Family Stories

Gina Vestuti
BFA SC 2022

The other day I mentioned that if we all went to Colombia during Semana Santa, it would almost be like the real thing, and we wouldn’t have to worry about going to Venezuela anymore.

In summer I stayed with Francisco’s sister, Ana Maria, who said she’d never go to Colombia again because it was too humid. Its dank valleys could never compare to the pedestal of the Ávila on which Caracas sat cool and dry.

Her daughter Bettina, who I always forget is crazy, told me she stopped keeping up with the news after she left. “Of course, we can go to the tepuis together.” We walked down little winding alleys in Madrid and she talked about it like it was all possible. Her step-dad is still there and he pays someone to wait in line for food for him while he goes to work.

A man passed us on a bike with a freezer bag on his back. She turned to me and told me he’s Venezuelan, she’s sure because he was whistling, and Venezuelans are the only ones in Spain who whistle. Her radar lovingly attuned to specificities which dodged my body and tied theirs together—whistling, the waiter’s familiar accent, a truck driver’s walk.

“I have an ex-boyfriend whose uncle is a pilot. He took me before. We can go again, maybe in the summer.” There would be time because she was not working. Nobody was working, nobody could find a job after having been copied and pasted into a different world where they could only recognize each other.

We were sitting in the quiet of the living room together, maybe it was after reading how Trump had mentioned staging a military intervention in Venezuela. The way the article was phrased, it sounded like he had tossed the idea out the same way you would throw out ideas of where to eat for lunch.

I asked if we would ever be able to go.

“I heard Colombia is lovely this time of year.”

I talked to Francisco for the first time with one cheek against the phone and the other side crunched against the computer to record, and he kept yelling that he couldn’t hear me. Straining to fit between two devices, I knew him from the dime-sized WhatsApp photo where he stands next to a beautiful woman on top of a mountain. He is blonde, like I remember from the family photos, but he doesn’t look as fun.

(Maybe he would have been familiar in Spanish. When Ana Maria calls my dad, he answers the phone and “hello” becomes “aló,” a formed exhalation, relaxing into another self. Francisco and Ana Maria don’t talk anymore.)

When I asked Francisco how he was doing, a Venezuelan euphemism for are you starving, he said he was fine because he’d been ordering supplies from and shipping them to his house. Or else he’d have his friends in the US buy things from Costco and mail them to him.

Walmart? Yes, he talked about the daily blackouts, and the shortages, and I remembered the statistics of how many people survive off scraps from the garbage, but Walmart?

I began to Google all the things I needed proof of. I always imagined the results were empty because there was no paper left in Venezuela, let alone time to write about “pirate radio Caracas 1976.”

Did you mean: Radio Nacional de Venezuela en Vivo por Internet?

In Caracas, I begin to wind my cursor through all the roads and all the neighborhoods I knew from stories but were not mine. For the first time, there is a street view option. The sun is shining, I am in a park and the green hills roll away from me. A pool of water extends from my right into the distance. People sit under the palm trees that line the path, I turn my view and see the Ávila beyond the city. Upwards, a palm tree loses its head, curving into the seam where all these photographs meet.

I can’t move from the spot the photos are taken. I imagine I’m stuck there because a car
with a camera mounted to its roof would never survive Caracas. How does the Walmart car drop off Francisco’s packages? Do they leave them on the porch if he’s not home? Do they put them around back just to be safe?

“Walmart, huh? What a clever way to get around it.”

As I remember it, Francisco’s story was first told by my dad around the kitchen table, which was a warm wood, maybe beech. His voice is warm in English and warmer in Spanish. His hand gestures are always circular, as if he is building something.

(There are some people—old lawyers and politicians?—who gesture with a lot of pointing and sharpness. What a difference in effect to see hands reaching to hold objects and moving to multiply them.)

The movement I most remember from the first telling is how his hand traced a large circle, getting smaller and smaller to explain how the police followed the signal of the radio station to find the house it was coming from.

Over the phone, Francisco’s voice sounded nothing like his sister’s, whose every word is kind of rounded. She says “fantastic.” Everything is fantastic: the country, the food, the getting out, is all fantastic. All parts are enunciated, but if the sounds moved like hands, they’d be less like a snap of fingers and more like a clap, softer and lower.

“As I said, it was a very, very ... how do I say … a stupid thing we did.” The way Francisco spokewas sharp. The word “stupid” catches around the “tu” sound to become “stiupid,” “circuit” becomes “swircuit.”

Mama Lola is a young woman, with all her sisters. My aunt keeps finding these photographs with manicured edges and cursive names on the back; she loves them because they all have her nose. A whole family presses between two palm fronds. I search their faces, which formed mine, for an answer—likeness, spirit—a tie to join. They are inanimate, they look nowhere, gentleness lives in the grain of the photograph, we have nothing to do with each other. Francisco is a 12-year-old boy on a rock next to my dad. They are glued into my grandmother’s photo album.

