Name: Susan McClurg Berman
Date: July 28, 2018
Circumstance: Phone Call. Ms. Berman was in her home in rural Northern California. I called from Foley, Alabama.
Age During Call: 72
Details: When she was eleven years old, Susan Berman moved from Orange, Texas to Maracaibo. Luckily for our conversation, she has spent lots of time thinking about her experience in the camps. She wrote a book about it! I recommend her memoir, Maracaibo Oil Brat, if you want to read her more about her experience. I thank her for her time in talking to me, multiple times, as well as a copy of her book.
Note: Our call dropped halfway through our conversation. Thus, the recording is in two parts.
Recording: Part One:
Part Two: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1kbSqs2sEJZ2YMTNgVZoYHtlxZIVWz9bm/view?usp=sharing
Trent Kannegieter (TK): [00:00:32] Hi. Is this Ms. Berman?
Susan McClurg Berman (SB): [00:00:32] Yes. Hi! Is this Trent?
Trent Kannegieter: [00:00:38] Yes ma'am.
Ms. Berman: [00:00:38] Hi! How Are you?
Trent Kannegieter: [00:00:39] I'm doing fantastic. How are you doing this morning?
Ms. Berman: [00:00:41] Pretty good, pretty good. So tell me about this project that you're doing.
Trent Kannegieter: [00:00:47] Yes, so essentially I'm doing two things. So as an introduction, I study history at Yale, and my research is on the relationships between U.S. corporations and Latin America. Specifically what I've been researching it is literally the development of oil camp schools, oil camp education and how that allowed the longevity of these oil camps and also changed Venezuelan education writ large. So my. So I'm doing two things right now. One: I'm collecting oral histories of people who lived in these camps because as someone who's researched it if there's one thing that I've learned it's that there are nowhere near enough resources about these things yet. It is very hard to find anything to write any scholarship on. And honestly that's part of the reason why other people haven't taken up the gauntlet and started working on it. And then secondly, I'm trying to have an outreach initiative as well. So I'm hoping to record a podcast and put up a website about the people I've met. I'm going to Fort Worth for the Creole reunions. So yes, that's the general the general sphere of it
Ms. Berman: [00:01:59] So is for a Phd project or an undergraduate project ?
Trent Kannegieter: [00:02:06] Yeah. So I'm an undergraduate. I'm doing this on a grant from the central Yale University, so it's not necessarily associated with the undergraduate college. Yale's Department of History knows about me, and they're helping me out a little bit.
I'm hoping that the angle eventually is that these histories will be shared with the general scholarly community so people who are the experts in Latin America and in the stuff that I'm studying can pick up these sources on their own.
Ms. Berman: [00:02:41] Oh, ok, great. Now Trent, where are you from originally?
Trent Kannegieter: [00:02:44] I'm from Alabama. Born and raised.
Ms. Berman: [00:02:46] I thought I picked up a little bit of a southern accent. (Laughs)
Trent Kannegieter: [00:02:50] Yes ma'am, I'm from near Mobile.
Ms. Berman: [00:02:53] Mobile. Okay great. Okay. What is it that I can help you with?
Trent: [00:03:00] Yes, I mean I would love... I mean obviously you have a book on this. So you're something of an expert. I would love to talk to you about your experience at the camps. When you were there, what you remember.... Starting there. Love to talk further about your general experience there. I mean, I have some general questions that I use to guide, but I'd love to just start with hearing a little bit about when you were there. What you remember, your family, your experience there.
Ms. Berman: [00:03:31] OK a lot of that's going to be covered in the book. I think they said they said you should get it [a copy] by about Tuesday. Yeah I was I was raised in a small town called well. It's not too small but a little town called Orange, Texas. It's on the Texas Gulf Coast six miles from Louisiana on Interstate 10. And this was 1957. I Was 11 by then, and I'm 72 now. And my daddy was in the oil field. And that's the only place I'd ever lived. And my father had an opportunity to take a promotion to go to Venezuela.
