Name: Elizabeth Lutz
Date: July 25, 2018
Circumstance: Phone call. Ms. Lutz was at her home in Hillsborough, North Carolina. I called from Spanish Fort, Alabama.
Age at time of call: 84 years old
Details: Liz Lutz was the first interviewee I talked with in-depth during my conversation. Perhaps unfairly to the rest of the people in the project, she set expectations sky-high for the amount of depth and fun, personal narratives she provided me.
Note: During our conversation, Ms. Lutz also used a device that transcribed my words as I spoke so that she could hear me. Because of this, there were sometimes delays in the our conversation..
Liz Lutz (LL) and Trent Kannegieter (TK)
Liz Lutz (LL): Is this Trent? Hi, this is Liz.
Trent Kannegieter (TK): Thank you so much for being willing to talk with me today. I guess, to start off, I would love to know some basics about you. Where you were born? Your general background? Anything you think is pertinent.
LL: Are you taping me? At some point I want to know how you got interested in Venezuela.
TK: I’m happy to do that. I’m a history student at Yale University. One of my professors is really involved in petro-states, actually in the Middle East. She became a great mentor to me, she directed me to use my Spanish to study petro-states; the intersection of Latin America and petro-states was pretty clearly Venezuela. (Switching to caption phone. Conversation and logistics not recorded.) Professor’s research has studied how resources, particularly oil and other fossil fuels, have impacted state formation over time. She recommended Tinker-Salas’ book, and I ended up doing a research project on the development of Venezuelan education. This led me to looking at different influences in Venezuela’s history, particularly U.S. corporate influence and the dialogue between our two countries. This is something that is understudied, and I find fascinating. I didn’t appreciate how one-dimensionally we view the headlines from Venezuela being Americans writ large. I think it’s an important narrative.
LL: [LL is reading the captions and requesting clarification.] Why are you focusing on the education part? Do you have to do everything to get to Venezuelan education?
TK: The reasons I’m interested in Venezuelan education is:
I was raised in Alabama. I’m very aware of how Southern textbooks for a very long-time spread untruths and potentially really transformed people’s perceptions. That has been ever-present in my life, and something I’ve considered. The easy answer is that my original research is regarding education and the educational shifts in Venezuela, particularly the education that was developed for the oil camps because it is such a fusion of the U.S. and Venezuelan systems. I’m also interested in how this education has created a larger dialogue in Venezuela.
Another reason I’m working on it is because it’s very under-covered. To the best of my knowledge there is minimal research on these schools. The main goal of collecting these histories and stories is that they’re carried into the future. I’m very aware that I’m not the most qualified person who will work on this in the future, and I want to make sure to preserve these first-person accounts while they’re still available.
LL: Let me put my two cents in. I was born there in 1934. I have a manuscript that a journalist wrote, and it was never published. This manuscript gives a very early history. My father is somewhat involved in the early history; not the very first which I think was 1923. International folks started finding oil in Venezuela, and they had to get permission from the country to go in. And it’s the first time that offshore drilling for oil was attempted. Well, I was born in 34. So, my father got into it. First, he was in Colombia, putting in a power plant for General Electric, and after he did that, he went to Venezuela to put in a power plant because they didn’t have electricity. He was an electrical engineer. I don’t know the exact year he arrived in Venezuela, but I was born there in 1934, and my sister was born in the States while he was in Colombia. A lot of my stuff I’ve had to figure out from my resources, and, being a baby, I only know what I can figure out.
So, the oil company was very new at that point in time. It was so new that my mother had to homeschool my sister, and there was a school when I started school at six. It was an oil company school, and they hired teachers from the United States. They were hired by the oil company and came down to teach the children. They taught us some Venezuelan history; we learned the national anthem. You said you wanted to compare what was in the States; we didn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. I went to school in the States in the sixth grade only and learned the Pledge of Allegiance then. I never got U.S. history. So, we had a combination of American stuff and Venezuelan stuff. She was learning Venezuelan stuff as an American teacher, and we did not have class with Venezuelans.