Years ago, I dreamt I was on a flight that diverted to Caracas. I felt the excitement of unreality. The Ávila was glistening, the fields beyond it were comically flat. We stayed inside a hotel lobby the whole time we were there, never going outside. Even the gray carpet felt holy, because we were with it, in that country. We did not go outside because I did not know what it looked like. I could only come up with enough information to form an interior space.

Two large apartment buildings consume the family church. They stand so close to it, the satellite image lives in shadow. Every time I refresh the page, it is still there. I breathe a sigh of relief.

Later that week, I interview my dad while he puts snow tires on his car, interrupted only by cursing when he scratches his rims on the cobblestone. I’m on the curb and he’s on the ground and he says it was 1976 (1980 by Francisco’s count) when all the friends would get together and take apart and rebuild engines and circuit boards because one of them was an electronic genius.

“Wait, let me go back.”

He folds to add layers: Francisco had started the pirate radio station as a reaction to a national law about playing one Venezuelan song for every two American songs played. This was important because Venezuelan music was terrible, and America was premium.

Coming back from Franco’s Spain, Francisco had no tolerance for oppression. His friends asked for radio components, so he brought them back with him.

Francisco told me he ordered them out of an issue of Popular Mechanics.(I say nothing.)

As a part of the Venezuelan tradition of political unease, there was a curfew where you had to be inside from sundown to 6 in the morning. Saturday nights became 12 hour parties—it was the ’70s (’80s); things like that were common.

“That was what they did for so long in Venezuela. People had fun and it was hysterical.”

There was one way in and out of Caracas, through a tunnel. At its mouth, Francisco and his friends posted banners with the date, the time, and the frequency of the radio station.

Very quickly the government discovered what was happening. Using military radar trucks intended for defense against Colombia, they drove winding circles through neighborhoods in Caracas, looking for a radio station playing only American songs and run by 18 year olds.

The station would broadcast from a different house every week so as not to be caught.

“That wasn’t the funny part of it.”
Francisco told me about the end, when police triangulated the signal of the radio station and found the house that hosted the party the week before.

They assembled a swat team, broke down the door—

They didn’t know the location changed.
“I remember the mother was with two friends having a cup of tea.”

They ruined an old woman’s tea party—

“Everybody was surprised, the mother and the policeman."

After that the group knows people are after them so they start dividing up the equipment after each broadcast, so no one could be caught with the whole thing.

“The police threatened to arrest the mother and so the friends were forced to turn in the equipment.”

Finally, the police interrupt a party, everyone scatters, one poor boy is caught. (He puts down the rim and becomes the police officer)
“Look,” (intense pointing) “we’re going to kill your family,”

“The police threatened to arrest the mother,”

“We’re going to kill you,” (more pointing) “we’re going to kill all your friends.”
(I imagine the finger in my face) “We’re going to find them.”
(I become the boy) “You don’t want to sacrifice yourself for these other guys.”

“and so the friends were forced to turn in the equipment.”

“So that was kind of the end of that.”

By the end of the story, all the rims are on the car; I have stopped noting the differences between the two versions.

“You’re so lucky Ricardo decided to live in the U.S.” Francisco told me at the end of our call.

As with everything else, the idea of what is promised changes when a country implodes. I envied people who had ownership, to whom returning belonged.

Packing to see Ana Maria and Bettina, I felt that same excitement of unreality. I was getting my Latin American homecoming, in Europe, with two of the original hundred cousins. They fought the whole time, and I ended up leaving Madrid three days early.

Occasionally, in grainy satellite images of rooftops which composed Caracas, we would sift for Mama Lola’s house, searching for something to clarify the rumors. We could never find it—either because it had truly been bombed during its use as the Yugoslavian embassy, or because my dad had forgotten the address.

“Everything was nutty, but fun nutty, I mean it was never malicious.” My dad tells me as we walk back inside. “You know people aren’t overly serious there, they just have fun. If it’s an earthquake, they’ll find a way to harness the power and turn it into a party of some sort.”

In Madrid, walking out of the train station back to Ana Maria’s apartment, I was caught by a woman’s tattoo. At the nape of her neck, under brown hair, a curling green line forming a rough “T.” Have you ever lost an object in a pile of other people’s things? Can you feel it, somewhere between your stomach and your sternum, the vibrations of your heart knowing and loving before your brain can catch up? I followed her up the steps, turning the shape over in my mind again and again until it fell into place. The left of the “T” was Lake Maracaibo, her hair was the Antillas. She was not whistling, but here was another one, the first I’d found without Bettina.

Gina Vestuti is currently serving as Google Maps’ brand ambassador.