I Am An Immigrant: A Butterfly that Flaps Its Wings in Venezuela

Despite wearying news of political turmoil at home, an exchange student found the strength to start multiple nonprofits during her time in the United States.

Students at UC Berkeley organize for a protest against the deteriorating conditions in Venezuela in 2014.
Students at UC Berkeley organize for a protest against the deteriorating conditions in Venezuela in 2014.

This article is part of the I Am an Immigrant article series in honor of Immigrant Heritage Month. For more uplifting stories of the American Dream in action, check out the podcast Community Voice.

Andrea Perez, 26, came to the United States over 8 years ago and currently serves as the Product Manager of a crowdfunding platform focused on social impact projects in Latin America for a nonprofit called Hispanics in Philanthropy, which created the first bilingual crowdfunding platform focused on advancing Latino social impact projects and promoting philanthropy across the Americas. She is interested in the intersection of business, technology, design, and social impact, a passion that evolved during her time in the United States.

[KC]: Tell me about yourself.

[AP]: I’m a Venezuelan woman living in the US. I have been here for over 8 years. First time I came here, I was an international exchange student at a high school. [I] ended up continuing and going to college here, graduating from UC Berkeley and [studying] business. Then, I became really interested in how business strategy and business theory could help improve the nonprofit sector, especially because I worked and co-founded and volunteered with nonprofits throughout college. I got interested in understanding how to translate business strategy to the social impact world... How can we build products and technology that can create social good or advance communities? That’s something that has become a [really] big interest.

[KC]: Why did you come to the United States?

[AP]: The first time I came was for [an] international high school exchange program. … Since very early, I realized that English was a key tool in working with other countries and working in a more global [environment]. .... So I wanted to do a high school immersive experience where I actually lived with a host family and I had to go to high school every day just like a normal American student [in Concord, New Hampshire]. It was pretty small compared to Caracas. It was a really good growing experience in terms of finding independence, and realizing that as a young woman (I think I was 17 when I did it), there was a lot to learn about the world and a lot of different perspectives. … There are very different people out there and very different lives going on… It was a very important time in my life, where I realized a lot of the interests I had.

[KC]: At what point did you look at yourself in the mirror and say ‘Wow, I’ve really changed or Wow, this is really going to change me?’ Was there moment that triggered that [reflection]?

[AP]: Something that I do remember happening [as a foreigner] was learning to be comfortable [asking] questions and [being] in a vulnerable position without being scared or without thinking people are going to judge you or that it will look bad; and I think it’s due to the fact that the family that I stayed with was so welcoming and they made me feel so comfortable.

[KC]: How did your host family create an open environment for you?

[AP]: Right from the beginning, I remember they said ‘If you have any questions about anything, let us know.’ …If they said a sentence or common phrase that I had no idea, I didn’t feel that I had to pretend to understand… I would immediately ask. … It was a constant process of—for lack of a better phrase—comparing and contrasting, but more like just learning from differences. [People] are pretty different, but that doesn’t mean that one culture is right or wrong. It just means that people do things differently and that’s kind of cool. … I think that changed my view of the world at that stage.

Andrea Perez as a UC Berkeley student <a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.nbcbayarea.com/on-air/as-seen-on/UC-Berkeley-Student
Andrea Perez as a UC Berkeley student speaking out against the humanitarian crisis occurring in her native country of Venezuela on the NBC Local News.

[KC]: Did you have a certain goal that you wanted to accomplish by immigrating?

[AP]: First I did [the] exchange student program which was about growing, exploring and learning a language. My plan was to go back [to Venezuela] that year, and I did. It was great to speak about Venezuela with people that didn’t know much about it. And I got questions that were in fact a little funny, but I never took them in a negative way, because most people when they ask[ed] questions, they always asked in a curious way. Fortunately, I don’t think I had experiences where people asked things in a discriminatory or judgmental way.

[KC]: What’s an example of one of these types of questions?

[AP]: From the silliest ones, ‘[D]o you guys have tacos and burritos in Venezuela?’ It is Mexican food so we might not have it. … The host dad would ask me a lot of funny questions, but it definitely came from a good place. He generally would not assume anything. It would be funny because the family would get mad at him. ‘Dad, why are you asking those questions? Duh, of course they have tacos!’ But he would be like ‘I don’t know. You never know! ... You can’t assume things.’

That process of telling people about where I was from and sort of feeling like I was sharing a little bit about my world and my culture was really rewarding.

