For a while since I've been in Venezuela, it's been striking me just...how crowded Caracas is. Never mind the barrios, houses pilled on top of one another in an extremely unsafe way -though nothing has happened yet it seems-, the city itself, seems to always have tonnes of people in the street. Even the Metros. If you were to take a subway in Toronto or Montreal at 7 am on a Saturday, there's good chances that you'd be one of the few people doing so. The cars wouldn't be empty, but there wouldn't be THAT many people around. It's definitely no rush hour, which can be insane in both cities.
This past Saturday, I was travelling to another part of the Venezuela with one of the guys for a conference on missionary work. We hopped on a fairly crowded subway train -couldn't find a seat- at 7am. I was stunned by this. I also told my colleague that everywhere we went in Caracas, things seemed crowded. He said something to the effect of it being a city with a lot of people in a fairly regular sized spaced. Consider these numbers courtesy of Wikipedia:
My home town of Montreal: The city itself is 365square Km , or 140.98 square miles, with a Metro area of 1644 sq miles, and a population of roughly 1 million, 700 thousand.
My adoptive city of Toronto, is a bit bigger, with 240 sq miles, with a metro area that clocks in as unbelievable 7125 km square, or 2751 sq miles, and an urban( i.e non metro) population of roughly 2 million 600 thousand.
Even my favourite city in the World, New York, stands tall at 783.8 sq mi and a population of a little more than 8 million.
And Caracas? In an area of 167square km ( so a we bit bigger than montreal, but smaller than Toronto and miniscule compared to New York) it has a population of roughly 6 million. There are more people here than in the cities of Montreal and Toronto...combined ( again, that's not counting the Metro area). Obviously, this is a phenomenon you hear about in Mexico and Brazil, but it's my first encounter with it. This makes life here a little unbearable for some.
In fact, I was quite surprised when we watched a video this past Monday about the youth in Venezuela entitled "Venezuela, a city one was meant to leave".The purpose of the documentary was to explain the lives of young people in this country, and give an expression to their fears and frustrations. For the record, when I say young people, I mean young middle class people. Those that could have an impact on the future of this country. Many of them were the type of people that I recognized, people I may meet in Canada, young people with an artistic mind, a desire to spread their wings and be creative, but people who could not be more far removed from the reality of this country, the oppressive poverty that rules this place. Quite the contrary, these kids want nothing to do with the majority of the population and its poverty. I didn't get very much from this video that our community was watching together. I mean, I guessed that many of them were eager to leave Caracas to go build a life for themselves elsewhere, but beyond that, I couldn't quite decipher their accent, or hear much of what they were saying. One young lady in particular reminded me of many of my friends back home: Artistic, kind of bohemian looking, very intelligent sounding but cute, in a down to earth kind of way. I definitely got nostalgic for home watching her speak, even if I couldn't understand her.
However, when we were discussing the movie over lunch, one of my new friends here -Manni- when talking about her, started mentioning Hitler. I did a double take and asked him to clarify this rather ludicrous comparison. How could a young Venezuelan woman of the 21st century be compared to Hitler? Apparently, what I didn't get from her words, was that she often spoke of the thing that 'disgusted' her the most about Caracas was the presence of those 'other people' that weren't like her, that weren't of the same 'race' as she was. She never used the word 'pure race' but according to Manni ( I feel like he needs a descriptive, like one of those Mafia types. Manni the Fish, or Manni the Hammer!!) what she was saying implied it.
Should I be surprised that in a country where poverty is omnipresent, that some of those who are from the middle or rich classes would be so quick to dismiss the poor in their country? That they really couldn't care less for them? That the young even want to run as far away as possible from these problems? I mean, I can be upset that it's happening, but not surprised. Don't we do the same? Don't many people in our part of the world focus solely on their careers, on making money, on striving for what's best for them and very often ignore the sufferings of people around them? It's one of the reasons I turned to religious life: The society we live in not only encourages us to live like this, it practically forces us to do so. There will always be some that will be strong enough on their own to live beyond this selfish lifestyle, but that wasn't me. Put me in an environment where I have to struggle to find work, pay bills, and worry about the future, and I'm incapable of channelling the same divine love that continues to transform and improve me everyday.
But in the end, I am sympathetic with these kids, but proud of the work the Jesuits are doing. Sympathetic because I feel the situation here is beyond hope. Jesus once told us there would always be poor. To me this implies that we shouldn't take it upon ourselves to want to eliminate poverty. that being said, Jesus spent all his time with the poor, treating them with dignity and love, and I feel the Jesuits here are doing the exact same. Even these intimidating Barrios are a step up from having millions of people living in the streets starving. The Jesuits were part of the effort to create a better life for the poor and continue to do so, and that's what makes me proud of their work here. I don't think any of them realistically believe that the poverty of their countrymen will ever be eliminated, but they remain close to them and work with them whenever possible, improving little things in their lives.
Take for example the Faith and Joy schools -fe y allegria-. They educate thousands upon thousands of poor people in this country, all the way up to the university level. Thanks to them, many from poor backgrounds can have a career, earn money, have hope for the future. This is the most powerful expression of Hope I have seen in a long time. No wonder it plays such an integral part in the Jesuit lingo here.