When the War was over in 1945-46, there were very few employees at that point in time in Venezuela from the States. But after the War, there was an influx of new engineers, new people from the oil industry. They lived in Quonset huts. I’m trying to give you a change that happened. When you go to the Reunion, you will meet the people who lived in Venezuela after the War. So, I lived there before the War. When I went to the Reunions, I noticed a big difference as to where I fit in and all the people who were involved in Creole over this 50-year period. I’m saying there were foreign oil people there from 1925 until 1975 when the oil industry was nationalized. And then, there were two sections of that period: before the War and after the War. And then there was the population of those, like my father, who were the workers and then there were the children. They were two different entities with two different experiences. Does that make sense?
TK: Yes, ma’am.
LL: So that’s how I have figured out my life. When my sister was there, she had three or four friends; that’s all the children there were. When I was there as a child, I may have had fifteen friends. After the War, there were lots of children. When I was there, we were confined to the camp. The camp had a barbed fence around it with a guard; we were separated from the Venezuelans. And the Venezuelans were divided into classes. There was a high class and a low class. My mother used to talk about “gente decente”, meaning “decent people”. That’s a term I grew up with, meaning acceptable people to our family. You had gente decente inside the camp, and gente decente outside the camp.
Standard Oil of New Jersey was the group in New York. I think Rockefeller was involved. They set standards, similar to IBM standards. It was called Esso Standard Oil back then. They hired engineers. Back in the 1920s, only people who could afford to go to college became engineers. They hired people in an upper-class financial status. They figured that these engineers they hired were very social. They expected certain behaviors. They weren’t allowed to divorce. They weren’t allowed to carouse. They encouraged the wives to be involved in the business. They encouraged the wives to make contact with the gente decente in town, meaning the store owners, the Venezuelans who had money and who may be educated. Now, I was surprised at how many educated Venezuelans there were back then because we had Venezuelan doctors that had been hired by Esso for the camp. The camp was called La Salina; it was called Hollywood. These were the names of the camps. The first one I lived in was Punta Gorda. The second was La Salina. The third was Hollywood, and the fourth one was Bella Vista. I haven’t told you where they all are. Do you know where Cabimas is?
LL: Ok. Punta Gorda is south of Cabimas, way south, and that is the first camp. It only had eight or nine houses. That’s where I was born, and the hospital was across the lake. My mother had to go early, and then English midwives delivered me. My father wasn’t there. The company had a launcha (launch/boat) that transported employees across the lake. When they first went, they had to go to Maracaibo to get groceries. Punta Gorda is where he put up a huge power plant. And then some other camps came up; I never lived in them. They were Lagunillas, La Salina and then they built a big office building at Hollywood. [An aside, she mentions the people you will meet at Reunion lived in these camps.] When they built Hollywood, the people in those camps called themselves “movie stars”; they did have movies there twice a week. Outdoor movies were shown on Wednesdays.
I was trying to give you a little perspective for when you go to the Reunion. Everybody has such a different experience. These folks who went after the War, the fences came down at some point and kids could go to school in town. The camps didn’t exist anymore like they had when I was a kid. We were never allowed outside the camp unless we were chaperoned. My mother was never allowed to drive until they moved to Maracaibo. Things like that. The experience with the educational system was very separate.
We had two incidents of connections with Venezuelans when we were kids. One was, we all went to school until eighth grade down there, and then we all came up to the States for boarding school. Some lived with relatives. We didn’t go home until the summer. One lady, Mrs. Dianuse, had four or five daughters; when the last one headed to boarding school, she had a nervous breakdown. It was very traumatic to send your child away at fourteen. So, they asked her to teach Spanish. That was when I was in seventh grade, and it was the first time we had a Spanish teacher. I thought that was interesting. After the War, those kids learned how to speak Spanish fluently. We had learned to speak Spanish from the maids. Everyone had a cook and a washwoman. That’s where the kids learned Spanish. The wives had to have these Venezuelans because they taught them how to get the food, how to wash the clothes. At first, you didn’t have a washing machine or a dryer. You had an iron. You didn’t have wash and wear. You had to iron. And, you had oil that got into the clothes that they liked to get out. Does that give you a feel of what it was like?
TK: Yes. I think it really does. I’d love to ask to be a little more in depth on a few of those things. When you said that they encouraged the wives to be involved with the business and interact with the gente decente, in what way did this manifest? You talk about that, but you also mention the limits that were placed on women.
