When you meet someone for the first time, whether it is during your travels or at home, one of the typical questions that comes up in conversation is: Where are you from? And you would think this is an easy question to answer right? – WRONG!!! For me, and I am sure countless others, this is probably a very difficult questions to answer and may boil down to a matter of identity. I may have been born in one place but I have lived more than half my life in another. And more importantly I identify with more than one culture.
But when answering the question I try and keep it simple and usually just provide either the place where I currently live (Florida, USA) or the place of my birth, and where I lived the first 18 years of my life – Venezuela. However mentioning Venezuela usually causes confusion, scrunched up faces, and puzzled looks, that are usually accompanied by the following – You are from where??!!?? Even funnier is when I am heard speaking Spanish. I get that surprised and perplexed look. You know the look, the one that makes you think you walked out of the house naked. And the look is usually followed by the following statements: “You speak great English for a Latin/Spanish person.” or “Wow I had no idea you spoke Spanish; you do not look Spanish or Latina” or “You do not look like you are from Venezuela!!!” This last one really gets to me.
My dear readers, there is something I have always wanted to know and maybe you can help me. What is a Venezuelan supposed to look like? Really, I want to know. Most people that tell me I do not look Venezuelan have never even been to Venezuela. Some of them do not even know where Venezuela is located, so how do they know what a Venezuelan is supposed to look like? Apparently whatever it is, I do not look like it. Wake up folks, Venezuela, which is located in South America by the way, was built on immigrants and has a mix of every nationality, ethnicity, and religion you can think of. It is a true melting pot.
Additionally, I speak good English because I was raised by an English speaking American who spoke to me in English all the time – THANK YOU so much mom for this gift!!!! English was also taught in school; most of the books I read for pleasure, I read in English; and I have lived in the USA for more than half of my life now. So yes, I speak English well and without an accent, even though I was not born or raised in the USA.
OK, so now you know I was born and raised in Venezuela. But to really understand why providing a simple answer, to the not so simple question of where I am from, is actually not simple, you need to understand my roots a bit more.
My family tree: My dad was Italian, and the son of an Italian Chef who immigrated to Venezuela and started an Ice Cream factory there. My mom was born in the USA, New York to be exact. She is the daughter of an Austrian who immigrated to the Dominican Republic and then NY to escape the Natzi’s during WWII. I also have family members from Germany, some that live in Sweden, some that live in Spain, some that live in Canada.
Religion: To confuse maters even more I am also Jewish, born to a Jewish mother and a non-practicing Roman Catholic Father. This leads me to holidays.
Holidays: The holidays during my childhood were great. I have memories of a Christmas tree filled with chocolate ornaments as well as a Menorah and receiving gifts each night for Hanukkah. We celebrated Jewish holidays like Purim, Sukkot and Passover at home and in school. But I still enjoyed the national holidays like Carnaval and Semana Santa (Holy Week) or got invited to celebrate Easter with friends and Christmas with my non Jewish family. The celebrations were joyous, we sang songs in Spanish, English, German and Hebrew. And for Christmas we all stayed up till midnight so we could open gifts on Noche Buena. Lets just say it was fun celebrating all type of holidays. These were happy times, no fights over religion, just acceptance and love. I think this made me more open minded.
And don’t even get me started on the traditions for New Years Eve. Have you ever worn yellow underwear for good luck? Have you filled a suitcase with money, a valid passport, and clothing and taken it for a stroll around the block so that you will be blessed with more travel in the coming year? or have you eaten 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight, while making wishes you want to come true? I have. These are all part of my traditions and experiences I had while growing up.
Food: Lets start with the holiday food. During Christmas we ate a mix of traditional Venezuelan cuisine like hallacas and ensalada de gallina (chicken salad) combined with German cuisine like red cabbage and pork. Let’s not forget the latkes and gifilta fish for Hanukkah. And for dessert some Italian Panetone or German Stollen (both different versions of fruit cake). Or how about Cascos de guayaba con queso crema (guava shells with cream cheese) or Sufganiyot (Jelly filled donuts traditional of Hanukkah).
Now for the everyday eats. I grew up eating food from all over the world (remember I mentioned all the immigrants in Venezuela – this translates to global cuisine and incredible restaurants) and because of this there is not much I do not eat or do not like. I have even tried and enjoy some less traditional foods in my travels such as snails, frog legs, and kangaroo. I enjoy food almost as much as I enjoy traveling.
I was also blessed with amazing homemade Italian food. My Dad and my Nono made the most amazing risotto, gnocchi, and raviolis. My Nona made great polenta and rabbit in wine sauce. And I remember fondly my Sunday family breakfasts when my mom would make pancakes or French toast with fresh orange juice.
But if you are wondering what are the typical Venezuelan foods? These are arepas, pavellon criollo, cachitos, empanadas and tequenos, and drinks like café con leche, chicha, malta and frescolita. Thankfully I am still able to enjoy these living in South Florida.
Travel: My love for travel was instilled in me as a child. I visited my Great Grandmother in Switzerland before I could even walk or talk. I remember spending summers in Italy and France with my Nona. I visited with my Grandma and Aunt in New York and took road trips from there to visit family in Canada. I also traveled in my birth land. Some of the most amazing places I have ever been to are in Venezuela.
I have the best memories of going to “Hato el Burro” – my Aunt and Uncle’s ranch. Riding horses, feeding the chickens, picking eggs in the morning, and going on amazing excursions to places like Angel Falls, Canaima, and Kavak. Or spending holidays at their beach house in Boca de Uchire. I also traveled with friends and with school to other places in Venezuela such as Morrocoy, Merida, Margarita Island, and even took a class trip abroad to Israel.
Travel has always been a part of my life and it has shaped it immensely. My eclectic background and my travels have made me who I am.
So you ask again– Joella, where are you from? I still have trouble answering this question and I probably always will. Is the correct answer Venezuela the place where I was born? Or is the correct Answer USA the place where I have lived most of my life? Or is the answer Italy, Germany, or Austria as these are part of my heritage and foundation?
These days my short answer is I am an American born in Venezuela. But the truth is that it is so much more than that. But in the end I think the important thing is not where I am from but who I am. I am an original mix and a part of the world. I am my own. And I would not change a single thing.
So where are you from?