Cultural Connections: Political turmoil brought Venezuelan resident to US

By JULIA GASPAR-BATES — Cooking became a passion for Hyattsville resident and entrepreneur Mickey Torrealba when he was 12. Growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, Torrealba loved the smells and tastes of his mother’s cooking and began to help her in the kitchen, particularly during the holiday season when lots of family members would help make tamales. Unfortunately, his father disapproved of him cooking and encouraged him to study law at university. “In Venezuela the father controls everything because it’s a very macho country,” stated Torrealba.

After two years at university, Torrealba realized that law was not his true path, and he announced that he was quitting. Since his father refused to continue paying for further studies, Torrealba moved out of his family home to forge an independent life for himself. This was a rather unusual practice in Venezuela, where people usually live with their parents until they get married. “I have two uncles in their 60s who never married and lived with my grandmother their whole lives until she died at 92.”

Mickey Torrealba, the co-owner and chef at Cafe Azul, left Venezuela after political turmoil threatened his livelihood.

After leaving home, Torrealba started to work in restaurants to raise enough money to study at culinary school. After completing these studies, he worked as a chef in a successful restaurant owned by a Cuban entrepreneur.

The political situation in Venezuela began to change dramatically after Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998. “When Chávez came into power, everything changed because the government became Communist and took over all the private businesses. The situation became worse and worse. Chávez choked the country. You need to live in a society where there is progress, but when people live off the government, there is no progress.”

In 1999, Torrealba’s boss predicted that Venezuela would follow a similar path as his native Cuba and decided to sell his four restaurants in Caracas and leave the country. At the time, Torrealba was young and poor, and also decided to leave. His boss introduced him to family in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Torrealba lived for the next eight years. The cultural adjustment was not too difficult, as San Juan was in many ways similar to Caracas. He met his American wife, Monica, while she was on vacation in Puerto Rico, and, after pursuing a long-distance romance for a year, Torrealba decided to relocate to the U.S. in 2009. Since Monica owned a townhouse in the Arts District, Torrealba moved to Hyattsville.

Although Torrealba had spent many summers visiting the U.S., he was not prepared for some of the differences he encountered when he moved here. “The weather was the biggest culture shock for me because I came in January. It was too hard. Everything was different. Here, life is much more controlled. You can’t play music loudly or stay out late. In my country, the parties last all night; neighbors don’t care if you play music very late. Also, the food was really different; there was too much fast food. American people also follow and obey rules and have more structure than the Venezuelan community I grew up in. For example, when I took my driver’s test here, I failed it twice because the driving is so different.” Torrealba continued, “When I arrived in the U.S., I didn’t speak a word of English, and communication was very difficult.”

Despite some of these initial challenges, Torrealba has thrived in the U.S. In 2010, he and Monica opened Café Azul, one of the first restaurants in the area to serve Venezuelan cuisine, including arepas.

Torrealba reports enjoying living in Hyattsville. “I like the historic houses, the people in the neighborhood, the neighborhood festivals and its proximity to D.C.” He also appreciates the relative safety of the area. “You feel safe when you’re walking down the street; you don’t have to worry about being mugged.”

Still, Torrealba reminisces about his home country. “I would like to go back to Venezuela, but only when the country goes back to normal. I miss my family and friends. I miss the food, the day-to-day interchanges. In Venezuela, when you leave work you speak on the streets with your neighbors. Socializing is spontaneous. People here are more reserved.”

“Cultural Connections” is dedicated to highlighting Hyattsville’s rich cultural diversity by sharing the voices of immigrants and other foreigners who have settled here.

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