LL: They talked with their husbands about it. The wives knew everything about the oil business. And when I came to the States and married, that was weird. I live in the South, and the wives have their place, and the men do the business. At least that’s how it was in Durham, NC. So, that’s just about the business. I remember Mother coming up (to US) and she would describe the oil business; she knew everything my father was doing. She knew how many barrels were taken out; how much the barrels cost. Knew about the oil wells in the water, and how they drilled holes to get there. We all knew about the business. And when they introduced caissons, that was so exciting. Do you know what caissons are? They used to put a platform around a pipe in with four concrete poles to support it. Then they invented a caisson, which was a hollow concrete pipe that could be put in and they’d only need to put one pipe in. The pump and everything went down that pipe like a water well. She knew how many how many barrels were being taken out by the day. She knew how many they sold. How much money they got for it. She knew the positions of all the men. The men did all the work: who drove the launch, who worked on the platform, who worked in electrical dept., who was in the repair dept., etc.
And there was a hierarchy of people. There was the president, and he lived in the camp in a big house. The camp had sections, and those who were head of departments lived in one section in a little finer house than the ones the workers lived in. There were sections for the foreigners, and by foreigners, I mean there were people there from all over the world; that’s not just Americans. The wives had responsibility with that hierarchy. The women were the leaders of the camp; the also had more privileges maybe with the golf course. The camp had a golf course, a country club... There was that kind of separation in the camps; I don’t know if that was going on in the States or not. I know they had neighborhoods in the States and country clubs, farms and mill towns – that’s all I know about the States. That’s all I knew because I hadn’t really lived that long in the States.
The children weren’t split up. We all played together. I think my mother tried to separate me because my father was head of a department from the others, but I didn’t listen because we didn’t have that many children. So, we all just hung together and had a wonderful time. We just did what we wanted to do because they were very busy. The adults were very busy. It was a hard life because it was hot. There was no air-conditioning when we went. Mother said it was the Tradewinds that cooled them. They took off at high noon and had lunch and a nap and worked in the evening and the morning. We had lunch as a family. The wife had to serve three meals a day; she had help. But she had wash. She had to know about the business, and they entertained quite a bit. And there were parties at the club. I would say the responsibility of the wives was to keep community. And have community rules and community entertainment, and then we had the school and school bus and stuff like that.
TK: You mentioned that you picked up Spanish primarily from the servants and other people who were working around you. Were these people considered part of the gente decente? Were they mostly native Venezuelans? Where they men/women of a certain age? Or did it run the gamut?
LL: At that point, the Venezuelans lived outside of the camp. In the town, the store owners had very fine homes. You see in Cuba how the houses are on the street, but when you go in the door, there’s a big patio. Then there are four sides and the rooms are around the patio. That’s what it was like in Venezuela. And then the poor people lived in huts. Like you see in the news, they were made of mud and sticks and metal roofs. They always had animals running around like goats, dogs, and chickens. They had donkeys, and a few had very small horses. They usually put a barbed wire fence around their little plot which they may have squatted on. Everything was unpaved before the oil came. After oil they paved things, but it would melt under the noon sun; it would become soft. The little children ran around with no clothes. They were dark skinned. The maids were usually the wives of the employees. My father had a crew of 25-30 men to work for him; he trained them and was amazed by how smart they were, and how quickly they learned, and what good workers they were. These Venezuelan men came out of a state school system. There were Catholic and state school systems. They all wore uniforms. I think Church and state were together on education at that point, but I’m not really sure. The Catholic Church was very active at that point if I remember correctly. I had a lot of Catholic friends. We were not allowed to enter into the Catholic Church because we were not Catholic. They went to Church and it was just the ritual, they didn’t have Sunday school and I gather it was in Spanish. I don’t believe they had Catholic schools then; they had state schools and the kids all wore uniforms. It may have come in a certain year; it may have come in 1940 that the state started educating them. I’m really not too sure. We didn’t come in contact with Venezuelan children until we started coming back from high school in the summers.
