I recently hosted three relatives for 10 days of drunkenness in Lima. It may have been the best vacation of my life, and I didn’t go anywhere. But being in the streets for 10 days straight drove home how much the Venezuelan community is a part of life here. I already knew for Christ’s sake, and the last thing I wanted to do was write another article about Venezuelans, but those 10 days demand it.
At the beginning of this year the government reported that there were just over 100,000 Venezuelans in Peru, and I predicted a possible backlash. In the second quarter they reported 200,000 and in the last month that number has grown to over 350,000.
That means Venezuelans now make up more than 1% of the population. By comparison, illegal immigrants make up over 3% of the United States’ population. But when you consider that the majority of Venezuelans in Peru live in the capital, and that a good chunk of America’s illegals are in fact not “wetbacks” who crossed the border with Mexico, it’s fair to say that the visibility of Venezuelans in Peru is comparable to the illegal migrant laborers from Mexico and Central America in the U.S.
But I’d go further than “comparable,” since the illegals in the U.S. don’t speak native English. They’re a much less visible minority, largely working behind the scenes in kitchens, lawncare, etc. The Venezuelans in Lima, on the other hand, speak native Spanish and are concentrated in the service industry. They’re everywhere you encounter them every day. These are the Chamo Chronicles from my 10 days in the street.
Chamos Don’t Know Wine
The first night we went drinking downtown, and the first stop was Bodega Queirolo, which bills itself as the oldest bar in Peru. Queirolo is the country’s biggest wine and pisco brand. Not a high-end brand, but a common one. Imagine if Barefoot or Woodbridge had a bar on the gritty edge of downtown, and they also made hard liquor. That’s Queirolo.
While the grape-growing tradition in Peru is the oldest in the Americas, Peruvian wine is nothing special. In fact you have to be careful you don’t order something cold and sweet. The safest term to use is “tinto,” and so after perusing the menu I ordered a bottle of the Gran Tinto from the chamita server.
When she came back I had to intervene before she opened the bottle because I saw condensation on the glass, which was clear glass, and the wine was red but not a deep, opaque red. You could kind of see through it, and obviously through the condensation and clear glass.
“What the hell is this?” I asked. The label said “Rose,” which is a sweet variety.
The chamita produced the menu and indicated the wine just below what I had pointed at when I ordered. She hadn’t heard or understood “tinto,” or tried to understand as I’m sure I also said “seco.” She simply looked at where I was pointing and thought I wanted the Rose.
I prevented the debacle, but it was a head-scratcher. While Peru is not a country of high-brow wine like Argentina or Chile, I thought, Peruvians at least have the grape tradition. In Venezuela there is none. I imagine they drink beer, rum, whiskey and maybe some sweet coconut cocktail with cocaine for the Bolivarian beach orgies, but no wine. Hence the chamita knows nothing about wine.
I’m not the wine snob at all. But I know that wine is supposed to be red and dry and room temperature, and “dry” means not sweet. Unless it’s a sweltering hot summer day, then the wine can be white and cold. But the chamita didn’t even have that foundation. Not “dry,” not “tinto,” nothing. And she’s working at a fucking wine bar.
A couple nights later we end up at Pizza Street and one of the gringos wants wine. I have a question about one of wines on the menu and, before posing it to the chamita waitress, I remember the story from Queirolo. I preface my question with, “You’re from Venezuela? You know nothing about wine?”
To her credit, she acknowledged her ignorance immediately – no small task for people of Latin America. “No,” with no excuses or filler crap about it. Just honesty and TNA in tight clothes. So I went to the bar manager to sort out the issue.
Chamo Charges Gringo Tax
At Parque de la Amistad a vendor tried to overcharge me for a bottle of water. The Cielo brand is the economic option in Peru; a small bottle costs one sol in the street. In a fancy park like this it would be 2 soles, and the chamo wanted 2.50.
“For Cielo?” I ask. And the way I asked brought out the real price.
I paid for the water and went back to the crew. But after I walked away I thought about my arrival to Peru in 2008, my marrying a Peruvian in 2012, my non-traditional exports doing their small part to diversify Peru’s economy … and this fuckin chamo thinks he’s going to bilk me with a gringo tax?
I was tempted to go back and give him a piece of my mind. Overcharging a gringo tourist would be one thing, or a Peruvian doing to me another. But you, chamo, are not a native here. You do not have the right to overcharge gringos, or at least not resident and citizen gringos who came here a long time before you did. Some of us chose Peru on its own merits, as opposed to fleeing a socialist shithole in search of food. Most of us pay a hell of a lot more in taxes than you ever will, and that’s if you’re not a public charge. And if you’ve gone to the hospital even once, you are.
What’s more is the vast majority of gringos in Peru and greater Latin America are in favor of bringing you Venezuelans in by the hundreds of thousands. Sure, there are a few Trump Train gringos in Latin America who oppose immigration, as hard as that is to get your head around. Just like there are hard-left Telesur readers who admire chavismo and disdain the United States yet choose to live in Peru, Colombia or whatever other free market and staunch American ally, as hard as that is to get your head around.