Andrea told me a story about how she almost did not get paired with this particular host family because of one question in the application process, and how that has affected her thinking about the unforeseen possibilities inherent in each decision, however small they are. It reminds me of the phrase, “a butterfly that flaps its wings in New Mexico can cause a hurricane in China.” This idea has been a recurring thought in her mind since she participated in that program.

I think a lot about decisions and how even the smallest decisions can take you different places. I’ve identified a small decision that I made in a matter of seconds changed everything, so it’s kind of scary when I think about it.

When I was filling out the application [for the high school exchange with my mom, I remembered we got to the part that asked if you were allergic to dogs, which I was]. I was a little masochistic. I would see a dog and pet it even though I knew I was going to get a really bad allergy afterwards. [Anyway, I hesitated on that question], I feel like a lot of families might have dogs and I didn’t want to miss out on a really cool family. [So I took a little risk and said I was not allergic.]

[KC]: Then, what happened?

[AP]: The funny part of it is you wait around for months to hear about your family match… [One day at school], my mom texted me, saying ‘You got a host family! … It all seems really great except for one thing,’ but she said that in a much more dramatic way. She wouldn’t tell me until she picked me up from school. [It turns out] they had 3 dogs and 2 cats. We just remembered the moment when I decided to say I was not allergic in the application. Then, [after] getting paired pretty much with a zoo, we just started laughing.

[KC]: Do you still keep in touch with your host family?

[AP]: I still keep in touch… [T]hey will always be my second family. … Even if we’re not in touch all the time, they will always have a super big space in my heart, and I feel like that’s the same for them.

[KC]: What happened after you returned to Venezuela?

[AP]: Classes would be cancelled because students were marching and we would leave the school and go into the highway that connected to the university and march. [We became aware of] political decisions that were affecting the students.

I remember at that time, there was a law being evaluated and being proposed by the government. The law was proposing that when you apply to college, the government would decide your career based on a test you would take, and the test results would determine what you could study. And to pay for school, you had to work for the government.

The Venezuelan media is censored by the government so information did not circulate freely within and out of the country. Social media became one of the main outlets and tools that organizations like Students for Venezuela used to help give the people of Venezuela a voice internationally.

[AP]: It was a really scary idea in terms of freedom of speech and freedom of what you want to study and what you want to do with your life; that was really scary for students. That year, that law was being proposed, the government was really going against students because the students are the ones that protest and do most of the social uprising. That year was full of marches and protests and tear gas and bombs and all sorts of craziness. [The law did not end up passing, but the political turmoil didn’t improve].

[KC]: You thought you escaped protests in Venezuela, but I hear there have quite a few back in Berkeley since

[AP]: Yeah haha that’s true… That’s literally what I’ve been thinking since the U.S. election… ‘Woah, I’m in another sort of other weird, alternate universe.’ … When I was growing up, we would go to marches as little kids. … I grew up around political turmoil, but that year [I went back home] it became a lot more personal.

Now I understand as an adult, I understand the consequences that some of the things the government is trying to do could have in my future, especially after having just lived somewhere else and realizing there are other opportunities.

[KC]: When was the moment you realized you had to leave Venezuela?

[AP]: When I was picked up by one of my best friends from high school, and we were driving in traffic on the highway. There’s usually street vendors just walking around selling pirated movies and candy and random stuff, [literally walking around the cars. One guy] was showcasing his DVDs on top of the car’s front window. [Then,] he pulled out a gun and showed it to us and started pointing at my phone which I had on my lap. I was texting between my legs. You knew even back then you couldn’t have your phone showing. You were calling for people to rob you.

I forgot to put it away. My phone case was pink so it stood out. … I’m sort of the more feisty of the two and she’s more mellow, but I told her to just give him the phone. [sic] She got really angry – ‘We’re not going to give it to him! This country can’t be like this!’ She started getting angry and we started arguing between the two of us, [but eventually she pulled the window down and gave him the phone]… Everyone saw what happened, but it’s not like people can do much. We were crying. We were only 18. We were alone.

Andrea shared after the interview that what happened to them was nothing compared to all the stories they were hearing from friends and family of kidnapping for ransom, or people being killed just for an iPhone. Two students from her high school were killed that way.

[KC]: Who was the leader at this time?