We got in touch with the Venezuelan boys, not the girls. We had a family, the Bains, and he was an Englishman who married a Venezuelan woman. And that was a “no, no”. The company found out (she was one of my good friends, Diana Bain), that her mother came from the gente decente and was connected with the government. So, they immediately got a house. All my Catholic friends had big families because birth control. No birth control for Catholics. I was an only child because my sister who had been homeschooled left for boarding school at 12, and I was 8 years old when she left to go to school in the States. I was attracted to these Catholic families with lots of children. I loved big families; it was so much fun. I got to know Diana; I knew her cousin Marlene in Hollywood and La Salina. I still keep up with them. Diana tells a story that they had to wait for the company to build them a house because all of the oil camp houses had two bedrooms and they had too many children for a house that size. They knew people in town; so we were able to meet some Venezuelans through them. It was only when we would come home in the summer and have big dances with bands playing all night. Many of the boys went to military school. I went to Salem Academy in Winston Salem, NC. The boys would come home, but also the Venezuelan boys who new how to dance to Venezuelan music would come to the dances. And you know how teenagers love to dance. That was the only time we were connected to Venezuelans. Other than our maids, the ladies who cooked and cleaned and ironed for us. I graduated from high school in 1952, so that was between 1946 and 1952. We moved to Maracaibo when I was in high school. When we were in Hollywood, we didn’t have any interaction with the Venezuelan kids.
TK: When your father was running the staff with many people from different countries, did the staff mostly work in English or Spanish?
LL: The company had a Spanish teacher for the men. After the men became very fluent in Spanish, they offered it to the wives. The wives could learn. So my mother and father both spoke fluent Spanish.
TK: When he was directed his team with people from Venezuela and Holland on it, was he giving directions in Spanish?
LL: In Spanish. When I went to college, Spanish was required, especially for engineers. I bet that’s why. It wasn’t that they were coming into the States at that time. It wasn’t immigration, it was Latin America I believe.
TK: Where did you go to college?
LL: I went to Duke.
TK: This is something that is historically contextual. I’m aware of the large oil strike that occurred in the Maracaibo region in 1936-37. You’re too young to remember anything directly, but I’m wondering if you ever heard people talking about the strikes or the violence that ensued? Or what kind of legacy that left?
LL: Oh yeah. That was such an exciting time. That’s when the kids got into it. We learned about the strikes and them going into the jungle. And drilling for oil. And the geologist that came down and found the big reserve and knew it would be a big producer. I have pictures of the Motilone Indians that were shot with the people who were drilling the wells. Are you familiar with that?
LL: It was such an exciting time. I was in the fifth or sixth grade. You say you’re talking about the 1936-37 strikes?
TK: Yes. I’m specifically interested in that strike because half of the workforce stopped working for six months.
LL: Which labor force and what year was that?
TK: It was 1936, right after the death of Gomez.
LL: I have a book on the history of Gomez, and I haven’t read it yet.
TK: Gomez died in late 1935. When Contreras comes to power, there ended up being many labor revolts in the camps until they were given some concessions by Contreras. But six months is a conservative estimate of how long it took to stem the revolts. That’s what I’m curious about. Even if it wasn’t this episode, I’m curious if there were discussions about unions or labor solidarity in the camps? Or if that ever came up?
LL: Well, if that was in 1935, that was when we lived in Punta Gorda, and the camps in that region of Cabimas were just forming. I have a picture of my sister on a train around that time, and it seems like they were just forming villages. I never knew anything about that train; once they put in roads, they brought in cars. But that labor solidarity, I remember being told they had revolutions, and I’m sure that was the big revolution. And I did have a friend, he quit coming to the Reunions because he was going blind, he stayed in Venezuela after college and worked down there, and he knew all the history of Gomez. His sister’s name was Sandra; Bobby and Sandra, I can’t remember their name, it might come…. But he would tell me things about Gomez and how it affected the camps, and Mother said that we used to go out on the tankers while they were having a revolution. I have a picture of the soldiers at that time; their uniforms were minimal, but they had guns. They were walking around with guns, and that wasn’t unusual to see down there. I remember hearing that there was a lot of communication between New York where Standard Oil was and the president of the camps and the politicians. It was a sensitive, touchy thing that had to be handled very delicately. You had to have their permission to be in their country taking their oil. But they worked very hard to maintain a good relationship because that’s where the money was coming from. But it was stress. I said earlier how my mother was supposed to contact Venezuelans and entertain with teas and stuff like that.
TK: You mentioned early on that you knew a journalist who had an unpublished manuscript. I’m wondering when was that written? Do you know why it wasn’t published?