And it was quite a promotion. Not only a promotion as far as status is concerned but financial. It is my recollection that the salary or whatever you were making in the States would automatically triple. Plus there were a number of additional benefits that that came through because we did not live in a camp. And I'll tell you a little bit more about that in a minute. But because we did not live in a camp, the company (that is to say Sun Oil) gave us a living expense. A living allowance to live in the city. And then also there was an American school there, but it's a private school. And the company, Sun Oil, paid for me to go to this private school. So this was quite a deal. And plus Daddy was given a company car. So you can see the benefits for going there were were tremendous. Also, when we were had been there for a period of time, and again because I was 11 and didn't pay attention to too much of anything that didn't directly impact me. I believe that once you've been there I think it was 18 months, you no longer had to pay US income tax which of course is a nice thing not to have to pay. And the income tax in Venezuela at that time was a flat 2 percent. I think, something like that, it was very, quite low. And so and then ok I was going to go back to the oil camps and why we did not live in one. Because Sun Oil was a little bit later getting into the oil business there in Venezuela, they did not care to or want to build an oil camp.
Also by that time Venezuelan government was beginning to grow suspicious, for reasons I cannot possibly imagine of the U.S. and foreign oil concerns, and they would not allow the expansion of any of the existing oil camps nor would they allow new ones to be built. There were lots of American companies there Creole which was Standard Oil of New Jersey. And then there was Mene Grande, that's Gulf Oil and gosh there was Sinclair, and I can't remember some of the other ones that were there. But we did not have an opportunity to live in an oil camp because quite frankly this was an oil boom, and if you've ever been around when there was an oil boom, you know there is nothing available. In fact, many of the people that we knew, when they first went down to Venezuela, they ended up staying in Hotel Del Lago, which is the classiest hotel that was there, for, oh gosh, up to two months because they were waiting for a dwelling to be built. So. That's sort of just very basics now. Now what would you like to know?
Trent Kannegieter: [00:07:23] Just first of all right on the end there, I guess that means that they'd abandoned building or putting people in quonset huts when they first got there? When 1957 rolled around.
Ms. Berman: [00:07:35] Well they still had quonset huts; they were across the lake. In Maracaibo they did not have them. They were across the lake. Which of course I thought were hilarious.
It's just, you know, seeing this sort of half circle house that you're going to live in it's kind of a joke, but apparently from what I understand is this the reason whatever oil company had them was because they were left over from World War Two. So they ended up getting some kind of special deal on them, and then had them shipped down. So that was immediate housing, you know, took care of a lot of questions and problems.
Trent Kannegieter: [00:08:19] So. Yes. Could you tell me more about the community you lived in?
Ms. Berman: [00:08:27] Well we lived in a triplex. There were two apartments on the ground floor and then one apartment above us. And then next door to us was an American family that lived in a house. And the people next door to us on the other side were Venezuelan people, and we did not really socialize with them very much. I'm not quite sure why, but we didn't. I mean it was you know it was a nod here and a wave there, but we never really exchanged a lot of information with them. Also, right down the street was a German family. And they had kids that were about my age. And so the kids and I would do stuff together because this is back in the old days when kids played outside, and we would play outside until it got too hot to do that, and then we'd go inside.
And then there was also Shell Oil. It was Dutch Shell. And Dutch Shell had their own school. So most of those kids went to to the Shell School. There were a couple of kids that did go to the American school that I went to.
And part of that has to do with their parents wanted them to be more American and less British or Dutch. Yeah.
Trent: [00:09:50] So yeah. So you said that Sun Oil helped pay a stipend to go to school. What was the make up of that? Mostly Sun Oil employees? Did it have many Venezuelans in it?
Berman: [00:10:09] Most of the oil companies paid for their kids to go to the American school. There were a few oil companies paid only partial amounts of it, and then the the Americans had to make up the difference. They were also Venezuelans they went to my school. There were many (several) Venezuelan girls in my class in my grade and a couple of Venezuelan boys. Their parents were quite wealthy. One of the girls that I went to school with her mother was always either on her way to Spain, in Spain, or on her way back from Spain. So I mean there was a lot of travelling going on. So yeah, these were pretty wealthy people.
