I was standing in the middle of Francisco Fajardo highway; a three-lane road that connected the city’s suburbs with the center of Caracas. No cars were traveling the highway that overwhelmingly hot April day, only millions of Venezuelan pedestrians who finally found the courage to stand up to the government’s corruption. I, with my multicolored cap, white shirt and flag, was one of them.
Both of my parents marched close to me, the sweat of their arms brushed against my skin. They were looking forward at the moving crowd that stretched for miles with scolds on their faces. Neither one of them wanted to be there—they didn’t want me to be there, but I persuaded them. I needed to see the rush of war for myself and understand what fighting for my country really meant. I hadn’t realized back then that our struggle wasn’t one of arms; it was one of meaning.
My dad stroked the end of his Italian moustache with his fingers; I glanced up at his prominent nose and saddened brown eyes. He looked exhausted. We all were. The country’s overwhelming mayhem stripped away his smile, a distinct feature where I had always found comfort, and where I now only find despair. “Don’t let this chaos take away your kindness, sweetheart.” He stressed over and over; “the end is just around the corner.” He almost believed it, but I never did. I stared ahead once again and squinted my eyes to focus on the point where massive green trucks blocked the way and scattered the crowd. Bombs flew through the air and exploded like fireworks releasing clouds of CS gas. I could smell the acidic chemicals even from where I was standing, a burning mixture of bleach and snot.
As my dad pulled on my arm, his usual signal to stop walking, a motorcycle advanced against the crowd, creating a narrow pathway. I stepped aside and let it speed past. The driver carried the body of a young boy, no older than fourteen, in his arms. BBs pierced his entire face, resembling splattered red paint on a canvas. I flinched and ignored the tragic sight. If my mom noticed, she would make us leave because it pained her to see others suffer. I glanced at her from the corner of my eye as she arranged her curly, short hair, now drenched in sweat, into a small ponytail that reflected the rays of sunshine. She was looking ahead, her rounded hazel eyes wide and terrified. I could almost hear her saying: “See? This is why I want you to leave.” In the past, I had dismissed this thought as nothing but a ridiculous decision, but now that I’ve experienced freedom, I understand her intention was to grant me a better life than one where I was barely surviving.
Another bomb went off.
We were getting close to the front line. A group of college students from the Central Catholic University, all wearing matching blue Vente shirts and gas masks, ran past us. I wanted to join them. One of them took a crystal bottle of Coca-Cola from his worn backpack and threw it: a Molotov Cocktail. It detonated almost instantly. More motorcycles divided the crowd, all carrying injured people: one had a bullet stuck in his right eye, streams of blood fell down his cheek like cataracts as he screamed; another boy, probably five, with a shot leg and bruised face, and an old lady with a battered face and an arm decorated with BB shots.
I concentrated on the clouds of gas ahead. It became harder to breathe with every step I took. I couldn’t tell if it was from the CS gas or the knot that kept building inside my chest.
“Arantxa.” My mom said without hiding the slight edge in her voice. “We are not moving further from here.” My dad nodded in agreement. I rolled my eyes.
“Fine, but I am not leaving until the first shot is fired.” My mom said nothing and moved towards the highway’s shoulder. She put one foot up and jumped on top of a garbage bin; my dad and I followed her. Everywhere around us people were getting ready to fight; they took out their masks or handkerchiefs and tied them around their heads to protect their full faces, leaving only their raging eyes for me to see. At this point, we all knew what the government was capable of, if they got hold of our identities, the best thing we could hope for was death. It still is.
“The trucks started moving.” My mom noted.
“They’re coming this way.”
What followed was an entire blur. Bombs started exploding everywhere around us, and I found myself kicking the ones that landed near my feet as I attempted to run, but I was trapped between masses of people. Francisco Fajardo highway, at that moment, felt like an alley. I couldn’t breathe. I swallowed nothing but fire every time I opened my mouth to take a gulp of air. I couldn’t see. My eyes burned and filled with tears, even my nose started burning. My dad kept his hands on my shoulders as we ran through the three lanes of the road and jumped to the closest street. We kept running until we saw the big, red Texaco sign.
“Where’s mom?” I asked, gasping for air.
“I thought she was in front of you.”
I shook my head and collapsed to the floor, coughing into my hands, which were covered in a mix of blood and saliva. I reached out for the bottle of Maalox inside my dark red, nylon bag and, still coughing, splashed the white dense liquid on my face. It immediately took the burning sensation away and started calming my throat. I threw the bottle over to my dad, who grabbed it with one hand and did same. Drops of Maalox dripped from his gray moustache.
“Let’s find your mom and get out of here before they reach us again.” My dad said.
We didn’t take more than five steps before the bombs started falling around us. I spotted my mom at the other corner of the street, surrounded by the college students I had seen earlier, and ran as fast as I could to reach her. As I did, I saw a bomb flying directly towards her head.
“Mom!” I shouted and threw her to the ground. She landed hard on the pavement as the bomb exploded a few feet beside her, releasing a big stream of gas. I helped her stand up with shaking hands while I concentrated on the road ahead. When the gas cleared, at least a dozen collectives, all in their new government’s shiny motorcycles, appeared in front of us.
“Run.” My father whispered and we all took off.
“Through here!” I said signaling to an alley that separated a small Italian restaurant where we used to eat almost every weekend, from my dad’s favorite local coffee shop: Café Piu. “Faster!” My dad shouted from behind me. I shut my eyes and hurried. I didn’t stop running until I could no longer hear the running engines or footsteps. Both of my parents were gone. As I started running again through the same path I had come to find them, I noticed a collective shoot a bomb from a corner of the alley—it traveled at full speed towards me and, in that split second, I decided to just keep running. The bomb hit my leg and detonated but I didn’t stop; the rush of adrenaline masked the pain entirely.
After what seemed like hours of jogging through the same alleys that no longer looked familiar, I finally found my parents hiding at the same gas station where I had been before. My mom’s eyes watered when she recognized me approaching her.
“Oh Arantxa.” she said looking down at my burnt leg. “This is not the life I wanted you to live.”