LL: I don’t remember the exact year. But Mr. Proudfoot was the president at that time, and he didn’t think the manuscript put the Venezuelans in a good enough light, and so he did not want it published. I have a copy of the manuscript, and it’s about the size of a ream of paper. So, it’s pretty big. I was dying to read it, and someone printed a copy for me at the Reunion. I’ve read it once, and I need to read it again. It’s a precious thing for me. I think you would really enjoy it. I don’t know the author offhand. It’s upstairs. But I could get that information for you and figure out how we can get you a copy.
TK: That would be fantastic.
LL: I guess could take it to Kinko’s and make you a copy and mail you a copy. Is there another way with technology that might be easier? Could I fax it to you? Do you have a FAX? I don’t
TK: I don’t have a FAX. The only way that might be easier is if someone has a digital copy and can send it. Other than that, Kinko’s is probably the best bet.
LL: Well, you know a lot of those folks have died. I don’t remember who gave it to me. I had the weirdest experience. I met one of the older people, a friend of my father’s, at the Reunion. I think he was a Jewish fellow; he never married. I forget what his job was. During the War, a lot of the engineers left to be in WWII. The oil company provided the oil for the planes and the boats, so there was still a lot of production but not many engineers. His job when he went to the War, was something like the CIA. When he came back to Venezuela, he said he was a secret worker, and he couldn’t tell anyone about his job. They had code words. He had come back to the camp, and at one point after that, a man came up to him and used the code word. This wasn’t after the War, it was during the War. He announced that someone had used the code word and there was a German spy at the camp. A man said I know Mr. Kershman, he always goes to the movies on Wednesdays, so we can go then and search his house. They went and searched and found a small radio in his attic. But Betsy Kershman was one of my little friends, and they disappeared.
It was not unusual to disappear. My father had vacation, both short leave and long leave. Short leave was a vacation in Venezuela. Long leave was three months back to the States. Every time we took long leave we changed houses; he moved up in the company and took a new job, often in a different camp. So, we were always losing people and gaining people.
But this man wrote this article about the event I’ve described and gave it to me, but I’ve lost it. I’ve tried to be meticulous with it, but I don’t know where I placed it. He also told me that he has a photographic memory of his time with Creole, but he had a house fire and it all burnt up. That’s where much of the information is. He was the historian. At one point I took a class at Duke, about 15-20 years ago, in documentary studies. So, I was learning to document with what you’re doing. I went to the Reunion, and I did interview some folks. I did have some of the tapes typed out by a transcriber. I have those, and I have names on that. The Documentary Studies course is now a major department at Duke, but at the time, they were unfamiliar with doing things with Venezuela or in a foreign country I guess. They were encouraging the students to do things around Durham. It’s gotten a little more exciting now. But everything I had to document the experience, I now have in a trunk. It’s tangible; you can look at it and see what the history was. It’s photographs and books and things like that. I don’t know what else is in that trunk. I haven’t looked at that lately. So, I know what you’re going through. It’s going to be a long, hard road.
LL: It’s time consuming but worth it. It’s so fun to have someone to talk with about it.
TK: If you’d be interested, the ultimate goal here is to make these stories and resources available to scholars. If you’d like I would be honored to include interviews that you conducted in the collection. And, of course, credit you with any of that.
LL: Yeah. I would love that. I’m interested in Miguel Tinker Salas. Is that his name? Did you talk with him?
TK: Yes. I’ve spoken with him a little bit, and I’m sitting down with him in about a month.
LL: He is a wonderful resource. He has been down to Caracas where the main office for Creole was. He went into the offices and they were shredding all this information. He told them you can’t do that. This is history. It’s so important. I don’t know what his next step was. He speaks Spanish so fluently and was able to make such good contacts down there. Did you read his book? (Yes) I thought it was very clinical. It was just factual. And he talked about his mother’s experiences in an oil camp, and I believe she was Venezuelan. I think he was after the War. I found it difficult to connect with those people because the experience was so different. Isn’t that amazing?
We were lucky when we got to high school to have contact with other camps. Meaning camps from Gulf Oil, Shell Oil. They had their own camps, but they also had a lot of kids. And we got in high school, we started making contact with them. When we went to school, when I went back after sixth grade, it was still only our camp. We rode in a school bus that the US Army had sent. It was pulled by a cab, like a 16-wheeler, and it was green. It was unusual.