Trent Kannegieter: [00:10:55] So. Since you were eleven when you moved there...
Ms. Berman: [00:11:04] Yes that's correct.
Trent Kannegieter: [00:11:06] So I guess you probably know the contrasts better than most people...what life was like. Do you remember what specifically stuck out to you? What were the most obvious differences?
Ms. Berman: [00:11:21] Well the most obvious difference. Well first of all you know I stepped off the plane in Caracas, and you know nobody spoke English. (Laughs) What? Is this?
And all the signs are in Spanish, and it was very disconcerting to me because, you know, when you're in the sixth grade, which I was. You're very happy about the fact that you can read and you've got some mathematics experiences, and you know you're feel starting to feel somewhat worldly and very suddenly I could not read anything. I could not even read the primer.
-The call originally dropped here. This is where the second part of the interview begins.-
Trent Kannegieter: …. English which is obviously pretty important.
Ms. Berman: Yes. Well again because everything is written in Spanish everything is in Spanish. When I went to school there, we had everyday, we had Spanish classes. This is by Venezuelan law. We had to take Spanish lessons every day, and then we also had to take Venezuelan social studies. This was also required by law. And all of those two classes were were of course taught in Spanish and we had readers, of course, which were in Spanish. And you know this was just very disconcerting for me. In fact, in the Spanish classes the very first book that the Spanish teacher gave me was something like. George sees the ducks, you know. You know, one of those little primers, you know like first graders would have. And I was, of course, incensed because I was given a primer. Of course, I couldn't have read anything that was at my age level because I didn't know enough yet. So I kind of struggled with Spanish for about the first year, and then after that I kind of got in the groove. In fact, it's very interesting because I ended up having my degree is in Spanish.
Trent Kannegieter: Wow.
Ms. Berman: [00:01:45] So Yeah, that was.
Trent Kannegieter: [00:01:48] So did you… did you go back to the States for your degree?
Ms. Berman: [00:01:49] Oh yes. In fact, the American school only went through the ninth grade in Maracaibo. And so after the ninth grade you had to do something.
Ms. Berman: [00:02:02] And what I did was like many of my other peers, I went back to the states to boarding school. I went to boarding school in San Marcos Academy in San Marcos, Texas, and my parents stayed in Maracaibo. And I essentially flew back and forth to Venezuela for Christmases and summers.
Trent Kannegieter: [00:02:30] Got it. Yes. So you mentioned the social studies class. Yes I'm kind of curious. So you studied Venezuelan history alongside another history class. Right?
Ms. Berman: [00:02:39] That is correct.
Trent Kannegieter: [00:02:40] Have you noticed any interplay between them? Or like what did they teach? How was Venezuelan social studies taught? Did they emphasize the culture or the traditions or history?
Ms. Berman: [00:02:53] Mostly it was based on history. A lot of it has to do with, of course, Simon Bolivar who is their liberator who liberated Venezuela from Spain. And it was a lot of history, a lot of geography emphasizing the good things in Venezuela. You know, the oil production. Angel Falls, the borders of Venezuela. You know, Venezuela borders Colombia, and, you know, different rivers and lakes and that sort of thing. Kind of like a general, just a general class that you would take in the states.
Trent Kannegieter: [00:03:31] Gotcha. At that point. I know I already asked you about the composition of the school year, but outside of it then, did you still spend most of your time outside of class with those students since they weren't in the same residential place all the time.
Ms. Berman: [00:03:55] Well as far as the classmates that I had. Some of them. Well the big thing was to belong to a club. At a club (would be you know), they had movies two or three times a week at night. And, of course you know, it's hot; you are warm all year round.
So everything is open air, and there was a swimming pool and a trampoline and tennis courts and that sort of thing. And so we had applied to belong to the Creole League Club. So again, Standard Oil of New Jersey. And for a long time they would not allow anybody to be a member unless they were Creole. You know, they worked for Creole. So finally, they opened up their membership to non-Creole people, and we submitted our application as the family and were accepted. And so that was my big social outlet - was to go to the club. I'd go to the club and hang out around the pool and chat with whoever was there, you know. So, some of them were students, we were friends from from class, and some were older, some were younger. Most of I'd say probably about 90 percent of them were Americans. And the other 10 percent were Venezuelans.
