With temporary relief, North Carolina's Venezuelan community looks ahead with hope
Just south of Charlotte on Pineville’s Main Street, grocer David Villanueva is getting his inventory ready for the holiday season.
“We’ve got tequeños, mini empanaditas, pastelitos,” Villanueva says, listing off products at The Latin Corner.
He opened the Venezuelan market this summer with his wife, Eugenia Zubillaga. The shop started as a home-based business during the early days of the pandemic. But they outgrew that space this year.
“When we started, the number of Venezuelans wasn’t enough to open a Venezuelan store like this,” he said. “But today, the Venezuelan community has grown enough.”
Alongside imported brands, they carry products from about ten local Venezuelan artisans, and Villanueva says they get frequent drop-ins from other Latino entrepreneurs in the community.
He sees the interest as a sign of the expansion and energy in the community, at a time when many Venezuelans are feeling anxiously hopeful about securing temporary immigration relief.
'A big opportunity for us'
Approximately 472,000 Venezuelans in the United States could qualify for limited immigration protections, after the Department of Homeland Security expanded eligibility for its Temporary Protected Status program in September.
Many Venezuelans who entered the United States before July 31 now qualify for TPS, designated for groups that cannot return home due to disaster, armed conflict and other extreme situations.
The program was first established for Venezuelans in March 2021, due to that county's ongoing an economic and political crisis, but it excluded hundreds of thousands who arrived after that date. For applicants who qualify, the program provides temporary protection from deportation and a work permit. But it does not provide a path to permanent residency or citizenship.
Villanueva says that despite the program's limitations, it's an opportunity for Venezuelans to establish themselves and contribute to the community.
“There are a lot of Venezuelans doing important things and TPS is a big opportunity for us to be able to remain in this country, overcome, grow as people and learn more about the culture every day,” Villanueva said.
The newly eligible group represents more than half of the 800,000 living in the United States as of 2022.
Venezuelan flavors in North Carolina
In North Carolina, the Venezuelan population is estimated at more than 18,000 people.
That's almost four times the size of the state's Venezuelan population as nine years ago, when Villanueva and Zubillaga left Venezuela amid the political turmoil, high inflation and food scarcity that persist today.
He sees the state's recent Venezuelan growth spurt — 62% in three years — reflected in this year’s Christmas orders and the demand for one item in particular: pan de jamón, or ham bread.
“It’s my weakness, pan de jamón,” Villanueva says. It's also a nostalgic taste of a country Villanueva, and many of his clients, haven't seen in years.
“Pan de jamón in Venezuela during the Christmas season is a tradition,” he says. “You get together with family and you make pan de jamón and hallacas. So, it brings you back to those moments.”
The salty, sweet roll, stuffed with raisins, green olives and, of course, ham, is a Venezuelan Christmas staple. Villanueva expects to sell about 500 of them this season. That’s almost 200 more than he sold last year. He started receiving orders for the bread in mid-September.
Villanueva says clients travel from Kannapolis, Huntersville and as far as Greensboro to find a taste of their heritage at The Latin Corner.
'Really hard experiences along the journey'
One reality behind the state and the country's growing Venezuelan community is an extended crisis that, by the United Nations' estimate, has led more than 7.7 million people to leave the country.
Most of those people, about 6.5 million, have resettled in Latin America and the Caribbean. But economic hardship, political instability and xenophobia in their new countries have forced many Venezuelans to uproot again.
At the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte, Diego Torres says they’ve served more than 350 newly arrived immigrant families this year. He estimates about a third of them are from Venezuela or Colombia.
Non-profit and faith groups meet every two weeks to discuss housing and other emergency needs among new arrivals. Many lack family or friends in the community and are at risk of homelessness.
“We’re seeing that they’ve had really hard experiences along the journey,” Torres said. “At the Coalition, we’ve had to create a community clothing closet, because families are arriving with nothing.”
Dangerous journey north
Many Venezuelans like 27-year-old Cristian Espinoza uprooted in the last year. Economic hardship in Peru, his home for seven years, made it hard for Espinoza to survive there as a motorcycle delivery driver. When his roommates suggested traveling north to the United States, he didn’t hesitate to join them.
“We went through Peru, then Ecuador, Colombia,” he said. “But between Colombia and Panama, there’s no road.”
Together they trekked by foot through the infamous Darien Gap, a dense jungle region that has become an increasingly transited migration route, despite the extreme risks.
“They rob and rape there. You see everything. It’s madness. It’s not recommended,” he said. “But you do what you have to for economic stability. You’ll risk anything for a better future.”
Espinoza has been in North Carolina for a year now. If not for his roommates, he says he’s not sure how he would have gotten by. In June, he broke his leg in a motorcycle accident.
He’s still recovering and navigating the medical debt.
“I owe them my life,” he said. It’s not just anyone who takes care of someone like that. It makes me feel ashamed sometimes because I haven’t done anything in three months and it’s not easy.”
Espinoza says he doesn’t like to ask for help. He came to work, earn money and help support his mother in Venezuela. He hasn’t reached out to any local support groups, he says. He wants to make things work on his own.
“It’s been a year of absolute learning. It’s too much, too much that’s happened in one year,” he said.
Amid the setbacks, the expansion of the TPS program for Venezuelans has been welcome news. He says, for him, TPS is a major blessing.
He now qualifies for the program, and he’s already considering the possibilities TPS could provide, like travel permission to see his mother one day and return to the U.S.
The extension means a bit of relief — at least until April 2025, when the program expires, and Venezuelan TPS holders enter yet another phase of uncertainty.