But the vast majority of gringos in Latin America sympathize with your plight and, as immigrants ourselves, support your being here. Do you really want to go pissing us off for an extra 50 centimos? Especially those of us who argue the virtues of immigration, even from shithole countries like yours, to our native wives and mother-in-laws who oppose bringing any more of you in? You, chamo, have fewer allies every day. Why risk losing more faster than you already are?
But I didn’t say any of that. I didn’t make an issue. I just saved it for my snarky blog.
Chamo in Traffic
One day going up or down the Via Expresa I saw a vendor standing on the dotted line between moving cars. He was holding up his trinkets with each hand, standing completely still between cars that were moving down the freeway. The scene was so out of place I asked the taxi driver, “What the hell is this guy doing?”
“Venezuelans,” the taxi driver responded. And he went off on a tirade about how the president should close the borders. We have too many, the driver argued, and I shit you not he added that the quality of Venezuelans arriving is declining.
Peruvian street vendors, known as “ambulantes,” are famous, a part of history. A street vendor in himself wasn’t what was out of place. But the Peruvians wait on the sides of the avenues and highways for traffic to stop. Once the cars are stopped, then they move between the cars to offer their trinkets and snacks.
Venezuela has subsidized gasoline to the point of being free since before Chavez. Free gas drove purchases of SUVs during their oil boom, embarrassingly for Chavez in the case of Hummer sales. All those cars and free gas made for what was some of the worst traffic in Latin America. That has changed since the collapse, but I speculated that the crazy traffic bred different norms and tactics among street vendors. A seemingly insignificant cultural quirk that people notice, and which probably irks Peru’s drivers.
This cab driver called them “venecos,” a word I had previously only read in Caracas Chronicles and in news stories about anti-Venezuelan sentiment in Cucuta, but which has apparently made its way to Peru.
Chamo Take You to Callao?
On the day we were headed to La Punta del Callao, I stopped a taxi driver and negotiated a price. He looked and sounded Peruvian, and his taxi indicated that he was a Lima veteran, but he was wearing a Venezuela baseball hat. So I had to ask before getting in, “What’s with the hat?”
He’s Peruvian, he confirmed, but his daughter married a Venezuelan. The son-in-law gave him the hat. Ah, OK, I said. I had to ask before getting in because there are Venezuelan taxi drivers who don’t know their way around, which wouldn’t be a problem going anywhere between downtown and Chorrillos because I know it all. But Callao is the place you may not know every turn, and you don’t want to get lost there. You want a born-and-bred limeño for that trip.
Chamos Make Burgers
On a Sunday night the gringos agreed to allow Wife to pick the restaurant, and of course she wants American food. But alas the wing joint was closed so we tried the best burger joint in Lima, PapiCarne. We pulled up around 9:30 p.m. and it looked closed. The fence was shut but the door was open so I left the gringos and Wife in the taxi while I peeked in to get the story.
Owner and chef LJ was drinking beer with his wife and their staff. He agreed to let us in, but they could only sell us beer. Good enough for now, I thought as I planned how I would get him to make us food.
With gringos and wife inside and Budweisers in hands, I started our sob story. Wife wants American food, the wings joint is closed. The Venezuelans who make up his staff don’t speak English, they couldn’t have understood a thing. But they insisted on turning on the grill and serving us food. We ordered many burgers, the only thing they could serve, and left a tip that would be very generous even on American standards.
I caught a look at the Venezuelans as they huddled up around the receipt. They actually called LJ over to point it out. They feared that it was a mistake? LJ is American and he knows I am an industry veteran. He just smiled at nodded. “No that’s right chamos, these are my American countrymen and they’re grateful you guys opened up for them.”
Those chamos all went home with money for a week’s worth of food for their starving relatives back home. And we were grateful. They reminded me of the Mexican workers in the United States, the kind you have to kick out of the workplace or your labor costs will get out of control, because they’ll never go home. They’ll work and work and work forever.
LJ explained afterwards that this isn’t necessarily the case with the Venezuelans. They don’t earn hourly here in Peru, but a monthly salary. They had already stayed a couple hours late cleaning the kitchen, and then drinking with LJ. They just wanted to work.
We were all good and drunk by then and went to LJ’s apartment after the burgers. So the video above is of him at his house, nothing to do with chamos.
Chamos a la Orden
I had lost my voice by the end of the gringos’ visit. We got all drunk and I sent them off to the airport, and I decided to order chicken for the family. My neighborhood chicken joint is run by Venezuelans. They do Peruvian pollo a la brasa (rotisserie chicken), but their innovation which I love are the “Mediterranean fries.” They coat the potatoes in oregano before frying.
So I call in my order and it’s hell trying to explain where I live … one block away. Now granted I lost my voice, and granted I speak with an accent, but I had gotten through the entire phone call with no problems until I had to say my address, “Canevaro 1430, Dpto D.”
