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Migrants in Massachusetts bring together Venezuelans living in the U.S.


When 50 migrants were flown to Martha's Vineyard in September, many Venezuelan immigrants in Massachusetts saw their own journeys reflected back at them. Their stories of migration are all distinct, but what they found in common is how this situation galvanized their community. WBUR's Cristela Guerra reports.

CRISTELA GUERRA, BYLINE: Isabel Rodriguez's family needed coats. What they found was a home. A few days after a plane of migrants landed on Martha's Vineyard, Rodriguez's own Venezuelan relatives reached New York City. They were cold and struggling after arriving by bus from the border. She hadn't seen most of them in years. What she knew was she had the means to help. Now her three-bedroom house shelters 11.

ISABEL RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GUERRA: She says she received them with a warm meal. Her family joined thousands, traversing the dangerous jungles and highways, traveling from Venezuela to the U.S.-Mexico border. They had gone days without eating. They shared stories with her as if they lived together all their lives.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GUERRA: It's Sunday morning. The group bows their heads. Cousins, siblings and grandchildren pass plates of arepas, shredded beef and rice and beans across the packed dining room table.


GUERRA: Isabel Rodriguez tells them that she doesn't want them to go through what she did when she first arrived five years ago. Her daughter, a classically trained violinist, saw a friend killed at a protest. She became a political target. They had to flee.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GUERRA: Once they got their feet under them, Rodriguez joined the Venezuelan Association of Massachusetts to give back, as she says, to offer that tiny grain of sand so others may have an easier time in this country than she once did.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GUERRA: "God is my provider," she tells them when they express fears of becoming a burden. As new immigrants, they're unable to work right away. Rodriguez works two jobs and 15-hour days to make ends meet. She smiles and says all she asks is that they let her sleep in on the weekends. And they have other help.


GUERRA: Denise Rincon, president of the Venezuelan Association of Massachusetts, arrives that morning with donations. Most weeks, Rincon is personally in touch with around 100 families all over the commonwealth - the mother of three in a church basement, the young women in need of snow boots and a coat, the young man who needs a cellphone. She tells me she's exhausted.

DENISE RINCON: (Speaking Spanish).

GUERRA: "This work is a marathon," she says. People need help with everything from health assessments to legal advice to basic necessities like clothes and understanding cultural differences. One man called her just to talk for 40 minutes because he was depressed.

RINCON: (Speaking Spanish).

GUERRA: A lot of Venezuelans in Massachusetts are still supporting people back home. She knows the day this group arrived on Martha's Vineyard was the first time many Americans had actually thought about Venezuelan migrants.

RINCON: We are in a dire humanitarian crisis. It's a complex crisis. And now people are realizing, oh, my goodness, we were not paying enough attention to this. But it's real.

GUERRA: Most of the 50 Venezuelans are now spread across the state, according to Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston. One teenager doesn't want people to know he was among them. When his family is offered any support, he asks his parents if this will be another Perla situation, referencing the woman who convinced them to board the plane with false promises of work and housing, Celina Barrios-Millner can relate to that sense of caution.

CELINA BARRIOS-MILLNER: Those of us who are immigrants, like, we can relate to that moment of arriving and disorientation and distrust and optimism.

GUERRA: She remembers how it felt to walk into the military base on Cape Cod, where the 50 lived following the flight to the Vineyard. They tried to make it comfortable, warm. A local Venezuelan restaurant tour brought platters of traditional food. They tried to build trust.

BARRIOS-MILLNER: It just sounded like they were objects, like they were the cargo. Something about the language just felt like, oh, these objects just got picked up, rerouted and taken to another place. And so as a Venezuelan, it, like, immediately hit me.

GUERRA: Millner migrated from Caracas in the early '80s with her family to Cincinnati, Ohio. She remembers how cold it was, how isolated she felt, how excited her family was to find plantains at a Filipino market. She wants a softer landing for those who come to this country.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Spanish).


GUERRA: Just before the holidays, Isabel Rodriguez and her relatives throw her mother a surprise birthday party. Isabel cooks a meal for 50. Her loved ones build a heart-shaped pinata.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GUERRA: Here, surrounded by family, Rodriguez says they feel the warmth of home. Her mother has been dealing with depression since leaving their homeland. The familiar company helps. Sometimes her daughter plays folkloric music from Venezuela to lift their spirits.


GUERRA: She wants to see her family build their own lives in this country, as she once did. Then it will be their turn to offer that tiny grain of sand of hope to those coming after. For NPR News, I'm Cristela Guerra in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cristela Guerra