“¡Por favor, dame una moneda! ¡Tengo hambre!”
These were the words Estella Porras heard from the street below her apartment’s ninth story window in the middle of teaching a lecture via Zoom, which translated to, “Please, give me some coin! I’m hungry!”
As her students sat in bewilderment after hearing a man’s shouts, Porras excused herself from the lecture and went to speak with her daughter across the hallway from her office. Soon after, Porras reappeared with a few packages of crackers and hard boiled eggs in hand. She quickly placed them inside a wicker basket that was attached to a rope. Her daughter then lowered the basket outside of the apartment window, offering food to one of the thousands of Venezuelan immigrants living on the Colombian streets below.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Porras was still living in her hometown of Bucaramanga while on an extended sabbatical from California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB). Her plan to spend a year there with her husband, two daughters and their labrador was changed when international travel restrictions were established in hopes to slow the spread of COVID-19. With no option to return to California when her sabbatical was over, Porras returned to lecturing Humanities and Communication courses in Fall 2020 virtually.
Along with her unexpectedly extended stay, Porras and her family lived through a period of sociopolitical hardship in Colombia. Around the same time of her move, thousands of Venezuelan families sought economic relief in Colombia. Not many Venezuelans were able to find secure housing in Colombia, causing hundreds of migrant families to live on the streets in Bucaramanga.
Porras moved to Bucaramanga in June 2019, wanting to focus on publishing journalistic and magazine writing on her sabbatical in her hometown and take workshops at her home college, Universidad Autónoma de Bucaramanga. She was excited to experience an academic and personal refresh for a year and was going to return to the U.S. to teach in Summer 2020.
Living in Bucaramanga, her children would be immersed in Spanish and would be close to her parents, who are in their 80s. Everything was going according to plan until lockdown orders spread throughout the country in early 2020, which affected Colombian residents and Venezuelan migrants alike.
Porras and her family were rarely allowed to leave their apartment building under Bucaramanga’s COVID-19 regulations. During the first few months of Colombia’s shut down orders, Porras said residents were only able to leave the house to take their animals to go to the bathroom during a 10 minute window once in the morning and once night, and could only go to the grocery store once a week.
In addition to daytime regulations, each night had a curfew, and the police and army patrolled the city at all hours to ensure residents were following the rules. At that time her children were never allowed outside, as only adults fulfilling essential tasks were able to leave home.
Porras was worried about her children’s health from being indoors for so long and losing lots of vitamin D. After some time, she tested her luck with patrol squads and took her daughters and husband with her on their dog’s bathroom break on a Sunday morning.
“Lets go and do something illegal,” Porras said, humoring her family before the four of them left the apartment.
They escaped the ninth floor for a few minutes, but soon after were approached by three bicycle cops. To quickly resolve the situation Porras took advantage of the “gringo face of [her] husband,” pretending her family didn’t speak Spanish well and declaring in English she thought it was a special day where the whole family could go for a walk together. Luckily, the police only gave them a warning and sent them back home.
Not only was Bucaramanga experiencing the pandemic under much harsher restrictions than in the states, but the city also had an influx of people migrating from Venezuela. Porras said the neighboring country was living through intense economic turmoil, and natives with a lack of food and essential resources fled to Colombia in search of a better life. According to the International Organization for Migration, approximately 5 million Venezuelans left the country because of the turmoil back home.
“That was one of the most moving situations that I wanted to learn more about … the (Venezuelan) government (was) unable to support the basic needs of [their] population,” Porras said.
Inspired to help the people she saw below her apartment window, Porras began a search for Colombian non-governmental organizations and soon after began working with Entre dos Tierrra’s, Mujer y Futuro and other groups. Some days, Porras volunteered by serving free lunches to Venezuelan migrants. Other days, she focused on offering Venezuelan’s immigration and travel information, information about finding computers and telephones, as well as dedicating time to fundraise for the programs.
Starting in June and July, COVID-19 restrictions became less strict, and Porras and her family could visit grocery stores and go for walks all together without as many time restrictions. As they traveled the city more and more, they came face-to-face with many struggling Venezuelans.
Porras said she and her family were approached by dozens of Venezuelans virtually every time they left the house. They would often ask for bread and diapers for their children, sometimes bringing guitars or doing street performances in hopes to increase the likelihood of gaining supplies. Being so far away from their home country with little access to food and shelter, Porras felt for Venezuelan migrants, “it [was] impossible to survive.”
“Seeing that firsthand everyday and seeing the human tragedy… witnessing this historical moment of desperation and transformation of the countries, it’s not understood enough,” Porras said. “Indifference is easier.”
Because some of the shutdown restrictions were lifted, she started making large batches of hard boiled eggs to hand out to Venezuelan’s who lived on the street, knowing they had a higher nutritional value than bread. With an overwhelming number of families in need, Porras said they often ran out of food fairly quickly.
“You are reminded (of) every second of their pain,” she said. “Here in the U.S. when you hear about issues and poverty and what’s happening in many places and here in Monterey County about the families who are suffering here, you don’t see them [face to face].”
Porras and her family moved back to the U.S. in December 2020. In the midst of CSUMB’s finals week, packing and preparing to take her family’s belongings over several international flights, Porras said the process “was a mess,” but she is glad to be teaching in her usual environment.
Although she’s back in the states, Porras still keeps tabs on Venezuelan migration and proposes strategies to make the situation easier as “little seeds to plant” with Colombian organizations.
Students and staff can read Porras’s report on Global Voices if wanting to learn more about Venezelean migration in Colombia.