[AP]: Chavez.Now it’s been Maduro for the past 4 years. … There’s been much worse escalation of issues. It’s become a deep economic crisis. [There is] food scarcity; medicine scarcity. We have the worst inflation in the world. Now it’s definitely a humanitarian problem. … We have all these currency exchange controls so [a black market has been created]. $1 U.S. dollar is at least 6000 bolívars.

[KC]: So being held at gunpoint was the turning point for you…

[AP]: Before that moment, I was already researching college opportunities in the U.S. Every day after school, I would spend some time looking at universities in the U.S. … But being held at gunpoint [after all the things I was seeing happening to other people] was the final push.

[KC]: What is the biggest dream you want to achieve? How does being in this country enable you to fulfill the American dream?

[AP]: My dream at that time was to get a really good education, and to find a way in the future to use that education to help Venezuela and the people I left behind.

Andrea added that she wants to use what she has learned through business and technology to create solutions that will make Venezuela and other places in the world better.

[AP]: Sometimes I felt a little bit selfish or just like ‘Why do I get to be in a safe and stable country while a lot of my family and the people I care about [have to stay behind in a country that is falling apart?]’

[KC]: Survivor’s guilt almost…

[AP]: Yeah, exactly.

[KC]: How do you deal with that guilt? Do you still have it?

[AP]: Yeah of course. It’s like a guilt that goes through periods. Especially when I talk to my family and my mom. She’s there alone now. Sometimes… It’s so hard to think ‘I’m here and I can buy whatever food I want. At the same time, my mom has to stand in line for hours to get something as basic as flour. My grandpa has been sick… [he] need[s] basic medication [and in Venezuela he has to go on a scavenger hunt for his medicines. … These people have worked hard in their lives.] They’ve tried to do good in life, and they were trapped in a country that doesn’t allow much of that.

What makes me sad is at their age, I can’t even imagine… This all happened [when I was young] so I could pursue opportunities in other places, but it’s harder when you’re older [and] have your salary become a 1/100th [of what it once was. I have a family member that had a director position in an important magazine in Venezuela and she was making less than $60 per month. People are making less, after more than 25 years of work experience, than they made when they first graduated college] ... Even someone in a high level management position makes less than $100 a month–something crazy like that.

My parents sacrificed a lot for me, and I will forever be grateful to them for that. Without their support and commitment to help me and my brother have a better future outside of Venezuela, we would not be where we are.

Andrea makes an impassioned plea to viewers on a local news station to be compassionate and do what they can to raise awarene
Andrea makes an impassioned plea to viewers on a local news station to be compassionate and do what they can to raise awareness and voice outrage against the conditions in Venezuela brought about by the Maduro government.

Challenges: Survivor’s Guilt

[KC]: What was the biggest challenge for you during your time here in the U.S.?

[AP]: Probably family separation, because Venezuela is such a family-oriented culture. And I think financial concern. The main thing is that when we first decided I would come here, the exchange rate was not nearly as crazy as it is now. … There was this whole bureaucratic process to exchange money through the government that would take months and you always ran the risk of it not being accepted. … My parents had to bring folders and paperwork to exchange money to pay for school here [to the bank. You could either do that or pay the 100 times more expensive parallel market exchange rate.]

[KC]: What type of questions would they ask? How are you using the money, as an example?

[AP]: Yeah… It’s not even for a grant or scholarship, it’s just for the right to exchange money.

Triumphs: A Land of Opportunity

[KC]: What is your proudest achievement to date being in this country? The moment that you were like ‘Wow, I’m really glad. Something feels like destiny about this moment.’

[AP]: The day that I got into Berkeley has a lot of weight in my memory, sometimes even more than the day I graduated, surprisingly. [In community college], I worked really, really hard to be able to transfer to a good university. I did so much extracurricular work. [I] took leadership roles at school clubs and honor societies. [I] started a nonprofit.

[KC]: What was your nonprofit?

[AP]: It’s called XXplore. It’s still around. It’s a small nonprofit in Santa Barbara where we would create interactive learning science experiences for girls in low income communities.

[KC]: That’s awesome! Who’s continuing that?

[AP]: She stayed in Santa Barbara and that was sort of her like main mission. She was very committed to doing that. She sort of reached out to me and other students sort of how it started with me and you with Consult Your Community. Yeah, it was very similar. We would meet in the library and work late.

Andrea and I knew each other from our days co-founding the 501(c)(3) organization Consult Your Community, a nonprofit dedicated to providing pro bono consulting services to small business owners in college communities across America.