Trent Kannegieter: [00:05:11] Got it. How would Creole compare to a country club in the United States?
Ms. Berman: [00:05:19] No Golf course. Because usually my understanding is that at that time a country club centered around the golf course and maybe a swimming pool. So, this this club had to do with again the swimming pool, movies three times a week, tennis courts. And, there was always a bar because, of course and especially in the oil industry, there was a lot of drinking. And that has to do with the fact that you had more money than you ever had in your whole life. Everybody had a maid - at least one maid. And people, you know, people had maids who never thought about having a maid in their lives. But labor was very inexpensive, and it was very hot.
Ms. Berman: [00:06:02] So if you're not used to the heat, trying to get just everyday household chores done is very taxing unless your house is air conditioned. So
Trent Kannegieter: [00:06:11] Was that common there? Air conditioning?
Ms. Berman: [00:06:15] Actually, we were the first ones that brought down two air conditioners, and our entire apartment [our entire apartment] was air conditioned and that was quite unusual at that time. It was 1957 again. And then as time went on Americans got to where they brought down more air conditioning.
Trent Kannegieter: [00:06:35] So the maids, were the maids mostly from the outside community? Were they mostly Venezuelans too?
Ms. Berman: [00:06:43] Yes, they were Venezuelans, and there were several that came from Colombia. Maracaibo is located close to Colombia. I mean again Venezuela bumps up against Colombia. So a lot of the young ladies would come over from Colombia and actually go door to door and ask if anybody wanted a maid. And so we had a string of maids. There was one lady that was from Colombia, and we had another one that was from Venezuela. And then we had another lady who was our ironing maid for the whole time we were there, and she was wonderful. (Chuckles) Yeah.
Trent Kannegieter: [00:07:25] So I guess that kind of answers when you were outside of class you mostly socialize at the club. Were there ever any like organized extracurriculars? Like for example athletics or like scouting or things like that that were popular among kids?.
Ms. Berman: [00:07:40] Well there were probably some athletic things, but I was one of those people that was not very much into athletics. I mean again this is in 57 and organized athletics for girls was practically non-existent even in the States.
So I knew that the boys had baseball. It Was a big thing. In fact a lot of the American professional players would come and play baseball in Maricaibo during the summer, I mean, during the winter. The United States winter so they could, you know, keep their skills up. So there were some organized baseball for the boys, and I remember there was basketball too. And because of the shell school there was soccer which I never even heard of soccer before because of course it was 1957. Who heard of such a thing? And then as far as any other athletics were concerned there was a golf course in in Maracaibo. It was a golf club. And my parents did not play golf, so I would go with friends. And I did not play golf at that point, but I did take it up later. And again for teenagers it was mostly laying around a pool or flirting around the pool or whatever. Oh. Oh you did ask about that about organized things. Later on this was a few years later, there was a group of mothers that got together, and they organized what they call a teen club. And this was different parties for the teenagers to keep them busy, and we'd go to the beach parties with get a couple of the school buses and go out to the beach and spend the day at the beach and then others you know other parties and different events that we would have. That was during the summer and to keep us all busy.
Trent Kannegieter: [00:09:33] Yeah. When you came back from school?
Ms. Berman: [00:09:35] Right.
Trent Kannegieter: [00:09:39] So I can ask my daily life questions like compared with like how would you compare like the daily diet in Venezuela as opposed to the US?
Ms. Berman: [00:09:50] Well, there was American food that could be had in the grocery store, if you could get it. There was oftentimes a very big shortage. Sometimes you go to the grocery store and there would be no salad dressing, you know, for example. And so we got to where you know you learned it when you saw let's say just use salad dressing for example when you found a salad dressing that you liked that was from the States, and there was that he bought two or three or four to make sure that you kind of covered over any period of time that there weren't anything. And then also we some of our maids, a couple of our maids, actually made some Venezuelan dishes for us. And then I learned to eat dinner some Venezuelan food especially through the clubs and so forth because the clubs would fix prepare a things like short order things like a fried platanos which is the fried banana and taquenos and potaritos which are little fried things that you eat that are delicious and dreadful for you. But teens love them and that that sort of thing. We would also go out eat fairly frequently, and the places that we went usually dealt with American type food. One of the places we go they specialized in fried chicken and pepper steak.
