MEXICO CITY (AP) — Fabiana Marquez’s eyes lit up after taking the first bite of a savory crescent-shaped bread stuffed with ham and cheese. Memories flooded his mind. The Venezuelan immigrant had not eaten a “cachito” in nearly five years until she came across a vendor outside her country’s embassy in Mexico.
Marquez left his South American homeland in 2017 amid a social, political and humanitarian crisis that has now driven more than 6 million people to migrate across the continent and beyond. She worked as a nanny, housekeeper, waitress, and other jobs to make ends meet, mostly in outlying areas of Mexico. In doing so, she has deeply rooted herself in her country, including the food that is close to her heart.
“It made me very happy because I hadn’t eaten Venezuelan food for many years”, Marquez said standing next to the vendor, who had plastic containers filled with a variety of Venezuelan dishes along a street in an upscale Mexico City neighborhood. “Since arriving in Mexico, I had only eaten a few arepas, but I had completely disconnected from what Venezuelan food is.”
But if she feels cut off from the cuisine of her native country, many Mexicans have come to discover her. The Venezuelan diaspora brought shops selling arepas – stuffed corn cakes common to that country and neighboring Colombia. They are also increasingly satisfying the desire for cachitos, empanadas and pastelitos of their fellow immigrants while earning much-needed cash.
Many stores are concentrated in the trendy Roma district, but they have also emerged in middle and working class neighborhoods, as well as in cities like Cancun and Acapulco, Puebla and Aguascalientes, Metepec and Culiacan.
Nelson Banda owned a clothing factory about 80 miles west of Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, and sold school uniforms across the country. But as soaring production costs due to inflation ate away all profits, he closed up shop a year and a half ago, sold gear and joined relatives in Mexico City.
Banda sells about 80 empanadas and 40 cachitos a day in front of the Venezuelan embassy. Dressed in a windbreaker in the colors of his country’s flag, he also sells the non-alcoholic malt drink that is a staple of the Venezuelan breakfast table.
Most of Banda’s customers are people like Marquez who have to go to the embassy, but he also has regulars.
“They feel the heat of Venezuela when they see these (foods)”, Banda said. “Here, there is a large Venezuelan community, well, in the community, everyone is trying to survive; each builds his business in his own way and sells what he can.
International migration agencies estimate that countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have received more than 80% of Venezuelans who have left their country in recent years. Colombia and Peru received the most, but until recently Mexico was also a popular option as it required no visas from Venezuelans and is close to the United States, which many hoped to one day reach.
Mexico, however, began requiring visas for Venezuelans in January after imposing similar restrictions on Brazilians and Ecuadorians in response to large numbers of migrants heading to the US border.
In December, US authorities arrested Venezuelans nearly 25,000 times at the border, more than double the number in September and only around 200 times in the same period a year earlier.
“Every Venezuelan who leaves… carries in their symbolic luggage their flavors and takes their meals and even carries survival strategies,” said Ocarina Castillo, a Venezuelan anthropologist who has studied the country’s gastronomy. She noted that for many Venezuelan migrants, “the first thing they look for in order to survive is the possibility of selling arepas, golfeados, empanadas, the very possibility of selling their regional cuisines.”
Recent immigrants face increasing competition for jobs in host countries, in part because of the pandemic. Many are also arriving with fewer resources and in immediate need of food, shelter and legal documents, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Like many immigrants before them, Venezuelans take their food around the world – from the streets of Chile to Japan and South Korea.
Arepas have also entered the world of fusion cuisine. A cookbook recently published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees includes a recipe for Dominican-Venezuelan arepas stuffed with black beans, pork rinds and cheese. They were created by a Venezuelan who in 2016 resettled in the Dominican Republic and became a chef.
“Gastronomy, when it travels, has two roles” Castillo said. “On the one hand, it’s this wonderful thing that makes you feel good, rings a bell and makes you cry, makes you feel tremendously emotional, and reunites you with your childhood. But on the other hand, it is also a bridge to the culture that welcomes you.
Raybeli Castellano graduated from the country’s music conservatory and is a professional violinist. But in 2016, as Venezuela fell apart, she considered training to become a flight attendant, baker or bartender and transfer those skills to another country.
After completing her pastry lessons, she moved to Mexico City, where she worked first as a baker in a restaurant, an extra on a soap opera, a wedding violinist, and eventually as an office assistant. Losing his office job during the pandemic prompted Castellano, 26, to start a business making cachitos, pan de jamon and other home baked goods. She delivers them to customers who find her on social media or word of mouth.
She sold 100 cachitos the first week.
Castellano now also counts Mexicans among its customers. “So my entrepreneurship was born out of necessity, (but) I also knew how to do it, and I thought ‘well, I don’t want to go back to an office anymore’.”