The colonisers that settled in Venezuela throughout the decades that followed the Spanish conquest were not the most illustrious of Europeans. In Spanish Crown imperial geopolitics, Venezuela played a minor role. High-flying politics was played at the Viceroyalties -provinces of the Spanish Empire- in Peru, New Granada (Colombia), Rio de la Plata (Argentina) and New Spain (Panama). Venezuela was just a Captaincy General and as a result of having less supervision from the Spanish monarchy, its officials in Venezuela enjoyed more freedom to rule and carry on with their businesses as they pleased.
Many years ago, I read a novel called Los Amos del Valle –The Masters of the Valley– by Francisco Herrera Luque, which follows the story of some of the most powerful Spanish families which settled in Caracas from colonisation times until the baptism of Simón Bolivar. Part fiction, part history, the novel shows the power struggles between these families and their different quests to gain control and wealth as they laid down their roots in the valley of Caracas. What struck me the most about the novel, was its portrayal of the relationship between the male colonisers and the slave Indian and African women, and how profusely they bred children of mixed race who would eventually become the gross of the Venezuelan population.
Our Spanish colonisers had very little in common with their Quaker counterparts in North America, who were guided by strict religious convictions and who kept many of their English traditions after settling in the New World. Yes, colonisation was as brutal in the south of the continent as it was in the north but the truth is that our Spanish colonisers, particularly in Venezuela, were way more relaxed about preserving and imposing their Spanish heritage. In fact, they did not wait too much to engage in long term extramarital relationships with the African slaves and the native Indian women, many of whom, despite the prevalent racial oppression and brutality, managed to have their children legally recognised by their Spanish fathers.
Almost from its birth, Venezuela has been, and indeed still remains, a rare example of the authentic “melting pot” society. Over half of the population in the country today is categorised as mestizo, a mixture of white, African and Amerindian, with another large part (about 46%) identified as white of European descent. The latter description is a bit misleading, however, because a large proportion of the European migrants who arrived in our land throughout the XX century, married Venezuelans of mixed background and had children who may look white but certainly have more than just European blood.
Why am I discussing Venezuelan demographics in such depth here? Because since the Brexit campaign in Britain and Trump’s victory in the US just a few days ago, I now realise the scale of the racial issues which today threaten to destroy peaceful coexistence between diverse cultural communities in the civilised world. In all my time in Venezuela, I never witnessed anything like this. Despite some specific cases of racism in my country -yes, a few Venezuelans are actually that delusional- the subject of race has remained virtually inexistent in the country’s political discourse. In the Venezuela where I grew up, I never had to categorise my ethnicity in any paperwork or form; nor did I hear allusions to race or skin colour in the news as a way to identify suspects in a crime; nor did I ever witness bullying or vicious attacks against any particular group. Throughout the twentieth century, Venezuela received an enormous influx of migrants. Hundreds of thousands of people arrived from Europe, Lebanon, Syria, fellow Hispanic-American countries, not to mention the Jews that came from all corners of the globe. As far as I’m concerned, I grew up immersed in this multicultural environment and I never recognised anyone as anything more or anything less than just a fellow Venezuelan. What a happy nation we were!
From my personal experience and the multiple perspectives from which I’ve been allowed to look at the world, I have surprisingly come to discern one positive outcome of all the chaos and pain provoked by our Spanish colonisers. Yes, we had a painful birth, but it brought to life a rich and diverse society, capable of exercising genuine fellowship and mutual recognition. Our harsh origins, in a way, ended up sparing us from the acute levels of racial discrimination seen in so many communities today across the first world. In Venezuela, we could never define ourselves by the colour of our skins because the shades are simply endless. Moreover, we recognise our beauty as a direct result of our multicultural and multiracial background.
When the nightmare Venezuela is living today finally comes to an end, we will face the difficult challenge of mending our shattered identity and wounded pride. I hope we choose to place our distinctive camaraderie and frank sense of humour at the forefront of virtues to preserve and exercise as we rebuild our nation. We will also have to reassert our roots and honour our rich -and unique- cultural heritage more than ever before. And as a large portion of fellow humans in this world surrender to the basest forms of intolerance and greed, we shall actually remember our historic disposition to share our tiny South American paradise and welcome everyone willing to come to lay down their roots in our beautiful land.
An excellent read, only in Spanish I’m afraid: Los Amos del Valle by Francisco Herrera Luque. 1979.
Last week I was in shock to hear that Prince Harry’s girlfriend is being bullied by internet trolls because of her mixed race. She is incredibly smart and also beautiful! Can somebody explain what’s wrong with our world? Meghan Markle’s profile