But also the side dishes were things like fried yucca and you know a lot of the standard sort of food for the typical Venezuelan was rice and beans and platanos (bananas), and we sometimes participated in that and sometimes, not but we did have American food. It just wasn't always readily available, and it wasn't always the freshest. I remember one time my mother bought orange juice; you know frozen orange juice, and you know she poured it into the pitcher and it put the water in there and stirred it up a minute. Immediately the orange juice immediately settled to the bottom which means this orange juice had been frozen and defrosted and frozen and defrosted so many times it was now spoiled. So you know, sometimes it was getting food was sometimes a challenge.
Trent Kannegieter: [00:12:17] That makes sense. Yeah. So obviously it's like a it's a bit of an interesting concept seeing that there's like this American community within broader Venezuela. I guess I'm just wondering like first of all how informed the community was of politics writ large. And also if you talk about politics would you talk about what would be most likely to be talking about Venezuela current events or things that are going on in the United States?
Ms. Berman: [00:12:43] As far as conversation in the community. My parents had threatened me with the fear of God not to talk about politics at all in public. Nothing. Not Venezuelan politics not American politics. And the reason was you never know who is listening to you. Again, this is you know we're not in the United States anymore, so things were very different. When we first moved there, Perez Jimenez was the dictator, and he was later ousted just a few months after we were there. And so I never discussed politics outside the home. We would discuss things. I mean amongst friends, meaning American friends that we knew but not out in public.
I mean we would not discuss anything political or like it in a restaurant or anything because you never knew who was listening to you. The our availability of finding out what was going on in politics, there was an American newspaper, The Caracas Journal. And so it was whatever they put in that. And then also because daddy worked, you know, for an oilfield, there was an office obviously, and the secretaries were all Venezuelan ladies, and they would usually be the ones that would tell you the most current information about what was really going on. Because, again my parents did not speak Spanish, and I was the one that was learning Spanish and learning more as time went on. And so listening to the radio was not an avenue for me because they talked way too fast for me to understand them especially at that time. And television was, to say it was in its infancy is kind of a joke to me. You know there was no set programming at any time of the day or night. You know sometimes it would be things on and sometimes it would not be, most of which ended up being stuff like Betty Boop cartoons. So Finding out about it politically what was going on had to do with again, dealing with friends and getting information from the secretaries at the office.
Trent Kannegieter: [00:15:04] Got it. Yeah. So yes, I look there's just one more question for now. I'd also love to call you later after I'm able to read your book. If I get it by Tuesday, I can probably read it by Thursday. To be honest.
So yes just like for now though I must like since you live in the United States what are common misconceptions of Venezuela that you hear a lot for example?
Ms. Berman: [00:15:33] That they're lazy. And, I guess, that's the most common thing that I hear is that Venezuelans are lazy. And it's amazing. I was amazed as when I come back to the States how Americans would mix up Venezuelans with Mexicans. You know it's sort like No they're two different countries. Please, don't do this. But yeah, that is that probably was the most major difference at that time. Now, now today, the misconception is that all Venezuelans are drug runners. Or that if they are still living in Venezuela that they must be politically connected. Because as you know, food shortages are just outrageous, and the inflation rate in Venezuela at this time is just beyond what anybody can calculate. So yeah. So but I'm not sure that that's the misconception that may be more true that it's not.
Trent Kannegieter: [00:16:48] Thank you so much for bringing me so of time. I'd love to call you in the future after I've got a little bit more of an understanding of your story, but thank you so much giving me your time.
Ms. Berman: [00:16:58] Good. I'll talk to you any time.
Trent Kannegieter: [00:17:01] All right. Absolutely Have a great day,maam.
Ms. Berman: [00:17:01] Perfect. You too. Bye-bye now.