One of the problems is, when you grow up there, and you leave no one understands what you’re telling them about the experience. So you tend to turn it off, and it all came back to me when I started taking that Documentary Studies course. I started to need to remember my past. My parents had died, and I hadn’t said “goodbye” to Venezuela. So, I went back to Venezuela, and I took my husband because he didn’t even know the questions to ask. We hooked up with a Baptist missionary, and we were fascinated by his work. This was in the 1990s. My husband said, “Buck, how can we help you?” Buck replied, “You can come back and build a church.” And we did; we went back and built three churches. Small churches, and we took teams from the States. It went very well and I was able to communicate so well with the Venezuelan church and its members. They were the type of people who had nourished me as maids. My Spanish came back after a while. That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about Venezuela and so devasted by what’s happening.
TK: When you were doing that what were the common misconceptions about Venezuela that you heard while you building the churches and that you hear today?
LL: I don’t hear people talking about Venezuela. I don’t think they have known anything about it. They just hear what they hear on the news. Maybe they’ve met a Venezuelan in college. But you don’t know the questions to ask. Have you heard of any misconceptions?
TK: Not necessarily. If I hear people talk about Venezuela, they talk about Chavez. Almost as if the history started with Chavez who was a dictator from Day 1, and it’s been an autocracy ever since.
LL: It’s like Venezuela started with Chavez, huh? (Both laugh) And that was the connection with Cuba, I think, that tuned people into Venezuela. And Castro. People don’t know who Simon Bolivar is. I think that’s sort of sad. I do know of people who go to Margarita Island. It’s a big party island. I’ve never been there, but I hear it’s sort of nightclub-ish. It’s not the Venezuela I know. Where we were was third world country. When we went to Maracaibo, it was like Cuba. And we went to the Andes; they have a wonderful university in the Andes. After the War, I heard some of the kids went to that university in the Merida.
When you go to Reunion, you’ll get a lot of information about education all together from them. They all speak fluent Spanish, I think. They were all integrated into the villages and cities. They drove cars. They had some wonderful experiences by themselves, out in the jungle. We weren’t able to do that unless we were with my father. So that’s a misconception.
I heard on NPR (accidently) in the Camp Lagunillas which is south of Cabimas and north of Punta Gorda. Punta Gorda is right there at Cuidad Ojeda. North of that they had to build, this is what I mean when I say you had to know about the oil business. They had to build a dam because, as they took the oil out of the ground, there was subsidence in the lake. Then on NPR this journalist reported that the dam will give out and flood the entire city of Ojeda. Have you heard that one? I was interested because I was there when it was built. Everyone was so excited about it.
TK: That’s phenomenal. One more thing. When you were in school in Venezuela (before you went to boarding school), were there any extracurricular activities for you at school? Anything organized? Or was it very informal time? Or, what did you do outside of classes?
LL: If anything was ever organized, it was done by the residents. We had a program by the unmarried engineers, they taught us how to dive in the swimming pool. They had been in the service during WWII and then they came to the oil fields to work. In the summers they would have activities for the kids like boxing classes, plays. One of the wives was a British opera singer, so she taught the kids about classical music. One teacher was very interested in music and she taught many of the armed services “war” songs. They had a scouting troop for my sister, but I didn’t join one. Somebody bought a place in the mountains at La Mesa, and there was a camp run there in the summer which I attended. There was tennis, but mainly the swimming pool. Every camp had a club with a pool, bar, tennis court and outdoor movie; that was planned for everybody. We just had school; we had to ride the bus there in the morning, came home for lunch, rode the bus back in the afternoon for more classes; it was a long day. We didn’t ever have homework; we just played. It was wonderful.
I think most people who lived down there who you are able to talk with, loved it. There were many people who did not adjust well, and there are some books out on that. It was difficult to come back to the States from that experience emotionally. And they don’t want to have anything to do with the Reunions, you won’t see them there. They really don’t like to talk about it.
TK: Do you know any particular reason why the transition is difficult, beyond shifting cultures? Is there anything that sticks out to you that alienated many people?