I repeated it into the phone at least 10 times. Lima governments have been a pain in the ass with the naming of their streets after the most obscure figures in their not-very-impressive history. So while nobody knows who General Cesar Canevaro was, everybody in Lince knows where Canevaro Avenue is. Especially everybody one fucking block away on Jose Leal Avenue. The chamita could almost see my house by stepping outside of the chicken joint and looking across a park.
Every word in the address was a task, from the Peruvian “departamento” (as opposed to the much different “apartamento”) to the “D de ‘dedo’,” which is like saying “D as in ‘dog’.” By the end I was shouting, albeit with barely any voice, “Soy el gringo en el otro lado del parque! Canevaro cuadra 14!” The chamita was ashamed, and she finished with an embarrassed, “A la orden.”
I have an accent, but it has not been a problem on the phone since the early years in Latin America. But the real proof that it wasn’t me was Wife overhearing the ordeal. She knew exactly what was going on, and she gave me a self-righteous look as if to say, “You see, those damn Venezuelans. When will you see that we don’t need them here?”
She has trouble ordering deliveries of cooking gas and drinking water when Venezuelans are tending the phones, and those would also be neighborhood businesses.
About 10 minutes after I ordered I went downstairs to where the delivery guy would buzz my apartment, worried he might not find it. Two of them arrived looking lost and I quizzed them, “Neither of you recognize me?” They didn’t. “Recien llegados?” I asked (Recent arrivals?). They looked down and said no. I guessed they had gotten that kind of treatment before, from Peruvians.
“I’m the gringo, this is where I live. Remember me next time!” I said, and I tipped them a sol each.
Maybe I should have been nicer, but the tip was nice. But maybe the chicken joint I order from once a month at the least, usually once every two weeks, should keep their employee turnover a little lower. Part of the charm in Latin America is knowing your neighborhood bodega, pharmacist, butcher, baker and everything else. But the Venezuelans are a transient bunch, they’re always coming and going. So the chicken joint where I’m a regular isn’t guaranteed to know who the hell I am.
I still felt bad afterwards for not being nice. So I gave their Mediterranean fries a little shout on the Expat Chronicles Facebook page (above).
Chamas vs. Peruanas
As Wife was complaining about them, she told me a strange story of something that happened to her. She was walking down the street and some old Peruvian greeted her, “Hola venezolana linda,” or something to that effect.
According to the politically incorrect attitudes about beauty in the world, and especially Latin America, light complexions and white skin is preferred. And the Venezuelans are a little bit lighter of a race than those in Peru, which was home to the largest civilization in the Americas when the Spaniards arrived. I’m not stating opinion here but inarguable fact: most people and especially Latinos see venezolanas as more beautiful than peruanas (“chubby cholas” as I affectionately describe many of them).
Do you think my Peruvian wife was flattered to be presumed a Venezuelan? Yeah right! She was fucking pissed. I don’t know who she was more pissed at, the venezolanas or this cheesy old man who made the cardinal sin of mistaking her for one.
But the kicker was the next day when I was walking the children up to Campo de Marte, on a crowded sidewalk I heard an old man greet a young Venezuelan woman hawking pastries, “Hola chamita,” with a smile. She took it in kind, but I was beside myself. It was literally the day after Wife told me her story. I wondered if it was the same old man. And I wondered how many Peruvian women would be getting pissed if they’re witness to this.
Chamos and Prosperity
Before you go thinking I’m losing my pro-immigration nerve, I’m going to finish with a positive story. I often predict to other gringos that most of the Venezuelans here will never go back. My quote is that “Venezuela will be a very poor and dangerous place for a long time.”
Apparently some Venezuelans are on the same page. There are at least two building sites in my neighborhood where I see the chamos coming and going. One of them or a group of them have gotten together to buy the building and they are adding third and fourth floors on top, building with their own hands, developing the district. Investing their own money, blood, sweat and tears. Not just building new lives, they are building physical assets. Physical assets that will always be in Lima. Assets that will always be Peruvian.
Those who subscribe to the Expat Chronicles newsletter know that I’m currently reading The Bible. I’m almost halfway through the Old Testament, which repeatedly mentions the sojourner, the refugee, the immigrant. Despite what the U.S. government and their propagandists may say, The Bible is abundantly clear that the sojourner must be welcomed and treated well.
But that’s not the point here. I’m also struck by the Old Testament’s characterization of progress and prosperity. Modernity has made us a little more picky, especially us gringos. But in ancient times the mere act of populating and expanding was prospering. Think about it like that.
Peru is exploding in both population and development. Not only us gringos but the Venezuelans are also driving that prosperity. Meanwhile, how is Venezuela doing in those departments: population and development? It’s shrinking in both, the opposite of prosperity.
So I say, keep bringing them in! Venezuela’s loss is Peru’s gain.
Do you have a Chamo Chronicle? Share your anecdote in the comments!
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