[KC]: You’re a serial nonprofit founder. What do you have to say for yourself?

[AP]: I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to work with others to start nonprofit initiatives such as Consult your Community, Xxplore, and Students for Venezuela. All of them involved many hours of dedication and late nights to turn an idea a group of passionate young people had into a reality. Being able to see your ideas come to fruition is one of the most rewarding feelings, and when that idea also does something good for the world, then it just doesn’t compare to anything else.

Leading an HIPGive Coding Bootcamp for YMCA children at the Facebook headquarters. Andrea Perez, 26, is featured third from t
Leading an HIPGive Coding Bootcamp for YMCA children at the Facebook headquarters. Andrea Perez, 26, is featured third from the right on the bottom row of individuals.

[I’m also very proud and grateful to have been able to work on HIPGive.org, from its very beginning 3 years ago. We developed a crowdfunding platform for social impact in Latin America and the US. It is amazing to look back and realize that the work we have done has helped nonprofit organizations in more than 13 countries raise close to $1.5 million dollars for projects across communities that in a lot of cases don’t have access to this type of funding.]

[KC]: Why was getting into Berkeley your proudest achievement? What did that symbolize for you?

[AP]: I had dreams of going to a really great university. ... Things that seem hard are possible if you work hard for them, and if you really focus and put your mind and heart into the effort. … I would stay late in the library. From 8 AM to 11 PM, I [would be in school or the library]. Santa Barbara was a party culture, and I had to say no to parties [many times. I had to stay focused].

Reflecting on Her Experiences

[KC]: What did you learn about yourself in the process of immigrating?

[AP]: The balance between independence and dependence. First two years of coming here, I was excited about doing things for myself and being my own person and pursuing my dreams. In more recent years, I have had a sort of humbling [experience] of depending on people you really love [who are] there for you. … I like having people I can count on and depend on [for] advice, support, friendship; mentorship. It’s humbling to say you can’t do everything on your own.

[KC]: The second thing is, the power of being able to share what’s happening in Venezuela.

[AP]: Even when you feel like [when you] don’t have a voice or hopeless, there is always hope. You can be a part of the voice, even if it’s small. At least speaking up, does something.

[KC]: What is one takeaway from your immigration experience you want to share with the world?

[AP]: We’re all human. Even in the moments of most disagreement, we can tap into that shared humanity. I want people to find common ground before necessarily jumping to judging or assuming things about other people. And I want to do that as much as I can, too. I just think it helps to have healthier debates.

One of the biggest problems we’re seeing in the US and I saw in Venezuela (which is really what concerns me the most) is the fact that people lose the ability to talk to each other; that differences have gotten to a point where people can’t communicate or have a healthy debate. … Let’s try to find common ground. Be ok with people thinking differently.

Andrea preparing to lead a workshop at Impact Hub SF about Crowdfunding for Nonprofits
Andrea preparing to lead a workshop at Impact Hub SF about Crowdfunding for Nonprofits

Footnotes:

  • You can help Venezuela by donating to 501(c)(3)certified nonprofit organizations that are working to alleviate the situation, especially the food and medicine shortages such as Comparte por una Vida and Sun.Risas
  • The nonprofit Andrea currently works at (HIPGive) is currently organizing a campaign (with a planned launch of July) to raise money to alleviate the conditions in Venezuela. Current fundraising campaigns are splintered across many sources and HIPGive aims to digitally centralize giving efforts. If you are interested in partnering with HIPGive, reach out to partnerships@hipgive.org
  • Students for Venezuela was a movement where Students of the world united to defend the human rights and freedom of people in Venezuela. This movement was started mainly in response to February 12, 2014, the Day of The Youth in Venezuela, when students in Venezuela went out to the street to protest because of hyperinflation, shortages of basic goods, and extreme violence in the streets, among many other socioeconomic and political problems. Many fighting for their freedom of speech and right to protest, were killed, gun down, jailed and harassed by the national army of Venezuela among other government armed groups.
  • XXplore is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that offers science classes to underprivileged girls in the Santa Barbara community. While teaching students the critical fundamentals of science, technology and engineering, our instructors emphasize a non scholastic and creative atmosphere, which encourages physical expression and playful learning. Girls learn how to approach difficult problem sets by expressing themselves in a supportive environment.
  • To hear more stories about self-starters, student entrepreneurs, and small business owners across the country, tune into the podcast Community Voice available on iTunes.
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