LL: I think there are numerous reasons. I have three or four books about it that were written by them. Much of it is outlook; you’re trained one way and then the outcome is so different. And way back then, you were unique. There weren’t many people leaving the States until after the War. Everything was so strange. I remember my mother, and she lived out of the country for thirty years, and she had a hard time coming back in. The conversations were different. The culture was different. People had different interests. The only people who really travelled back then were the ones who went to Paris and painted and wrote books and all of that. But not many people from American neighborhoods travelled before the War. When my sister and I came up to the States, she was at Salem College and I was at Salem Academy, and we were an item. We were in the newspaper and all of that because we had travelled so much. I think that probably fed into a lot. I think leaving home early, away from your parents was difficult. They never talk about classes in the States, but children in different classes are raised differently. Say you were in Venezuela and your father was pretty important and you come to the States, which class do you fit in? I think that was part of the discomfort of people when they came back to the States. Plus, it was sort of overwhelming. People notice now that we have so much in the States, and they don’t have much in Venezuela. We had a commissary when I lived in Hollywood, and I had lived in two other camps before where we had to shop locally. You had to buy your food and wash it in Clorox. You couldn’t drink the water. That was another thing that kept the wives busy; they had to sanitize the food. We didn’t have milk; we had powdered milk. So, I think it was mainly a cultural shift that was difficult. And the resettling was hard. And maybe some of them blamed it because they were angry.
My sister did not like it as much as I did. One thing was, she didn’t have as many friends as I did. One thing too though, she was mildly schizophrenic, and I think maybe that was aggravated by it. By more than one cultural impact on the schizophrenia. Mental health was in a different place in the States, and most people with mental health issues did not have a Venezuelan upbringing. They couldn’t even connect; they didn’t know what influence that would have on a kid. Hers showed up right after college. And then I heard of others who had problems right after. Some folks married an engineer and stayed down there; one or two of her friends did. When they came to the States, they had a difficult time. One of my father’s friends committed suicide because he couldn’t make the adjustment back to the States. They were devastated because of that. So there were some shadow sides to the whole thing too.
It wasn’t a great part of it. There were a lot of good sides. You’ll see the good sides at the Reunion. But now I’m wondering about some mental health issues with their friends. Another thing that might have fed into the mental health issue is that people from different countries were there as well as states. You know then, the states were pretty divided. We had a family from New Orleans, people from Oklahoma. Oklahoma had oil; I don’t know what the New Orleans family did, but that family was French Catholic which was different than Spanish Catholic. Just the differences in a small community and then coming to the States.
TK: You talked about teachers right at the start, and that many of them were from the United States. Did you have multiple teachers for any particular grade? Or did one teacher predominantly take care of one year? How was that structured?
LL: We had one teacher in each grade with about 8 kids in each class. A few of the teachers married engineers and stayed. I’m not so sure that they could still teach after they married, but I’m not positive. Some stayed a long time, and some stayed a short time. There’s one story of an engineer who flies his wife down on the plane. They landed in Amway. The engineers are there to meet their wives, and she says I’m not getting off the plane; I’m going back. (Laughs) It’s sort of like landing in the desert. I thought that was funny that she was brave enough to do that. It was pretty hot, dry, dusty, and dirty. You know, they spit on the ground, threw things on the ground, smoked a lot, but you got so it didn’t bother you. When I went back with my husband, there was a billboard about cleaning up. When I went back in 1990, nothing had changed. It was exactly like when I was there. When we went back, we took a team from church. My husband works with Habitat, and we took people from there. And I called PEDAVASA to ask if we could have a tour, and they toured ten of us for a whole day. They showed us everything and explained the oil business to me. I went back seven or eight times after that; the team went back about five times. In that time, they got television and computers. I talk to the pastor still and they now have email/internet. The people we met when we went back in the 1990s were wonderful. The kids could go to college, but there were no jobs. So they kept going to college. They were pretty highly educated. They had progressed a whole lot. They had an ice-skating rink, hotels were doing well. When we had gone back in 1990, they didn’t have taxis, you had to call a car. But the last time we went, they had a whole fleet of taxis. Now I hear from my pastor that medical care is non-existent. They live in a rural area so they’re doing pretty well. Some days the money is helpful, and sometimes it’s not worth a thing. His whole family is there, and they all live together. His son has gone to Peru to work and he sends money back. So they keep the church going; it’s not a very big church. They help the little children that go to school close; some of them don’t get breakfast so they feed them breakfast three times a week. But the kids look healthy. They’re clean. They still have nice clothes. The things are still there. It’s just crazy. I can’t imagine. I just can’t imagine standing in line for a chicken to eat to cook. You know they go really early and they might wait in line for twenty hours to get a chicken. And then it’s not there. He sends me pictures if you’re interested in how things are today. I could hook you up with him. His name is Pedro. I don’t usually enjoy talking with him because I have to go from English to Spanish and it’s hard; I’m 84 years old. My brain is not working in two languages anymore, but I bet you could talk with him in Spanish, couldn’t you? Well, he might be interested to know that somebody cares about Venezuela. You know, somebody up in the States.
