Simón Bolívar who liberated Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Panama, and Ecuador, five countries in South America. He was inspired by what he saw here in the United States. So we have a very intertwined history. Our Constitution is the same or values, democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech are stuff that we have in common.
Benjamin: We should do that, break bread. So bring us back to the neighborhood a little bit if you will. How does The Highlands play a prominent role in your life?
Rossana: We’ve been in Delaware for a long time and wanted to be part of The Highlands. My kids can walk to school for the first time [and] it’s amazing. Going to Rockford Park with our dog seeing people talking, enjoying the beautiful green areas that we have, that beautiful Rockford Tower, walking to Trolley Square. It’s beautiful any time during the year. It’s really breathtaking.
Join us for our remaining episode of “Highlands Live,” featuring these local artist, Wendy Hatch, December 15th at 7pm. For additional community events, resources and stories, please visit the Highlands Community Association website.