TK: Yes ma’am. I’d genuinely love to.
LL: Okay, I’ll work on that. I will send you what information I have on Pedro.
TK: I’d love to read that manuscript you were talking about. I was unclear on whether you still know how to contact Dianna Bayne? I’d love the chance to talk with her potentially.
LL: It’s Dianna Bayne. Her cousin is Marlene. Marlene lives in Greenville, NC and Dianna lives in Canada. I will email them and tell them that you would like to talk with them on the phone about their experience, and we’ll see what they say. You were interested in Pedro. And you were interested in the manuscript. Why don’t I work on that manuscript and get it printed off and send it to you? And I’ll get in touch with you when I get that done. I live in the country and I’m sort of a caretaker for my husband, so my days are unpredictable. But I will get to town and get to Kinko’s and they can run this off. Or Staples or somewhere, and I can put it in a box and mail it to you when I get that done. I’ve got your address on your email.
TK: If we’re going through the laundry list, if you have the transcripts for those interviews you did
LL: I’ll look at my transcripts and see what I can do with those. I didn’t throw any of that away. I have notes and everything. I’m just so excited about you because you’re doing what I thought I was going to get to do. I never did it. I think these fifty years is so important. That the history is saved. I called NPR about it and said, “You didn’t even mention the oil companies.” And she said, “we only stick to ten years.” (Laughs) I feel there’s a history of the U.S. in Venezuela that needs to be told. And it’s connected with the New York tycoons. It’s such a wonderful history. It’s a shame; the sad, sad part of it that nobody knows about is that when the Venezuelans got the company, they really didn’t know what they were doing broadly. They didn’t take care of (I shouldn’t just say the Venezuelans... I’m not so sure about the foreigners) the pipes under the ground that carried the oil under the water, and they’re all rusting, but all they do is replace the part that fails. And they didn’t map them. So they’ve started to hire scuba divers to try and map them. When Chavez got into the business, he just wanted the money. He didn’t want to spend the money on maintenance. I’ve got some pictures of this oil company, and it is humungous. It is this huge area with these lights and buildings. It’s a huge proposition, and they just took the money out of it; they didn’t maintain it. That’s part of their problem now. As oil prices have gone down, as well as they’re not doing too well getting it out. They need to do more maintenance, and they don’t want to spend the money on it. The greedy guy in charge … (Laughs) Chavez and Maduro. I wish you would figure out their mentality. Do you know anything about their mentality? Other than greediness?
TK: I try to figure it out. It’s tough. But looking into it, for sure.
LL: I wish we could understand a little bit about where they’re coming from and why they think they’re doing a good job. And why they’re so mean. I guess it’s, I don’t know. I’ll also send you the info on this book about Gomez. It seems to me that someone in the oil company had a role in this book. Ok. Well that’s
my homework. And we’ll keep in touch.
TK: Absolutely. I really appreciate this. I can’t thank you enough for reaching out and giving me so much time. This has been incredible. I’m excited about this project and talking with someone who both lived it and has a passion for it, is the most exciting thing. Thank you so much.
LL: Well, I want you to keep me posted about what happens at the Reunion, and the information you’re gathering. Let’s get even a bigger story. I’d like to hear what you learn and the direction you’re headed with it. I’d like to keep up with you.
TK: Yes ma’am. I’m more than happy to do that.
LL: Ok. Thank you so much
TK: All right.
LL: I’ll talk to you later.
TK: Yes ma’am. Have a great day.